Final Fantasy IX (2000)
Square Enix excelled themselves with Final Fantasy VII (1997) and amazingly got even better with Final Fantasy VIII (1999), even though that entry divided some fans with the series taking on a more realistic look. Final Fantasy IX returned to the more anime style elements of Final Fantasy VII and promised a very different gaming experience but is it the best the series has to offer?
A busy plot begins with Queen Brahne of Alexandria enjoying a theatre production hosted by a group of undercover bandits known as Tantalus. Amongst their numbers is the game’s hero Zidane, who is almost human save for having a tail, something no one else in the world of Gaia seems to possess! Tantalus are on a mission to kidnap the beautiful princess Garnet but are stunned to find their efforts coinciding with her wanting to run away from home! Zidane and Garnet join forces along with the princess’ bodyguard Captain Steiner, fond of verbal complaints and neglecting his rusty armour. They are also joined by a young mage called Vivi who becomes a central part of the storyline as do a large group of black mages that are being produced to promote Brahne’s ambitions of global conquest against kingdoms such as Burmecia, Cleyra and Lindblum. Zidane and Garnet set about trying to stop the queen but their adventures take them far across the sea to distant lands and even to another world.
Final Fantasy IX still looks stunning especially those delightfully beautiful cut scenes, and credit to Square Enix for doing something different with the game play. This one is a lot simpler to get to grips with than the previous two instalments. As you control Zidane a little “!” or “?” will appear above his head to denote something of interest so it’s worth exploring in detail as not all treasure is hidden away in chests in this game. Your characters’ weapons and armour each have a handful of abilities you can learn but they have to remain equipped until you have gained enough experience. Once learned, weapons and armour can be changed to access more abilities and there are many useful ones such as immunity to status ailments such as poison, confuse, sleep and silence. As you gain more abilities you have to prioritise which are most important. Each ability is worth a set number of points and to equip one you have to make a sacrifice of your overall total. You’ll never have enough points to equip all the abilities so you’re going to have to be selective and given that your enemies have different attacking patterns you’ll be making all kinds of changes. Weapons and armour are also blessed with elemental attack and defence so again you’ll be swapping armour round as you take on different bosses.
Battles are fought with four of your characters as participants, which proves to be a lot better than previous instalments. The characters are very different in their capabilities as well and you’ll have a maximum of eight to choose from in the end. Garnet and Eiko are summoners and more adept at healing their allies than being deadly attackers. Steiner, Zidane and Amarant are suited to physical attacks with Zidane also good at pilfering items. Freya and Quina are also good at physical attacks but I tended to use them less than the others. Vivi is a black mage and a master at attacking magic but physical attacks are not his specialty. You’ll have to use all the characters as the storyline often sees the group split up to tackle different challenges so building up everyone’s experience is essential. My dream team in the end was Zidane, Garnet, Steiner and Amarant but that’s just my style when playing Final Fantasy, always preferring physical attacks over magic.
Gaia is a rich and varied world where humans and anthropomorphic races are mixed together. Alexandria and Lindblum are glorious kingdoms, while Burmecia is more modest and sits under eternal rainfall and Cleyra is a realm housed in the heights of a great tree. As your characters head overseas they tackle an ancient castle, a black mage village and the ruins of a summoner settlement. The villains are pretty good here too especially Kuja. Up there with Sephiroth, Kuja rides on a dragon, is extremely powerful, enjoys some great dialogue, though he has secrets and a connection to Zidane that you’ll have to wait a long time for the revelations. The music in the game is wonderful and two of my favourite pieces in any Final Fantasy game can be found when the group first arrive in Terra and when Zidane learns the truth of his origins and proceeds to turn his back on all his friends. As good as the graphics are I do prefer the more realistic look that Final Fantasy VIII had and despite many fans criticising that instalment it’s interesting that Final Fantasy X went back to this approach and subsequent entries in the series have all done the same. Final Fantasy IX falls a little shy of VII, VIII and X but if you’ve never had the pleasure of playing it now may be a good time.
Final Fantasy IX is another superb RPG from Square Enix and maintained the high standard they had set with the previous two instalments and that quality trend would continue with Final Fantasy X. The graphics, cut scenes, characters, music, settings and battle system are all fantastic and though a little easier to get into than VII and VIII there are still plenty of challenges on the way, especially that final boss.
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