Final Fantasy 9 Review

For PlayStation

Rating: Awesome
   Final Fantasy 9 has been heralded as a return to the roots of the beloved
Final Fantasy series, and in many ways, it lives up to this hype.  I could 
really care less about the return to a medieval setting as opposed to a 
futuristic one, but I'm delighted at the renewed emphasis on the story line 
and the characters that make it so compelling.
   There is one area in which FF9 fails to evolve the Final Fantasy series, 
and that's combat.  For starters, you still can't see enemies before 
entering into battle with them.  Some people don't mind this as much as 
others, but I have always thought that RPGs should let players see enemies 
before battles.  This leaves it up to the player, not the developer, how 
many battles he or she wants to wage.
   The biggest problem with the combat system isn't the actual combat, it's 
the fact that the encounter rate is much too high.  It's not uncommon to be 
in a dungeon where you can't walk three steps without getting into a battle.
Square's stubborn insistence on making the encounter rate so high does 
nothing but make you want to get past each dungeon as quickly as possible, 
which discourages exploration.
   It's a shame that the encounter rate is so mind-numbingly high, because 
the combat system might have otherwise been entertaining.  All of the 
characters have strengths and weaknesses, as well as distinct fighting 
styles.  They're not generic characters that can be molded into being just 
like every other character in the game.
   The new ability system is also a welcome change of pace for Final 
Fantasy, even if it doesn't do much to change the actual combat.  In most 
RPGs, upgrading your equipment and selling off your old equipment is a 
natural reflex that requires about as much thought as the development of 
Mario Party.  In FF9, selling your old weapons and armor is a risky activity
because new characters could very well join your party who desperately need 
those items to learn new spells and abilities.
   Also, you actually have to think before equipping a new weapon because 
"un-equipping" your old one could prevent you from learning new spells and 
abilities.  If you get a new weapon and your old one still hasn't maxed out 
its abilities, you have to weigh the pros and cons of each weapon and make a
serious decision.  And that's just the point: You have to make a decision.  
It's not a linear progression where Weapon 2 is better than Weapon 1, Weapon
3 is better than Weapon 2, and so on.
   The graphics aren't just impressive from a technological standpoint; 
they're also gorgeous from a creative standpoint.  Many of the environments 
are so colorful and just plain beautiful that your mouth will involuntarily 
open in amazement.  Despite the better-than-ever quality of the graphics, 
the loading times between screens are much shorter than they were in FF7 and
FF8.  This game cements the fact that Square can get more out of the PSX 
hardware than anyone else on Earth.  Except Titus, of course...
   I wish I could say that the music is as rich as the graphics, but it's 
not.  A lot of the music is as good as you would expect from a game in this 
series, but there's also a sizable amount of music that feels out of place.
For example, the music that plays during standard battles is among the worst
I've ever heard from a Square "standard battle theme," feeling much more at 
home in a Chocobo scene than a battle.
   The Active Time Events (ATEs) are a big step in the right direction for 
the future of Final Fantasy because they allow the developers to explore 
every aspect of the story and its characters, something that Chrono Cross 
could have really used.  Square hasn't said anything to lead me to believe 
this, but I sincerely hope that the ATE system becomes a staple in Square's 
future RPGs.  It gives the developers a chance to branch off the story on a 
regular basis without it ever feeling awkward or disjointed.
   The fact that lots of things are simultaneously going on at different 
places makes the game feel more like a living, breathing world rather than 
linear progression through a set of video game environments.  On a more 
tangible level, the simple fact that the characters can be spread out all 
over the place doing different things inherently means that the developers 
can run wild with their imaginations.  They can realize their vision, 
whatever it may be, without the limitation of the characters always being 
bunched together.
   In much the same way, the simple fact that the characters are often in 
small groups allows for a lot more up-close and personal character 
interaction, which is perhaps Final Fantasy 9's greatest strength.  The game
never devolves into a case of throwing lots of characters against a wall and
seeing what sticks.  Instead, each character's personality is thoroughly 
explored in well-paced fashion.
   One of the best indicators of Square's unmatched skill as storytellers 
lies in the fact that many of FF9's characters appear to be one-dimensional
on the surface, but end up surprising you more and more with their depth as 
the game progresses.  There are plenty of characters in the game who seem 
shallow at first and end up being refreshingly deep, with the most prominent
example being Steiner.
   Without giving away any plot twists, I can say that for a large portion 
of the game, Steiner doesn't appear to be much more than a big lug who 
blindly follows orders while thinking as infrequently as possible.  As the 
game goes on, he is gradually revealed to be a decent person who puts up a 
misleading exterior around himself.  He does this because he doesn't want to
accept the fact that everything he has ever believed in and fought for is 
corrupt and wrong.
   While it does seem that Square neglected the combat system during the 
development of this game, if Square was going to neglect something, I would 
much rather have it be the combat than the story.  Final Fantasy 9's unique 
ATE system and its diverse cast of deep characters prove without a shadow 
of a doubt that the Final Fantasy series is just as creatively innovative 
as ever.

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