We’ve looked at the art direction. Mused over the gameplay mechanics and history over the course of the series. Now we’re in the meat of what truly makes or breaks a Final Fantasy title — story, characters and themes. Role-playing games are everything it says on the tin, designed from the ground up to create an emotionally moving experience supplemented by brilliant design and tactical gameplay mechanics. Some of the most damning reviews I ever read concerning RPGs growing up were generic storylines and forgettable characters. It didn’t even matter to me how fun it might be to play. If it couldn’t make me care, I just didn’t care!
What’s often the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions Final Fantasy? The most blasé reply may include spiky hair, silly outfits and cheesy romance scenes. Another response may be ‘the most consistent inconsistent series the gaming world has ever known’. When it comes down to it, it’s frequently been the characters and the story that kept us up ’til two in the morning, inspired our craft and brought us to tears. Final Fantasy IX is an incredibly interesting entry in the series and one that takes you for a few twists and turns. This will be the most spoiler-y review, but I’ll be sure to mark them accordingly in case you want to experience this all for yourself (pro-tip: you totally want to).
Starting off with the story, I like to separate this title into two categories — the traditional and self-aware retread of classic, heartwarming fantasy in the first two discs and the ‘we got drunk and took one too many dares’ of the last two discs. While that’s more of a friendly ribbing than an outright criticism, this can prove a contentious detail depending on your preferences.
One of the best elements of the story is how it maintains a happy balance with all its different tones — it’s affectionately cheesy, but not hard to take seriously. It’s upbeat and charming, but can be quite tragic when it wants to be. It’s hard enough to maintain a consistent tone, much less invoke the whole spectrum of emotions, but Final Fantasy IX does it almost effortlessly. You get plenty of humor in each set piece without the plot dragging its feet, to boot, with the writing careful to keep events moving organically — your introduction to the brave yet stubborn knight Steiner, for example, shows him attempting to keep order around the castle even as his employees constantly get into mundane shenanigans. This scene alone gives us a good chuckle, tells us a little about the location and informs us about a character we’ll be spending hours with.
The game is chock full of this, with worldbuilding and character moments and plot details blending together seamlessly enough to the point you’re very rarely bored. Active Time Events (which I expanded upon in part two) enhance this to fantastic levels. For a title that could have so easily gone in either extreme, it manages to straddle the painfully thin middle ground between occasionally fluffy but never superfluous grandiose, plot-heavy fantasy.
The story gives you dashes of nostalgia through throwbacks to previous series and grand save-the-world scenarios, but isn’t afraid to poke fun at itself, either. Clichés are less a backbone of this game’s tale and more a mannequin to be dressed up with cheeky humor and interesting details. I still remember chuckling at one of the opening scenes where the thief is trying to kidnap the princess and he finds out the hard way she’s more than willing to give him a run for his money. At the end of an amusing chase scene between in-game cutscenes and FMV sequences? She wanted to be kidnapped all along. Clearly the writers of the series were avid tropers.
While the first two discs are very much traditional fantasy with little self-aware twists, the last two go in…very different directions. (SPOILERS) It’s a bit of a headscratcher finding out the big, overarching plot about Terra and its desire to suck up the souls of Gaia to return itself to its former glory. Even now I’m torn with whether or not the game should’ve continued down the same route it set up with the first two discs or whether it was better off going weird and big to shake things up, even if it didn’t always hit its mark. Better to try too hard than not try at all, right? (END SPOILERS)
I appreciate the game’s consistent humanizing of its victims. Throughout the four discs we see a host of painful tragedies, from genocide to murder to characters coping with grief. We don’t just get some corny “THIS IS SAD” sign hung over each scene — we spend time with these characters. We see their pain. Heck, we even see the pain of people we don’t even know. The aforementioned Active Time Events allow us glimpses into the lives of everyday inhabitants of this world, be it a moogle who worries about their shrinking clientele or an old man pondering over the changing economy of his city. It’s a well-appreciated, organic touch that never overstays its welcome in bite-sized intervals and something I always want to see in fantasy epics — why we’re all fighting in the first place.
When it comes down to it, the story is good because the characters and the world are. Saving kingdoms and unraveling conspiracy theories are, let’s face it, something not many of us can relate to. Teaming up with unexpected allies and finding out a little more about ourselves along the way? A little closer to home.
Zidane Tribal has the honor of being one of the most refreshing and one of the douchiest protagonists in Final Fantasy history. “How sway?” You ask. “Lightning was released only a few years ago!” Well, on one hand he’s a delight to watch, optimistic without being naive and incredibly proactive no matter the situation he’s in. I’m also a huge fan of artistic characters (three guesses why) and it’s neat to see a lead that regularly comments on everything from plays to poetry. On the other hand he spends a significant portion of the game sexually harassing the female lead for the sake of comedy and/or romance. It’s quite the extravaganza!
As a result this colors the ongoing romance between them far more than I’d like it to. Garnet shows almost no interest for a significant portion of the game while Zidane shows too much in ways ranging from making constant passes to grabbing her butt without permission. To any and all female readers: sound familiar? What’s potentially even more damning is that, despite this tired and frustrating foundation, they actually share some genuine chemistry later on! They have a fantastic set-up — a poor thief from a large community and an isolated rich princess attempting to make the world a better place — alongside a few touching scenes here and there where they discuss societal pressure and a shared love for (you guessed it) theater. It’s like if you threw Aladdin, Rifftrax and Shakespeare into a hat and shook it up.
Final Fantasy romances are legendary in the videogame world for their ability to inspire tears and muffled snickering both (shut up, I like that scene). While Zidane does start to change for the better in the latter half of the game, I’ve mentioned before the unfortunate implications in pairing sexual harassment with comedic framing. It’s a big mish-mash of believable chemistry and lost potential, resulting in a romance I still think about and find myself grimacing when sharing with others.
The entire cast is fun, funny and engaging. They play off each other wonderfully and, despite conforming to typical RPG roles, show enough depth over the course of the story to become harder to pin down. Eiko is delightful as both the token precocious child and the resident badass (how many times does she rescue the main cast?). Freya Crescent is a long-time favorite of mine, with a heartwrenching motif to boot, though I wanted so badly to know more about her history. How’d she become one of the world’s most famous dragoons? Why hadn’t she visited her home city in so many years? Before you tell me there’s a big cast that needs sifting through, the game went out of its way to establish Active Time Events. Just gimme one little flashback for one of the neatest cast members!
The most forgettable ones have to be Quina and Amarant…and to be fair, Final Fantasy having joke characters or extra padding is far from new. Considering they still have defined personalities and memorable designs, it could’ve been way worse — they could’ve been Penelo and Vaan from XII! The most popular character, even now, is Vivi. He gets all the merchandise, the top spots in top ten lists, he even got a cameo in Kingdom Hearts 2. For me, the best critique you can possibly give a cast of characters is that you simply want to see more of them. It’s far better than the alternative…
…where all is definitely not idyllic. The villains remain one of the weakest aspects of the title for me, though it’s certainly not for lack of trying. We get plenty of variety in our resident evil doers, from Garnet’s queen mother to the ultimate Big Bad to minor antagonists like bounty hunter Lani. Despite all this? You’d be a little hard-pressed to find the average Final Fantasy fan even citing them, much less putting them on any favorites list. As much as I don’t care for Final Fantasy VII, I can see why Sephiroth has remained stolidly in the minds of many. Not only does he kill one of the series’ most beloved characters (…spoilers?), he actually started out as an ally before turning into a destroyer of worlds. That’s a lot to take in!
Kuja, on the other hand, would have been a touch more interesting if he had a few more likeable or unlikeable traits. Now, I’m not going to say every single villain needs to be the audience’s proverbial chum — far from it — but considering just how nuanced or striking everyone else in the cast is, his particular brand of wishy-washy middle-ground just doesn’t work. He’s kind of a prick, but not particularly compelling. He fits neatly within the theater metaphor by constantly quoting the in-world famous play (and later playing a role he can’t quite get out of), but doesn’t ham it up or get as tragic as much as we’d expect. He’s not even supremely hateable like the twin harlequin sidekicks Thorn and Zorn (that of which makes kicking their ass extremely satisfying, by the way).
For me, he’s a major example of how a composite of old-fashioned tropes can go severely south — little more than a checklist with a posh sneer and (admittedly) cool hairstyle. Even his (SPOILERS) touching end scene with Zidane is the very definition of too little, too late. Now, one could make the argument that was the entire point — when it’s revealed he is an almost literal puppet for the desires of the story’s true major villain, it stands to reason he just didn’t fit his role as well as he could have. Even then? I felt more for the damn third Black Waltz. (END SPOILERS) The true tragedy of it all, though, is I didn’t even get to ride that awesome silver dragon.
Beatrix is probably the best of the bunch if only for her iconic curbstomp battles. (SPOILERS) Heck, I even like weird. But I can’t say I give much of a shit about a supremely weird villain that shows up out of literally nowhere and threatens to kill me during the emotionally charged ending. A good rule of thumb is: if you can take something out of the story and not lose anything, it’s probably not entirely necessary. The only thing I can see the player missing out on if Necron were canned is that killer boss track.(SPOILERS) As you can see, the villains don’t leave me scared so much as conflicted and a little disappointed.
Last, but certainly not least, we have themes. Oh, do we have themes. An emotional in-between for the story and the characters, themes are the messages that stick with you long after you’ve disengaged with the media in question and attempted to move on with your life. Each character’s certain motivational hue isn’t even isolated to the writing — the title screen will literally flash portraits of each character with the name of their theme, making it the most convenient videogame to thematically analyze since Duke Nukem. Zidane’s is virtue, Vivi’s is sorrow, Garnet’s is devotion, so on and so forth.
‘Show, don’t tell’ is a prevalent rule in storytelling and one that goes double for messages that could either become a lasting influence on the audience or a preachy moral better suited to a Saturday morning cartoon special. Each character is confronted with their own particular theme in small and large ways, causing their starting point to become a fascinating contrast to where they end up by the finale. Freya finds out she’s both forgotten and not quite so when she reunites with a significant person from her past under strange circumstances. Over the course of the game Vivi contemplates the meaning of life, only to be faced with the ultimate conundrum of a now-meaningful existence alongside a twist many can find themselves relating to. Back and forth we see this throughout the cast, supporting characters and villains included, and the entire tale feels all the more profound for it. Life doesn’t have easy answers and, I have to say, I’m pretty glad this game introduced me to this at a young age.
Most winningly, the overarching themes of destiny and fate are presented through one giant theater metaphor. ‘Wanna Be Your Canary’ is a famous in-world play, frequently cited by multiple characters as a sort of Romeo and Juliet stand-in — in fact, it’s the play that opens up the series and sets the tone of romance, tragedy and a little tongue-in-cheek humor (set to some truly fantastic music). Zidane being part of a bandit group masquerading as a theater troupe and having who he was supposed to be juxtaposed with who he wants to be being later being contrasted with a villain who wears his villainy on his sleeve…well, the fourth wall isn’t so much knocked upon as it is rolled up and decorated with sticky notes. It’s a virtual sandwich of metaphorical goodness, with layer upon layer stacking on top of one another to the point it’s hard to know where the fiction ends and the winking begins.
Each character’s role in the story is determined long before they have a say — from Garnet’s rather interesting princess origins to Vivi’s reason for creation — and their desires to break free and decide their own fate in spite of their beginnings. This is far from the only title to do so (this dates back to ancient mythologies to more modern incarnations like Princess Tutu and Brave) but stands out for just how far it goes with its analogy of actors enacting out their pre-destined courses on the stages of life. It’s almost like the game is looking at you, the audience, and asking you to do a little digging when it comes to the media you consume…and what role you play.
Are there any other themes that stick with me even after all this time? If we’re being honest…love. Not simply romantic love, though that does crop up quite a bit. Love in all its forms. Love for family. Love for culture. Love for the future. Hell, the sheer love the creators, from the writers to the musicians, had for Final Fantasy, RPG’s and media as a whole. It’s something shown through tender vignettes and grandiose set pieces alike. When it comes down to it, I really just love this damn game.
Final Fantasy IX has stuck with me for so many reasons over the years. I love its playful sense of humor and sincere storytelling. I still lust over its brilliant art design and soundtrack. It story and characters? There’s a reason this game has almost gained a cult classic-like status among gamers. Time is an unwavering element, one that can’t be halted or slowed so much as reasoned with, and this game has withstood this severe test with flying colors. It remained a constant in the back of my mind not just as a little girl, but as I attended my awkward period of junior high and transitioned through my formative years in high school and community college. If you think about it, the lifespan of an art piece is one of the closest ways it can truly identify with us.
The stage of life is an unpredictable and unforgiving one. To be a marginalized person is to intimately know what it’s like to be shoehorned into a role without your consent, with quietly conforming or fighting a losing battle seemingly the only two options to choose from. Railing back and defining one’s self is easier said than done, but titles like these reassure that it can, indeed, be done. Someday, I hope to make something that remains just as steadfast in the hearts of others — even if it’s just something that reminds others that they’re not alone.
To that I say…thanks for being here, Final Fantasy IX!