Stephen (Scribbler) Zillwood April 26, 2001 Review Feedback

Final Fantasy IX

When a company has built a good reputation for itself, it’s a continual struggle to maintain its credibility. Oddly, it takes forever to get a good name, and only one bad product to take it away. Over the last ten years or so, Squaresoft has developed a name that is simply unequalled in the console gaming world by producing excellence in game after game. With Final Fantasy X slated for North American release in the not-too-distant future, and Final Fantasy: The Movie coming out this summer, I felt it would be a good time to step back a little and take a look at the most recent offering in the series, Final Fantasy IX (FFIX).

FFIX is the last of the series to appear on the PSOne, what with number ten making the move to the more powerful PS2 platform. This is not a new thing for Square, as the FF series has made the move across several consoles in the past; if I recall correctly, the first one I played was on the venerable NES many moons ago. The story, as is always the case with Square games, is well-fleshed out and completely absorbing. The main difference here is that FFIX is more of a return to the roots of the series. Gone are most of the sci-fi elements, and back in are the fantasy themes. This marks a pleasant move on Square’s part, at least in this reviewer’s opinion. If I want sci-fi, there’s a ton of games out there to satisfy me; what I want from my FF game is more magic, adventure, and daring-do.

You begin the game as Zidane, a young thief/actor who lives aboard the airship Prima Vista. Now, I know what you’re thinking - he just said there wasn’t a sci-fi theme to this game. Well, there are a few concessions to earlier titles, but the scientific elements have more of an antiquated feel to them - think steampunk as opposed to cyberpunk, and you’ll have the idea. After an initial battle (more or less to teach you some of the new aspects of the combat engine), you find out what your initial mission is: kidnap Princess Garnet of Alexandria. The Princess has pretty much the same idea, as it turns out, and along with her trusted (if a little dense) bodyguard, Steiner, you begin the game in earnest. I won’t get too much into the details - after all, story is what these games are all about - but I will say that it takes the usual “save the world” theme and adds a few interesting twists. The storyline is advanced through the use of both CG cut scenes, which in the usual Square tradition are absolutely stunning and of cinematic quality, and in a new format called ATE. ATE stands for “Active Time Event,” and is a new addition to the FF series. They take you to a scene involving characters not currently in your party, usually in a different locale, and advance the storyline most of the time, or just add flavor to what’s going on around you. Some ATEs are optional, though I would suggest viewing any that you are given the option to, as they are really helpful for making decisions about which area to visit next, and let you know when one of your friends is in a tight spot - sometimes they let you know where cool stuff is hidden, as well.

Through the course of the game you will take control of Zidane, Garnet, Steiner, and five other main characters as well as a few minor players, in a party of up to four people at one time (though to call Quina Quen a person might be stretching it). At times, the story will have you controlling two different parties in concurrent timelines, switching back and forth between the two as objectives are reached. This device lends a truly novel feel to the game; it’s as though you are working your way through a good fantasy book, following multiple storylines, racing toward that moment when they all tie together in the climax. The pacing is frenetic at times, with well-interspersed moments of calm, giving the gamer the desire to go just one scene further before calling it a night. Hollywood could learn a few things from these guys.

Game mechanics will be familiar to anyone who has played a Square game in recent years. Combat is a refined version of the engine introduced in Final Fantasy VII, which is a combination of real-time and turn-based action. Each time you perform an action, your action bar is reduced to zero; when it reaches full again, you may make another move, whether it be attacking, casting a spell, or using one of the special abilities each of the characters has access to. For example, Zidane has the option to Steal, giving you access to some of the enemies personal goods without its permission, and Freya Crescent has a special Jump attack which deals a tremendous amount of damage, at the cost of losing her from the combat while she’s up in the air. My personal favorite out of all the special attacks is Quina Quen’s: she can, when they are weakened, eat her opponents - this has the added benefit that she learns new disciplines and abilities by doing so. The imagination and variety put into special abilities makes each of the game’s main characters a different playing experience, and truly adds to the depth of the narrative. Perhaps the single greatest innovation to the combat system is the idea of Trancing. Trance occurs as a character accrues damage - this can happen over multiple battles, as the Trance gauge does not return to zero until a character has actually entered Trance. When the gauge becomes full, the character transforms and becomes even more effective at their skills, doing more damage, casting nastier spells, etc. They also get access to skills and abilities otherwise not available to them; for example, when Zidane goes into Trance he gets access to his Dyne Skills, which combine his physical moves with magical energy to inflict incredible amounts of damage. It is difficult to time Trance, but with practice you can try to keep characters close to Trancing for those major boss battles, in order that they can use their enhanced powers at those times they’re most needed.

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