FINAL FANTASY 9 (2001) – SQUARESOFT
Given the huge success of Final Fantasy 7 and Final Fantasy 8 on the Playstation, you could have forgiven Squaresoft for continuing along a futuristic line for the next game in the franchise. However, it was clear from the start of its life that Final Fantasy 9 was going to be a combo breaker for the futuristic formula. Development for the game started before Final Fantasy 8 had even been released, and Hironobu Sakaguchi wanted to make a game that he felt was as close as possible to his original views for what Final Fantasy should be. This meant a return to more medieval settings and a more European flavour than its forbearers. Question is, did this gamble pay off in the end?
The changes in thinking behind the game are very apparent when you analyse the plot of the game. Final Fantasy 9 takes place in the world of Gaia, and focuses on a land mass known as the Mist Continent. On this continent are four great nations; Alexandria, Lindblum, Cleyra and Burmecia, who have been at peace for centuries. The main protagonist of the game is Zidane, a happy go lucky thief with a monkey’s tail who travels with a band of thieves known as Tantalus. As the game opens, we learn that Tantalus are on their way to Alexandria, where they will perform a play in front of the Royal Family of Queen Brahne and Princess Garnet. The plan is while the audience is distracted by the play, Zidane and fellow thief Blank will kidnap the princess and take her to Lindblum. Zidane’s job is made easier when he bumps into Garnet in the castle, who….wants to be kidnapped? The Tantalus eventually manage to escape Alexandria, but not before acquiring the company of Steiner, Captain of the Knights Of Pluto who attempts to rescue Garnet, and Vivi, a small black mage seemingly caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. After being shot down by cannons from the city, the group manage to escape a nearby petrified forest, and set out to take Garnet back to Lindblum. Back in Alexandria meanwhile, Queen Brahne sets into motion a plan that will wreak havoc on the Mist Continent, and eventually put the entirety of Gaia in chaos. The rest of the plot will then have you dealing with armies of back mages, summoners, and an entire new world; all of which adds a considerable amount of depth and complexity to the story.
I personally feel the shift back to a more classic way of telling a story really benefits Final Fantasy 9; for the first time in a long while it has a ‘fantasy feel to it’, rather than the futuristic and often bleak settings of the three games before it. I really enjoyed the feel to the story, which changes pace at different times, has you controlling different parties in different parts of the world, and feels like more of a well rounded adventure; there are ample amounts of time when you can simply wander around the cities and explore without fear of having to get a move on for the sake of the story, and events that have little effect on plot like the Festival Of The Hunt in Lindblum help to break up the possibility of a completely linear storyline. The addition of Active Time Events (where you can see what another character is doing at the same time as you explore the city/town you are in) is also a welcome addition and just helps to branch out the story even further. In fact, I would consider Final Fantasy 9 to have my favourite setting for a RPG out of those I have currently played; Lindblum, Alexandria and Treno are just begging to be explored with the side quests they offer, and the environments and dungeons that you travel through as part of the world map just seem…in place. There are also a few secret areas hidden away that one can explore later on.
Final Fantasy 9 also achieves another very rare thing: a completely likeable and well developed cast. Zidane is a welcome break from the rather cold and emotional leads such as Cloud and Squall, consistently looking on the bright side and always trying to charm his way out of a situation, especially with women. Vivi is a fantastic case study of someone who wields great power but is unsure of what to do with it, and indeed what his purpose in life is as he sees all of the other Black Mages around him be controlled by exterior forces. Garnet is the princess in a unusual situation, and we see her do her best to adapt to normal life. Steiner is the pompous knight who provides much of the comic relief in his banter with Zidane and his constant attempts to get Garnet back to safety, completely oblivious to what Brahne intends to do. Freya the Dragon Knight is searching for her lost love. Quina the gourmand chef (yes, he uses cutlery to fight with) is looking for delicious yummies. Its nice to have a cast with purpose set goals and watch as they intertwine and either succeed or fail. The great cast is not just limited to the playable party either; the Tantalus group are a bunch of lovable rogues who again provide a lot of humour, Regent Cid of Lindblum is a grandoise leader…despite being a frog, and the NPC’s that wander around the towns all feel like they belong where they do, even if its something as simple as an old lady selling pickles. Crucially, the antagonists are also susceptible to character development, even if much of that structure is borrowed from Final Fantasy 6; Queen Brahne, General Beatrix and the mysterious (and highly underrated in my opinion) Kuja can be substituted with Emperor Gestahl, Celes and Kefka quite easily when you think about it. Still they provide a good reason to fight against as they go around ripping the place up with highly dangerous magic. The only character that really feels tacked on is Amarant, but the less said about him the better. So overall, the gamble paid off for the plot and story, very handsomely indeed.
What then of gameplay, that most crucial element in all RPG’s? Again, like with the story, changes are abound in Final Fantasy 9. The game is still set into two very distinctive parts; exploration and battling. You have the aforementioned towns and cities that one can explore freely without the fear of being sucked into battle, and then everywhere else where the random battle system is in full effect. This was to be the last game in the series (as I write now of course) to have a overworld map that Zidane can travel across and be attacked on, and this acts as the link between all the field maps and cities, and while you are limited to moving on foot and through border gates in the Mist Continent, you will eventually have access to ships to cross the seas, and airships to get to higher ground and places the boats cannot reach. Happily, the ever lovable Moogles play a large part in this game, acting as the save system; if you see one in the field, simply approach it and you can ask it to record your progress, or use a tent to restore HP and MP. It makes a difference to the rather soulless save points in the previous games at least. You also get a flute that you can play to call Moguo on the world map to save, and watching him skim across seas and mountains to get to you is always fun.
The changes in the battle system are subtle. On the face of it, nothing has changed much: battles take place in an area separate to the field/world map, and the goal is to bring the HP of the enemy down to 0 before they do the same to you. You can attack, defend and use items, and the Active Battle Timer of the previous five games is also in effect, which means that battles are turn based with an emphasis on speed. In Final Fantasy 9 though, you can again have four people fighting at any one time in your party, and characters are also locked into classes, so Zidane as the thief can use the Steal command, Vivi can use Black Magic, and Freya can use Dragoon tactics. The use of class specific characters means that you need to balance your party, as going in with four attackers means you have little opportunity to keep yourself healed throughout if things go bad. This means that no-one character becomes overpowered, and battling is a fair system as a result against enemies who will gradually become stronger as you progress through the game. Also in operation in this game is something called a Trance system; basically a little bar next to the ATB bar will fill up when your characters take damage, and when it is full they can use a special set of skills for a limited amount of time, such as Vivi being able to cast two Black Magic spells in a single turn rather than just the one. The problem with this system though is that you cannot carry Trance over from one battle to another like you could with Limit Breaks in Final Fantasy 7, meaning you’ll often build it up and use it in a normal fight rather than getting it when you need it against bosses – which is very annoying indeed. What the battling system is then, is methodical if nothing else; it is not as fast paced as its predecessors, but it gives you time to think and is a perfectly workable system to use.
The way that characters learn skills and magic was also given an overhaul for this game. Squaresoft threw away the Junctioning system from Final Fantasy 8 for something much more simple and elegant. Outside of battles, you can equip your characters with different bits of equipment that have abilities attached to them, and a small bar with a number corresponding to it. Get in a battle and win, and you get what are called Ability Points, to go along with the standard experience points needed for levelling up. Once you get the required amount of AP from battles, you will permanently learn the ability from the equipment you had on, and can set it as a permanent ability on the pause screen for your characters using ability stones. This allows for a lot of flexibility, as you could equip a certain piece of clothing for one battle to use the ability attached to it for one battle (for example, ice resistance clothing going through the Ice Cavern), or ensure that you learn as many abilities as possible so you can switch them on the fly in the pause menu. You do not have an infinite amount of ability stones to set permanent abilities however, meaning you have to prioritise the best abilities for the situation (here is a hint – get Auto-Haste and Auto-Regen on ASAP). Also not every character can learn the same abilities from the same piece of clothing, so Zidane cannot learn healing magic from a White Robe for example whereas Garnet can, but she can’t learn to Steal Gil. I quite enjoy the system, and being the completionist I am I had much fun ensuring every character had as many abilities as they could possibly learn, so they could walk into the final dungeon hilariously overpowered for what came ahead. Crucially it’s not a hard system to master, so newcomers to the franchise can adapt quickly and get into the game.
This covers the core of the game, but if you decide that saving the world isn’t for you, then there are plenty of distractions to indulge in. There are three big side-quests to get involved in; including Chocobo Hot and Cold, where you use a Chocobo to search for items in forests and lagoons set across the world. This is actually a rather beneficial sidequest, as you can hunt for treasure using things called Chocographs, which opens up the best equipment in the game and are not accessible anywhere else. There is also a sidequest built around the Moogles, called Mognet. When approaching Moogles to save, they will occasionally ask you to deliver a letter to the next Moogle along, creating a chain of letters which builds up to a situation where you have to get Mognet Central, the hub of all Moogle activity, up and running again. My favourite sidequest personally however is Tetra Master, which is a card game that can be played with a whole lot of NPC’s by simply approaching them and pressing the Square button. It has no effect whatsoever on the main game and its very poorly explained, but once you get used to it its damn good fun, and I have claimed for many years that it is better than the Triple Triad mini-game in Final Fantasy 8. If none of these things take your fancy, you can also help Quina hunt frogs in the marshes dotted around the world, engage in buying rare items at the auction house in Treno, fight monsters in the Battle Arena, partake in skipping and running minigames, help an old man drink some Coffee, and go hunting for rare coins. There’s a lot of thing to do basically. And for the truly hardcore, a special gift awaits you if you make it to the final dungeon in 12 hours of game time, and a fallen Eidolon awaits in the Chocobo Air Garden…
The one final thing that I will say about the gameplay in Final Fantasy 9 is that it is incredibly user friendly. At any time in the pause menu, pressing Select brings up helpful little hints from the Moogles that tell you what the different menus are, how equipment will affect your stats, what abilities do to your character etc. Some might claim this is the game making stuff too easy for you, but you have to admit its very helpful if you don’t know what is going on, and very unobtrusive. In another new move, characters will also note on screen, via a question mark or exclamation mark popping over their head, when you are next to treasure of your objective for that particular area. Again, just something to help make the game as streamlined as possible. Overall then, there is very little to question about the way this game is executed throughout.
Even if you didn’t particularly like Final Fantasy 8, like myself, you couldn’t argue that it represented a graphical leap over Final Fantasy 7. Final Fantasy 9 takes the good work of its predecessor and expands upon it. The pre rendered backgrounds of the cities and dungeons are as good as ever (Treno and the library of Daguerreo in particular look fantastic), and some of the FMV’s are spectacular, such as Alexander defending the city against Bahamut and also Odin’s big introduction, but where this game really improves is the character models and their movement. You only control one character at a time, preventing the awkward snaking movement of parties from Final Fantasy 8, but their movement is much more fluid. The models are also much more detailed, really pushing the Playstation to its limits. Criticisms do have to be made however of the lag that is apparent at times on the world map, and also the rather long loading times when getting into a battle, given that it’s a random battle system it can become quite the annoyance at times.
In an article I published a while back, I claimed that not only did Final Fantasy 9 have the best soundtrack out of the entire franchise, but that it was my second favourite soundtrack of all time. Nobuo Uematsu was told early on that he only needed to make about 20 songs for the entire game; in the end he produced near to 120 and declared it his favourite soundtrack as well. There were many tracks that stood out and stayed in my mind after my first playthrough many years ago (and those are accessible by that article to prevent repetition here), but playing through again reminded me of many more tracks that I absolutely adore, including the very slick Tantalus theme, Hunter’s Chance, Vamo’ Alla Flamenco, Unforgettable Face, the boss battle theme, Mognet Central and the wonderfully melodic Kuja’s theme. Some critics felt that Uematsu was just taking old themes and stripping them down, but I say nonsense to that; and besides, sometimes simplicity is brilliance within itself.
And now I arrive at the point that I hate; having to clear up the one thing that Final Fantasy 9 does very poorly indeed. I’ve already mentioned my minor qualms with the Trance system and the lag that occurs when getting into battle. I don’t like how Zidane doesn’t have a move that can hit for huge damage like Omnislash or Lionheart, and also how summons will not break the 9999 damage limit either. I also don’t understand why it takes such a long time to navigate around to the Chocobo Lagoon. All of this however pales into comparison with an event that takes place right at the climax of the game. You’ve just defeated who you think is the final boss….and then suddenly completely out of nowhere, a giant deus ex machina called Necron turns up to try and mess up your world. Why this…thing even exists is beyond me, he is given no mention whatsoever for the previous 40 or so hours, and it completely spoils the ending of an excellent story for me. Why Squaresoft? WHY?????
I questioned at the start whether or not the gamble taken on Final Fantasy 9 breaking from the mould worked; from a technical point of view, yes it did. What the audience got was a very fun and easy to use RPG that made the most of what the Playstation had to offer, with stellar production values. From a critical point of view; the gamble also paid off, as it was received warmly by the press. Strangely though, it was an unproductive gamble for Squaresoft themselves – the fiasco over the strategy guide (which infamously required you to go to the internet to get parts that were purposely left out of the guide) and internal trouble concerning the frankly bollocks ‘Spirits Within’ film meant that it didn’t sell anywhere near as many copies as 7 and 8 had done. They would make it up with Final Fantasy 10 on the PS2, but they were never really the same afterwards, indeed they ditched the Squaresoft name to become Square Enix. Cast this aside though, and be thankful that we got the end of an era in the sumptuous form of Final Fantasy 9, an RPG that really can claim to be one of the greats.