Part IX: The final chapter.
What do you get when you mix a monkey boy, Orko of He-Man fame, and a big asexual blob? Oh, and throw in a plot that involves crystals and the fate of the world hanging in the balance. And don't forget the token cute girl. Don't know yet?
Frankly, neither do I, but it's called Final Fantasy IX. This little experiment into fusion doesn't so much break new ground as refine elements of previous titles. The result is a decent PSX end to the series that helped put the Playstation on the map.
FFIX has a good story, but not a great one. It's a classic struggle between good and evil, with a nasty Queen attempting to take over the world. And as always, you and your band of little scrunched weirdos have to save the day. Sadly, the bad guy looks like a wussed-out Sephiroth complete with eyeliner and poetic rambling. Ooo. Scary, scary.
The game features all the improvements you've probably been clamoring for. Thought some spells were too powerful and took too long to cast? Now you have to wait until you're well into the game to get those powers, and each incantation comes in long and short flavors. Tired of futuristic tech-stuff? Now we're doing it medieval style. For all you Moogle lovers, there are now more Moogs than you can shake a stick at. These little guys are everywhere as Save points. This makes more sense than those shiny little triangles. Hated that Junction system? Now we're back to the old school.
Everything works in a cycle. You gain more experience points and money as you fight. The experience points make you stronger, while the money can be spent on more provisions for battle. So you go back into battle and fight stronger opponents, and then start the circle again. The old school flavor is certainly evident.
But with this tried and true fighting system, I often found the gameplay a bit monotonous. There are some challenges to mix it up, such as an area where you can't use your magic at all or those deadweight characters you must protect and strengthen, but we've all been through this before. I would have preferred more tough, all-out battles with harder bosses. Oh well.
Armor and other equipment is imbued with an assortment of special attacks and guards, known as 'Abilities' (how terrifyingly original - Ed.) As long as you have that armor equipped, you can use that Ability. So if my T-Shirt had "Dance Fever Ability," I'd be able to call upon my special dancing moves (but only when the world is ready for them). These Abilities run the gamut from holding the different spells certain characters can cast to special attributes that your character can gain, such as defense against sleep or auto-potion.
After you've de-equipped an item, you lose that item's Ability. However, there is a way to keep it. Each one of these wacky Abilities has a little meter. Each fight will net you some Ability points. Those points help to build up that meter, and once it's full, you get to keep that Ability even after you've shorn your clothing. Which means that once I've earned my Dance Fever, I can shake my stuff even with my shirt off.
The "Limits" in this game are called Trances. Got any Day-Glo sticks handy? You've got a Trance meter that fills up as you get attacked and damaged. Once it's full, you go into a trance and temporarily gain some new trance techniques. Zidane will be able to use his Dyne attacks, whereas Vivi will be able to cast two magic spells at once. It isn't anything new, but it works fine. From a purely statistical viewpoint, the game is well-balanced.
One new feature is the Active Time Events (ATE). Every now and then while you're wandering about some city, the ATE icon appears on screen. You hit the Select button and the game switches over to see what other characters are up to. At times, you can select from multiple, alternate scenes. Depending on what you choose to watch, there are slight variances to later scenes. The result is little more than a fancy name for a proactive cutscene, but it's still an interesting idea.
The world still feels scripted. You'll visit a town, and all the townsfolk are going on with their daily duties. After many adventures and battles you come back - but these people are still doing the same duties. Every single time you enter a lobby, the same girl walks in from the right. Deja vu!
Mini games and side quests extend the hours of play, but just aren't enough to pull the game from its linear grasps. The world isn't particularly dynamic.
The music is in the same vein and quality as before. It can get unnerving when parts loop too many times. But as a whole, there are a few memorable tracks, one of which even includes vocals. That's right, voices! Imagine that. I think it really needs to be said, once again, that this series could really use some voice-actors. What was the last silent movie you watched?
Graphically, the game comes through for the Playstation. Some of the backgrounds have beautiful, vibrant textures and are filled with loads of animated detail. The FMVs are adequate and just more eye-candy to ogle over.
The character designs come from the man responsible for the first 6 Final Fantasies - Yoshitaka Amano. Amano's style is characterized by flowing intricate lines, and deep colors. The characters look interesting enough, but not great. Perhaps this is due to the limitations of the hardware.
From a gameplay perspective, the bar is constantly being raised and yesterday's games need to evolve with the growing tools and expanding ideas. If you are looking for nothing more than a story that you help along, Final Fantasy IX succeeds like its predecessors. It refines elements laid out in earlier games and is delivered in top-notch Square form.
But big steps towards a deeper, more immersive experience haven't been made here. Even the most impassioned player must start asking for more out of the Final Fantasy institution, and may in fact receive it when the system moves to the next batch of home consoles. At what point do you want that next level? When do you expect gaming paradigms to be challenged and rebooted? Hopefully, these questions will be answered by the time we all count to 10.