Mel's Note: It isn't often I put reviews of console games up here. However, it has been a while since we received a contribution from j-e-f-f-e-r-s, plus the fact he gives Final Fantasy 9 such a positive summary adds to my own argument which actually benefits my recently featured game mechanic rant. More on that, and further success of 3scapism, later.
However much one may argue over the merits and flaws of Final Fantasy, few can deny the meteoric impact (pun intended) the series has had on gaming. The three Playstation One titles that Square released were amongst the most anticipated games in the console's history; and really helped drive the Playstation, and video games in general, into the mainstream. However, while VII has since become the banner under which all FF fans unite, and VIII is looked back upon as the wild, experimental child and is the cause for much heated debate on forums, IX has since fallen off the map. A shame, because to my mind it was an utterly fantastic game, and deserves far more recognition than it has thus far got. What follows is an artsy-fartsy retroview of sorts.
But first a note. FFIX was the first videogame I ever bought with my hard-earned shillings, and this no doubt entails a doctor's prescription for rose-tinted lenses. Gamers with a greater knowledge of the medium's history and lore may point out all the game's failings, flaws and shortcomings in a brutally erudite way (though that is not to say I won't). All I can argue is that FFIX introduced me properly to the medium of games, and showed me the depth and magic they could offer.
Also: Spoilers! But as the game is nigh on eight years old now, I think that any secrets and plot twists I may or may not reveal will be of little consequence. I doubt the game is even in print:
Final Fantasy IX is a very different game to it's 3D predecessors. Whereas VII and VIII are built upon dystopian, Blade Runner-esque visions of the future, IX is a throwback to the series' roots. It's a game where you can visit a village of Black Mages, taunt a gang of Pluto knights, chat with a Moogle, or even race an anthropomorphic hippo. There is no electricity, so everything is steampunk instead of cyberpunk (I'm sure I've heard that somewhere before...). Kingdoms, not corporations rule the continent, and everything has been designed with a kind of medieval theme in mind. Characters actually have an excuse to wield swords and staffs this time round.
While VII and VIII tried to be as cinematic as possible, IX feels like it's walked down a different road. As pretentious as this may sound, it feels almost like a play in gaming form. Characters talk to each other in pseudo-Shakespearean (showing a marked improvement in translation), the Tantalus theatre troupe have a pretty major role in the game (indeed, the first hour or so of the game takes place around their staging of the hilariously titled 'I Want To Be Your Canary'), and many characters feel like they've tread right off the boards of an Elizabethan drama (meaning lots of monologues, tragic circumstances and irony). There's still plenty of end-of-the-world madness to keep purists happy, but here the melodrama and cliché feels intended. The antagonist of the game unashamedly 'mwa-ha-ha's his way through the plotline, and has a fashion sense that is the very definition of high camp, yet still poses a legitimate threat. If William Blake, Chaucer and Shakespeare were to sit down and design a game, I think FF IX would bear a strong resemblance.
The plot itself involves all sorts of madness, including the investigation into a secret army, kingdoms invading each other, Eidolons, interdimensional travel, and one Hell of a final boss battle at the gates of Oblivion. It no doubt sounds convoluted on paper, but the game is actually paced very well. Events and plot twists are numerous, but unfold steadily throughout the game, one after the other, so that you'll rarely feel at a loss as to where to go or what to do next.
There are a number recurring themes throughout the game's narrative that undercut its camp whimsy, especially the theme of death and loss. One of the most touching moments is when Vivi, the party's Black Mage, watches as a group of fellow Black Mage's are destroyed, ironically enough by a Black Waltz, the next model up. Their bodies, snuffed of life, flutter to the ground as empty ragdolls, amidst the chaos and carnage being created by said Black Waltz. Other main characters also suffer the loss of loved ones, and it says a lot of the writing staff that the game treats death in a very mature way. Kuja, the villain of the game, is motivated by a deep rooted fear of his own demise, trying to create an immortal existence for himself. On discovering that his death is unavoidable, he decides in a case of, 'If I'm going I'm taking you with me,' to use his power to destroy all life, arguing that death is what we all long for anyway. Vivi, learning that he was 'made' rather than 'born', constantly questions what it is to be truly alive. The final boss himself is a nihilistic agent of Oblivion who believes that life is merely the irritating middle bit between conception and death, and that we'd all be better off if we did without it (sounds kooky, but does make a twisted kind of sense). Whereas 'other' FF games have made a big sentimental hoo-ha about death (cough
, Aeris, cough
), IX treats it with a kind of understated respect - it happens to everyone, and the important thing is not to let fear of it take hold. Or so I read into it at least.
In terms of art design, IX is exceptional. Really. It's up there with the best in videogamedom. Backdrops range from pseudo-industrial/renaissance-esque capitals to mazes made up of the memories of the main characters, to winged cities that unfold the more you progress through them. While 2D backgrounds are a love it or loathe it aspect of the Final Fantasy games, here they've been injected with a great deal of detail and atmosphere. When entering a war-torn Burmecia for instance, it's hard not to get sucked in by the perpetual rain and the dilapidated state of the buildings. Characters you talk to/face off against include psychotic midget twin jesters (true), purple ticketmasters, a race of green gnomes who marry your characters off to each other, and a trio of Black Waltzes (incredibly evil Black Mages with wings). The monsters are all beautifully realised (and as a note, have some of the silkiest animation I've seen in a game), and there are lots of them. Right up until the end you're coming across new critters to kill. The spells are reassuringly dramatic, and really show what the PS1, when pushed, was capable of. Every colour you can think of is used, and seeing Bahamut or Leviathan being summoned for the first time is enough to give you goosebumps. It's all incredibly well realised, and my hat goes off to the design team.
The soundtrack is worthy of note by itself. The range of music here is astonishing, ranging from beautiful piano balladry to the Black Sabbath meets Emerson, Lake and Palmer score of the final boss battle, along with various excursions in flamenco strummery, mandolin folkery and synth funkery. What's nice to notice is how the melodies and motifs in certain parts of the game are dramatically redone elsewhere to give a completely different effect. The composer Nobou Uematsu really did a spine-tingling job, and I think I've said elsewhere how amazing the soundtrack is.
This game is by no means perfect (then again, what game is?). The Trance system is a poor rehash of the limit system from VII that sadly limits (sic) your 'trance abilities' to the battle from whence you got them. If the battle ends before you can use them, well that's tough tuck. The Tetra Card system is seemingly the world's first and only card game based entirely on luck. And ultimately, if you ain't a fan of jRPGs, you ain't going to be a fan of this. It's as linear as a rollercoaster ride. However, like a rollercoaster ride, it can also offer up some spectacular views if you decide to hop onboard.j-e-f-f-e-r-s