Earlier this morning I plowed my way through the last two dungeons in Final Fantasy IX, beat up the final boss, and saved the world. Woo! It took me a little longer to beat this game than I would have liked, but that's partially due to watching a lot of Olympics coverage and it's partially due to being sick since the Olympics ended. Concentrating on manipulating the ATB system wasn't the easiest thing for my frazzled mind to do, so I kept pausing and wandering off to read pro wrestling recaps because that doesn't take any real thinking.
I really liked how this game went back to a more standard class based system. The last 4 games have featured essentially interchangeable characters with small differences. Sure, only Locke could steal, but everyone in Final Fantasy VI could learn all the spells and max whatever stats they wanted. In this game each of the 8 playable characters has a wildly different set of active and passive abilities to learn that make them all significantly different from each other. If you want to blow people up with black magic spells you simply have to use Vivi; there is no other choice. They have a good set of characters too, that interact in good ways, so there are a bunch of viable parties. This time I wanted to really max out Vivi so I built a party to make him better. So I used Freya for her mana restore ability, Zidane because I think you have to, and Dagger because she would also make use of the mana restore ability and having a healer had to be a good plan.
It turned out that I entered the final dungeon sequence with 81 ethers in my inventory so it's entirely possible I didn't need Freya at all. She did less damage than anyone else which seemed bad, but she did have the most health and the best defenses so that was probably a good thing. If I had to do it again I think I'd want my party to include Steiner and Amarant instead of Dagger and Freya, but they'd both be good parties. And I know the first time I played I put a heavy emphasis on Quina because that character is just plain awesome.
I really liked the art style used in the game. It took a step back from trying to use the hot new Playstation graphics to make 'realistic' people and went for a more cartoony feel. The resolution for the gameplay wasn't great on my tv, but I don't think FFVII or FFVIII would have faired any better (and likely would have been a lot worse). The FMVs were awesome. And I think Garnet may actually be the prettiest character in any of the Final Fantasy games.
The game had tons of little throw backs to previous games. Key items named after characters from Final Fantasy III that let you play music from that game. A dwarf village like the ones in Final Fantasy IV. Two planets merging to become one like in Final Fantasy V. Souls becoming a mist and feeding the planet like in Final Fantasy VII.
It wasn't all good though. The ATB battle system was even more frustrating in this game compared to previous ones. The fact that the optimal way to play was to have one of your characters never take an action and instead open the menu to pause time during animations was pretty terrible. Even worse was when I had auto-regen on my whole team and the best way to heal up was to cast a long animation spell and not open the menu. Bahamut should not be my best healing spell! It really made having a 'healer' pretty silly, though at least Dagger had a long animation spell to be a good fake healer on top of being a potential real healer, too.
The random encounter system is complete garbage. Normally in a game like this exploring a dungeon completely for all the treasure isn't much of a chore. Maybe you take 40% more steps, which gets you 40% more fights. That's fine! In FFIX the random encounter counter resets each time you change screens, and most screens are pretty short. So short, in fact, that it's possible to beat the game with only 5 random encounters total because you can run through almost every screen without getting a fight. Fights also take a long time to load in. Fully exploring a dungeon is probably more like 20 times as long, not 1.4 times as long. Which is frustrating now that I know it, and it really makes limited resource characters like Vivi terrible if you're getting into a ton of extra fights. My playthrough this time was a little over 34 hours, and there's a reward for making it to the final dungeon in under 12 hours, and other than putting off the chocobo stuff and card game stuff until later the main way to save time is to learn the path through each zone to minimize encounters. I don't like it one bit.
The game also put in an homage to Beyond the Beyond, and not in a good way. In the middle of the game Dagger gets stressed out and can't talk. You can put her in your party still but she loses her trance bar and about half of the time she gets distracted instead of taking the action assigned to her. Can't move... CURSED! This was not a good thing. In retrospect I think Eiko would be a better healer since she gets esuna, full-life, and holy. And you can keep using her in the middle of the game! Holy should have a long enough cast time to be a healing spell...
The card game was disappointing and most of the timing based mini-games didn't work on my tv. Chocobo Hot and Cold was still very good. And I don't feel like I should ding the game because it doesn't work well on a new tv. The card game was disappointing on every playthrough though!
One thing that blew my mind was the final boss... His name was Necron and you learned that he existed 10 seconds before fighting him. Kuja and Garland both could be the final boss from the story... But no. They both end up helping you after you beat them up. But then there's just this random dude after you beat the final Kuja form. A dude who wants to put an end to the entire universe, to be fair, so you sure want to kill him. But where did he come from? Why is he there? Who knows. Kill the scary thing and win the game.
The ending was nice and happy. I still want to know how Vivi had kids. It was nice to see that pretty much all of the characters had a happy ending. Steiner loosened up a little and ended up with Beatrix! I was watching a speedrun of the game and someone commented in chat about how Steiner always starts off as everyone's most hated character but eventually comes to grow on people. No one there disputed that assessment, and I think it's true for me too. It helps that he's probably the most powerful character.
Anyway... Where should this game go in my little ranking chart? I liked a lot of things about this game, and it's definitely a worthwhile play. But it has some pretty big flaws too, and it's never really stood out in my mind one way or the other. I think it's definitely better than the NES era games but I think it has to slot in as worse than the rest of the core series. And Tactics, for that matter. So for now it gets to be #7 on my list. That's still pretty good, and I really think the reason it's so low is that the games ahead of it are all fantastic games with fewer glaring flaws.
Next up would be Final Fantasy X, but I'm holding off on playing that game until the HD version comes out on March 18th. I'm going to skip ahead to the next game, which is one I've been looking forward to playing again and which is really only tangentially part of the marathon anyway: Kingdom Hearts.