I was not among the portion of gamers that believed the transition from Final Fantasy VI to VII went all that smoothly, though I respected where Squaresoft was trying to take the series. I had a difficult time getting into FFVII and FFVIII, mostly due to the dramatic change in style and new futuristic themes. Squaresoft has indeed listened to their fans and returned to their traditional medieval RPG roots as was first seen in Final Fantasy I - VI. As a result, I can say that not only is Final Fantasy IX my favorite "post FFVI" Final Fantasy title, but probably right there among my favorite RPGs ever.
One of my favorite aspects of Final Fantasy IX, as with all good RPGs, is the storyline. The game begins with a fairly whimsical tone, certainly nothing overly preachy or heartbreaking, though also not melodramatic in any way. You meet a good portion of the 8 main characters within the first several hours, such as Zidane the young and cocky thief, Princess Garnet the tough yet sheltered princess, Vivi the young black mage from the country, and Steiner, one of the Queen's bumbling, although loyal, guards. Individually, each of the characters could be considered the "main" character of the story, though it would just depend on whom you relate most to. Personally, I just loved Vivi, and found myself wanting to uncover the most about his life and story.
In a nutshell, the game centers around an evil queen's desire to dominate the world. Brahne, the Queen of Alexandria, and Garnet's mother, has begun using highly-advanced magical weapons (Black Mages) to terrorize neighboring kingdoms. Of course, through a series of plot twists and strange coincidences, your party realizes (well most of them do), soon after embarking on their quest, that the Queen's threats merely cover a far more sinister plot. Of course, this is just the very tip of the iceberg. I prefer not to give anything away, but just be assured that, with all the twists and turns, the storyline develops far beyond just that. The story isn't groundbreaking by any means, but it is solid and comfortable, and does not reach a point of really becoming confusing.
While it may seem backwards to some RPG fans, I prefer a small amount of well-developed characters to a large pool of poorly developed ones. Final Fantasy IX keeps the number of characters to a minimum, and a large portion of the game you are pretty much playing as a single party, with a few differences on occasion. You really get to know your characters, where they came from, what they are feeling, and what they may do in certain situations. You also have the chance to fully figure out how to maximize your character's abilities, which is a definite plus in any RPG. Also, to further help you get in touch with your characters, Square has developed a system called Active Time Event, which allows you to view what certain characters are doing or feeling during key periods in the game. It's really a simple thing, but it does wonders in fleshing out the plot and overall storyline.
Both the music and the graphics are much improved over the last 2 installments. I was very disappointed with the low quality midi sounding audio as found in most of the first 2 PlayStation Final Fantasy titles, but in IX, things have improved dramatically. The composition is excellent as usual, and the more traditional medieval RPG music as heard in the game is very much welcomed. Visually, the pre-rendered backdrops and FMV clips are of extremely high quality, and the loading times are kept to a minimum. The art direction and overall style, is perfect. While not actually hand-drawn, the backgrounds and FMV clips do have that "warmer", more comfortable feel to them that many cold, hard rendered RPGs seem to lack. The character models and texturing has definitely improved each year, and I don't expect it to get much better than this on the PlayStation. There is quite a difference between the simply animated, non-textured Cloud of FFVII, and the smoothly animated, jointless, well-textured Zidane of FFIX. The one (very small) problem with the graphics lies in the backgrounds... they are a bit too detailed sometimes. It is very easy to get lost and miss important items and doorways, especially in the beginning. Treasure chests, items, and interactive structures, for the most part are not represented with polygons like before, they are usually part of the pre-rendered backgrounds. Square has provided little thought bubble-style alerts indicating when you are next to something you can interact with, but I prefer to be able to see them a little better beforehand. Since every FF game from now on will be in full 3D and on a much more powerful system, this will most likely be the last time we need to deal with this issue.
Final Fantasy IX's gameplay is pure Final Fantasy. The game takes little pieces from probably every recent game in the series, strips out much of the confusing elements and sometimes-tedious experimentation involved, and puts it together in a nice, fairly simple package. All the characters can learn new abilities by equipping a weapon, piece of armor or accessory that contains an ability, and turning it "on" by applying ability stones to it. Usually, a character has a number of stones that is equal to that character's current level. If your sword contains, say, the Counter ability (8 stones), you just need to take 8 of that 50, to enable it. When enabled, you can immediately use that ability, although you can also "learn" an ability by keeping it equipped long enough and fighting enough battles. When learned, you can then unequip that weapon or accessory and the ability remains. There is not a right or wrong way to handle abilities, but you do have a choice of going either way. It is really very easy to understand when actually playing the game and seeing it in action. Learning new spells are handled in a similar way, although on an even simpler level. Besides the ability system, Final Fantasy IX is quite simple when compared to VII and VIII.
One thing that I especially love about the game, is how focused it is. There are not a ton of small sub-quests to perform, or much distracting continent exploration to be done. I may be in the minority, but I feel the linearity of the game really helps the story move along, and keeps it enjoyable all the way through. The game is more dedicated to telling the story, than letting you run around like a freelance RPG hero. The fact that you are stuck with a small party of characters may also annoy gamers who just started playing RPGs when FFVII was released, but most old-school RPG players, who were raised on games like Dragon Warrior, Final Fantasy, and Phantasy Star, will most likely appreciate it most.
Besides the English localization, there appears to be no real differences between the US and Japanese version of Final Fantasy IX. Due to the immense number of localizations that Square/EA must do per year, it is obvious they are getting to a point where they can crank out well-written translations seemingly overnight. I think it is safe to say that these days, most US RPG fans (myself included) prefer to play decently written RPGs a brief few months after the Japanese release, rather than waiting 2+ years for a marginally better written version. Yet another reason why Squaresoft is as highly regarded as they are.
Final Fantasy IX has a mixture of everything that makes a great RPG, great. It's not revolutionary or evolutionary by any means, but it just does everything in the most solid way possible. An intriguing storyline, characters you actually care about, tried and true FF gameplay, a memorable soundtrack, beautiful, polished graphics, and not many crazy "systems" to learn and master. FFIX definitely leans towards the simpler end of the scale in comparison with the rest of the more recent games in the series, but I personally feel it is a step in the right direction. I am eagerly awaiting the next game in the series, and just hope that Square does not lose track of what they have done in Final Fantasy IX.