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Final Fantasy IX: Still the Best Celebration of the Series to Date

October 12th, 2017 by Tim Willers

ffix cast

Final Fantasy IX is one of the most critically acclaimed entries in the series to date and is often praised for its charm, art direction, characters and soundtrack. Revisiting it today is as much a pleasure now, if not more so, than playing it back in 2000. It’s never been easier thanks to a surprise announcement from TGS last month where Square Enix re-released the title for the PS4.

Filled to the brim with references to previous FF characters and worlds, IX cements itself as the series’ best celebration and more, triggering as many fond feelings of nostalgia as possible. Based in the classic FF medieval setting with an eventual scifi twist, references are plentiful: from Dagger dressing as a classic White Mage, a nod to Cloud Strife’s oversized sword, even the seemingly out-of-nowhere final boss tipping a hat to FFIII’s surprise final encounter, these constant allusions give fans of the series something to notice and smile about. Thankfully, these are all references alone and, even if they go over a player’s head, it is at no detriment to the experience of IX itself.

More than simply being self-referential, IX expands upon the series’ own history by taking each of the famous classical jobs and enriching them with well-developed characters and layered personalities. Each of your main party members exhibit traits of these jobs interwoven with their narratives – Zidane is a thief who kidnaps Garnet and sets the story in motion, Quina learns enemy skills as a blue mage by eating enemies in reference to an insatiable appetite, and Vivi’s identical design and abilities with the series’ first black mage have been utilized to convey his personality and tragic backstory. As such, not only does your party feature established strengths and weaknesses in combat to balance one another and encourage the building of a versatile team, the same effect carries over to their respective narratives. This is in stark contrast to the system used in VII and VIII in which party members were, for the most part, blank canvases to be used as desired, allowing players the freedom to make any of their characters the designated healer or physical attacker. The enforced roles in IX allow a more effective marriage between gameplay and story, for example with Dagger being understandably able to cast cure in cutscenes, or Vivi using his black magic to melt walls of ice.

Garnet_White_Mage

IX marks a key turning point in the series, being the last mainline game not to feature voice acting and the last game so far to prominently feature characters with exaggerated designs, such as Vivi’s classic black mage look, that may have initially felt more at home on one of the SNES titles. Outlandish designs are featured everywhere, from smaller touches (like Zidane’s monkey tail) to Quina’s larger-than-life brightly coloured appearance and excitable mannerisms that match her food-obsessed personality. Regarding the voice acting I wager IX, alongside VII and VIII, would not have worked anywhere near as well if they had featured a spoken script. As one of the last games of the mostly vocally silent generation of RPGs, text alone allowed fans to give the cast their own voice and, as such, develop a closer bond with the characters and the story. By leaving voices and line delivery up to the players’ imagination, much like a novel, we are free to experience the game slightly differently from person to person and feel more of a connection to the world as a result.

IX isn’t without its flaws. The remaster by default retains its slow combat, featuring long loading times and lengthy attack animations that exaggerate the inherent problems of random encounters and a turn-based battle system. Fortunately the new PS4 version includes a 3x speed mode, thus negating an issue that has probably stopped thousands of people completing playthroughs in the past. This booster comes alongside a host of others that enable you to do things like turn off random encounters, level up instantly, and hit for max damage. It’s the speed boost that has the best effect for the game, though, and really breaks any barriers of playing an old RPG in the modern era of gaming. Other boosters can feel a bit too much like ‘cheating’, and by removing any challenge from the game you also remove any real reward – I’d highly discourage instantly leveling to 99.

FFIX Ps1 comparison

IX looked great at release, and with considerably cleaned up visuals today (pictured above) the game looks even better. It is, at times, a whole new experience playing through IX on the PS4 and actually being able to make out the details on certain characters without blurry pixels damaging the art style. Like a polished painting it makes it even easier to get fully absorbed into the setting, which does wonders in improving IX‘s already masterful aesthetic delivery. It is, after all, the world and characters of IX that have earned this entry such a cult following. The planet of Gaia feels complete and unique, with a fantastic score from Nobuo Uematsu accompanying detailed artwork to make you feel like the world you are playing in has always existed, and you are getting to experience a key glimpse into it before your time with it ends and that world carries on without you.

I mentioned the characters being the reason IX is held in such high regard, and that point can’t be stressed enough. Despite all having archetypal roots (Dagger is the sheltered princess; Zidane the upbeat thief; Steiner the loyal knight, etc.) all of the cast grow beyond what they begin with. Zidane in particular is a refreshingly optimistic hero. He begins the game with a sense of cheer and humour, a welcome change from previous protagonists Cloud and Squall, and manages to keep scenes interesting with sarcastic comments and witty retorts. In fact, IX as a whole is arguably the funniest mainline title, with innocent humour peppered so frequently throughout the first act of the game that really helps to break up some of the more sombre scenes.

OooSoft

The true star of IX is Vivi, the plucky black mage who consistently questions and ponders the meaning of life throughout the adventure after finding out the dark details of his own origins. Amongst a captivating plot depicting warring nations and loss of identity, it is Vivi’s story that is consistently highlighted and grabs the attention of the player. He questions what makes life worthwhile, in every experience we get insight into how he feels, and even the aforementioned final boss who appears ‘out-of-nowhere’ is thematically linked to Vivi’s fear of death and his ultimate realisation on the meaning of life.

Story progression throughout IX consistently feels natural. What begins with a kidnapping slowly evolves from a political clash into a grander plot that risks the fate of the world in true JRPG fashion, and through it all your characters feel believably caught up in it all with personal stakes to fight for – perhaps with the exception of characters like Amarant and Quina, who I still wish had more development given to them. This goes for Freya, too, who feels forgotten in the latter half of the game despite having a fascinating story arc early on.

Throughout the story are a multitude of moments that have now been solidified as the best in the series. Bahamut and Alexander fighting over a kingdom ablaze is a now iconic image; the scenes of Zidane challenging his identity whilst “You Are Not Alone” plays throughout emotional battles; your initial party running away from the Evil Forest as it petrifies both itself and your allies; these are the moments gamers will remember even after the credits end. Added to this are more tender scenes, like Ipsen’s story told to Garnet by Zidane, and more notably the entire experience in the Black Mage Village: a place where Vivi first sees a cemetery for his people and queries what dying means, what happens afterwards, and how you cope with loss.

Black Mage Cemetery

“I don’t think I really understand what it means to live or to die. Where do we come from…? Do we go back there when we die…?”

When you peek beyond the surface layer of FFIX’s bright and colourful appearance, you find a really dark, gritty tale that asks a lot of tough questions – but it does all of this with charm and honesty, embodying what I would argue an ideal Final Fantasy title should aim to be. Most importantly of all, it’s fun. After XIII and XV have presented the series in a more serious visual style, it is still IX that perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the first ten entries in the series, and a point I would recommend anyone jump in at if they want to experience a classic Final Fantasy title.

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  • Tga215

    Great article still one of my favorites as well but 4 was better to me more emotional didn’t know who was coming and going from the party then 6 kefka was a crazy smart villain then 7 the story was great and 9 brought back the classics that makes final fantasy unique after 10 I believe it lost its way 15 was good as well

  • Tim Willers

    Thanks for the comment! Yeah I would personally agree that after 10 the series changed significantly. 15 did have its moments though!