(Image courtesy of Square Enix NA)
This review contains spoilers.
Final Fantasy IX (FFIX) — developed by Squaresoft (now Square Enix) — is regularly lauded as one of the greatest numbered installments of the long-running Final Fantasy series, if not one of the best JRPGs of all time. It is a contentious assertion, to be sure, but one that has been repeated so often since the game’s release 20 years ago that newcomers to the series may simply accept it as fact. As an RPG fan who has dipped into the FF waters a few times over the years, genuine curiosity and sense of duty pushed me to finally give the ninth installment a try.
Having completed the main story in roughly 35 gameplay hours, my thoughts are numerous, my emotions embattled. The parts of the FFIX that I enjoy solidly outweigh the issues I have with the experience as a whole. Is this my favorite FF installment? No. Do I understand why it may be someone else’s? Absolutely.
Of the FFs I have played, this installment is by far the most rooted in a typical “fantasy” realm, tropes and all. The roguish ladies’ man, Zidane, gathers an interesting array of allies to foil an ever-evolving plot to bring about the death of their planet, Gaia. Magic crystals, villainous plotting, and otherworldly influences are all accounted for, firmly establishing FFIX as a fantasy adventure. It explores largely well-mapped territory (even at its release in 2000), but employs enough Square Enix imagination to make it more FF than typical fantasy.
Along Zidane and Company’s long journey, friendships are forged and relationships blossom. Princess Garnet seeks to find purpose outside her royal prison. Vivi is a lost magical youth searching for a place to call home. Freya combs the far corners of the world to bring her beloved home. Quina is a Lickitung-esque creature with a bottomless stomach that pangs for something new.
FFIX has a large and diverse cast, a few of which are consistently expressed as favorites among the legions of FF fans. Not all of the characters receive equal treatment concerning their development arcs, but I came to respect the genuine personality each character was imbued with. (Team Vivi all the way!)
That being said, the early hours of FFIX are slow. This isn’t due to a lack of content but rather a deluge of it.
Players are introduced to several characters in quick succession, each with their own motives and backstory to be established. There’s also a sizable area to explore early on.
Becoming fluent in the combat and inventory systems as well as each character’s abilities takes some time. And don’t get me started on the addictive, rage-inducing Tetra Master card game – just one of several arbitrary and poorly explained minigames throughout (this is a personal grievance I have with many of the late 90s, early 2000s FF installments). Lack of content is a criticism I doubt has ever been directed at FFIX.
Once our party witnesses the near genocide of the citizens of Burmecia, the narrative starts to snowball. The (barren and ugly) overworld opens up even more and the party will soon be carted from one colorful locale to the next in quick succession.
It’s a while before the story enters a lull long enough to allow for free exploration that is not squeezed between lengthy dialogue and numerous enemy encounters. Completionists and collectors alike will find plenty of side questing, weapon gathering, and boss hunting to satiate their content hunger. Thankfully, the Switch edition includes options like double speed and zero encounters that make grinding or exploring much more tolerable.
The overall narrative of FFIX is familiar in that the character archetypes are well established and understood, yet unique as sci-fi and fantasy elements blend together by the end and result in a story that lies somewhere between the two genres.
Impending doom via mind-boggling magic is par for the course in fantasy, but how about when said magic is literally from another world — as is the protagonist? My presumptions regarding the course of the narrative were correct up until the last fourth when they were shot clean through (and far exceeded). Zidane being one of many clones created to harbor souls stolen from the life stream of planet Gaia was most definitely not on my FFIX bingo card.
Few games I’ve played have as memorable a narrative and cast as this one. No two character’s personalities were derivative of another and the chemistry expressed via dialogue and shared experiences is a credit to Hironobu Sakaguchi’s writing abilities. Few, if any, lines are wasted in expressing the genuine emotion.
As in all writing, some characters are more relatable than others but most of the cast’s actions are reconciled thanks to the fantastic writing. I always appreciate a well-crafted story and FFIX exceeded my expectations in this regard.
(Regarding the cast, it’s important to touch on Quina. Representation in JRPGs (and gaming in general) has always been lackluster. With our understanding of sexuality and gender today, I assume Quina would be referred to as “they.” The genderless Quina is referred to as “s/he” in the English text (not ideal) and sometimes even “it” (yikes!). In Japanese, the character is addressed as “aitsu,” a genderless pronoun in Japanese that can sometimes be understood as “it.” Quina’s genderless identity is the butt of several jokes throughout; not a great look, but also far from surprising given the time of its release. )
I feel much less positive in regards to the Active Time Battle (ATB) combat system. In fact — to be blunt — I hate how it is implemented in FFIX. The wait times are too long if playing at regular speed; when battles are sped up it can make choosing the right action an exercise in anxiety-fueled frustration. No matter my chosen battle settings I was either wasting time or didn’t seem to have enough. I’ve enjoyed ATB systems in other games, but FFIX’s never felt quite right.
This is a shame as the battle animations and abilities are great. Obliterating enemies with a powerful summon or strong sword technique always felt satisfying. The character class system dictates that you’ll be switching between party members often and I rarely felt hindered because I needed to have a certain character in my party.
Keeping members evenly leveled was a task, though, as the narrative will split the party or drop characters entirely for decent stretches. The generous encounter rate and ability to increase game speed made grinding much more tolerable throughout.
I’ll even admit something that endangers my gaymer card-carrying status: I utilized the insta-kill feature. Is it cheap? Sure. But so are late-game random encounters that can threaten to KO your appropriately leveled party just for funsies. That the game has these settings available in a portable edition makes exploring and grinding on the go fun and efficient.
It’s hard to mistake FFIX’s visuals for anything other than an original PlayStation game. Character models are largely crisp and clean thanks to their HD treatment, but they present a stark contrast against the original background art. This is a shame as there is a lot of detail present in the environment that is hard to make out now. It’s difficult to fully appreciate the large and vibrant static illustrations when the finer details are smudged and pixelated.
Despite this the vibrancy of Gaia’s many locales are still impressive 20 years post the game’s original release; it’s just unfortunate that the artists’ dedication can’t be appreciated to the fullest.
Composer Nobuo Uematsu followed up FFVIII’s soundtrack with 140 new tracks for FFIX. Several of these are still worldwide favorites such as the game’s theme “Melodies of Life.” (FFX’s “To Zanarkand” remains my favorite of the numbered installment themes.) All of the tracks are serviceable, many are memorable, and a few are truly serotonin-inducing.
Uematsu’s talent is on full display here. That this was his last of many sole-composed FF soundtracks is impressive; that he was a self-taught musician makes his contributions to video game music all the more laudable.
FFIX was seen as a true return to storytelling form for the FF franchise upon its release. Even two decades on it’s not hard to see why. Distinct characters and a successful blend of fantasy and sci-fi storytelling elements cement FF as a standout in the franchise.
Strong storytelling goes far for me and FFIX has it in spades. While the ATB system is a distraction at best, the combat and exploration experience is solid. As someone who has never played other versions of this game I can’t speak on the technical differences between the many ports. The overall technical experience was enjoyable enough despite the obviously aged mechanics.
FFIX is a Final Fantasy fan’s Final Fantasy. And though FFX remains my favorite, the ninth installment was a wonderful ride.