Final Fantasy IX begins much like the previous two Final Fantasy games started - with a grand, cinematic opening including a deluge of beautiful scenery. It somewhat appears to be just another, great-looking FF adventure. Upon starting the actual gameplay, though, you'll almost immediately see that FFIX is quite different from FFVII and FFVIII.
As the story goes, Zidane Tribal is a member of Tantalus, a group of rogues aboard an airship called Primavista. The game begins with this group disguised as theatrical actors who will perform an act while attempting to kidnap Princess Garnet Alexandria XVII. The scene changes and we see Vivi, who is visiting the town of Alexandria, where the play will be performed. Vivi excitedly makes his way to the ticket booth, only to be told that his ticket is a fake. He walks away, upset, and meets a young kid (who's a mouse) who asks Vivi if he wants to be in his gang. Vivi and the mouse climb up to the rooftops to watch the play from there. A FMV sequence then starts up, showing the introduction to the play, which is a fireworks display. At this point, you meet the characters Adelbert Steiner (who serves as a guard to Queen Blane) and Princess Garnet Alexandria XVII, who's on the balcony. The Tantalus group begins its play, at which point you begin to play a minigame - if you've played Shen Mue, it's almost like the QTE battle - in which you press buttons on the controler to perform a sword duel. A certain level of success in this minigame garners you more money as well as the Queen's approval.
At this point, Zidane and his partner are disguised as guards in order to kidnap Princess Garnet. As they approach the rear of the balcony, a young girl wearing a white mage's robe is walking out. Zidane pauses for a moment to look at her, and she runs down the stairs. Zidane and partner chase after her once they realize that the girl is Princess Garnet. When the real guards realize that the Princess is gone, the main guard, Steiner, is assigned the task of searching for her. After gathering his troops and scouring different areas, he spots Zidane pursuing Garnet on the opposite side of the tower. Another FMV sequence begins at this stage, showing Garnet jumping onto a rope and crossing to the other side, closely followed by Zidane. Steiner attempts to follow from a different location, but fails to land the jump. The chase goes on, and Zidane eventually catches Garnet. Surprisingly, Garnet then asks Zidane to kidnap her. Whatever the reason for her request, this makes his chore much easier. Steiner continues to chase after them, eventually reaching the theater's main stage. Although the group is performing ad lib, the play finishes a success. Now the FMV scene changes, showing Vivi being chased by guards for trying to sneak up to watch the play from the rooftops without paying. Somehow, he ends up on the stage as well and casts the Fire spell, accidentally burning Garnet's white mage robe. The Queen and guards realize the girl on stage is Garnet, so Zidane and the group members gather everyone, including Steiner, and get into the Primavista to escape. The Queen summons the Bomb Monster, which explodes - damaging the Primavista, which is then forced to make a crash landing in a nearby forest.
After playing the game for about two hours, I began to wonder what purpose FFVII and FFVIII filled, as Final Fantasy IX definitely picks up where FFVI (SNES) left off. It's back to fantasy-based swords and sorcery - with a little touch of Disney added in, or so it seems. The expressions and actions in the FMVs illustrate that fantasy style, and the Queen certainly looks like something out of the Little Mermaid. Not only is the atmosphere and mood of the game reminiscent of older Final Fantasy titles, but the gameplay is somewhat of a return to the classics as well. Your party in FFIX can hold up to four characters now, making battle a little more interesting than in the last two FFs. The only catch is that the party members change quite often, leaving you with fewer opportunities to build them up or get used to their individual battle styles.
Other concerns so far are that the battle encounter ratio is pretty high and that the battle speed can be quite slow when your party includes just one member. Each character has different abilities - Zidane can steal items from enemies, Vivi can cast offensive magical spells like Fire and Thunder, Steiner has special sword attacks, and Garnet can cast defensive magic spells like Heal and summon monsters like Bahamut and Odin (although this ability is not available at the beginning of the game due to her lack of MP). Also, the weapons and armor the characters equip offer the characters unique abilities. Each item holds quantifiable ability points (AP), like experience points. Once the item has reached a certain number (through character usage and experience), the character acquires the item ability even without equipping that weapon or armor at that particular time. Also, the same item can offer different abilities for each character. For example, the leather armor lets Zidane parry, but it lets Vivi cast the Fire spell. In the early part of the game, you don't get as many new weapons and armor, so you'll have the opportunity to gain AP and learn new abilities with the ones you have.
The field maps in FFIX are quite user-friendly. If you're in the vicinity of a hidden treasure or a ladder that you can climb up, an exclamation point appears on top of the character's head. In previous Final Fantasy games, you practically had to keep pressing buttons while walking on the field map just so you could find an item. The field map uses prerendered 2D graphics, while the world map uses 3D polygons. The world map in FFIX resembles the one in FFVII more than the one in FFVIII, as the characters on the map appear much bigger than those in FFVIII.
Lastly, the audio-visual aspects of FFIX are impressive. Though it's strange getting used to dwarf-sized characters again after seeing more realistic-looking ones in FFVIII, the characters look vibrant and full of emotion in the FMV. It would be nice if they had voices, though. But that's how Square has done it since FFVII, and maybe wanting voice acting is asking for too much. The music composed by Nobuo Uematsu definitely brings a taste of fantasy to the game, and the battle victory theme from the older FF series is back once again, which is great to hear after having been absent from the series for several years.
So far, Final Fantasy IX seems to appeal to those who have played the older FF series. It will be interesting to hear reactions from those who started playing the series with Final Fantasy VII or VIII. FFIX is not just the last installment of the series on the Sony PlayStation, but it also happens to be the last installment of "fantasy based on swords and sorcery." It's Final Fantasy, indeed.