What few "problems" Final Fantasy IX
has in the musical department, it more than makes up for in the gameplay. This is, by far, the best PSX Final Fantasy
(and, yes, I did score Final Fantasy VIII
a little too
high), and when Square said that it was going to be a return to the roots of the series, they weren't kidding. Newcomers
may be a little overwhelmed by the multitude of options that the game gives you, but the systems are solid, and the game actually has some challenge to it -- something severely lacking in RPGs these days.
You start off in the role of Zidane, a bandit out to kidnap the beautiful princess of Alexandria. Little do you know, but she's trying to get kidnapped in the first place. You also get to meet Vivi, a young black mage who isn't quite sure where he fits into the world. And these three characters are but a small smattering of the people you'll meet in Final Fantasy IX. You'll find your dragoon, your summoner, your knight, pretty much every FF archetype there is.
An important thing to note, however, is that the characters in FFIX transcend their archetypes. Unlike the "amnesiac apathetics" of the last few Square releases, all of the characters in the game have solid
motivations. Each one feels alive in their own way, and while the "camera" certainly does focus on certain ones more than others, they all get at least a little time in the spotlight. This is a vast improvement over the last two titles, who had a few characters who were well developed, and a bevy who were basically thrown into the game for good measure. It's not perfect, mind you, but it's a whole lot closer.
The core conceit of Final Fantasy IX is much the same as every other game in the series. You'll be following a plot about Empires gone awry and magical devices and whatnot, encountering random enemies both on the
overworld and in the various locations, and improving your characters. What differs from the previous titles is just how everything is done.
Well, not entirely. Random battles are pretty much the same, and they occur way too often. If FFIX has a major flaw, this is it. You'll get frustrated as you make your way through caves, fighting every step of the way, and it's a major pain in the butt when you get to places that actually have difficult enemies. You'll occasionally get a short respite
when the random number generator picks a nice big number for the next encounter time, but don't rely on it.
Your characters can equip a multitude of items, from weapons to armor for your head, chest, and feet. They can also equip accessories. Equipping an item may give you the chance to learn new Abilities, which come in two flavors -- red and blue. The red Abilities are permanently attached to your character once you learn them, and are generally new attacks or tricks or spells. The blue Abilities are "improvements" that you can turn on and
off at will. You have a limited number of points to spend on blue Abilities, and they're all pretty useful -- from making you immune to poison
to making you level up faster -- so you often have to juggle just which skills your characters will be using.
The important thing is that not every character can get every skill. This keeps the game from having the "unicharacter" problem of Final Fantasy VI and, to an extent, the last two games. Each character has a role, and they can only learn skills that fit said role. It works really well, a blend of traditional Final Fantasy and, say, Vandal Hearts 2.
Each character has unique things that they can do, such as Freya's Jump attack, a la Kain from FFIV, or Zidane's Thief-ly steal moves. This, again, keeps characters unique.
And don't fret about game length. Although the first CD zips by relatively quickly, the second one's longer, and the third one is bloody huge. You'll be playing this game from now until forever, never fear. And when you're done, you'll have missed a good half of the "secret stuff," undoubtedly.