I’ve been spending the last few months ploughing through the Final Fantasy series as I didn’t have any Play Stations as a kid. I know right? What a tragedy. And you thought the children of Somalia had problems. I have now completed what many consider the “Golden Age” games in the series, that being VII, VIII and IX. While which of these games are superior to any other remains arguable, IX is often the forgotten one of the series. This is in part because it was released right before the highly anticipated Final Fantasy X on the what was then the newly released Play Station 2. But that’s a real shame it seems, because IX is one of the best RPGs I’ve ever played, and X can suck my ass.
I am and always will be gameplay over story. When I’m playing a video game, I want gameplay. I don’t want an interactive movie. When I play an RPG, I want strategy and options. I want a vast world to explore. And yes, when I play an RPG I do want a story. That is part of the appeal in these games. You can love and relate to the characters in an RPG. If someone made a Super Mario game with a 10 minute cutscene every time I got a star, I’d shove a cats head into my Nintendo and mail it to their headquarters. What I’m getting at is that long periods of no gameplay can be forgiven in a game like this, as long as I like the story and the gameplay is still good. Final Fantasy IX masters both of these things.
One of the best things about this game is that there are no useless characters. Each one brings something very different to the table and it gives the player a vast set of options for who to have on their team. I like to play physical, meaning I never like to rely on magical attacks to get through a game, unless it’s made clear that I have to early on (Chrono Trigger is a good example of this). I was given a few options for physical attackers, a Red Mage (Freya) a Fighter (Steiner) and a Monk (Amarant). However halfway through the game you play without Freya or Steiner, and when they rejoin you they’re a good 15-20 levels behind. I would have preferred if they automatically stayed in my level range (FFVII does this, it brings unused characters up to near Cloud’s level) or at least had a section where I played as them to make them the level of the rest of my team. This limited my option to Amarant, which I was fine with, but I would have really liked to use Freya more and find out what she was capable of. I didn’t have the patience to grind her to a high level once she was so far behind. Again this doesn’t mean she was useless, I just didn’t bother to actually make her useful.
There is one oddball character of the game that I think was there for players who like a challenging character with great rewards for using them. The character is a Blue Mage name Quina. You never really have to use him/her (the character’s gender is unknown, this is acknowledged in the game) but I chose to use him/her. A Blue Mage has low physical attack, and can only learn by taking the power of a weakened foe. An enemy must be near death, then Quina will eat it and take one of it’s powers. Quina was on my team throughout the whole game, and turned out to be a deciding factor in boss fights. But s/he is a challenge to use however. S/he has to always be on your team, and you have to try and eat everything. Although this task was time consuming, I was rewarded with a mage who can cast Mighty Guard (physical and Magical defence for the entire party in one spell) Auto-Life (automatic resurrection) White Wind (heals party about 30%) Holy (powerful magical attack) and Bad Breath (causes four different status ailments to all enemies, a few of which even affect bosses). Mighty Guard is what got me through tough bosses. Final Fantasy X also has a Blue Mage named Kimahri, but FFX doesn’t tell you how to use him. Oh wait, yes it does. When you’re almost 80% through the game there is a tutorial fight. But by then he’ll be as useless as a paraplegic in a kicking contest. (Hey, X… go fuck yourself) IX needs no tutorial for how to use Quina. S/he joins your team and when you use him/her you see the option…eat? Okay, let’s see what that does. ”I can no eat until weaker”. I see, lets weaken it a bit… now try. “Quina has learned ‘Goblin Punch’.” Hey! That a move that this enemy used on me! And now Quina has a spell in his/her ‘Blue Magic’ section, neato! See how easy and clear that was, X?
IX has a great combat system, and so far I’d only put it behind VI, XII and X-2. That’s right, X-2. I loved it’s combat system wanna fight about it? And I’ve yet to play XIII, but I hear good things about the fight system. But I digress, IX’s system has characters learn abilities though the items they equip. When an item is equipped, it comes with new abilities. If the character uses said item for long enough, they can keep the ability permanently. This prevents going to a new town, buying a better item then throwing the old one away, a forumla used by most RPGs. You do still do this, but you are encouraged to share rare items with other party members and sacrifice certain stats in order to gain an ability. My Summoner/White Mage (Dagger) had an item for example, that if she kept for long enough she could have permanent summon upgrades. I chose to have her wear an item that lowered all her starts for a good 6 hours of the game to be rewarded with that ability. And it was worth it.
Now when it comes to love stories, I’m the resident pessimist. I like to watch love fail horribly and tragically in stories. When Rose lets Jack sink to the bottom of the Atlantic, I had a large, smug, shit-eating grin on my face. This however, might be one of the only love stories in which I didn’t want that to happen. I found the protagonist (Zidane) oddly relatable. There’s nothing too unique on the surface, he’s an orphaned thief who falls in love with a princess… like every other fantasy story. But there was something different in his relationship to Dagger (The aforementioned princess who runs away to join a band of thieves). It was more than Zidane hitting on Dagger only to have her reject him constantly with sassy remarks, which one would expect from a hack Disney sequel. I think he was so relatable because the story understands how teenage boys are with girls they like. Zidane has no trouble talking to women. But he does like Dagger, and he has a great deal of difficulty talking to her. Not in a “I can’t believe I just said something so stupid” sort of way like Bambi 2 would say to The Little Mermaid 3, more of an “I don’t want to say the wrong thing, so I’ll be careful of my words” then I’ll still manage to blurt out a bit of bragging and showing off every once in a while. One of my favourite moments in game is when in order to advance past a certain area, a local tribe says that a couple must be wed. Zidane jokingly says they should do it, but she agrees and he doesn’t know how to react. He was expecting a no, he had a joke lined up. He wanted to beg and flirt, but she said yes and he was caught completely off guard. When one likes someone, one will take any kindness as flirting. This might not be the case, but if we want it badly enough we can convince ourselves of anything. Zidane knows it’s not a real wedding. Zidane knows that Dagger only agreed so that the journey could proceed. Zidane knows that Dagger might not feel the same way. And this sequence was one of my favourites in the game, because Zidane doesn’t know what to say. And neither would I.
Look at that. Look how I much I talked about story and character. And I never talk story in a game. It’s too bad IX is so often overlooked, as I had a great deal of fun playing it, and I would recommend it to anyone. It’s also a really good game to start the series on. If you’ve never played an FF game or you want to suggest a starter, I’d suggest starting with IX. It’s not very hard and teaches the player how to play throughout the game. No instructions required beyond what the game gives you. It’s an epic tale with the tone of a Classic Greek comedy.