In many ways, Final Fantasy IX was a sendoff for the series. While Final Fantasy certainly wasn’t coming to an end, it would become very, very different with entries from this point onward with combat systems never quite being the same between games anymore, with wildly different settings compared to previous entries. While IX wasn’t the last game, Square Enix treated it as if it was in a way, and in doing so, they created one of the best Final Fantasy titles of all time.
GENRE: JRPG Magnum Opus
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Final Fantasy IX was a big deal, considering the series had made a huge jump in Western popularity with Final Fantasy VII on the Playstation (Thanks to Square doing a big marketing campaign for it, moreso than any previous FF title in the West). After the success of VII and VIII which were wildly different from previous entries due to their more high tech settings, IX was something a lot of people, myself included, were overjoyed to see with IX’s reveal: A true return to the series’ fantasy roots.
The high tech elements gave way to a more traditional but “high” fantasy setting, something almost but not quite steampunk, but very much rooted in the classic setting of castles, dragons, and heroic knights. The more realistic character design focus of VIII was also gone, and went to a more super deformed/chibi look akin to sprites from the NES and SNES eras of Final Fantasy, and while many considered this a turnoff after VII and VIII tried to go in a more “real” direction with the look, I welcomed this return to what felt more like tradition.
And IX is steeped in tradition in the best ways, honestly. Lots of classic elements of Final Fantasy return, like actual character classes, something VII and VIII dropped in favor of making characters more universally adaptable. With IX, your party choices actually mattered more, as classic roles such as the healing White Mage, the AOE enemy sweeping Black Mage, and tanky Knight all make a comeback. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself I think, so let’s start with the premise.
The world of Final Fantasy IX is, again, much more of a traditional fantasy setting. It opens with the female lead of the game, Princess Garnet, awakening from a nightmare before looking at the sun rising over the kingdom she calls home, Alexandria. We then cut to the other main character, Zidane Tribal, a thief with a prehensile monkey like tail, as he and his buddies get into a brawl with a large man in a dragon mask.
We quickly learn Zidane is part of the performing troupe of theater actors called Tantalus, but apparently they’re not just performers, they’re also mercenaries for hire, and they’ve been contracted to do a bit of both. While they are headed to Alexandria aboard their combination airship and theater to perform a popular play for Queen Branhe of Alexandria, they’re ALSO headed there to kidnap Princess Garnet for reasons unknown. We then cut to yet another character. I do want to say that this is one aspect of Final Fantasy 9 that I love: It introduces a good chunk of the main cast very early on, before they’ve even met by letting us experience their opening story moments, as opposed to meeting them later on and getting their story secondhand. It’s a very different way of introducing many of the heroes than other entries did, but I personally love it because we get such a better feel for some of our cast this way.
Right, the next character introduction. Any Final Fantasy veteran will immediately recognize Vivi’s iconic look, that of the Black Mage: A pointy hat that completely obscures and shadows their face aside from glowing eyes, not unlike a Star Wars Jawa. Vivi is apparently here in Alexandria to see tonight’s play, but ends up denied entry because his ticket is a fake. A local rat boy (I should mention IX has a lot of humanoid animal type races this time around) helps Vivi get a decent view on the rooftops to watch the play from there, and then we cut to the final major character of the introduction: Steiner Adelbert, Captain of the Knights of Pluto, Alexandria’s only male regiment among the otherwise all female knights and soldiers of the kingdom. Steiner is introduced as a somewhat comic relief character, very devoted to his job, but looked down upon by many due to being a man in a job that is mostly handled by women in the kingdom. But despite this, he tries his best, and is absolutely devoted to the protection and well being of Princess Garnet.
As Zidane does his part in setting up for the kidnapping, he’s shocked to find Princess Garnet, who appears to be trying to run away from the castle. One intense swinging by pennant string flags later, Garnet reveals to Zidane that she *wants* to be kidnapped, and has no intentions of staying in Alexandria, though she won’t elaborate why. Pursued by Steiner, and accompanied on accident by Vivi after he’s pursued by the guards for his rooftop watching, our four heroes end up on the receiving end of the Queen’s ire as she tries to blow up the airship before it can escape with Garnet (which is a bit odd since she makes it clear she needs Garnet alive. Maybe DON’T blow up the airship she’s on?). The airship escapes, but not without severe damage that eventually crashes it into the forest of evil. And it’s here our game REALLY begins, as Steiner forms an uneasy alliance with Zidane in order to find and rescue Garnet, who went missing in the crash. Vivi accompanies as well, Zidane and Steiner do manage to agree on one thing: Having a skilled Black Mage to burn your enemies to a crisp on hand is NEVER a bad idea.
So, as I said, this is where the game truly begins, and thus where I’ll go more into the gameplay itself, because it is an absolute treat in my opinion. The ATB style of battle we’ve had since Final Fantasy IV on the SNES is still at work here, but it’s brought back another big staple: Four party members! (Not quite yet though, you only have 3 in the forest). Final Fantasy VII and VIII opted to go for 3 character party limits: I’m not sure if this was for technical or gameplay reasons, but it significantly reduced your options in combat , as you now only had three people to use at a time. With a return to four in IX, on top of our heroes having dedicated roles again, party creation in IX is much more enjoyable.
While IX lacks a job system as each character has a pre-defined role, not unlike Final Fantasy IV and to an extent VI, you still have quite a bit of character customization available to you due to the game’s ability system and equipment, two more welcome changes from VII and VIII’s over simplification of the game. In VII, you only had a weapon, armlet, and accessory slot for gear, and used materia slotted into these items to determine a character’s skill set, which greatly lowered individual character identity as it was more about materia loadout than the character themself. VIII made it even worse by removing equipment entirely aside from weapons, and instead had you attach stocks of magic to your character in various ways to augment them. Again, individual character identity was sorely lacking here.
IX returns to form by giving us full sets of equipment again: Weapons, armor, headgear, armlets/gloves, and accessories. But what made this gear system far more interesting than previous entries is that all equipment also provides abilities to characters when equipped, but if you earn enough from winning battles, you can master these abilities and equip them without the gear. That said however, you can’t just equip every ability you come across, as you have a limited number of slots available, and some abilities may even occupy multiple slots, although you will gain more slots as your characters level up. Abilities can include things like resistance to certain effects, bonus damage vs certain monster types, and active abilities you can use in battle like spells and skills which don’t take up slots and are always available to you after mastery. This means you’re very much encouraged to try every piece of gear available to you, solely to expand on each character’s ability list, which in turn helps define their build. While everyone may have a set role, the ability system lets you tweak them just enough to customize them without having the problem of lost character identity VII and VIII had.
IX also introduces a new mechanic called Trance, which I have mixed feelings on. VII and VIII introduced Limit Breaks, an expanded idea of VI’s desperation attacks done at low HP. In VII, taking damage filled a Limit Gauge, when it was full, you could expend it on a powerful move. VIII gave you a chance to have a Limit available to use the lower a character’s HP was, while IX goes back to a meter based system, but with some changes. One big change is that sometimes, story moments will trigger a character’s Trance instantly, regardless of their Trance meter. The other change is that you have no control over activation of the Trance effect: Once that meter fills, it activates whether you want it or not. This meant that you couldn’t save your Trance as easily for a specific moment, and encouraged more in the moment use of it, which I somewhat understand, but I still think losing the ability to manually activate it takes out a key tactical decision the player can make. What’s interesting about Trance though is that it affects each character differently, as opposed to just giving them super moves a-la VII/VIII. Zidane for example does gain access to Trance exclusive special attacks. Steiner gets a MASSIVE boost to his attack power, making normal attacks hit like a truck. Vivi gets an equally MASSIVE boost to his magic output, making his spells that much deadlier. The one thing I do admit is particularly cool about Trance though? It actually visibly changes your character’s appearance, transforming them in some way for the duration of the Trance. While it’s not my favorite Limit system (I admit I’m actually somewhat fond of X’s Overdrives), it’s still a cool one, even if it has flaws.
All these systems work wonderfully in IX, making its traditional semi turn based semi real time combat as enjoyable as ever. But the world of IX and its story are just as great, and definitely strong points of the title.
Final Fantasy IX features a large world with incredibly varied locales throughout: The kingdom of Alexandria was already mentioned, but you also have a shady town where it’s always night, a small quiet cliffside village with a dark secret, and plenty of varied dungeons to explore as well. Everything is grand in scale, and really gives an exciting feeling to explore for the first time, something I hadn’t felt nearly as much with Final Fantasy VII and VIII. And the soundtrack of IX may be the best of the Playstation era Final Fantasy games, if I’m being honest. An incredible soundtrack that throws out a few classic Final Fantasy references here and there, it’s one of Nobuo Uematsu’s finest, rivaled only by IV and VI in my opinion. Every song really fits its location, helping give every place you visit its own identity and mood. And while I don’t dare go into specifics, I will say the final area of the game has one of my absolute favorite tracks of ANY Final Fantasy, and might be one of the most thematically appropriate ones ever made.
Final Fantasy IX also covers some great story elements: While I won’t spoil any specifics, I will say this much, it covers a lot of things I don’t think the series had ever really done so well before. Namely, the concept of family and how it’s not something simply defined by biological connections. Zidane is an orphan who has no knowledge of his real parents, and was raised by the leader of Tantalus, growing up with him and its other members. While they may share no blood, it’s quite obvious that to Zidane, Tantalus *is* his family. Other characters also explore this concept, but I won’t say who specifically. Final Fantasy IX also explores the concept of one’s own mortality and facing their eventual death. While people die in Final Fantasy all the time, IX examines the concept of death much more in detail than any entry before it. It questions what life means when you know your life has an expiration date, and how you choose to deal with that, with multiple characters having very, VERY different answers. Considering Final Fantasy IX was in many ways a sendoff for classic Final Fantasy, it seems oddly appropriate to me that the very concept of death, of true finality, was such a focus for some of the game’s characters.
Another high point of IX would be its full motion video sequences, which retain the chibified character design and thus feel more artistically consistent than how Final Fantasy VII would constantly shift between art styles. Even at 15 FPS, these FMVs are absolutely gorgeous and high points of IX, used to great effect whenever they come up for major story events.
That said, I can’t go without mentioning one of the best fan efforts to improve the PC version of Final Fantasy IX, and one I strongly recommend checking out: Moguri Mod.
It can be found at: https://sites.google.com/view/moguri-mod/home
What does it do? Well, it’s basically a full on HD remaster treatment for Final Fantasy IX, using a combination of hand crafting and AI deep machine learning to bring full HD quality to all of Final Fantasy IX’s textures and pre-rendered backdrops, making them look that much better on an HD display. It also brings in proper 16:9 widescreen support, an optional orchestration of specific songs in the soundtrack, and most impressively, 30 FPS FMVs made with AI technology that give the FMVs a much smoother look that fit today’s modern standards. It’s the kind of visual treatment Final Fantasy IX deserves in modern times, and one of the best ways to experience the game if you ask me.
That said, at the end of the day, what do I think of IX? I think it’s one of the best entries ever. While V may still be my favorite, IX is absolutely up there with my other big favorites, IV and VI. I can’t really rank them, admittedly, but I can say this: IX encompasses so much of what makes Final Fantasy good. Its characters, its world, its music, everything about it really does feel like IX was meant to be a sendoff title, and again, it kind of is in a way. If Final Fantasy *was* going to come to an actual end, this is the kind of high note it would be best to end on. It’s absolutely worth playing if you’re into Final Fantasy and have yet to try it out.