You can clearly see what Square were thinking. ‘Hey, the last game didn’t work so well because we made it too real, too futuristic, too dull. Let’s do something playful. Let’s go back to our roots.' And thank goodness for that. I haven’t played FFX yet, but FFVIII definitely made me want a break from trying to be realistic and the attempt to have mature storylines.
Thus, FFIX’s world is a slightly silly one. There are rat-people and weird puffy glutton creatures and dwarfs and moogles and best of all, someone went, ‘Hey, you know those black mages we’ve always had? Why don’t we make one a main character?’ Stroke of genius.
And the gameplay got more fun, too. Thank goodness that dreadful magic-drawing system disappeared, and while I always liked the complex, highly customisable materia system from FFVII, it’s fun to see the job classes make a return post-Final Fantasy Tactics, and having each character be capable of a different set of skills kept things interesting, though meant I had some characters I never used at all. Four in a party is better than three as well – though I still prefer Suikoden’s six for turn-based combat!
Shame about the card game. Having an element of chance involved (badly explained) made the games really much too unpredictable, luck being more important than skill.
Characters are a plus here. Having a playful world meant that the characters can be nicely exaggerated. Thankfully, for the first time in a while, a Final Fantasy game got an interesting protagonist in Zidane. Even though he was a smug bastard and I didn’t like him, and even though under his cool clothes and nice hair he looked kinda like Leonardo DiCaprio with dwarfism, I still cared about his exploits – even though I was mostly hoping he’d get a good sharp shock that would make him a nicer person that never really came. I liked Vivi’s (bibi-kun…geddit, Japanese fans?) stuttering, stumbling shyness, and Steiner’s bumbling ineptitude, and Eiko’s genki hyperactivity, but the other playable characters were left a bit underdeveloped, even our heroine. Wilful, boyish (even facially!) Garnet could have been interesting, but kinda faded into the background after her strong introduction. And I wish I’d known that her name change was gonna be permanent. I expected it to be only for a few scenes, and I thought naming her after a dagger was daft, so I called her ‘Mipsy’ – and she was stuck like that until disc three! Despite being constant tanks in my party, Freya and Amarant got only a token nod in story terms, which was a shame, and Quina was even acknowledged as a bit of a joke in the script.
These characters made the plot enjoyable, even when it got a bit ropey. The opening quests were good, but towards the end it just became typical FF overwrought guff, and badly suffered for having (a) no decent bad guys (Brahe was a perfect chuubossu (mid-boss), but Kuja was just uninteresting and silly-looking) and (b) no cool-factor. (FFVII had Sephiroth, Vincent and the Turks. FFIX has Amarant, who just grunts like a teenager and has a funny-shaped head.) The overall impression of story was a nice basis, some good characters, but then a lack of ideas towards the end making things drag on and on while trying to be clever with a daft story about souls. It was cute and funny – the scenes with the love letter could have been from a very likeable anime – but when it tried to be epic it fell short.
And the translators should have been shot. Localising does NOT mean giving character accents that would make the Pythons say, ‘Tone it down a little, please…’ and slipping in Star Wars quotes. I DID laugh at, ‘No cloud, no squall will keep us apart’, though.
Overall, while it cannot replace FFVII’s place in my heart (entrenched there partially because when you’re 12 you accept faults more easily, I know), this was a lot of fun, a game I didn’t long to finish like FFVIII, and a charming experiment done well. My only real complaint was that it was too easy, and after about 50 minutes’ hard levelling, bosses fall like flies, and even the hidden bosses weren’t nearly the challenge that the Weapons were in FFVII. What WAS Ozma, anyway??