This article has been republished on 19/09/2017 following the announcement that Final Fantasy IX is finally coming to PS4 complete with a free theme and a hard-as-nails trophy list.
It seems like Final Fantasy IX was destined to be overlooked right from the outset. The game was released for the original PlayStation after the PlayStation 2 was out and selling like warm buns, and the high fantasy setting was in stark contrast to the popular cyber-punk and more realistic settings of FFVII and VIII (two of the best selling entries in the whole series). With eyes firmly on a new console generation and the knights and mages thing not being quite as cool as motorbikes and gunblades, it’s easy to see why so many people gave Final Fantasy IX a miss upon release. For everyone who skipped it at the time and never bothered going back, this is a game worthy of checking out even seventeen years later.
Coming off the back of what is almost certainly the sourest game in the entire Final Fantasy series, IX is in many ways the polar opposite of VIII. Where Squall was an initially unlikable lead; a po-faced, angsty teen with an internal monologue that read like early Radiohead lyrics, Zidane is warm, swashbuckling and jovial. Where VIII took place in a world of high schools, guns and automobiles, IX exists in a realm of magical crystals, chivalrous knights and talking rat-people. Even the battle system, with spammable limit breaks and no strictly defined jobs for characters in VIII was reversed in IX, with each party member having a definitive role to play, and a lot more strategy required to succeed. Indeed, IX was a return-to-roots of sorts for the series, but since many gamers introduction to Final Fantasy was with VII, the nostalgia was apparently lost on them.
Whether it was the tonal shift or simply the rotten luck of being released after the next console generation had started, what’s inarguable is that Final Fantasy IX’s sales are comparatively weak. Sandwiched between VIII and X – two of the best selling entries in the series – IX had relatively modest commercial success. But a quick glance at Metacritic (for what it’s worth) reveals that critically, Final Fantasy IX sits as the highest rated entry in the entire series. To my mind, this is the true definition of a forgotten gem; a game with all of the critical acclaim but somewhat lacklustre sales. For fans of the game, the acclaim is easily justifiable. For those that missed out on it the first time around, let me convince you to give it a shot.
Final Fantasy IX takes place in the world of Gaia, where a mysterious mist has blanketed much of the aptly named Mist Continent. On this continent the people of Gaia have formed kingdoms on plains above the mist so as to avoid its detrimental effects; creatures exposed to it are transformed over time into dangerous monsters, and people who spend too much time breathing it in become embittered and power hungry. It’s not just your average fog.
As the story begins, our hero Zidane is part of a travelling theatre group known as Tantalus that are on their way to Alexandria to perform a play for the Queen, Brahne Raza Alexandros XVI. Of course, Zidane being from the lovable rogue school of JRPG hero, this isn’t just any normal play; the performance is a ruse to get close to the daughter of the Queen, Princess Garnet, to kidnap her and take her to her uncle Cid in the kingdom of Lindblum. The reasons for this kidnapping aren’t made entirely clear in the beginning of the game, but twists and turns unfold, and soon Zidane and Garnet are on the run, chased by her protector and all-round buffoon, Adelbert Steiner of the Knights of Pluto. Along the way they meet Vivi, a black mage child, and a series of unfortunate events leads to the unlikely quartet being stranded in a nearby forest, having to work together to get back to civilization.
Kidnapping aside, it’s a very lighthearted opening to the game. The world is colourful and alive, with the city of Alexandria in full-on carnival mode. There’s games and stalls, and people from all over the world joining in on the fun. The non-player characters are often amusing and from many different fantastic species, from hippopotamus girls to the aforementioned rat-people. And with not a hint of teenage angst expressed by our main characters in the opening minutes, it feels much more like a classic fantasy adventure than the other PlayStation Final Fantasy games; think Uncharted rather than The Last of Us. It’s also a classic JRPG set-up with the promise of entertainment; we’ve got four unlikely heroes, all different, all with their own skills and flaws, thrown together by fate to overcome a perilous situation.
Zidane, the thief, is charming and confident, quick and agile. Garnet, the white mage, is naive and inexperienced in the world outside her castle, but has powerful healing spells and support magic. Steiner, the knight, is stubborn and over-protective, but he’s strong in battle with unshakable resolve. And Vivi, the black mage, is young and affable, but holds an incredible magical power within. The four characters complement each other in battle (this battle system hearkens back to the SNES days of Final Fantasy with four character parties) and also provide plenty of amusement as their personalities clash on their journey.
Anyone who has played a Final Fantasy game, or indeed any JRPG, knows where this is going. The rag-tag bunch of heroes get embroiled in a plot larger than any of them could imagine, meeting many interesting characters along the way, both friend and foe, and must work together to save the day. That’s how JRPGs work. And Final Fantasy IX follows the formula almost to the letter. But what’s really impressive about how well this game works is how a story that starts out following so many tropes of the genre manages to, by the end, turn them on their head somewhat with some unexpected plot twists, and reveal a level of story-telling that is altogether deeper and harder-hitting than the opening sections of the game would suggest.
The game lures players in with a story that seems whimsical at first but ultimately proves to be one of the most complex, mature and emotionally gratifying yarns that the series has ever woven. Characters evolve in this story in impressive ways, with some characters faring a lot better in the development department than others. The story, in many ways, belongs to Zidane, Vivi, and the villain, Kuja. That’s not to dismiss the roles of other important characters like Steiner, Garnet, or even Beatrix, the leader of Brahne’s army, but the shared emotional turmoil at the heart of Zidane, Vivi, and Kuja makes for compelling viewing.
At the heart of Final Fantasy IX are a series of existential crises that afflict numerous characters, the most prominent of which are Zidane, Vivi, and Kuja. It’s how the characters deal with these issues in radically different ways that proves to be the most interesting aspect of the story, with Zidane, our hero, and Kuja, a flamboyant arms dealer for Queen Brahne, essentially being two sides of the same coin. Their stories are at times startlingly similar, while at other times completely opposite. Zidane and Kuja are a metaphor for the theory of nature vs. nurture; Zidane remembers nothing of his early years and was raised by good people, growing into a man with a strong heart and a need to protect those he loves, while Kuja, raised alone and in possession of the truth about his place in the world, becomes consumed by rage and chaos.
This relationship works on a basic level of good vs evil, with Zidane being easily likeable and Kuja bordering on pantomime-level villainy at times, but also on a deeper level once all the secrets of the story are revealed. The most impressive character of all is the black mage, Vivi. Instantly likeable and cute enough to have his own line of plush toys, Vivi is another character with a deceptively thought provoking development arc. He, like Zidane and Kuja, learns uncomfortable truths about his place in the world, and again, he deals with the revelations in a different way. Vivi’s development is one of the strongest the series has ever produced, with some genuinely heartbreaking moments along the way. Watching his story unfold is a rare treat, and one of the real triumphs of Final Fantasy IX.
Thankfully, Final Fantasy IX has a satisfying battle system as well as a wonderful story, that is tougher than the previous couple of entries in the series, and requires a little more thought. While FFVII and VIII featured characters that were essentially identical except for slight stat changes and limit breaks, meaning that party set-ups could be based entirely around who had the best limit break or who you liked the best, IX employs a strict job system.
The job system in play means that just picking a party based on who looks the best is a road to ruin. Some sections of the game and certain bosses require specific tactics to make them manageable, so simply marching in with all the guys you think look the toughest won’t get you very far. Until you’re levelled to the point that you’ve broken the game you’re going to need a party that covers all bases from damage dealing to magical healing, which makes for a refreshing change after the jack of all trades approach of VII and VIII.
Battles in FFIX have you facing off against all manner of fantastical beasts, including series staples like cactuar and malboro, as well as new creatures. The design of the monsters is top notch, as is the art design in all facets of the game. FFIX, more so than the other PlayStation Final Fantasy games, has aged quite gracefully thanks to the cartoon-like art direction. Realistic characters look dated after a few years, but stylized designs can stand the test of time a little more forgivingly. Make no mistake, nobody is going to confuse Final Fantasy IX for a PS4 game, but it does exude a certain charm that more realistic character designs from that era struggle to match.
The game also excels in the music department with an exceptional soundtrack provided by series stalwart Nobuo Uematsu, who turns in some of his best work to date. The tunes are memorable, suitably rousing or emotional when they need to be, and often among the best heard in any video game. Some of the games best moments are complemented by the score to staggering effect, with one particularly impressive section towards the end of the game being among my favourites of all time.
So I suppose the question is; if you missed out on Final Fantasy IX seventeen years ago, is it worth playing today? Having recently played FFIX again for the fourth time, what’s really shocking about the game is not that it does indeed hold up, but the level of ease with which it does it. Final Fantasy IX is, for me, hands down better than any game in the series released after it, and in the case of the most recent releases, by a dramatic margin. The release date timing and the change in tone might have hurt it commercially, but for me, FFIX is the last truly great game in the Final Fantasy series, and arguably the best of all.