Update: I was unfortunately not aware of Shamus Young's severe criticism of Fallout 3 available here to link in the original piece and I regret that. It dovetails rather nicely with what I've written and it's much better executed than my piece. I strongly recommend anyone...
Considering the relatively low grade I've given this game, my next statement is probably going to shock a lot of you, but:
I LOVE Final Fantasy IX. It is easily one of my favorite games of all time. The story is riveting, the main characters are compelling, the secondary characters are amusing, the music is wonderful, the graphics are beautiful, I could gush about this game for hours. I have played it through from beginning to end at least ten times, and just writing this review makes me want to play it again.
But as much as I love FF9, I can't just ignore all its serious flaws. This game is typical Final Fantasy, which is to say: tedious and slow. Random monster battles, learning magic and abilities the slow way, ultra-long loading times thanks to the lush graphics and effects, and so forth. The game play is old school...too old school. FF9 is essentially an old NES or SNES Final Fantasy game with 3d polygon graphics.
The story line is also very typical of the FF series: the world is being threatened by evil and you control the band of heroes who journey to save it. Unlike most of the FF series, however, this game takes that old cliché plot and turns it on its head. The main hero is not some dark, angst-ridden swordsman atoning for past service to the villain; nor is he some callow youth who gets caught up in the greatest adventure of his life. He is, instead, a thief, braggart, and womanizer who almost accidentally falls in love. And he doesn't get involved because war destroys his home and family, or the villain pushes him too far, or whatever. Instead, he is part of a plot to kidnap a royal princess and things just fly out of control. This is probably the only time since the old FF1 game that Square ever really thought outside of the box.
Unlike the previous four or so FF games that preceded it, FF9 abandons the one-size-fits-all jobs and abilities system. Instead, it gives all the playable characters a specific class and skill-set. On the one hand, this new system isn't handled very well; why does equipping a new hat allow the black mage to learn the Fire spell? On the other hand, combat and party formation are much more strategic, because the player has to really think about who to put in the party. The proper balance really does make a difference. In the old one-size-fits-all system, you could put anyone you wanted in your party and you would do just fine, which made the games too easy for me. That said, in FF9 you don't get to choose your own party until disc 3 of 4; until then you have to go with the party assigned to you by the plot.
Speaking of which, the plot never takes itself too seriously. It explores a lot of very heavy themes: love, duty, sacrifice, freedom, life, death, and the nature of the soul. But it always remains, at its base, a lighthearted romp and essentially upbeat in its outlook. This cheerful optimism that permeates even the darkest moments of FF9 always makes me feel better about life. For all that, though, the plot is very linear and you don't get much freedom to explore until very late in the game. As I mentioned above, you don't even get to start choosing your own party until disc 3 of 4. It can feel rather constraining when you want to do some treasure hunting on the side but aren't allowed to simply because your only choice is to continue following the plot.
And of course, while following the plot you stuck are playing an old-fashioned console RPG which forces you to slog through a great deal of random monster battles, FMVs, and loading times. It gets tedious very quickly. The monster fights literally take about ten seconds just to load up, and then another ten seconds to return to the world map after the fight is over. The main reason for this is the lush graphics. Drawing all those polygons takes time. And then just to take a bit more time, the camera spends a few seconds spinning around and showing off all those nice-looking graphics before finally settling down on the actual fight. This is particularly annoying during those times when there is a clock ticking and you don't have much time to waste. And while the FMVs are very pretty and well-rendered, they also have long loading times and often happen rather abruptly. They tend to break the momentum of the game and story, which gets annoying at times.
If the story and characters weren't so compelling, FF9 would be too tedious to be worth playing. That is why I give it such a low grade. It fixed a lot of things that were wrong with its predecessors, as far as story, characters, and dialogue go. But it also kept a lot of things that should have been changed, such as the tedious random monster fighting and the graphics-induced loading times. I love this game and always will, but I would hesitate to recommend it to anyone except diehard FF or RPG fans.
To sum up:
+ Wonderful story + Engaging characters + Great music + Beautiful graphics + Nice refinements to some game play elements
- Tedious monster fighting - Tedious load times - Ultra-old-school game play - Rigid, ultra-linear plot