Even after the release of the truly epic Final Fantasy X, Final Fantasy IX represents the closest the Final Fantasy series has come to attaining perfection. Although the game is on the easy side, it has the most focused, unpretentious story of the PS1 FF era, a dazzling visual presentation even above that of Final Fantasy VIII, a charming, fantastical environment, delightful characters, and a refined battle system that goes back to basics while still offering a fresh new system for players to sink their teeth into. Instead of trying to rewrite the rule book like Final Fantasy VIII, Final Fantasy instead focuses on delivering the most quality JRPG experience possible.
The story starts off fairly simply and remains charmingly straightforward for much of the game . You are Zidane, a member of a group of thieves/theater troupe. The troupe's latest mission is to kidnap the Princess of Alexandria, Princess Garnet. All goes according to plan until Zidane discovers that the princess actually wants to be captured. Along the way, you also take with you an adorable black mage child named Vivi and Steiner, a very naggy knight who is loyal to a fault. Steiner insists that he and the princess return to Alexandria, but she refuses and instead the characters find themselves following a trail of destruction and warfare that involves the princess's own mother's use of black mages as weapons of war. That the black mages are responsible for so much bloodshed and destruction drives Vivi into something of an identity crisis. It's amazing how much you will feel for the little guy.
Final Fantasy VI's cast might have the most breadth, but Final Fantasy IX's cast is easily the most likable. They're a bunch of oddballs, but you'll come to love them. And what's more impressive is that this game is surprisingly funny. There's an element of humor here that is simply not present in other Final Fantasy games and it makes the experience just that much more enjoyable. Balancing out the humor are genuine moments of emotion that will tug on the heartstrings and have you thinking about the characters even when you're not playing. The ending is absolutely beautiful and will make every single hour you devoted to the game seem extremely well spent. Furthermore, the localization is absolutely superb. Final Fantasy IX easily has the most well written dialogue in any Final Fantasy game. It flows effortlessly in a way that is lacking in most JRPGs.
The story works as well as it does because of expertly-executed pacing. Like many FF games, the progression of the game never gets bogged down into a town, dungeon, town, dungeon format. Instead, the narrative decides the pacing, leading to varied scenarios that can be both tense and leisurely. It also helps that there is a lot of variety in the locations you'll see. Yes, you'll get the usual forests, deserts and ice caverns (however, these standard settings look more fantastical and creative than ever), but there's also some very striking settings like a tree village inside of a sandstorm and an eternally dark city that has no middle class, only extremely rich people and extremely poor people. One of the places that is sure to get a lot of your playtime is Lindblum, a big steampunkish city with a theater district, a business district, an industrial district, and an awesome cable car that brings a whiff of technology into what is a distinctly less futuristic take on the FF brand than Final Fantasy VIII was.
Gaia, Final Fantasy IX's world, is easily the most vibrant and lively world in the series. Much of this has to do with the art design. The visuals here are much more refined than in previous PlayStation FF entries, with an increased sense of clarity and much more detail. Plus, the visuals have a kind of whimsical flair to them that makes everything "pop" in a way that the visuals in Final Fantasy VII and VIII failed to achieve. The CGI sequences are also top notch and give the story a sense of scale that would be missing without them. I'd go as far as to say that Final Fantasy IX rivals Chrono Cross for the best visuals on the PlayStation period.
The battle system here is your basic ATB system, but after the ill-advised attempts at shaking things up in Final Fantasy VIII, the back-to-basics formula is extremely welcome. No doubt some might find the battles to be somewhat slow, but the relative lack of speed is in exchange for being able to use four characters in battle. Plus, the battles are extremely pretty, with clean backgrounds, dazzling effects, cool enemy designs and superb animations. Although it is not an innovative system, it is an extremely refined one that works exactly how it is supposed to. The only place where the developers could have improved it is in the trance system, which allows your characters to go into trance mode, which in turn gives them devastating abilities or useful advantages in battle. Your trance meter will fill up as you take damage and continues to fill up as you make your way through various battles, increasing the chance that you'll unleash your trance form on a group of easily disposable enemies instead of a boss. Because of this, I wish the developers could have allowed for more player control of the trance system. However, you can work around the trance system's limitations if you really want to.
Where the game's combat component shows its freshness is the abilities system. In a stroke of genius, the developers tied the learning of abilities to the weapons and equipment that you discover around the vast world or buy in shops. This means that you can activate certain abilities simply by putting on a certain piece of equipment or equipping a certain weapon. If you want to use an ability temporarily, you simply change whatever sword, helmet, armor, wristband, etc. that you have equipped. If you want to permanently learn the ability and add it to your repertoire, you can do that as well by attaining enough AP points to master the ability. All in all, it is an elegant system that gives the player more of a reason to care about what weapons and equipment they are putting on instead of simply putting on the strongest armor with no second thought. It also allows for a great deal of customization.
Another layer of depth in the ability system is action abilities versus support abilities. Action abilities are the ones that you select in the battle: physical attacks, white magic, black magic, sword arts, buffs, debuffs, etc. Support abilities, on the other hand, need to be selected more carefully because you have a limited pool of "stones" that you can use to equip them. Support abilities put certain effects on your characters automatically to help them in battle. For instance, if you put on "body temp", you will be protected against being frozen. If you put on "auto-regen", your hitpoints will regenerate a bit each turn. If you put on "auto-life", you will get one free revive. This is just scratching the surface. There are tons of support abilities and most of them are extremely useful. In fact, they make the game much easier than it would be without them. Fortunately, the game heavily restricts the amount of support abilities that you can equip, preventing the game from being a total cakewalk. That being said, this is a rather easy RPG. Sure, there are a handful of fairly tough enemies and bosses, but even novice players should be able to get through the game without too much trouble.
In usual pre-Final Fantasy XIII fashion, Final Fantasy IX has a fair amount stuff to do outside of combat. The world is brimming with things to discover and the main towns are filled with diversions. For instance, you've got TetraMaster, a pretty fun, if slightly confusing card game, Chocobo Hot and Cold, a mini-game in which you can dig for treasure with a chocobo (this mini-game can lead to some extremely awesome weapons), jump-roping, etc. None of these diversions will hold your attention for too long, but they are reasonably well-executed and do their part in giving the player a breather from fighting and progressing through the story. However, I found it more enjoyable to simply explore every nook and cranny of the gorgeous environments. Making your way through towns, "dungeons" (I put that in quotes since the game's environments are too varied to be thought of as mere dungeons) and the PlayStation FF era's most polished overworld is truly a joy.
Another diversion is the ATE system. Basically, active time events are short scenes that give the player more insight into the game's characters. Say you're walking through town as Zidane. The ATE alert icon will come up and allow you to see what Princess Garnet (or another character) is up to. You can skip these if you like, but some of the game's funniest scenes are ATEs. Furthermore, some of the game's richest character development is contained in the ATE portions. They are well worth your while to watch and are an excellent way of fleshing out the story while still keeping it on track.
I know almost everyone is used to hearing about how great Final Fantasy soundtracks are, but it must be said the Final Fantasy IX's soundtrack is another masterpiece. The songs fit the more whimsical tone of the game and a great deal of them have absolutely lovely melodies. You'll be stunned at how moving some of these tracks are.
Final Fantasy IX may not be as important as Final Fantasy VI and VII, or as experimental as VIII or XII, or as grandiose as X, but it is the one Final Fantasy game that manages to get almost everything right. This is a game of immense quality and charm and even after 12 years it still manages to represent the FF series at its absolute best.