Title :Final Fantasy IX
Platforms :Sony PlayStation
Publisher :Square Electronic Arts L.L.C.
ESRB Rating :Teen
Game Rating :8.5
Review by :Ken Gagne

Why would anyone use a sword to take down a gun-toting maniac? Questions like this have plagued me as Final Fantasy, a role-playing game (RPG) series from SquareSoft, has adopted a more "steampunk" setting, blending magic and technology. Such infusions have contributed to Final Fantasy's darker stories and flawed characters, a far cry from the series' brighter, pre-PlayStation days. 

Final Fantasy IX takes a step back, and returns to the series' fairy tale origin, putting the focus back where it belongs: on the Fantasy. 

Fans of the earlier Final Fantasy's will be familiar with much of this game's setting. This world is no more advanced than the steam engine, leaving the world populated by magic and airships, not televisions and motorcycles. Previously-forgotten characters will be quickly identified, including black, white, and red mages of old, and characters undisguised as thieves and fighters. Moogles, chocobos, and other figures of Final Fantasy lore round out the fantastical cast in a story that isn't as gloomy as previous tales. 

The story opens with the thief Zidane kidnapping the Princess Garnet, with a clumsy knight and insecure wizard getting caught in the conspiracy. It is soon revealed that the Queen is amassing magical weaponry, but is being manipulated by an even greater power. The slow-building plot, likable, sometimes comical, characters, and more clear-cut conflicts are a change from the deeply-troubled people and world of previous Final Fantasy's. 

The battle system abandons many past problems. There's no complicated Guardian Force or Junctioning, spell drawing, or indiscriminate magic use. Accoutered equipment teaches new abilities unique to the character wearing them. By taking multiple hits, heroes can fall into a temporary Trance that puts powerful commands at their disposal. Some bosses present a surprising challenge, but not to the point that repetitive level-building is necessary. 

Except for the literally brighter atmosphere, the graphics haven't evolved much. Zidane and company explore colorful towns and dungeons from a variety of perspectives. When these scenes shift, a small amount of pixelation can sometimes be seen. But the most cinematic moments are saved for full-motion video (FMV) sequences, which include dramatic escapes and high-speed airship chases. It is clear to see from the people in these movies that FFIX is not trying to be realistic. Unlike the tall, lifelike figures of FFVIII, these people are completely disproportionate, with short bodies and big heads. 

The music, as always, is an integral part of the Final Fantasy atmosphere, and in FFIX, it's as symphonic as it's always been: at one moment quirky, the next mysterious, and then stirring. Sound effects employ stereo effectively, with Zidane's footfalls echoing from the appropriate speaker as he nears stage left or right. 

Final Fantasy IX is a step in the right direction. Square has taken the focus off visual glamour and put it back on content and style. Not everyone will find FFIX to be a stunning RPG, and let's face it, it's hardly innovative — but it is the first Final Fantasy in awhile that I've enjoyed playing, and that's saying a lot. 

This article is copyright (c) 2000, 2007 by Ken Gagne. All rights reserved. Not to be distributed without permission.

Original publication: Sentinel & Enterprise, 27-Nov-00