Final Fantasy IX Preview

Fans introduced to the series by Final Fantasy VII and VIII will no doubt be thrown by the drastic artistic shift in Final Fantasy IX; the design is a throwback to the series' NES and SNES roots.

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It's just a matter of weeks until Final Fantasy IX's Japanese release on July 19, and details are still scarce. But with careful digging and a bit of detective work, a cohesive picture of the ninth Final Fantasy game can be pieced together.

Fans introduced to the series by Final Fantasy VII and VIII will no doubt be thrown by the drastic artistic shift in Final Fantasy IX; the design is a throwback to the series' NES and SNES roots. Hard-core gamers will wax nostalgic about the good ol' days of the Final Fantasy series, when men were men, women were women, and wizards - well, the wizards wore pointy hats. Final Fantasy IX emphasizes elements the series has downplayed for the past few games, such as airships, floating castles, magic, high fantasy, and low technology.

Don't worry that things will be too different, however. It has been confirmed that most of the series' key personnel will return. Producer Hironobu Sakaguchi takes the helm again, and character designer Yoshitaka Amano returns after a two-game absence. And despite rumors to the contrary, composer Nobuo Uematsu is scoring the title, as he has for every other Final Fantasy game.

Square has announced that the final cast will include eight main playable characters, with the possibility of other characters joining your party temporarily. The primary character is hero Zidane Triball. Square claims that this 16-year-old pickpocket has a weakness for girls - and they have a weakness for him, which isn't too surprising given his boyish good looks, antiestablishment lifestyle, and really long tail. OK, we don't get the tail. He also has a mysterious past that he investigates as the game progresses.

Although Zidane is the main character, Sakaguchi has revealed that much of the story will revolve around Vivi Ornitier, a 7-year-old black mage going through an existential identity crisis. If we can't prove we exist, asks Vivi, how can we tell we're alive? The black mage character-class is feared and respected throughout the world of Final Fantasy IX, so the other characters give Vivi plenty of respect, despite his diminutive stature. Vivi is drawn in the traditional style of Final Fantasy wizards with a dark blue robe, pointy tan hat, and two glowing eyes without a face.

The current front-runner for the obligatory female lead is Princess Garnet Til Alexandros the XVII. Garnet recently starred in a special Coca-Cola commercial produced for the Japanese market. She looks somewhat like a meld of Final Fantasy VII's Tifa and VIII's Rinoa. As a princess, her values and responsibilities are different from those of the common people, and her royal upbringing leaves her unaware of how to interact with the "unwashed masses." Some people mistake her naivete for selfishness.

The other five characters run the gamut of ages and species. Gruff, 33-year-old Adelbert Steiner is a royal knight and Garnet's loyal bodyguard. Exceedingly honorable, Steiner will protect the princess to the ends of the earth. Salamander Coral is a large, powerful man with red Rastafarian dreadlocks. Salamander believes that power is everything, and he only has faith in himself, his training, and his power. Freya Crescent is a female Dragoon warrior with a reptilian appearance and a troubled past. She is very spiritual and can feel the movements of nature. Quina Quen is a portly chef with a healthy appetite and the world's largest spork, which it wields as a weapon. Its goal is to become the greatest chef in the world. Eiko Carol is a precocious 6-year-old prodigy whose insight and intelligence often shocks those around her. A summoner, she was raised in a village of Moogles and is thrilled to find human contact. She wears a giant hair bow and a miniature breastplate.

Gaia, the world of Final Fantasy IX, is divided into four separate ruling nations. Zidane comes from the kingdom of Lindblum, a tranquil nation ruled by a kind regent named Cid. Queen Bahne of the neighboring kingdom of Alexandria is ruthlessly assaulting innocent villages, so Cid hires a group of mercenaries to kidnap the Queen's daughter, Princess Garnet. Cid hopes that Garnet can shed light on her mother's actions, but Garnet is as confused by her mother's uncharacteristic cruelty as everyone else. She and her bodyguard Steiner join with Zidane and set out to uncover the truth behind the Queen's behavior.

Like Sega's Eternal Arcadia, the world of Gaia is of a series of floating islands. Some host entire floating metropolises, while others host only small theatre troupes. Travel between the islands will likely be via the series' traditional airships.

The game itself is estimated to be about 40 hours in length. The main scenario will feature many branching points, such as the choice of the chicken knife or brave blade in Final Fantasy V, which do not affect the story directly but permit the player to customize his or her style of play. The theme of the game is unknown, but Sakaguchi has said it is the same as the Final Fantasy Movie. The themes of life, existence, and the nature of the human soul seem likely.

Characters in Final Fantasy IX have particular classes, meaning each has specific skills and abilities that can't be given to others. Equipping items and weapons teaches characters abilities. For example, Vivi could equip a staff that lets him cast fire and osmose. With the staff equipped, he can cast the spells - but as soon as he removes it, the spells go away. However, earning enough AP (ability points) in battle with the item equipped teaches the character the skill permanently, so they can use it even with the items removed. Some items will offer different benefits to different characters - one item might give Steiner the counter ability, but give Vivi the Magic plus 20 percent ability.

Each character has unique abilities that set them apart from their peers: Zidane can steal items and distract enemies with a variety of flashy special moves. Garnet can summon powerful creatures and cast white magic. Vivi can cast black magic, of course, but can also use a charge command to restore his magic points during battle. If Vivi is in a party with Steiner, he can cast elemental sword magic on the bodyguard's blade. Steiner alone can wield the heaviest weapons and armor and can learn powerful attack techniques. Salamander can toss weapons and Gil at the enemies, attack with Street Fighter-like controller movements, and use HP/MP party recovery abilities. Eiko, like garnet, can summon creatures (but only restorative ones) and cast white magic. Freya, being a Dragoon warrior, can jump into the air before falling on foes. Quina, a blue magician, learns and uses enemy attacks by eating them.

Parties have re-expanded in size to four simultaneous characters that can be positioned in front, middle, or back rows. The magic system is based once more around MP (magic points). A new system in battles is the trance system. Like Final Fantasy VII's "limit breaks" feature, the trance bar fills as the character receives damage. Once it fills, the character enters a trance and gains access to new powers and abilities. The duration of summoning spells has been reduced in response to fan feedback; unfortunately, they still can't be skipped completely.

Taking a page from Star Ocean 2's "private actions" feature, Final Fantasy IX introduces "active time events", brief sequences involving characters in your party that become available as you search a city. You can watch or ignore these story sequences at your leisure. Also, while you are exploring a town, a question mark or exclamation point may appear over your character's head. This means that something interesting to interact with is nearby.

The future of the Final Fantasy series has never looked so old. With its combination of old-school gameplay and artwork with new-school storytelling and detail, Final Fantasy IX is a fascinating conundrum that gamers can only unravel upon its release. Final Fantasy IX is expected to come to the US in September 2000.

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