The game itself is the experiment.
Zidane left his heart in Lindblum.
Not only is FFIX is an abrupt about-face, considering that the direction of the series has been tending toward the edgy futurism featured in recent installments, it is also purportedly a return--even homage--to Final Fantasy's "roots." For fans unacquainted with Final Fantasy's NES era, "roots" does not imply repetitious, difficult gameplay, bare-bones plot, and paper-thin characters. Instead, it invariably evokes the feeling of the medieval, the "fantasy," present in Final Fantasy IV
and Final Fantasy VI
Never mind that FFIX's look easily surpasses the fairly bland appearance of the "medieval" FFs. Not content with fashioning a world with mere medieval trappings, the developers honed a consistent fairy-tale aesthetic that is a delight to behold. With the graphical prowess of the PlayStation in full display, it is hard not to think that, finally, Final Fantasy does the medieval (and pastoral) treatment justice. Every ornate locale and environment feels transplanted directly from a children's storybook. The CG cutscenes are marvelous.
Also freed from the graphical limitations of the 16-bit era are the stylized character designs of longtime FF artist Yoshitaka Amano, who last contributed to FFVI. Whether conforming to the appearance of a typical Final Fantasy "job" (Vivi is literally a black mage) or bordering on playful caricature (Steiner as a hot-headed fuddy-duddy of a knight), the fanciful character designs translate well to 3-D and fit perfectly in FFIX's world of whimsical abandon (particularly those of the side characters and of the enemies). Even the monkey-tailed Zidane, who claims he lives for the present, is atypically upbeat for an FF main protagonist. While the main characters have fairly predictable personalities and motivations that correspond neatly to their appearances (with the notable exception of Quina, the self-described "gourmand" and arguably the quirkiest of all Amano's designs), overall their development is superb and of the polish expected of a "modern" Final Fantasy, not one from the past.
Like the characters' appearance, the story's progression has the predictable feel of an early FF. An unambiguous (in this case, excellent) villain named Kuja makes his presence felt early on, and much of the game is spent attempting to thwart the insidious plans wrought by said villain. Destruction and tragedy certainly are no strangers to FFIX. Summoned monsters, called "eidolons" in FFIX, play a prominent role in the plot, as in many previous FFs. Of course, in keeping with the game's aesthetic, the story includes some fairy-tale elements, such as the mysterious "Mist" that pervades an entire continent and is the source of energy for civilization.
Bahamut seems quite displeased.
Despite all that, FFIX manages to be the most laid-back of any FF. The plot does not necessarily drag, but FFIX's focus on the characters tends to sap the plot, replete with light-hearted, amusing scenarios and moments of earnest introspection, of its urgency. These scenarios typically unfold through the Active Time Event (ATE) system. When the party splits up in a town or some other location (another novelty), ATE provides an intimate glimpse of the individual characters in action. It is a nice touch that contributes to the game's sense of easy-going comfort, even if it comes at the expense of narrative flow. At least the narrative is not marred by a lousy translation; FFIX's competent English adaptation continues the trend of quality localizations.
Apparently, the developers were determined, at all costs, to maintain a consistent level of this easy-going comfort, and the cost of FFIX's gameplay is the absence of any real innovation. Instead of crafting a potentially onerous character customization system, they devised a simple scheme for gaining abilities. Characters earn Ability Points (AP) in battle to learn various action abilities and support abilities from the equipment they wear.
Since the characters resemble classic Final Fantasy jobs (Garnet is a summoner, Freya a dragoon, etc.), they generally have access only to abilities unique to their "battle specialty." Only Garnet and Eiko, summoners, may use eidolons, and only Zidane, a thief, employs the skills of a thief. Therefore, FFIX offers little actual customization other than allowing characters to select a handful of skills from a pool of support abilities. The lack of flexibility is disappointing given Final Fantasy's tradition of offering intriguing gameplay systems, and it suggests that Square was unwilling to make the effort - or take the risk.
It is convenient, though, to take comfort in all the familiar gameplay elements that FFIX "resurrects," and enjoy the experience. Traditional equipment makes a comeback. So does the four-character battle party and conventional experience levels. 9999 HP damage per attack is the absolute upper limit, and battles are the most balanced since Final Fantasy V
. Even elements that are relatively recent to FF, such as the various mini-quests, seem particularly suited to the game's languid pace. And Trance mode, FFIX's version of Limit Breaks, was designed with FFIX's commitment to simplified gameplay in mind. Trances upgrade or enhance characters' action abilities. Since Trances may not be carried over to the next battle, they become a matter of convenience rather than relevance.
No Final Fantasy is complete without "clever" religious symbolism.
Ultimately, it is painfully obvious that adherence to the ideal of creating a "proper" tribute subordinates all other considerations in FFIX. Trances are tailored to this ideal, rather than designed with utility in mind. Also falling victim to this misguided ideal is Nobuo Uematsu's score, which is technically solid on its own merits but ideally suited to FFIX. Naturally, no Uematsu effort lacks for splendid pieces, such as Kuja's stirring theme. The reappearance of character themes is understandable, and overall the music captures the game's light mood wonderfully. However, the music's bouncy flavor is sometimes grating, and "Melodies of Life," the theme song of FFIX, is agreeable and appropriate - too appropriate.
The whole package is plagued with an artifice that seems inevitable for a game whose existence is predicated solely on honoring the past. FFIX's settings may be brilliantly conceived, but they do feel somewhat artificial. Gameplay elements are obviously recycled and altered just for FFIX. The plot is tidy, the characters saccharine. The music is the perfect complement. There is irony in the possibility that such a joyful game might have been created out of cynicism toward the whole enterprise.
Consider some of the superficial references to previous Final Fantasies. The presence of elemental crystals in FFIX, an integral element of the plots of four FFs, is merely an afterthought. The Dwarves with the peculiar Scottish dialect aren't miniature Vikings. Garland is not really Garland. Pandemonium is not really Pandemonium, and so on. What is the point?
It is almost as though Hironobu Sakaguchi, the series' creator, wanted to convey this message:
Each Final Fantasy, in its own way, celebrates the series' legacy. Names and symbols, by themselves, are meaningless. Final Fantasy IX, standing alone, is a grossly inappropriate tribute.
But that is pure conjecture.
Always good for a bold experiment or two, each Final Fantasy has contributed to the series' legacy, among other things: Active Time Battle; intriguing gameplay systems; grandiose futuristic settings; and expanding character rosters with increasingly tormented protagonists. But with Final Fantasy IX, Square managed to accomplish arguably the most surprising feat of all.