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My Thoughts on Final Fantasy 9 - Narrative Bliss and Gameplay Story Disunion

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     I have been playing video games for many years, and yet there are several classic and otherwise essential games that I have no experience with. In many cases, this involves entire franchises. When Archengeia was going through the Final Fantasies during his marathon I was prompted to start digging my way through my backlog instead of letting it sit and fester. Now, I am playing through the Final Fantasies and have decided to share my thoughts on the games I play as I go here on the forum. I have already covered FFs I-VII and will also be playing FF XII. Hope you enjoy!

     I literally just finished the epilogue of FF9 and..... wow. I can honestly say that this game has my favourite epilogue in gaming. Period. It's long as hell, but all of it is absolutely necessary. The boss fight beforehand though..... that's debatable. And that about sums up every problem I had with this game. The story was incredible. The characters were hands down the most relatable characters I've encountered in fiction. The story was emotionally engrossing unlike anything I've experienced before. But every time the gameplay was involved, my experience ranged from dull to mildly frustrating. It never actively made me angry, it just had small annoyances that got steadily more annoying over time; the rock in the shoe mentality. The biggest culprit is easily the fact that the abilities didn't have any descriptions. As a result when I had a bunch of abilities unlocked I was forced to just throw as many different abilities as I could at the characters and pay attention to any changes. And a lot of the time, there were no changes. This undermined enjoyment of leveling, turning it into grind, which wasn't actually a problem for quite a while. For a majority of the game, the difficulty curve is actually pretty smooth. That is, until you hit disc 4. Once you hit disc 4 you basically have 2 options: run around and grind to level 99, or b-line it to the last dungeon. A last dungeon that is populated by mini-boss level trash mobs who can cast meteor and multiple bosses who can pretty much 1-shot your party if you are anything but 99 with the best abilities and equipment in the game. Oh, and at a certain point those trash mobs stop giving experience, just in case you had the idea to grind in the last dungeon. That's not to mention the moment in disc 3 when you are suddenly forced to use members of your party you've barely had access to in an area of decently strong monsters. (THAT SAND PALACE SUCKS!) 

     Basically, the ability system relies on a hybrid of the Esper system over in FF6 and the Materia system over in FF7. Like in FF6, if you keep certain items equipped for a long enough period of time, you learn that item's abilities regardless of whether you are using that item. Like in FF7, you can only actually equip a certain number of abilities. This should have created a customizable situation not unlike FF5's job system. Instead, we have a number of abilities that don't seem to do much of anything, including many character specific ones. Unless in trance, I never used any of Zidane's abilities. I always just used his standard attack seeing as it was the only thing he had that could actually deal damage. As a result of this, what should have been the gameplay's strongest point ended up being it's greatest weakness. 

     Now, I mentioned trance. Trance has it's own issues, namely that it triggers itself once the trance meter fills, instead of giving the player the freedom to use it when they wished. I've actually seen this type of mechanic implemented properly in an RPG before, and it works really well. Not the case here. 

     The gameplay isn't just lackluster on it's own though. Several times the game attempts gameplay story integration with Trance and the Eidolons most specifically. And almost every time they do, it just ends up feeling forced and artificial. This isn't so much the case with the Eidolons but it is absolutely true where Trance is concerned. It was completely unnecessary and only really served to pad the game out, as it is with most of the gameplay here. It doesn't integrate with the story to provide one cohesive experience, but rather separates itself from it to create two different experiences. Instead of relying on the gameplay for padding, it should have integrated more. Maybe then I would have felt compelled to move around the world in disc 4 instead of just b-lining it to the final dungeon. It's also possible that the team wanted to do something like this but couldn't due to technical limitations. Stories of this game breaking PS1s need to be taken into account here, which is why I feel like this game would have been better off as a launch title for the PS2 rather than a send-off on the PS1. 

     Every time I remind myself of the fact that this is a PS1 game I have to shake off the disbelief, and that is because of a very notable positive about the game. It's beautiful. Seriously, with the occasional exception of some character models, (really only Zidane) the game looks like it belongs on the DS. Graphically speaking, it has aged incredibly well. I can personally credit the beautiful aesthetic and design of the last dungeon as a large part of why I stuck it out to the end rather than just watch the finale on YouTube. 

     The graphics aren't the only thing that has aged well either. The soundtrack for this game is among my favourite game soundtracks ever, easily. Where most FFs have 1 or 2 tracks that I'd be willing to listen to on their own, FF9 is one of those rare soundtracks that I could just start from the beginning and listen to the end with very little ground skipped in between. It's ironic, the music-story integration found in this game when compared to the lack of gameplay-story integration. He may have some individual songs that are better, but this is easily among Uematsu's best work. Never has a song suited such a powerful moment in a videogame as You're Not Alone, one of my favourite moments in vdeogames, due in large part to that wonderful piece of artistry.  

     The story in general is amazing. Not as much of a setting focus as you'd expect, considering the plot begins with two warring nations, and the thematic elements are constantly overlapping each other. (the trance system being among them) However, what does manage to stand out stands out because of the characters. I care about the companionship of the party because I've seen what happens when the party splits apart through the prelude to the You're Not Alone sequence. I care about standing up to the terrors of life because I've seen what happens when you don't through Kuja and I've seen what happens when you do through Vivi. I learned that life goes on, even when we pass away, and that what we leave behind will carry on our hopes and vision for the future by watching the black mages and genomes. The list goes on. So many games rely on words to communicate their themes, but FF9 does it through action. By SHOWING what happens when you run away from life's problems. By SHOWING the rewards that one can attain by chasing after life. This provides a very grounded, believable story. I just wish the gameplay was as timeless as the narrative found here. 

     There's so much more I could say about the story of this game, but I think I've said what needed to be said to get the general gist of the game across. I'll leave you with this. I almost never cry when reading books, watching movies or TV, or playing games. Not from Mass Effect 2, not from Telltale's Walking Dead, and not from The Last of Us. These things chocked me up, but the last thing to make me actually cry was the ending of Return of the King back when I first saw it shortly after it had come out on DVD. I'm not ashamed to admit when Vivi's final words came up on screen and his son was run into by Puck, tears rolled down my face. And when Zidane showed up at the end, I thrust my fist in the air until Garnet had reached him. I add this to show you, in the same way FF9 uses visuals for its points, just what I mean when I say that no form of fiction has grabbed me with it's characters the same way FF9's did. That's not hyperbole or overemphasis. It's fact.

     I guess it's about time I ranked this thing huh? Really not sure how to approach this. While the story is the second best in the series, with the characters easily being the best, the gameplay is something I cannot reccommend without using cheats, something I haven't had to do since FF3. If a proper remake ever came along and fixed the issues I've talked about above, this game would easily take the #2 slot. As it is, though, I think it'll get the #4 slot, pushing the tied 4&2 down to the 5th, 1 to 6th, and 3 to 7th.

1st: VI
2nd: VII
3rd: V
4th: IX
5th: 2&4
6th: 1
7th: 3

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Ah, yes Final Fantasy IX. Great game, I think it's my personal number 2 as far as the franchise goes. Like you mentioned, both the story and music in this game are fantastic. One of my favorite moments, where both elements come together really nicely is the moment that You're Not Alone starts playing when Zidane remembers all his friends that have helped him along the way and carry his burden with him. When he finds his strength and gets back up again, that still gives me chills to this day. I want to debate you on the gameplay, but I honestly don't remember much of it, it's been ages since I've played FFIX myself. I'm glad you enjoyed it, though.

However, there is one other Final Fantasy that beats it in story, like you said. It beats it in music as well. You won't like me saying this, but it also has the best art direction, visual level design and battle system of the entire series. I won't get my hopes up too high, but if you could just put your prejudice aside for a bit, I'm sure you would love FFX.

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I've heard so many good things about FF9 and it kills me that I can't stand to play it.  The reason is simple, if petty: I cannot stand the graphics style in this game.  It's just like someone's constantly poking me in the eye so it really kills my ability to enjoy playing the game.

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