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A Momentary Diversion
By: Michael Beckett
Final Fantasy 9 represents a nod by SquareEnix towards it's most loyal fans. It's plot, combat system and basic design draws quite heavily from previous Final Fantasies. What this means is that Final Fantasy 9 will appeal best to a fairly narrow spectrum of Final Fantasy fans - those who not only enjoyed the early SNES and NES titles, but who have fallen in love with with it's PlayStation incarnations as well.
Even given the nature of the Final Fantasy series, Final Fantasy 9 is highly derivative. Characters are based on other Final Fantasy characters and character archetypes, there are references spread liberally throughout the plot, in the skills, abilities and equipment and even in the combat system itself. Granted that other Final Fantasy games have done likewise, but never before to this extent.
Still, for all it's over-reliance on reference, the design isn't bad as such. Its use of superdeformed character models wearing bright colored clothing does feel a little odd next to the grey cities and dark forests of the world of Terra, but overall the elements both from the schools of anime and realism are melded with surprising skill. From a purely graphics standpoint, the visuals are on par with what we've come to expect of Square; for it's period, Final Fantasy 9 represents the top of the heap.
Changes to the combat system between Final Fantasy 8 and 9 are fairly minor. Of course, the Draw/Junction system is gone, replaced by a fairly basic version of the ATB system. Four characters is the new party limit, and the only new command is Trance, a variation on the Limit Breaks of FF7 and 8 - as your character is hurt, a Trance Meter fills up. When the meter is full, the Trance command becomes available, allowing him or her to transform into a more powerful, glowing variation of themselves. Spells and abilities are now unique to each character - only Stiener can use Knight Skills, only Vivi can use Meteor, et cetera - and are learned through equipment. Unfortunately, I found myself constantly under-equipped due to the piddling amount of Ability Points recieved from the monsters. Still, balance issues aside, the combat system is passably entertaining if not exactly a tactical thrill ride.
Control is solid throughout the game, and the menus available do their job well enough. Likewise, the translation is solid and comes up error free, and it does a good job of characterization.
The characters themselves are a mixed lot. It seems that for every interesting character like Vivi, there is a corresponding dull one, ie Stiener, which strikes me as being odd. Given the length of the game and the stretches therein which have little or nothing of interest occurring, character development should have been far better. The plot itself is decent for RPGs in general, but lacks the theme and overall message gamers have come to expect from Square. Where earlier Final Fantasies have worked with problems of memory, the nature of reality and the human psyche, Final Fantasy 9 gives such adult ideas a miss and goes for a simple love story. Such simplicity is not necissarily a bad goal, but the result is not quite as compelling as earlier games and doesn't stand up nearly as well to repeated playings.
The soundtrack doesn't feel quite up to Mr. Uematsu's normal standards. Most of the tracks seem to lack the complexity of his earlier works, although there are one or two songs which are truly excellent. Not Alone and Black Mage Villiage in particular have shown their flexibility and appeal, particularly amongst fan remixers. There is very little in the way of sound effects, most of which occur during cut scenes and battles. They aren't bad, just barely noticeable.
Final Fantasy 9 is by no means a difficult game. Even being underlevelled and underequipped, I would find it shocking in the least that anyone could lose a battle before the last fourth of the game. The game takes around forty to sixty hours to complete, depending on your level of dedication to sidequesting.
While Final Fantasy 9 is far from being a bad game, it lacks the bite and originality of it's predecessors. It's reliance on earlier Final Fantasy games is interesting enough as a gimmick, but it feels as though the game is entirely based upon reference. With it's simple design and plot, Final Fantasy 9 would have made a good introduction to the series, but newcomers won't get the references upon which the game is built. Given the references, Final Fantasy 9 might have made a good game for series veterans, but the game is far too derivative to make much of an impact - veterans have simply seen it all before. In the end, Final Fantasy 9 is far from being a bad game, but it's flaws simply run too deeply to be anything more than a momentary diversion.
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