29
Dec
12

Final Fantasy IX Revisited

I’ve almost entirely failed at keeping up on new games this year.  I haven’t even managed to keep up on new jRPGs this year and have instead found myself replaying Final Fantasy IX, just over two years since the last time I played it (this makes it my fourth time through the game.)  I reviewed it in early 2011, and here I am again pretending to know what I’m talking about.  It’s not like the game has changed each time I’ve rolled through Gaia.  I might have since playing the game in late 2000, but since late 2010?  Probably not.  Perhaps I just like it and I don’t need any other reason to play it, but I’ll take another shot at trying to pry out what makes the game enjoyable.

Verbs

FFIX has three sets of verbs.  The first being the navigation and exploration of the game’s environments.  Much of the time, the player is represented by Zidane Tribal, a thief who belongs to the Tantalus “Theater Troupe.”  The player character can be moved about screens with the d-pad and can use an action button to initiate interactions with NPCs or to inspect the environment.

The game also has a set of management verbs which allow the player to build and customize characters, manage the inventory of items, and change each character’s equipment.  At any given point in time, the player will have control of four characters, and they are rotated in and out of the party as events progress.  This can make management of characters tedious, since your stock of equipment is limited and when a character is removed from your party, their equipment becomes inaccessible.  This is mitigated to an extent by the fact that many characters use different types of equipment.

And the final set of verbs revolve around the game’s battle mode.  The battle mode is entered at semi-regular intervals while exploring the environments.  The shift in and out of battle mode can be frustrating since there is no indication when it may occur.  And having the entire active verb-set switched so frequently detracts from the value of both.  In any case, once in battle mode, each character the player has control of will have a timer which runs down.  Once it has, they can take an action against any of the targets on screen.  This is also operated entirely through menus, which is adequate but does not serve to highlight and differentiate between your options very well.  Characters act by attacking, defending, using magic/abilities, and items.  Battles are exercises in managing your party’s health and functionality while simultaneously dispatching all targets.  The rotation of characters in and out of your party continuously tests your ability to adapt to changing circumstances.

In all honesty, verbs are probably the weakest point of Final Fantasy IX and the Final Fantasy series as a whole.  They are games that were very well designed for what is now obsolete technology and

Spaces

Spaces on the other hand are where the game shines, and are the reason why Final Fantasy has embedded itself so firmly in the collective consciousness of gamers.  IX takes place in the world of Gaia, initially on the “Mist Continent,” an area with several quasi-medieval societies.  Players begin in the Kingdom of Alexandria as part of a plot for the Tantalus gang to kidnap Princess Garnet.  This sets off a series of events that have Zidane traversing the continent from kingdom to kingdom while exploring dungeons in between.

IX establishes a pacing to the game that consistently introduces new content and reinforces its systems to the player.  In each town you will have the opportunity to shop for new equipment, start side quests, learn more about the town, or participate in completely diversionary card game.  Every location offers sights and sounds that are still memorable 12 years after the game’s original release.  Backgrounds are presented as snapshots and animations of 3D renderings that, even if technologically obsolete, are artistically cohesive and interesting.  At times, playing the game can be like running through a series of paintings, set to a soundtrack by the ever-talented Nobuo Uematsu.

When the player feels ready to move the game forward, they will generally need to clear a dungeon first.  In addition to opening up more of the world map, clearing dungeons will offer opportunities to hunt for treasure and test your party’s configuration.  The game will constantly provide feedback through battles as to how you are managing characters. And as might be expected, each dungeon is generally finished with a boss fight.  While there are ways to efficiently dispatch these enemies rather than simply relying on brute-force, battles are not puzzles and are more about managing situations rather than solving problems.

Eventually the entire world is opened up and free for the player to explore for as long as one might care to before completing the game.  Gaia offers a great deal of content and challenge both inside, and outside of the core plot of the game.  And even if the verbs are lackluster, IX’s spaces more than compensate for that.  At least in my own experience, Gaia is a game world where you can just enjoy being there.

Impressions

The player has a number of opportunities to make impressions in the game.  First among these opportunities being what you choose to unlock in the world.  While player’s will inevitably unlock all of the key locations on the map associated with the plot (this is satisfying in its own right), you will also be able to unlock purely optional areas as well.

Another key opportunity to make impressions in the game is by how you choose to build your characters.  IX does not have an open ended class system.  Each character is bound to a specific class, but never-the-less how each character is equipped and how their individual abilities are unlocked is up to the player.  Choosing how to invest your currency is always an interesting choice when visiting towns.  Abilities must be learned by equipping different items and then using them for a predetermined number of battles before the character memorizes the ability.  If it is unequipped any sooner than that, the ability is no longer available.  Some equipment is only available to specific characters, while some can be shared among them.  It can also be synthesized into new equipment.  In other scenarios, a more powerful item will be available to a character who is still learning the abilities offered by older equipment.  Balancing these options can be challenging and lends itself to subsequent play-throughs, but the option always remains to fight additional battles to obtain more money.  Final Fantasy IX is a linear experience, but there’s a lot of leeway granted to the players to control the pacing and revisit earlier locations.

Final Fantasy IX Concept Art

Perhaps it’s just me, but 2012 felt like an underwhelming year for games.  There have been some gems, but I get the impression that things are starting to change – be it with KickStarter, the ubiquity of mobile and free-to-play games, or that we’re at the tail end of the current generation of game consoles.  We’re in a transitional period for games, and it’s given me an opportunity to revisit some earlier favorites (even if I do have other games to catch up on still.)

I still feel that Final Fantasy IX has much to offer when it comes to fundamentals.  I would hope that someone at Square-Enix is continuing to look at games like this and trying to find ways around its 20th century limitations.  It’s re-release for the PSP and PS3 is a worthy half-step forward.  It doesn’t need to be radically updated, just re-packaged in terms of how the experience is delivered and how players interface with it.

Download at PSN or purchase at Amazon

Note: For more information on the context that I use the terms “verbs”, “spaces”, and “impressions”, please see the post titled I’m going to take the fun out of games.

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