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Final Fantasy IX
Score: 96%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Square Enix
Media: CD/4
Players: 1
Genre: RPG

Graphics & Sound:
Just as Final Fantasy VIII pushed the limits of the PlayStation's power, Final Fantasy IX edges it out just that little bit farther. There are very few screens in the game that don't have something moving in the background, which is done in the same 3D-on-2D that we've had since Final Fantasy VII. The design of the world is also jaw-dropping, from towering tree-cities to dank catacombs, and everything in between. Unlike the more "realistic" tone of the last title, Final Fantasy IX charges full-force back into the fantasy genre, which spawned the series, and it shows. Gone are the realistic characters of FF8; they've been replaced by the big-headed RPG freaks we all know and love. And it works beautifully -- the game is set in a fantastical world, so why not make the characters a little odd, too? It helps that most of the party members are at least partly non-human, which gives that little graphical flair.

The battle graphics are as tight as ever, and every model in the game is well-detailed. They're also lavishly textured, without being overbearing. It's really a great look, and the characters in FFIX struck me as more "lifelike" than in any previous game in the series, odd look notwithstanding.

Then there's the FMV. -drool- It's Square, and it rocks. Need I say more?

The sound in the game is solid, although not quite as solid as the rest of it. Most of the tunes are good, but a few are a little grating, and almost all of them take a little getting used to (the overworld theme being a case in point). There weren't any that played long enough to make me turn off the music in the game, and this version's rendition of the Chocobo theme is perhaps the tightest yet. It may not be Uematsu's greatest, but it's still very solid. The sound effects are, as always, good but not fantastic, and there is no voice-acting. Ah, well.

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.

In a pleasant change from the past few games, Final Fantasy IX has some genuinely hard parts that aren't just side-quests. Getting across the King Ed Plains for the first time is a good example, and most of the bosses can come dangerously close to wiping out your party. Since you don't permanently gain abilities from weapons until you've gotten all the points from them, you may be fighting enemies with underpowered weaponry, simply because you're trying to learn their Abilities. If you get trashed in a boss fight, though, you've usually saved quite nearby, and you can switch to better weapons temporarily and smoke the boss. It's definitely nice to see some challenge, though.

Game Mechanics:
The core mechanics of the Final Fantasy series have changed little since the SNES days, and that's more because they're solid than because of any stagnation. Yes, the Esper/Materia/Junction system has been replaced with the Ability system, but in the end, it's all the same. (Much, much better than the Draw system, however). Control in the game is spot on, not that it particularly needs to be, and the addition of little "!" and "?" bubbles when you're next to something that you can interact with is nice. This ends the pixel-hunting mayhem of most games, and is a Very Good Feature. (Developers: take note!) The menus are clear and understandable, and even if they're not, you can hit Select and a moogle will pop up and explain any and everything to you. Another Good Feature.

PS2: Ack. Don't use the Fast disc speed option, as FFIX won't even run with it. And the graphics Smoothing, although it helps in a few places, ends up making other places look worse. The graphics are tight enough as-is, anyway. You'll get better improvements out of switching to RCA or, especially, S-Video, than you will with any settings on the PS2.

With a massive storyline that actually keeps you guessing for a while, a higher level of difficulty than the last few titles in the series, and tons of cool side-quests and mini-adventures (the whole Chocobo thing is addictive as all get-out, and fun too), Final Fantasy IX is sure to warm the heart of any role-player this holiday season. If you're looking for a game to get your pre-teens and early teens into enjoying reading and such, you could do a lot worse too. It's got a little cursing, but nothing you won't see on television, and it's a fine game to boot.

-Sunfall to-Ennien, GameVortex Communications
AKA Phil Bordelon

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