Asking fans of the Final Fantasy series what their favourite game in the series is will no doubt garner a number of different answers (as a franchise with nearly 15 core games should!). The vast majority will probably tell you it is Final Fantasy VII, with its bold move into the 3D landscape and an epic tale in the cyber-fantasy genre, some of the younger players may say Final Fantasy X for its stunningly beautiful visuals and tale of war and heartbreak and some of the truly old-school gamers may tout Final Fantasy VI as the pinnacle of the franchise (mostly because you can suplex a phantom train).
So here I stand in a bit of a minority with my favourite being a game that I feel like is criminally overlooked, Final Fantasy IX.
Mostly the response to me telling people this fact is usually along the lines of “Oh, I haven’t played that one yet”, so for those who haven’t been exposed to FFIX, here’s a quick summary. Our monkey tailed, sky pirate lead Zidane and The Tantalus Theatre Troupe are planning on kidnapping Princess Garnet from her castle in Alexandria during one of their live shows, except as it would turn out Garnet is tired of being cooped up in regal life and yearns for more adventure and goes willingly with her newfound abductors. Tied up in the escape is Captain of the Knights Of Pluto guard regiment and Garnets personal bodyguard, Captain Adelbert Steiner and the shy, clumsy and adorable black mage, Vivi. Over the course of their adventure our characters get tangled up in an evil forest, an ice cave, two different giant trees, a city run by a bug and a canyon full of very Scottish dwarves, gathering a cast of even more colourful characters along the way (Quina anyone?), eventually uncovering a thick plot to destroy the world.
The first point in this games favour is that it is the only Final Fantasy game I’ve played with an actually charismatic lead character, especially coming after Squall from FFVIII who was so very emo. Zidane on the other hand is a ‘too cool for school’ airship pirate, who is constantly friendly and also a bit of a skirt chaser. Along with a light hearted lead, comes some light hearted scenery and what we have here is a wonderful, medieval, steampunk aesthetic and this game looks beautiful! I’m going to be straight with you, FFVII has not aged well. While revolutionary at the time, it looks blocky and awkward now, saved only by the nostalgia. In contrast, FFIX takes the graphical style of the previous two games and refines it to a mirror sheen, pushing the PlayStation 1’s power to the max. All of the towns, dungeons and various sceneries look gorgeous from the grand town of Alexandria to the dark, rainy Burmecia all the way to the lonesome and mystical Madain Sari.
To top it all off the pre-rendered cut scenes that were all the rage back in the PS1 days look spectacular. All of this is bundled together with a complete sense of fun throughout, as we mentioned earlier Zidane is the smart ass, but we’ve also got the deadpan Steiner, who is just trying to protect the Princess and basically worshipping Vivi as a god for his black magic, when in actuality Vivi is just a scared little kid (albeit an incredibly powerful scared little kid).
The combat is pretty standard, classic Final Fantasy turn based combat with no real added bells or whistles. Each characters have their own specific play style, Vivi being the black mage, Garnet being the white mage, Steiner being the tank, etc…, and some combinations of characters would yield special attacks, for example having Steiner and Vivi in your party allows Steiner to use a magic infused sword dealing extra damage. The ability system in this game is pretty basic as well. You pick up items that can teach certain characters certain skills and by battling and gaining ability points (or AP) your character eventually learns that skill and equips the skill using skill points which are gained by leveling up. Simple stuff, but makes for an awful lot of grinding, and I mean an awful lot!
This can take a lot of time to teach all of your party some pretty necessary skills and this can be seen as one of the main criticisms of the game (and the franchise in general), but this is made up for with the astounding score.
Series composer Nobuo Uematsu out does himself with this one with a battle theme that makes every single encounter seem like a grand battle to the death and a boss theme that, to this day, still gives me an unending sense of fear and dread of imminent game over. The rest of the soundtrack is stellar, giving each different area its own particular feel, but one particular standout track is one called ‘Rose Of May’.
This is the theme song to the other Captain of the Royal Alexandria Guard, Beatrix, and is one of the most beautiful piano pieces I’ve ever heard. It’s got an air of elegance to it as it plays while she glides gracefully in her robed armour. But don’t let that grace fool you, she will cut you down without hesitation (and does so on more than one occasion). What I suppose I’m getting at here is that she’s a total BAMF… But I digress.
The Villain…I Guess!
If I had any real criticism towards this game it would have to be its villain. Kuja is not that great.
He comes off as a little too flamboyant and believe me, flamboyance isn’t a bad thing (see Kefka from FFVI) but it’s not over the top enough for it to be taken seriously and comes across as over confident and not very threatening. In saying that, that is just his character, because he does have quite a few moments across the game that flip the whole situation on its head.
So in summation, do I recommend Final Fantasy IX? Hell yeah, I do! When I was a wee lad, I got a sense of grand adventure and scale from this game that no other games I played at the time gave me, like Spyro and Crash Bandicoot. This game had a beautifully vibrant world of fun and odd characters, nearly all of which I fell deeply in love with from the second I saw them (…well, except for Amarant… I could take him or leave him). And going back to it recently gives me the same sense of endless joy. And if you want to experience it yourself, it has recently been uploaded to Steam with a HD remastering making the already gorgeous visuals that bit shinier. So please, if you are a fan of the series and want to kill time before Final Fantasy XV comes out, (please be good), do yourself a favour and get Final Fantasy IX.