The Final Fantasy series has been around a long damn time. While it’s famous for being the face of turn-based battle systems, it has done its fair share of shaking up the formula on its still-continuing line of titles, spin-offs and crossovers. We’ve seen this toyed with in the more chess-like Final Fantasy Tactics, the MMO-inspired Final Fantasy XII and the actual MMO Final Fantasy XI and XIV. We’ve seen this all but tossed out entirely in favor of more spontaneous action-adventure gameplay like Kingdom Hearts and The Bouncer. Even still Final Fantasy XV is looking to shake things up with a more expansive open-world and dynamic, adventure-style gameplay. We won’t talk about Final Fantasy: All The Bravest.
Just like the games it has been a bumpy road full of twists and turns. Final Fantasy XII received a mixed response from some due to its putting greater emphasis on side quests and free movement, while Final Fantasy XIII was nearly a deal-breaker for long-time fans due to its extremely linear and hands-off approach to combat and exploration. That’s nothing to say of all the additional things you can do in the average Final Fantasy game, from playing complex card games in VIII to racing chocobos in VII. So, where does Final Fantasy IX fit into all this?
Final Fantasy IX, being a throwback to earlier titles, continues exploring its roots with classic timed, turn-based gameplay. Your party of four, with established classes and roles, can be mixed and matched at will throughout the story — this is, naturally, barring the exception of plot-specific limitations that require a certain character to be out of commission temporarily. While not always being able to use my favorites proved frustrating sometimes as a kid, the game keeps it an occasional and very plot-relevant occurrence that translates well now. Garnet, in a much-appreciated sympathetic look at PTSD and grief, is (SPOILERS) unable to speak for a significant part of the game after losing both her mother and her kingdom. Being a mage this affects her ability to battle, as well, and during this period she’ll have turns where she’s unable to react. Some gamers found it inconvenient and frustrating (enough to put it in a TVTropes entry), but, uh…isn’t grief those things?(END SPOILERS)
My favorite squad was always Zidane, Freya, Garnet and Eiko (or, as I like to call them, ‘the dream team’), though Vivi and Steiner proved a popular combo for many for their unique ability to combine Trance forms. While I wanted to make the most out of Quina’s interesting technique of eating monsters and absorbing their powers, the last thing I wanted to do was engage further with the random encounter system. Yeah, I wasn’t a huge fan. If you need a basis for comparison, imagine a slot machine that’s simultaneously rigged against you and punching you in the ass. Maybe a touch more annoying.
The Trance system was easily one of the most widely disliked aspects of the gameplay and I won’t pretend it wasn’t a little frustrating for each playthrough. Each time a character is attacked their Trance meter will build up — once it’s full they’ll basically go Super Saiyan and have special abilities, as well as enhanced stats, that they can use for a few turns. Unfortunately, this means you’ll be accidentally using your Trance while fighting an inconsequential low-level monster outside a city on your way to the actual boss fight. Before you ask, yes — timing your Trance is possible, but takes a bit of trial and error to execute properly. With random encounters sometimes (often) impossible to avoid, you were frequently fighting your patience more than the actual monsters.
Thankfully, the much anticipated boss fights are splashy and intense. Great music and an inherently fast-paced battle system make these events highly memorable. I even had a save file specifically dedicated to one of the end-game bosses, if only to hear that awesome boss theme and adore the surreal animated backgrounds (yeah, I guess complaining about excess time wasted isn’t going to fly now, huh?). What I actually neglected to touch on in the first part of the review was how damn great all the creature designs are. Final Fantasy IX does a spectacular job of marrying the old with the new, the generic with the creative. You have your classic Final Fantasy standbys like bombs and malboros, of course. You have your cute critters and basic dragons. You also have your what the shit pastel pink, fan-toting nagas, floating manta rays and fluffy death dogs.
Humor is the name of the game here and you’ll even have a few creatures that interact with you in ways outside of ‘maim’ and ‘destroy’. Take the ghost or the nymph, for example. These creatures ask you to give them any ore you find — tossing them a few in-battle gives you a major boost in your AP points, which you can then put to learning skills faster than you normally would have. Likewise, there are creatures who have nothing but bad intentions and will try to solicit you for free items while giving you nothing in return. Ten year-old me got schooled a few times.
The chocobo mini-game might be worthy of a single paragraph, but this is Final Fantasy IX we’re talking about. Get your tear ducts ready! Relatively early in the game you can enter a tiny, mysterious forest and find a lost chocobo who recently escaped from its abusive owner. Later adopted by a moogle, you are then asked to give it a better life and are provided with a random encounter-free ride at a simple call. However, that’s just the tip of the iceberg! You see, this chocobo also has the ability to seek out items. Through mini-games held in the forest you can find various goodies ranging from cheap potions to useful crafting supplies to rare chunks of a map.
These maps then give you vague locations that you can search for in the overworld, allowing you to find everything from rare gear to mini-quests to, yes, the biggest damn boss fight in the entire game. The chocobo can, of course, be summoned anywhere on the map so you can explore the region without constantly bumping into monsters (dungeons notwithstanding). The best part? The chocobo theme is done through an incredibly charming ukelele. Give it a listen.
There are card games, of course, and I remember finding them pretty fun as a kid. The background music is cute, the rules are easy enough to learn and, most of it all, it validated my already pathological obsession with Pokemon. Only once in the game are you absolutely required to play a few rounds, which can prove irritating for people who showed precisely zero interest beforehand. I’ve always been ambivalent on games that introduce entirely new mandatory game mechanics for one or two minor parts — it seems like a waste of effort if you weren’t already inclined — but it’s pretty par for the course in RPGs.
Now for the best part — Active Time Events.
…Wait, no. Not those ones!
Yes, there were quick time events in the game but they were few and far in-between (and funny). Not only were Active Time Events (shortened to ATE) mostly optional, they actually enhanced the gameplay rather than bogged it down. You could even get the occasional item or piece of equipment when completing them! ATE were random cutscenes that would crop up throughout the story, allowing you a glimpse into the lives of the main cast, antagonists and even background NPCs. While you could feasibly ignore the majority of them (barring the plot-relevant narrative asides), each scene helped to add texture and personality to the world. Every time these showed up I refused to skip them, even if they were about characters I only had a mild interest in.
Some would be plot-relevant, shedding light on a villain monologue happening somewhere else in the world, while others would be slice-of-life, perfect for worldbuilding or a little character insight. I loved seeing Eiko’s precocious explorations of a world that was originally denied her, poking and prodding at strangers and improving their lives in subtle ways. The one that stands out, even now, is ‘I Forgot’ — Eiko writes a precocious love letter to Zidane and asks his boss to send it to him, only for it to be fumbled and accidentally sent to Steiner, indirectly helping him and resident knight warrior Beatrix fall in love. Sure, it’s straight out of a cheesy romantic comedy but who cares! I loved the shit out of these. I mean, think about it. Characters are everything in an RPG — an RPG without a memorable cast is like a first-person shooter where you have to fight through obstacles with a ripe banana. Extremely un-fun. That’s how metaphors work, right?
A special shout-out to the moogle mail side-quests — here you would deliver letters from moogle to moogle in each area (yes, being a save point is an actual career in this game) so they could communicate with each other. Never let it be said Final Fantasy IX didn’t have an almost motherly affection for the mundane joys of life. Even as a kid I loved getting and delivering letters from friends. You can imagine my delight when I got my hands on Animal Crossing down the road.
So, does this make Final Fantasy IX the most unique of the bunch? Well, if we’re operating on a system of sheer things that are done different…it’s pretty damn close. I like to take a look at the sum of any given media’s parts, because it’s the little details that have always stood out the most to me. Yet another iteration of the tiring random encounter system and typical card game shenanigans is balanced out nicely by the extensive chocobo mini-game, the emotional and funny Active Time Events and interesting twists on basic mechanics like the moogle save point/letter delivery system.
When it really comes down to it, a game should be fun to play. While this doesn’t always translate to gameplay specifically (I’ve greatly enjoyed titles for their atmosphere or acting, for example), it sure as hell doesn’t hurt.
What do you like about Final Fantasy IX‘s gameplay? Did other Final Fantasy games do better or worse in comparison? If you haven’t read the first part where I analyze the art direction and soundtrack, check it out here. Join me for the third and last part of the series where I evaluate the meat of the game — the story, themes and characters!