Monday, November 7, 2016

A Place to Return To

In the year 2000, as a fan who was introduced to the Final Fantasy series with the relatively unique diesel-punk setting of Final Fantasy VII, I hated this game and its generic fantasy world and characters. In 2016, with a fresh set of eyes and a different set of expectations, I find that I loved the game my second time through. The game I speak of would be Final Fantasy IX, the last of the series to appear on the original PlayStation console.

Back in the day (and to this day) I was a huge fan of FFVII and FFVIII's modern aesthetics. I absolutely loved the dystopian, conglomerate-driven, sci-fi fantasy fusion that VII was, and VIII's much cleaner, slightly futuristic setting was equally appealing. Then IX came along. The setting reverted to knights, bandits, and Victorian-esque nobility. The first thing we see is what is essentially a Shakespearean play. The character design is weird. Zidane is some sort of monkey man, and many of the NPCs are heavily caricatured, super goofy looking versions of animals. Even the humans look off. Eleven year old me's first response was indifference at best, distaste at worst. I thought the story was... ok, at best, but I never got past the drastically awkward shift in design.

The big headed, oddly designed characters came as a pretty big shock, even after the lego-like models of VII. The art style, setting, and tone of the story were much different than I expected.

Fast forward to today. After spending a good amount of time with this game again, I've really come to appreciate its unique setting. The fun loving rogue with a heart of gold that is Zidane is a nice change of pace from VII's serious Cloud, or VIII's brooding Squall. The setting is full of charm and oozes atmosphere. The scene in the very beginning when you barge on stage, interrupting the performance, and Garnet proceeds to go with the flow and improvises - extremely well, at that - made me instantly fall in love with the characters. The chemistry between all of them is very well done. 

What a charmer. I mean that sincerely. Zidane's wise guy personality was one of the highlights of the game's story, and his relationship with the sheltered princess Garnet - while cliché - was one of the most purely entertaining romance stories told in a Final Fantasy game.

The world design is excellent - the decision to go back to traditional high fantasy let Square show off some truly pretty, fantastical environments that are arguably the best among the FF trilogy on PSX. The ice cave, in particular, stands out as a personal favorite. Even walking through the streets of Alexandria as Vivi is impressive, even though you are only able to see a small portion of the environment. When you compare this to a similar section in VII, where you explore a small segment of upper Junon, the level of detail present and the quality of the rendered backgrounds is an immense leap from the previous two entries. 

The streets of Upper Junon looked nice, especially for the time, but they can't compare to...

The streets of Alexandria. Square's rendering technique had vastly improved by the time this game was made.
NeoGAF member Mama Robotnik has compiled several high resolution assets that were used while creating the world of Final Fantasy IX here, which I highly suggest that you take a gander at, as they show how beautiful the world that Square created truly is.

The slightly deformed designs have a purpose, too, contributing heavily to the game's unique charm. They're almost reminiscent of what you'd see in a cartoonier game, such as Secret of Mana or Chrono Trigger - heavily stylized, yet appealing in their own distinct manner. The ability system is fun to fool around with, and it's nice having four party members again after VII and VIII restricted you to three. Party members return to being unique in this entry, as well, as opposed to the relatively blank slates the cast of the past two games were. Much like the earlier Final Fantasies, each character has their own set of abilities, strengths, and weaknesses, which is something that the game absolutely capitalizes on. For example, the character Steiner is essentially a stylized version of the Knight class from the original Final Fantasy, where Vivi is likewise a newer rendition of the Black Mage; the game allows the two to work in tandem to utilize elemental sword attacks, such as by wreathing Steiner's sword in flame. I found the characters' uniqueness to be one of the highlights of the game from a mechanical perspective, and something that breathed additional life into the game's cast. 

ATEs, essentially little vignettes that show what the game's side characters are up to at any given moment, are a great addition to the series, and let you have a more complete view of the world and what the relevant people in it are doing. The game also boasts what might be one of Nobuo Uematsu's best compositions to date.

However, there is some stuff that I still have complaints about:

-Slow, slow battle system. And I mean slow. The game will take every opportunity it has to bombard you with fancy camera angles and long animations. The PC version has an added (and much needed) fast forward option, but the PS1 and PSN releases are stuck with a system slower than molasses.

-Trance is kind of a lame mechanic. Limit Breaks were far more streamlined/effective.

-Sometimes the character designs can get a little too weird. Kuja and Brahne come to mind...

Seriously, what the hell is this?
-The final boss is still as left field as ever, has no relation to the story, and is one of the most anti-climactic "twists" I've ever seen in a game that doesn't outright harm the story.

-Speaking of story, Amarant could have used some more of it - amidst the other fleshed out and well written characters, he's just kind of "there" for most of the game. 

Sup. I'm cool and mysterious. I also have big hands. I'll just hang out with you guys for a while, if that's cool.
-This is more of a matter of taste, but I think that Blank should have been a permanently recruitable, hidden character. It still annoys me that VII was the last FF to have hidden characters.

Overall, I really enjoyed this game on my second go through, and I have much more appreciation for the story and visuals this time around. This is mostly because my expectations weren't colored by the comparative disappointment that I felt after loving VII and VIII's styles, and expecting more of the same here. Appreciating IX for what it is makes it much more enjoyable. Oh, and Beatrix is one of the best female characters I've seen in a game, and one of the coolest characters I've seen, period.

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