Final Fantasy IX has been billed as a return to the series' roots, but this is an oversimplification. The roots of the Final Fantasy series have always been appealing characters, an epic story, engaging battles, and an impressive presentation. Elements such as airships, pointy-hatted mages, and crystals have always just been surface symbols, while an emotional tale of humanity in the face of adversity lies at the core of each installment of the series. That's not to say that the return to the older art style is unimportant or without meaning. Final Fantasy VII boosted the role-playing game market on two new continents, and Final Fantasy VIII sold the most copies of any game in the series. Both games were critically acclaimed. So why tinker with a winning formula? The game itself no doubt holds the answer.
The story begins on the Mist Continent in the Kingdom of Alexandria. The puckish Zidane, a member of a rogue group and theater troupe called Tantalus, reviews the group's plan to capture Princess Garnet Til Alexandros XVII from an upcoming festival. Meanwhile, the young black mage Vivi wants to see a popular romance play (I Want To Be Your Canary), but his ticket turns out to be a fake. With some help from street rat Puck (who's literally a rat), he sneaks into the show. During the performance, Zidane and company attempt to make off with Garnet, rousing the ire of royal bodyguard Adelbert Steiner. Steiner tries to protect Garnet from Zidane's kidnapping and womanizing ways, but to no avail. That's because Garnet actually wants to be kidnapped. After all, her mother, the once peaceful Queen Brahne, has been attacking neighboring kingdoms with her army of black mages. Perhaps the answers Garnet seeks lie outside the walls of Alexandria.
Final Fantasy IX is even more story-driven than previous games in the series. The plot often switches focus between different characters or parties. One particularly exciting sequence on the second disc features two separate parties trying to escape a sticky situation. The game cuts between the two parties and builds an incredible sense of tension. Moreover, changing circumstances force characters to switch from one party to the other, which creates a real sense of dynamic teamwork. Final Fantasy IX is filled with creatively scripted set pieces that ensure that the player gets to know and use every character. However, when the story drags, or when your party seems particularly unbalanced, the scripting can seem overly heavy-handed, and you may find yourself wishing for more freedom. It's not until disc three that you can truly pick and choose your party members at will.
While the art style may have reverted to that of the earlier Final Fantasies, the storytelling - thankfully - has not. The suitably complicated plot explores many ideas and emotions - love, death, hope, fear, and even the nature of existence -and your party members learn about these things and more as they seek answers to the questions that drive them. No matter how bizarre each member of your party might appear, each one is actually a fully realized character whose fantastic appearance belies his or her depth of character. Throughout Final Fantasy IX, even characters like elderly rat women, obese clown chefs, and young moogle girls all have very human feelings. But while the characters may be interesting, the game's main storyline is weak by comparison. A large part of the game simply consists of proceeding from area to area with little or no impetus to continue, and the main villain is almost assuredly the least threatening in the series' history.
One welcome addition that Final Fantasy IX brings to the series is a strong sense of humor. More than any other Final Fantasy to date, Final Fantasy IX is filled with moments that are sure to make you laugh. The dialogue and situations are frequently amusing, and almost every character has an amusing personality trait. Some of these are Zidane's instinctive womanizing, Steiner's unflappable obstinacy, Garnet's attempts to "fit in" with commoners, Vivi's clumsiness and endless angst, Quina Quen's single-minded search for delicious food, 9-year-old Eiko's take-charge presence, and Amarant's laissez-faire attitude toward everything. Even when it's not trying to make you laugh, the game is still lighthearted - it doesn't just try to impress or overwhelm you.
The gameplay has been tweaked so that Final Fantasy IX has one of the more balanced combat systems of any game in the series. Each character that joins your party has a character class and unique skills. For instance, Zidane is a thief. Garnet is a white mage and summoner, Vivi is a black mage, Steiner is a knight, Freya is a dragoon, Quina learns blue magic (which consists of enemy techniques) by eating opponents, Eiko is also a white mage and summoner (but focuses more on curative magic), and Amarant uses "flair" techniques and can throw weapons.
You expand on these basic character types by equipping objects on your characters. The weapons, armor, hats, wrist guards, boots, and accessories you find all contain particular abilities. If a character equips an item with an ability he or she can use, that ability becomes accessible. Different characters can draw out different abilities from the same item, and sometimes an item won't provide an ability at all. Winning battles earns your characters experience and ability points (AP). Earn enough AP while an ability is equipped, and you "master" the ability, which allows the character to access the ability even when the item has been removed.
Some abilities, such as spells and special techniques, become innate and can be activated by spending magic points. Other more passive types of abilities, such as auto-potion, counter, and resistances to status ailments, exist only in a potential form. You must assign these skills using ability crystals in order for them to become effective. The number of ability crystals a character has increases with the character's level.
The item-ability system establishes an excellent balance between individual character skills and player customization. Moreover, the addition of ability crystals prevents players from creating invincible, overpowered characters who have mastered every skill in the game. While not as complex as either the materia or junction systems of the previous two Final Fantasy games, Final Fantasy IX's system is sure to satisfy players who like to micromanage, as well as those who just want to play the damned game already.