JRPG Journey 2020: Final Fantasy IX (February)
January’s game: Folklore
March’s game: Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door
Welcome! February’s JRPG of the month is Final Fantasy IX, developed by Square Enix and released in 2000. Before we start, I’d like to take a moment to note the definition of JRPG I’m using for this series. I’m considering any subgenre of RPG made by Japanese developers in Japan to be a JRPG. This includes strategy RPGs as well as action RPGs. While Final Fantasy IX is as “standard JRPG” as it gets, this will be important in a few months. Now, on to FFIX.
First off, some background on my experience with the Final Fantasy series: it’s nearly non-existent. I’ve only played Final Fantasy XII, which, as I understand, breaks from or changes many series traditions, such as the inclusion of an MMO-like combat system. As it turns out, I adored FFXII, so I’ve always wanted to try some of the older games to see what a “proper” Final Fantasy experience is like. Having thoroughly enjoyed Octopath Traveler a few years back and being told FFIX had a similar combat system, I figured it was as good a place to start as any.
Here’s the full list of everything I could tell you about Final Fantasy before playing the ninth installment:
I knew Chocobos and Moogles are a staple of the series, and I recognized the Black Mage character design from artwork I’ve come across over the years. There’s always a character named Cid, and Cloud is in Final Fantasy VII. Who is Cloud? Couldn’t tell you. I just know what he looks like. There are crazy summons (which the Tales series apparently ripped off), and advanced versions of spells have weird names like Fira and Firaga.
That’s about it. I had no idea what to expect when starting up the game (I chose the remastered version recently released on Nintendo Switch). What I got was a traditional JRPG, very similar to some of the Tales games I’ve played. This was a surprise but not a complaint. As I now understand after some research, FFIX was intended as a back-to-basics send-off for the series on the first PlayStation. In hindsight, I’m glad I chose IX for that reason. I was able to appreciate all the tropes of Final Fantasy in a style of RPG I’m familiar with.
Let’s start with the combat system, since that’s where most of the gameplay lies. First of all, the active time battling (or whatever it’s called) doesn’t add much to the experience. I felt like I was essentially playing a turn-based game, except I had to rush for no reason. I haven’t felt this way playing Octopath or similar games, so I have to chalk this up to the outdated presentation. The depth of the combat, on the other hand, was addictive. I now understand why the series gets so much praise for this. Learning how to take advantage of enemy weaknesses, or using odd strategies such as reflecting spells off your teammates was a ton of fun, and the fact that these strategies are almost always effective is what seems to set this series apart from others. Frequently when I play JRPGs, and RPGs in general, weaknesses and resistances don’t seem to matter much overall, and I find myself ignoring them. Not the case here! Though I used Zidane’s physical attacks and Vivi’s Reflect/self-attack for most of the game, being able to experiment on occcasion and have it actually work was thrilling.
I’m also a fan of how the stats and ability leveling system is tied to weapon usage and would gladly play another game like this. I remember FFXII having something similar but way more complicated, which was a bit of a turn-off (though it didn’t stop me from loving that game). Optimizing builds and planning what abilities I want to master first is perhaps my favorite part of playing RPGs, and it’d be the main reason for me to replay FFIX, in the future. Finally, I can’t imagine playing this on a PS1. The frame rate is choppy enough on Switch, and battles are so slow that I found myself constantly using the fast-forward button.
That fast-forward button, by the way, is a godsend. I never want to play an older RPG without it again. If I were a kid and had all the time in the world, I wouldn’t use it, but it’s such a timesaver, and I’ve played so many JRPGs already, that I don’t feel like I’m missing much using it. Traveling on the world map, especially, was made immeasurably more enjoyable by being able to zip around and quickly see everything. Sure, when the next giant JRPG like Xenoblade Chronicles 3 comes out, I’ll be taking my time exploring every nook, but when I’m trying to get through as many older games as I can, I’m not looking back.
I finished in around 23 hours doing most of the side content I found alond the way, which is much less than estimates I see online. Thanks, fast-forward button! I skipped the entire Chocobo dig quest, since I didn’t feel like I needed better weapons at any point during my quest. (Auto-Reflect is a great ability, yall.) There aren’t a lot of side quests in general, which is a detriment. I don’t mind a linear story (that’s most of the genre), but I often felt like there weren’t many interesting things to do in all the cool locations aside from grind or continue with the story. The setting overall was very standard, which is neither a negative or a positive. I’m all about presentation, and Final Fantasy IX succeeds in that regard. This is the first JRPG I’ve played from the PS1 era when 3D models were new, so I don’t have much to compare it with, but the static backdrops in towns and dungeons were stunning throughout and blended well with the chatacter models. I was shocked again when I got to the overworld map for the first time. For some reason I didn’t think the PS1 was capable of that sort of expansive environment, and it just barely is, but it works, and with impressive draw distance for the time. You can tell the developers were quite familiar with the PS1 hardware by 1998 or so.
I’ve heard a lot of opinions about the music, both that it’s one of the best Final Fantasy soundtracks ever and that it’s not great at all. I’m somewhere in the middle. I can’t recall any of the specific tracks now that it’s been a few weeks after I’ve played, but I remember enjoying most of what I heard while adventuring. So the music gets a thumbs up from me but doesn’t stand out, which is typical for JRPGs.
I don’t have much to say about the story or characters. This will be a common theme throughout my reviews, because I’m not much of a story critic in terms of video games, and JRPGs are so formulaic in this aspect that I don’t often have much new to add to the conversation. When a story is standout or exceptional, I’ll mention it, but Final Fantasy IX is as standard as it gets. A ragtag, unlikely group of companions, one of whom is royalty, begrudgingly get together to solve a local problem that turns out to be part of a regional conspiracy, which turns out to be part of bigger conspiracy involving a second world tied to the first via a magical link that’s dying. Then they kill God. Do I need to say more? I liked all the characters in this game, even Steiner by about the mid-way point, but there’s just not much to say. Vivi is the only character with an interesting and somewhat original backstory, but it wasn’t explored deep enough to leave a lasting impression in my mind.
Don’t get me wrong, the cookie-cutter story isn’t a negative for me. I was always engaged with the story while playing, which is all I expect from a JRPG. It’s a plus if a game has a great story but not required, which is a little sad. I only feel that way because I’m used to JRPGs all being basically the same. That’s part of why I’m doing this series — what is it about older JRPGs that people love so much? Are they really better than the games we’re getting now, many of which I love? I’m still trying to determine that.
Join me next month when I discuss Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door. This game has set on my shelf for over 10 years, hyped up to the moon by nearly everyone I know, always near the top of my list of games to play, always one of those “I should really play that” games, but one I never got around to until now. Does it live up to the hype? Find out with me in April.