A week after the Japanese launch of Square's magnum opus, Final Fantasy IX, RPGamer is proud to present its first -- spoiler-free -- impressions.
Once the player begins Final Fantasy IX, he will be instantly familiar with the setting; yes, it is indeed a Final Fantasy, but more than that, it is a fantasy FF - the opening movie leaves no doubt. Gone are the ultra-realistic spaceships and the cyberpunk style megacities, which are now replaced with cozy kingdoms, stone castles, and airships. Does this detract from a serious plot? On the contrary: the story promises to address themes we all identify with. Will there be a lack of characterization, as seen often in "old-school" RPGs? Certainly not: each character is full of personality. Has the Crystal Theme really returned? The introductory plot does not mention crystals at all, but as both FMV and the logo suggest, yes, it's back. And lastly, do moogles come back, please? Yes! Moogles are back, they're very much back: a whole network of them! Final Fantasy IX is, simply put, a nice blend of old-school warmth and coziness, and a new-school use of graphical technology. The latest FF, finally, is what we've all been waiting for: A return to familiar grounds to keep the old-schoolers feeling nostalgic, and just the right amount of amazing FMV and brilliant graphics to attract casual and first-time gamers. If there is a game all types of RPGamers can be content with, then there is only one game: it is Final Fantasy IX.
The player is eased into the game with a plot device that hasn't been used in past beginnings. Final Fantasy VI had the player lured in by a woman in plight, Final Fantasy VII featured a daring raid against a megalomaniacal organization, and Final Fantasy VIII charmed gamers with a familiar look at school life. FFIX, however, employs humor, from Vivi's wide-eyed innocence and timidness to Zidane's womanizing antics to Steiner's uptight mannerisms contrasted against his laissez-faire crew. The humor works surprisingly well, and gives FFIX a light-hearted beginning.
A recent poll at RPGamer suggested the best number of characters in a party is four - it seems Square knows its gamers, because four is what you get in Final Fantasy IX. And from the beginning, the gamer is given four characters for battling - more than enough, as the trend in relatively easy dungeons seems to continue. As the first few bosses are very easy and the familiar ATB-style battle system is a breeze to master, the learning curve is gentle enough to not frustrate gamers. "Trance" has been introduced, which is very similar to Final Fantasy VII's limit break, except that instead of a critical move, the player has access to super spells and a powered attack, making it reminiscient of The Legend of Dragoon's Dragoon mode except without the button mashing. The monsters are nothing new - slimes make an appearance in the second dungeon, and zombies are sure to be encountered soon enough. The status system's been given a boost, with some returning afflictions like "Minimum" (better known as Pygmy) and "Vanish" as well as some new ones like "Virus" and "Freeze." Summon spells are yet to be seen, but previews indicate they'll satisfy gamers' high expectations.
The menu is as easy to learn as always. The ability system is very intuitive, not like Final Fantasy VIII's powerful but difficult Junction system. New magic spells are learned as levels increase, and multiple targeting returns, but the magic point cost increments for each target. Equipping helmets, armor and bracers are back in fashion, as are buying new weapons. An entertaining feature is the Zelda-esque introduction of new places.
One of the best ways of unfolding a story is found in the Active Time Event system, whereby parallel time events can be watched or played. Although the choice to view these events are usually optional, why any gamer would wish to skip them -- at least the first time through -- is a mystery, as interesting side- and background-story information is told in this way. The exclamation mark system, as shown in the Vivi video, makes exploring incredibly easy. Also, Final Fantasy IX has taken a leaf out of Vagrant Story's book by having the speech captions move with the action on the screen.
Mog-Net does not seem to have a direct impact on the storyline, but gives you a Moogle's perspective on the game's events. The little-known Chocobo minigame hasn't been encountered yet, but if Nobuo Uematsu says it's addictive, it's definitely worth looking forward to. Another popular minigame makes a return - the card game. Like in Final Fantasy VIII, practically anyone can be challenged, but unlike Final Fantasy VIII, there's a lot more variation in the play and players are less likely to lose due to unbalanced rules (Random, anyone?) but more likely due to poor strategy and not thinking ahead. Actually, there's a big problem with the card game - it's addictive. Quite some time has been wasted playing cards against the same person, to get a feel for their techniques and build up a good stock of cards.
The music has a pleasing soft ambience about it, fitting well with the fairytale feel of the game (but more importantly, preventing the music from getting too annoying when left playing for a long time) - except for the familiar battle theme and the boss and escape themes. Nobuo Uematsu's 160 composed tracks seem very well spread out over the game, considering only around 30 have been heard so far. Instrumentation has the usual Final Fantasy synthesised feel, excepting some samples of medieval instruments which is apt for this style of game.
The movies can only be described as an unmissable experience, like all recent Final Fantasy games, and although the super-deformed FMV characters may feel like a step back since the realism of Final Fantasy VIII movies, it seems to fit in with the setting. Character movement is smooth and the people are nicely detailed, despite being super-deformed. The polygonal graphics, used with characters and in battle, are of a high quality for the aging PlayStation, and it may have been a good technical move for Square to have small-sized characters, since they are now able to pack in extra detail, which may not have been possible with large characters. Backgrounds are lush and detailed, and are more animated than ever. Simply put, there is nothing wrong with the graphics, considering the platform it is on.
Many gamers were not sure what to make of Square's move back into fantasy and SD characters. Square has combined the essential elements from its older Final Fantasy games with the top-of-the-range graphics, music, and characterisation, to keep both new and old players immersed. The result is not the best game ever -- it is not revolutionary -- but the right balance, topped off with that certain Square touch, makes for a wonderful play experience which should leave people talking about it for a long time, not to mention harassing Googleshng and Brad with dozens of questions they probably can't answer! Rest assured, Final Fantasy IX will satisfy, and it has certainly been worth the wait.