Friday, January 6, 2012

Why I Love Final Fantasy IX

I've noticed that most of my posts are about criticizing games and simply talking about things I don't like in the game industry. Well, I'm gonna turn that around and just write about why I love certain games, specifically Final Fantasy IX.

I didn't play FFIX until January 2011, where during my winter break from college I sat down and played the game non-stop, and I loved every second of it. Before FFIX, the only FF game I actually finished was FFXIII. You see, I was never really big into RPGs. Chrono Trigger was the first RPG that I really got into, loved, and completed. After CT, I decided to try a bunch of RPGs; unfortunately, even as a young kid, my tastes were pretty picky. The only other RPGs I really loved were Chrono Cross and Dragon Quest VIII. I played a ton of others, including many Final Fantasy games, but I could never finish them. But, after beating FFXIII, I decided to give the series another shot, and I'm glad I did, because I got to complete three of the best RPGs I've ever played: FFIX, FFVII, and FFVI. But this post is about FFIX, so lets just jump into what I love so much about the game I consider the absolute best traditional RPG.

The introduction - FFIX has one of the most beautiful, satisfying, and complete introductions of any game I've ever played. We begin with a tutorial fight with main character Zidane, then move onto exploring the beautiful town of Alexandria with a young boy named Vivi who wants to see the play that everyone is clamoring about, but he loses his ticket, so he goes on an adventure to get it back, and then we get to see the play. I honestly don't understand why everyone gives so much praise to FFVI's opera scene, and yet completely forgets about FFIX's superb play. The play is complete with it's own multi-track soundtrack, great animations, and an awesome sword-fight mini-game; the play has its own set of characters and just feels like great entertainment for the player as well as giving some foreshadow for the game. The game then introduces more characters and eventually leads to an exciting escape from the city and the evil Queen Brahne's attack. This sequence also has some beautiful CG cut-scenes that just show how much of a quality project the game is going to be. Within the first two hours of FFIX, it was already one of my top favorite RPGs ever.

The art direction - the very first thing the player notices in the introduction cutscene of FFIX is just how beautiful the game is, not in terms of polygon count, but sheer artistic beauty. The city of Alexandria is just beautiful. It's filled with detail and powerful architecture that rivals Disney's best works; furthermore, the lighting of the city at sunset is just beautiful. As the game progresses, the art direction only gets more and more impressive, with expansive cities like Lindblum that are packed with steam technology that looks like its out of a Miyazaki film, and environments that are both beautiful and scary. Character design was hit-or-miss with many people, but I find the abstract character design helps the game by allowing us to see the emotions of the characters much more clearly. FFIX executed its graphics the way all games need to; not by showing off one's polygon count or production cost, but showing the player a work of art, a beautiful and endearing world that they want to just dive right into.

The soundtrack - FFIX's soundtrack is, in my opinion, easily Nobuo Uematsu's best work. Uematsu has done amazing work in past FF games, but his work on FFIX is just so expansive, original, deep, and atmospheric that it is hard for it not to have an impact on the player. The most impressive aspect of the soundtrack is just how many music tracks are in the game; I believe it's over 120. Every area, every character, every major battle, and every major scene has its own superb music track. The power of the soundtrack hit me hard during the entrance to the kingdom of Burmecia. The city had just been torn apart by Brahne's forces, and the music just made the atmosphere so sad and depressing; furthermore, it plays Freya's Theme in this area, and her theme is also sad in tone, which works well in the atmosphere of the area because it's Freya's people who were killed. It just feels like so much hear and soul went into this soundtrack; and it just really helps bring the whole experience of FFIX together.

Active Time Events - Hey! Square-Enix! Why the hell have you not used these in any of your other games?!? This was an absolute brilliant idea! It allowed us to get insight into what each character was feeling after major events, and was a great character development tool. The focus on the characters is one of FFIX's crowning achievements, and the ATE system was a huge part of it.

Ability System - FFIX uses a traditional ATB turn-based battle system that began back with FFIV. FFIX's big difference from the other FF games was an ability system where character learn abilities from weapons they equip. This system was amazing, because it actually encouraged the player to do battles. No battle was wasted, as the player was not only gaining experience to level up, but also learning abilities from the weapons and armor they equipped. Abilities that would turn out to be very useful throughout the game. Not only did characters learn offensive abilities for battles, but also passive abilities that could be equipped. Passive abilities such as "Increase MP by 20%" or "Auto-Regen". These passive abilities went a long way in allowing players to create their very own unique characters, despite each character being a in a set role. This system was brilliant as it promoted doing battles and looking through every nook and cranny of the game world for rare items that would give awesome abilites.

The pacing of the story - FFIX had a great story, but a big part of why it was so great was because of its amazing pacing. FFIX has absolutely no boring sections, nor any sections where the player doesn't know where to go. Events just flow from one to another, and yet it never feels forced or linear; it's just one amazing job at pacing that is only beaten by Chrono Trigger's superb pacing.

The characters - Yup, saved the best for last. FFIX has one of the best casts in gaming. And here they are:

Zidane - our leading character, though you wouldn't know it right away since the game focusing on the ensemble cast rather than just one character. Still, Zidane is a great character for how original he is. He's sorta a typical shonen hero, except he's still very "human". He has his worries, his problems, and ideals, specifically, his innate desire to help anyone in need. It may sound lame, but the reason I like Zidane so much is because of just how nice of a guy he is. He acts like a big brother to Vivi throughout the game, his complex friendship with Garnet is great, and his fellowship with the other characters is really what keeps the group together. I also love how everything he's been through with the cast comes to a strong conclusion at the end of the game where he begins to doubt his reason for living. Also, how awesome was it at the end of the end of the game when he stayed behind to help Kuja? Pretty awesome, and something very few other main characters would do.

Garnet - what leading lady she is. Before the last arc of the game, the player would probably think Garnet was the main character of the game, and she basically is. The entire game is about her struggles for peace and why she fights for it despite suffering through many loses throughout the game, including losing her mother, discovering her terrible past, and becoming a queen. She just goes through so much throughout the whole game, and it just makes for the strongest female lead in the series, even more-so than Terra, Lightning, Aerith, and Tifa.

Vivi - arguably the best character in the game, mainly due to him encompassing the main theme of the game perfectly. Vivi searches for who he is, why he lives, and even if he deserves to live. It's all so very deep, and its made even more impactful because of how young Vivi is. It seems wrong for such a young boy to have to go through so much, but that's just the deck Vivi has been dealt. Vivi's end is also quite tragic, yet happy all the same because he truly discovered what he wanted. We never get to see Vivi's face, but it works so well for his story, for the player forms their own vision of Vivi for themselves. Also, how freakin' adorable is it when Vivi trips, falls, picks himself up, and then adjusts his hat? Pretty damn adorable!

Freya - I love Freya's musical theme! It really shows the power of the soundtrack when her musical theme speaks more about her character than her own words. Freya doesn't speak too much in the game outside of her initial appearance, but her impact when we go to her homeland is very impactful and makes for a beautiful yet tragic character. Her tagline is "To be forgotten is worse than death". With Freya being a warrior, one would think it was about glory in a warriors death in battle, but instead its about the pain of being forgotten by the one you love most. Freya's story is a tragic one, but she still gets her happy ending by still living through the hard times.

Steiner - in any other game, Steiner would be that lovable oaf who is all brawn and no brains, but not here. Steiner is a man of duty who seeks to be strong in order to protect what is important to him. However, he questions if he loves what he devoted himself to because he loves it or simply because he has promised loyalty to it. It makes for a character that stands by his ideals in the beginning of the game, but slowly realizes that to protect what one truly loves, he must sometimes break the rules. It all makes for a great character who is not only a foil to Zidane's aloof attitude, but one who can stand on his own as an interesting story to tell. Also, like Zidane, Steiner is a really nice guy, and really likable.

Eiko - in any other game, Eiko would be the typical "Tee-hee! Look at me! Aren't I just adorable!" type of character, but not here. Sure, Eiko is definitely adorable, but she has perhaps the most tragic past, and her story is simply one of finding love in the family and friends she wasn't allowed to have. She is just a great character to expands as the game goes on. Her relationship with Garnet is very touching, and its great how close they become.

Amarant - the badass who questions being a badass. Amarant is a guy who's from the "other side of the tracks", but upon meeting Zidane, begins to question his life choices. In a game that surrounds the concept of what one lives for, Amarant is the story of redemption, and while he doesn't get a ton of screen-time, his story is indeed told, and comes to a nice ending.

Quina - yeah, deifnitely the character with the least development, but it's basically there to be a fun character who brings the simple ideals of a child to the table. After all, in the worst situations, one needs to think fast, and that's what Quina is there for, even if it's decision aren't always the best.

Beatrix - perhaps the best non-playable side character in an RPG. Beatrix is actually a strong element to the story-line and a great character who deals with her own ideals on life. Her conflicts are similar to Steiner's and that is perhaps why she isn't a playable character, but her relationship with Garnet is great, and makes for a lot of internal struggle when she has to choose between her duties and those she cares for. She even has her own musical theme. Beatrix is actually an enemy for the first third of the game, and makes for some of the most intense battles/moments in the entire game. She really comes across as a badass as well with some intense special moves.

Kuja - while he begins as a typical intelligent and manipulative bad guy, he soon gets a backstory of his own, and his character begins to gain more and more dimensions. The end result is a villain who one can empathize with, for even Kuja, like the main cast, has to come to terms with what his life is worth and what he will do with his life. This all comes down to a great conclusion for the character that goes beyond the typical ending for a villain. Because of all of this, Kuja is my favorite FF villain.

The romance - FFIX doesn't have a lot of romance in it, nor is it the best execution of romance I've seen in a game, but FFIX breaks the cliched trends one usually finds in romance stories in RPGs. Mainly by having the romance begin as a friendship and expanding very slowly throughout the game. I hate it when two characters meet, and then just fall in love in like three days time; that's bull crap! Zidane and Garnet's relationship expands over the course of months (maybe even years since the game doesn't give an exact indication of how much time passes in the game; though it is a long time). It just makes for a more naturally building relationship. Also, they're relationship is a nice twist on the whole theif-meets-princess formula, for it isn't the princess who falls for the their, rather its Zidane who begins to fawn over the beautiful and strong Garnet when he really gets to know her; Garnet, on the other hand, is more concerned with being the ruler of her country, which is much more important than some boy. I really give credit to this relationship because it isn't cliched at all, and really just spoke a lot for both Zidane and Garnet as characters. There are no cheesy kissing scenes or stupid bursts of "I love you"; rather its all a naturally occurring process where the player can see that the two characters are growing closer to one another. It also ends on a very touching note with Zidane's return at the end of the game.

The theme - What do you live for? Is life always worth living? Do we craft our own purpose for ourselves or are we victims of fate? These are some of the questions that FFIX asks the player throughout the story, and I find them to be very powerful. Each of the characters has their own problems concerning life, and we can see them struggling to find their own answers all the way to the end of the adventure. I also love how intense the theme of life comes about in the game's climax when the players face the very origin of life itself: the Crystal. The ending also shows that life has its struggles and its rewards. Its a powerful theme, and, like FFVII, FFIX pulled it off very well.

The sense of place - I really got sucked into the world of FFIX. The places became so familiar thanks to their unique visual design and music that played within them, as well as many locations connections to the characters. Each place just felt so unique. I'll never forget when the group visits the village of Dali, or the grand metropolis of Lindblum. It all resulted in me really knowing and caring for the places, which is what made the destruction of Lindblum mid-game so heart-wrenching. Square really went out of their way to make these places memorable, and the end product really shows.

The charm - it's a hard one to explain, but FFIX is one charming game. It just sucks you into the experience so much and the player really feels like part of this world. The characters became like friends to me, and I wanted to see them all have a happy ending. The world and characters just felt so human. The art design, the soundtrack, the story, and the characters all just came together so well. The end result was just a superb gaming experience I'll never forget.

There's even more to praise about FFIX, but they're mainly specific events like the Lindblum sequence and when Garnet loses her voice, but I'll stop here. For me, Final Fanatsy IX is one of Square's crowing achievements, rivaled only by gaming greats like Final Fantasy VII and Chrono Trigger. FFIX is the ultimate culmination of everything the previous eight games in the series attempted to accomplish, all executed with the highest level of quality Square could provide at that time. FFIX is a gem of gaming design, and a game that I find truly doesn't get the praise it deserves. I believe FFIX is the reason that Square stopped making traditional RPGs and tried to do new things, because FFIX is, quite simply, the perfect traditional RPG; there's really nowhere to go but down from Final Fantasy IX.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, this is pretty much word for word the reason why this is my favorite game of all time, and also my first Final Fantasy I beat, though I don't remember how long ago it was.. I will always love 8 being the first I played (didn't beat it the first time, I was pretty little)... But something about this game I could never let go of... Glad to see some one like this game as much as I do!