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October 1, 2000 - Further Impressions
This is a peculiar situation in which to write one's impressions of a game. Normally, today's update concerning Final Fantasy IX would be another barrage of screenshots, or perhaps new movies. This has been the way for some time. However, a problem has arisen - there are so many media objects in this preview, that it has broken our database. If any more are added, the computer begins spewing forth various foul omens, and we are left to find another way to convey what we think of Square's newest role-playing game. But regardless of the conventionally accepted ratio may be, I've always preferred words to pictures. So perhaps this will work out better in the end.

Final Fantasy IX, then, is the last of Square's RPGs to appear on the PlayStation, and in particular the last of the Final Fantasy series, which saw itself completely transformed on Sony's 32-bit console. And it is, make no mistake, a PlayStation Final Fantasy, at least through the first third or so that I've completed. Its visual style is in almost every way a revival of the classic Final Fantasies we grew to know and love, but it's impressed on a structure essentially similar to the more recent PlayStation volumes of the series. The result is something that will, as per usual, inspire some mixed reactions. Make no mistake, I dearly love it, but I'm also resigned to the hell that will descend on our feedback columns afterwards.

Nobody is going to argue, at least, over the game's visuals. As we have said and shown many times before, Final Fantasy IX features Square's creators once again besting themselves in the realm of 3D artistry - nearly every scene, realtime or pre-rendered, is something to sit up and take notice of. In particular, the pre-rendered town and dungeon backgrounds are livelier than ever, with much more background animation and many more polygonal inhabitants. Everywhere you go, there's something winking or fluttering at you, or larger features such as grinding gears and machinery. The people, meanwhile, as well as the things and things-that-are-people, are a sight to see, Yoshitaka Amano's fertile imagination let loose once again. In every town, or indeed every room, you'll encounter a new and interesting design, and they're all of them just little one-off creations, there to be seen a single time and then

However, this is possibly the best in a year of superior localizations from Square. Parasite Eve II, it seems, is the one they slacked off on to make sure FFIX turned out well, because after that mild blip, we are back to the standard of excellence we saw in Chrono Cross, Legend of Mana, Threads of Fate, and Vagrant Story. The flow of dialogue is smooth and unbroken, and each character speaks with just a bit of a different voice. Zidane is easygoing, Garnet is mannered, Steiner is uptight and officious, and Vivi is the most charming of all of them, with a timid uncertainty that comes through whenever he speaks.

A quality localization is as important as ever here, because while FFIX has a lot of obvious visual personality, the text carries so much more of what the game is trying to convey. Vivi, for example, is one of the cutest little fellows to come down the pike in a while, and there's an awful lot of physical humor built around him, but he develops a purpose and a meaning beyond immediate chuckles because of the way he's explored and developed in narration and dialogue. Strictly speaking, he's a supporting character, but his internal conflict is perhaps the most interesting character issue in the earlier parts of the game.

Though complaints about their translations can no longer be leveled at Square, I expect there will always be objections to the cinematic presentation of its PlayStation games. Final Fantasy IX is built around essentially the same narrative structure as its two immediate predecessors - it's very heavy on dialogue, town exploration, and plot-driven progression. If you like that sort of game (and it suits me just fine), this is exactly what you're looking for, but I wonder sometimes about whether or not this kind of scenario design isn't going to fall by the wayside in the near future. The idea of a nonlinear console RPG is still having the bugs worked out of it - there's no such game that I'd say works exactly right, although Chrono Trigger, the SaGa games, Legend of Mana, and Valkyrie Profile all get parts of the puzzle together - but I believe the market is eventually going to begin demanding something more complex than what we have today.

From a larger issue to a smaller one, at least I do not have as uncertain of feelings about random encounters, which remain a feature of Final Fantasy IX's world map and dungeon sequences. I discussed this issue at some length when reviewing the diabolical horror that is Legend of Dragoon, but my aggravation with the outmoded concept of random encounters has grown immeasurably in the meantime. In that meantime, I had the wonderful experience of playing through Chrono Cross and Valkyrie Profile - neither of those games employ a random encounter system, and both of them are markedly better for it. Final Fantasy IX has some fairly complex dungeon areas, with lots of little corners to explore here and there, and it is not fun, I say NOT FUN, to be whacked with battle after battle. when you're working out a puzzle or simply enjoying the scenery. If Final Fantasy passes into yet another generation of consoles without doing something about this nonsense, Mr. Sakaguchi needs to have a little chat with his battle programming team.

Can you tell this is a bit of a hot-button issue? Yes, I suppose you can... It's just that the stilted quality that random battles lend to the exploration sequences runs rather contrary to the character of the game outside those sequence, which flows smoothly from event to event - it feels odd to have these mechanical sequences haphazardly inserted into something that was moving along so nicely up to that point.

The battle system proper I have no complaints about, though. Those who were irked by the slower progression of FFVIII's battles will probably be pleased by FFIX's quicker pace of combat. There isn't a single summon animation present on the first disk, battles instead being resolved by more traditional attacks and basic spells. Most enemies go down with middling speed, while bosses present a reasonable enough challenge to make you feel like you aren't quite coasting your way through. The tandem management of equipment and abilities is the main consideration outside of combat, but at this point it doesn't seem quite as dense or tedious as the Junction and Materia systems from the last two FFs. You only have five items of equipment to manage, and the number of abilities you can equip roughly corresponds (although it gradually increases with your characters' level of experience). Even if you don't choose the option to automatically kit out your characters, manually setting things up isn't anywhere near in the time-wasting league of manually configuring all your spell junctions in FFVIII.

The synthesis system for creating your own equipment is similarly streamlined - it's mainly an echo of the FFVIII/Chrono Cross item development system, with a little of the cannibalization you got up to in Parasite Eve. There's much more equipment to use and create than their has been in FFs recently past, but that's hardly an indication of complexity, given that VII and VIII stripped their equipment systems almost down to the bone. It's back, now, to the five-item system of the older games, which is a nice balance for those who like to gather, mix, and match an expansive collection of toys (like me). In practice, I suppose the difference between the equipment systems in, say, VII and IX, isn't actually that great, but there's a curious sort of fun to be had building an inventory full of odds and ends and watching the gear your party carries grow ever more impressive.

But then again, if you spend too much time staring at menu screens, you miss what's going on outside, and that's what I think is the most enjoyable aspect of Final Fantasy IX. It's hard to overstate what a beautiful game this is to look at, listen to, and get to know, almost every second of the way. The reason our database is so terribly overtaxed is that every single moment of the game seems worth capturing and saving. Though it's up to PlayStation 2 to revolutionize Final Fantasy as a game series, FFIX continues its reign as one of the highest standards of aesthetic craftsmanship and narrative strength in games.

-- David Smith

Square Media Tour 2000
Today, at the Square Media Tour 2000, which was held at Square's Tokyo offices in Shimomeguro, Meguro-ku, Tokyo, the famed RPG developers showed off two of its biggest titles, FFIX and The Bouncer, to a ragtag group of scummy online journalists and a horde of lazy print bastards. With Final Fantasy IX, we were given our very first chance to check out the fully translated English version of the latest installment of the illustrious Final Fantasy series.

Based on what we were able to play of the game, it's safe to say that the translation is looking mighty fine and that it appears that the days of worrying about having to settle for a less than stellar localization job from Square in the U.S. is just a thing of the past. If the quality of the game's writing holds up throughout the entire quest, Final Fantasy IX will likely join the ranks Vagrant Story, Chrono Cross and Legend of Mana as a prime example of some of the best writing you'll ever find in console RPGs.

The dialog is fresh and it flows in a very realistic manner that not only reads well but also sounds realistic when spoken out loud. And just like in Chrono Cross, it appears that the game will have plenty of characters with different dialects and accents to help give them personalities and bring them to life. Things are really looking good for the upcoming U.S. version of Final Fantasy IX and playing the early parts of the game in English for the first time has rekindled my interest and desire to play through this game.

Head on down to the Media section at the bottom of this preview for 41 brand new English screenshots of the game. Square is already having on of the best years ever for a third party game publisher in terms of the quality of games that it's released and Final Fantasy IX looks like it could be the icing on the cake to one of the best years for RPG fans in the history of gaming.

-- Dave Zdyrko

Preview Information
With Final Fantasy X and XI already officially announced for the PlayStation 2, Final Fantasy IX, which is currently available in Japan, will mark Square's final Final Fantasy game for the PlayStation.

The previous two games in the series that appeared on the PlayStation, FFVII and FFVIII, have already reached astronomical sales figures with both selling over five million units worldwide, making it PlayStation's largest franchise on the planet. Unless the world's economy crashes before the end of this year, Final Fantasy IX will likely reach the same lofty figures despite the fact that many gamers will be already on the PlayStation2 bandwagon.

The biggest surprise regarding Final Fantasy IX has been with the change of the overall look of the game. While FFVII and VIII had a distinct, futuristic cyber-look to them, Final Fantasy IX, with Yoshitaka Amano returning, has more of a fantasy, swords and sorcery-type look to it. In terms of design, the game looks a lot like Chrono Cross, with pre-rendered backgrounds and super-deformed character style.

There are a grand total of eight characters that will be playable in the game. Here are the game's heroes:

Zidane Tribal (16 years old)
The sixteen-year-old hero of FFIX is an experienced thief. Aside from stealing from the rich, he enjoys stealing the hearts of the ladies as his sense of charisma and boyish good looks have made him very popular among them. He also has this big long tale sticking out of his butt.

Vivi Orunitia (9 years old)
Feeling like an outsider who doesn't belong in this world, this shy nine-year-old mage is going through a major identity crisis and is left feeling depressed. He's constantly getting caught up in things, and is often in situations that are out of his control. Though close relationships with his friends, he overcomes his trials and finally develops a positive outlook on life. He's very clumsy and you'll often see him falling down.

Steiner (Edward Steiner) (33 years old)
He's a knight in the service of the royal family of the Alexandria kingdom. Steiner is the lifelong guardian of Princess Garnet Til Alexandros, and it is a duty that he holds dear. He's a powerful swordsman and always strives to be a good knight. He holds the goodwill of the princess over anything else in his life.

Garnet Til Alexandros XVII - "Dagger" (16 years old)
Garnet is the young princess of Alexandria. Having received royal treatment her whole life, she's inexperienced in the ways of the world. Idealistic and naive in the beginning, her chance encounter with a young thief (good old Zidane) will change her perception of the world forever.

Freya Crescent (21 years old)
A member of the mouse clan who was raised and trained by a Dragon Knight, she is a courageous female knight who is unwilling to compromise her beliefs. Banished from Burmecia, her home, she has roamed and seen much of the world. When Brahne attacks Burmecia, she is able to put aside the fact that the people exiled her and tries to help out.

Eiko Carol (6 years old)
After her parents passed away, Eiko was raised by summoners, magic-users with the ability to summon monsters to do their bidding. Under their care, Eiko learned White Magic and developed a very special friendship with the moogles. Although only six years of age, Eiko is a precious little girl. She has the ability to read the thoughts of eidolons and animals. She is also very respectful of her elders and takes care of those younger than her (although, at the ripe old age of six, there aren't that many people that are younger).

Amarant Coral (26 years old)
Previously known as Salamander, Amarant is a solitary vagabond that is also a contracted assassin for hire. He spends most of his time training his body as a weapon in combat and he trusts no one and never does anything useless or frivolous. He's extremely cool thinking and strives to be a lone survivor. To date, he has yet to be voted off of the island, so his chances of being the lone survivor are still strong.

Quina Quen (Age Unknown)
Part of the Qu clan, Quina is an androgynous being whose only concerns are eating and leaving descendants on the planet. Quina's favorite food are frogs, and prefers to eat them raw.

Here are some of the game's major non-playable characters.

Regent Cid
Cid is the ruler of Lindblum whose humorous character is just as conspicuous as his scientific brilliance. His numerous inventions such as air cabs and airships have turned Lindblum into the most technologically advanced kingdom in the world. Cid and a flying airship in a Final Fantasy game -- it's deja vu all over again!

Kuja provides Brahne, the queen of Alexandria, with highly advanced magical weapons. His origins are not known and he's the mastermind behind Brahne's invasions. His goal and intentions are a complete mystery to the characters in the game.

Queen Brahne
The proud ruler of Alexandria, Queen Brahne has been acting strange lately. Gone is her well-known kindness, and in its place is a ravaging thirst for power. The delicate balance between the nations of the world is thrown under when Brahne mysteriously gains an army of magical monsters, which she unleashes on her peaceful neighbors. She's also extremely fat and is uglier than Janet Reno.

That's not all of the cast, of course. Outside the playable characters, there will undoubtedly be numerous supporting figures; including, for example, the statue that Vivi encounters, who evidently "looks important." A lot has been made about the switch in the basic design of the characters, with most people either loving or hating the idea, but the bottom line is that the most important aspect of the game will be its storyline.

The story appears to be of epic proportions and covers the tale of an evil queen's desire to gain world domination and a group of bandits bent on trying to stop her. As with any good RPG storyline, there's plenty of twists and turns and not everything is as basic as it seems. With the same localization team that handled Vagrant Story working on the U.S. version of the game, all things point towards an excellent translation.

As has been the case for several Final Fantasies, the gods and monsters that certain characters can summon act as the big guns of your magical offense. This time around, though, characters like Odin and Bahamut are known as Eidolons (rather than Guardian Forces or what-have-you), and they also play a significant role in the story. Those two are the monsters pictured in the most recent set of CG renders we posted - Bahamut, as always, burns enemies to a cinder with his Mega Flare, and Odin sweeps away minor opponents with the thunderous charge of his eight-legged horse. Other familiar names and faces will be among the cast of monsters as well, like Leviathan, Shiva, Ifrit, and Carbuncle.

There's a theater in the game that plays an important role in its plot that is known as Prima Vista. The parts of it that you'll see in some of game's screenshots below are of its Grand Stage, Orchestra, Waiting Room, and Engine Room. At the game's onset, this theater is being controlled by a group of thieves. Like many of the game's areas, there are a great many accessible sections of the pre-rendered background. You can explore roofs and other out-of-the-way spaces if you poke around for more obscure paths.

In order to advance the overall storyline and allow for different points of view, Square has implemented a unique system to the game that it has coined an "Active Time Event". One example of this near the beginning of the game, is when the game has the player take control of a solider who is chasing a young boy for about five minutes. Afterwards, the player takes control of the fleeing boy for a period of time. Players can pick and choose the events to check out when prompted by simply pressing the game's select button.

At several points, you'll swap points of view with characters in different places, and what one character learns or does can help out another. For example, if Zidane is about to face a boss, you can switch over to Vivi , who happens to encounter someone who gives him a few tips about how to defeat that enemy. Switch back to Zidane and you can use that information to earn an easy victory. Exactly what mechanism links the characters together isn't entirely clear (they had cell phones in FFVII, but that'd be a little out of place in IX's fantasy world), but suspension of disbelief is always a necessity in a fantasy setting.

For those new to the series, the active battle system gives a pseudo realtime feel to the battles because both the characters and enemy monsters have a different amount of time needed to be ready for attack. Each combatant has a bar indicating their initiative, which gradually fills - when the bar fills up, that character is ready to attack. Depending on the attributes of the character, magical items he or she may be wearing, or spells that have been cast, the bar will fill up at varying speeds.

FFVII and FFVIII introduced the concept of "Limit Breaks" to this system, special attacks that characters could trigger under certain conditions. FFVII used a Limit meter, which filled as a character took damage; FFVIII triggered Limit Breaks randomly when characters' HP dropped to dangerous levels. FFIX does not have Limit Breaks as such, but it has something very similar, called the Trance system. Each character has a Trance meter, which fills as they take damage like FFVII's Limit meter - when it hits the maximum, they enter Trance, a special state where they can perform more powerful attacks and use special commands.

To give each character an individual purpose, and structure their development, FFIX will make use of a type of "job" or "class" system, similar to that seen in the FFs prior to VI or so. So, characters will have a class such as thief, knight, magician, and so on. However, characters can have their traits customized within the course of the game.

There are six types of items and equipment: weapons, shields, armor, accessories, and armlets. This is a bit of a regression as far as the development of the series is concerned, given VII and VIII's de-emphasis on character equipment. Each item or weapon that you equip will add to the character's attributes in a certain way, ala Diablo. For example, a bracelet could give a 10% HP boost. Altogether, there are nine different attributes that can be modified, aside from HP and SP: speed, strength, magic, HP, attack power, defense power, evasion, magic defense, and magic evasion. Finding items is often a matter of careful searching - as you wander through areas, if an exclamation point appears over your character's head, that means searching the area (a la Dragon Quest) might yield the discovery of an item, or at least some interesting information.

Additionally, the items will give the characters different abilities depending on the particular character and item in question. For example, a certain item may increase magic points for one character, but increase strength on another. Also, certain items in the game will likely give you special combat abilities - when Zidane wears leather armor, he can use a "protect girls" ability (probably a variation on the Cover ability from earlier FFs). VIVI gains no such bonus, though, meaning the automatic equip function (the Best command, like the one that automatically set up your junctions in FFVIII) may not be the best choice. Manually equipping your characters could lead to a more powerful assortment of abilities.

Abilities are divided into two main categories: Action and Support abilities. Action abilities are acquired from items as mentioned above, and are manually triggered in combat - this category covers well-known commands like White Magic, Black Magic, Steal, Summon, and the like. Support abilities are passive, automatically triggered when certain conditions arise. Some familiar Support abilities include Auto-Regen and Auto-Potion. Support abilities are acquired from items like Action abilities, but they also require a Magic Stone for a character to use them. Magic Stones are like slots for Support abilities. Each character has a fixed number of them at any given time, although they acquire new ones on occasion as they level up.

Special abilities can actually be permanently learned if used often enough. In most games, if an item give you the ability to cast a spell, it only allows you to do it while that item is equipped. In FFIX, once the spell is used enough and learned by the character, it is no longer needed. In some of the status screen images, you should be able to see a bar with a number underneath it, which is the indicator for how much time remains until the ability becomes permanent. Another unusual aspect of the item system, one, which seems to be a holdover from Parasite Eve, is the ability to combine old items and make new ones. When Zidane combines a mundane dagger and a Mage Masher (the famous wizard-killing hammer from previous FFs), he can create a butterfly sword with abilities different from either ingredient.

Outside all of this min/maxing and number-crunching, FFIX will also present a few more basic challenges in the form of several mini-games. Some are simply a diversion, like a rope-jumping game Vivi encounters in Alexandria. If you can master the timing necessary to deal with varying speeds and tempos, you can see your high score graffitied on the town walls. Other mini-games have more significance, though, such as the treasure-hunting Chocobo Hot & Cold game. Once you capture a Chocobo, you can use him to hunt for treasure - his "wark!" call will grow louder or softer depending on his proximity to a hidden item. As you uncover new items with your Chocobo, he'll gain new abilities, like the power to swim, climb mountains, or fly. Finally, some mini-games can affect character development, like a frog-hunting game that powers up Quina Quen's Frog Drop special attack.

Though its evolutions in gameplay will certainly draw their share of partisans and detractors, like all the rest of the Final Fantasies, past Square fans should be unanimously fond of its return to the series' classic visual style, thanks to the superb execution we've seen so far. It's probably safe to say that when all is said and done, Final Fantasy IX will go down in history as one of the most visually stunning games on the aging PlayStation.

Final Fantasy IX is currently slated for a late 2000 release in North America.

-- Dave Zdyrko

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