Going back and playing games can be dicey. Your fond emotionally-tinted memories can quickly get punctured, especially the further back you go. For the most part, it’s better to let those memories stay happy and just move on. Me? I’m a bit of a sadist when it comes to revisiting old loves. I do like to go back and replay older games in the lull between newer releases. I find that it helps me be able to critique better, as I can pinpoint what worked back then and how it molded my taste now. Sometimes, my warm and fuzzy memories hold up or improve, as was the case with Chrono Cross. Then you have the games that would’ve been better left to the winds of nostalgia, like Fear Effect.
Oh, Fear Effect, you broke my heart, you did.
Anyway, the games that I loved the most will always get at least one more pass. After not touching it for at least 10 years, I figured it was time to replay Final Fantasy IX. It’s my
favorite of all the numbered entries, and with the release of the latest Final Fantasy on the horizon, it was the best time to go back revisit the world of Gaia and Terra. It helps that I have a multitude of different ways to play it, so after getting my old PSP running again, I loaded it up and got to it.
The most glaring issue is that the combat in the FFIX is slow. It’s SLOW. S L O W. Your initial speed is pretty excruciating, taking 15, 20, 30 seconds to load up the Active Time Battle meter to queue up commands and attacks. Once you’ve input the commands, then you have to watch the lavish animations. Considering this was coming at the tail end of the original PlayStation’s life, these are some nice animations and effects. I love the way that the characters gird themselves
to attack and move to summon the forces of nature to attack their enemies. But I also can’t ignore how long the damn things take to execute. Oh, and enemy animations are usually bigger affairs too. It isn’t as simple as lighting me on fire. The game has to display the attack name and play the charging sound effect, then load in all the bells and whistles of the maneuver. Grinding in the early parts of FFIX is a laborious affair.
This game is also surprisingly difficult. The challenge in FF VI through VIII usually only showed up in optional areas and bosses. Things were pretty easy going through the critical path, barring a few difficulty spikes. FF IX starts with a fair amount of push-back, forcing you to think about encounters. Or, well, suffer through some long-winded grinding. The challenge dips a bit, but returns in force in the late game. Most other Final Fantasy’s allowed for attacks that would be able to do more than 9999 damage, even if it required multiple hits within the same ability. Not FF IX. The most you can do at any one point is 9999 and that’s not common. Physical attacks won’t reach that and abilities will only reach that with dedicated work outside of direct leveling. Oh, and even if you can deal that amount of damage, late game enemies can inflict status effects that you can only react to and not actively prevent. You’ll be on your toes the entire game.
The leveling can also be pretty brutal. The experience requirements post-60 through 99 can be intense, mitigated slightly be an ability that’ll double what you earn. Even then it’ll still you take you A LOT of time to max yourself out. Speaking of abilities, you learn your skills from equipping specific equipment. Once you’ve earned a certain amount of Ability Points, you permanently learn the skill and can equip a different item to learn something else. It’s elegant and makes each character play different from the other, a glaring issue with FF VII & VIII. Like VII, a meter fills with each successive hit and when it’s full, the character goes into an evolved mode where they can unleash hell for several turns. Mechanically, FF IX takes the improvements made in the first two PlayStation Final Fantasy’s, but makes all the characters feel different like the Super Nintendo Final Fantasy’s.
FF IX also brought back the character classes from the classic games. Zidane, the main character, is a thief and his actions reflect that. He’s fast, mostly uses daggers and has the option to steal items from characters. Vivi is a black mage, so his magical damage is stellar, but is defensively the weakest of the bunch. Steiner is a knight and is subsequently slow, powerful and take a ton of damage. Freya is a dragoon, she wields heavy defensive gear, but can leap into the sky to deal extra damage several seconds later. You get the idea. Just about every classic class is represented in the main cast, which leads to some interesting strategic choices later when you can mix and match.
The story is far more whimsical as a whole than FF VII or FF VIII. An acting troupe/thieves guild enters Alexandria to kidnap a princess, but you find that the one who hired you was the lady herself. She wants you to get her out and into a neighboring kingdom in order to stop her mother, as she suspects her destructive ambitions will lead to out-and-out war. Of course, there’s somebody in the background pulling the strings and things get increasingly complicated as puppet master reveals their plan. Despite the specter of war that looms over the world, it’s a pretty bright and happy experience. Even when the dark moments come and affect the characters, there’s always the feeling that it’ll get better for them.
What’s impressive is that FF IX still looks pretty good. Granted, we’re dealing with PlayStation-era polygons here, but even then this is still a beautiful game. Square, knowing the hardware that they were working with, focused on the ‘fantasy’ aspect of their title and really made the world look unlike anything you’d see in real life. Characters are generally super-deformed like characters from Final Fantasy’s past, which I personally love. It makes the game age way better than most other PlayStation RPGs. It’s something that I also loved about Chrono Cross, which also aged wonderfully with the visuals. I’d also be remiss of me to not mention Nobou Uematsu’s beautiful soundtrack, which weaves back and forth between soaring themes and whimsical ditties. I’d say it’s his greatest work as a whole.
While I’m not done with this current run, I’m a little over 40 hours into it and three-quarters through the third of four disks. I’m definitely in for the long-haul and, considering I’ve done most of the side-quests, I should be done with it in a week or two of light play. Anybody looking to give it a whirl can play it on the PS3, PSP or Vita. Barring that, you can hop on Steam and pick up Square-Enix’s re-release, which has improved visuals and boosters that’ll make the experience easier for those not adjusted to older challenges.