~Part Three of Three: Revelations~
I can go on and on about how wonderfully Final Fantasy IX tells its story, its dialogue nice, its hero refreshing and the artistry of its world beautifully realized.
But as George Bernard Shaw once said "A drama critic is a man who leaves no turn unstoned."
Look hard enough at anything and you can see the faults. To be critical of something is often frowned upon, but at the same time would it not be fair to look at all angles? You can glamorize and express your fondness for something, but to actually appreciate it, you need to understand what its faults are.
Final Fantasy IX has had its critics over the years, though in the past few people have warmed up to it more. I'm not going to take a shallow approach to being critical of it - many would criticize its mini games or the fact the main character has a tail. That wouldn't fit in line with the first two parts if I were to do that, now would it? If I'm going to spend pages going into the details as to why Final Fantasy IX is great, touch upon it with depth and exposition, then it's fair I do the same when it comes to being critical of it. So let's start with game design 101.
Yeah... except its a game. You aren't just reading it, you're participating in it. What's not taken in to account is the script is broken up through the gameplay and the more and more you dive into it, the more and more you realize the gameplay and story aren't exactly working hand in hand. On paper it might say they journey from Point A to Point B across a vast field...but it doesn't explain to you how slow and dull that journey is and how the blandness of fighting boring battles can nearly take you out of whatever it was the scenes were putting you in. Instead of having a sense of synergy, you have the sense of two entirely separate things with little relation.
In RPGs, Japanese RPGs especially, it's often debated on what is valued more: story or gameplay. The great RPGs don't bring up this debate, though, because the great RPGs put a value into both. More importantly, however, is that the great RPGs are able to blend the two seamlessly to where you don't realize the two as separate entities at all. It's a hard thing to balance, but those that hit it do, Final Fantasy IX does not.
This is for a number of reasons, but I feel, primarily, is the basic, uninspired gameplay it presents. By gameplay I mean everything from battles, to customizing characters to simple traveling and exploring. It makes you feel a part of the world, sure, and that's better than what most games can achieve, but that's only one element - everything else feels passive and trite, if not tedious, rather than a great blend where you want to be involved, not just read/watch a story unfold.
Yet you have slow, uninteresting battles, of which there are too many and far too drawn out on top of it all (FFIX having a strikingly high battle-encounter rate), a world that, outside of your main land, is equally uninteresting (more on that later) and not worth even exploring, a customization and magic system that seems more arbitrary than anything and an ability system that feels tacked on where you just select some crystals and be on your way with really little noticeable difference during the gameplay. At least it got some of the mini games right, and little fetch quests, but again, less blending and more a separate element. Then again, the one mini-game they did blend into the story well is a poorly done card game.
It's one thing to take the atmosphere and narrative and do a "throwback" and nostalgic trip, but the battle system and gameplay should have moved forward, not to the past alongside all the other stuff. In other words, it should have been nostalgic in form, not in function. It felt dated even upon the game's release and can either be something you can deal with, or can bring down your admiration of everything else as a result. Is gameplay or story more important? Like I said, the great ones can put effort into both, and more importantly merge the two to where it's not even a question. Fianl Fantasy IX certainly drew its line, though, which explains why it divides so many people.
However, though it does a great job with its story as it shuns its gameplay, even its story can produce issues.
Remember that whole "Mist" thing? Well, guess what. Mist is not only a pretty pointless plot device, but it's also used as an excuse for a lackluster world for it all to take place in. Let first say that the way the game is structured, you don't really notice it at first. The main continent, the one covered in Mist, is masterfully realized. It's interesting, feels intelligently connected and well thought out and is used as a solid central area to take our adventure on. The place is varied, green, sometimes strikingly beautiful. The main continent is one of the finest examples of a "fantasy land" the series has ever done.
Then you venture outside it. The world is brown, lifeless, dull. Sure, the story might say "it's because there's no mist" but Mist really only is there to be used as a power source, ala steam. Are you to tell me the world would be brown and dull and uninteresting because there's no Mist at all? Is it some sort of pollination the Mist causes? The fact is this: outside the main continent, the world of Final Fantasy IX is just a bland dull rock of uselessness. Oh, there's some interesting indvidual spots here and there, and like the mian continent there's a "history" or sense of purpose to the locations - something Final Fantasy IX is good in, but it's sure boring as hell to get to those and really not even worth the effort because, if you recall, you'll be getting into a boring battle every three steps.
As a result, the entire world is much smaller than you even realize. There's simply nothing to do or go on with the other two larger masses the world has, and you can't help but think if the budget was cut and they just made do with it all. To this, it makes me wonder - why bother? Why not have the main countries of this world be a part of a larger landmass (such as fantasy often does, Lord of the Rings a perfect example) and not try to shoe-horn in an entire world. That's just unbelievable and nonsensical. I'd be much more inclined to believe that there's a boundary that nobody has crossed and there lies places like Kuja's desert palace than I am to believe that nobody got in a boat and sailed to explore.
Perhaps this comes from the lack of establishing a history of the world. In reality, all the Final Fantasy games rarely go into the story of what happened before the events of the game. It touches here and there, maybe past wars and leaders, but is overall really shallow. I don't think Final Fantasy IX ever attempts to explain why the rest of the world just sucks other than "there's no mist there" as if Mist is the end all, be all of everything. I think the story wanted to have a slight environmental message here, Mist being a commodity to the world of Gaia as oil is here (or Mako in Final Fantasy VII, far more blunt) but it's never really delved into.
And that's the thing - it shouldn't be. It shouldn't be an issue. So instead of trying to use it to explain why the world is so uninteresting outside our main land, just don't bother with the world at all. Expand that main land, and you might have yourself quite the setting. As it is...it's just a wasted effort.
The lack of conviction doesn't end there. Let's look at two characters in particular: Freya Crescent and Amarant Coral are two rather prominent characters in the story. The way they're set up and the time given to them, you'd think they'd be pretty well developed and interesting. Well, they start off that way, but ultimately go nowhere. Amarant we can get out of the way easily on how he is pretty much wasted in the story: his personality is pretty much the same as Freya's and his purpose is never really clearly defined. He never shows a sign of having any concern to anything and he's a turn off from the very beginning. Yet, you can't help but say to yourself "a bounty hunter with a conscience" could have been a great idea for a character. Instead, they make him the quiet recluse that is overshadowed by the other pessimistic character, Freya...now on to her.
Freya is the shining example of a character foundation built brilliantly, but the roof never finished, so all you're really left with is a frame of what could have been a great structure. Her story is as follows: Freya is a Dragon Knight and a member of the race known as Bermicians who are more or less dying off. Years prior to the events of the game, Freya's love vanished on a mission. She was stricken with grief until, ultimately she set out to find him and would not return home until she did.
So far so good. That's romanticized case of chivalry and love with the attribute of a role-reversal of the woman looking for her lost love rather than a man.
And that's all you really ever get. Eventually she meets up with Zidane on her journeys, a person she's run into in the past, and as the game goes on her backstory of her and her people reveals itself. The Burmecians are interesting, their homelands well thoughts out and there's a certain element that kind of feels natural despite them being non-humans. They feel old and a part of the world, and Freya's story seemed to be a great sub plot.
Then it slaps you in the face with the idea that it didn't want to dwell on this subplot. Freya's love returns at one point in the game...and he has amnesia...then he leaves again....then she goes out to look for him again by traveling with Zidane and company. It's almost insulting. You can nearly feel the writers not wanting to go further with the character they've put some time and thought into, have her love show up, then have her "over" the fact she knows he's alive and that's all she wanted. From that point on, it's never brought up again. Ever.
Really? You're going to just undermine everything she worked up for up to that point so quickly?
On paper, Freya could have had a fantastic story to her, but the way its presented, and the rather haphazard and seemingly random insertions of her character arc, is treated as irrelevant and unimportant. The reason why is because it is irrelevant and unimportant. Unlike everyone else's story (Vivi, Steiner, Zidane and Garnet or even Eiko), Freya's tale of lost love isn't as woven into the fabric of the main plot. It kind of just comes and goes. I think the writers knew this, hence the sudden sharp turn of her character.
Yet, I might, (note: might) have forgiven that approach if it weren't for the ending. In the final moments we see Freya and her love Sir Fratley together with the theme of the dialogue basically dealing with "staring anew." With this, you can't help but call "bullshit." You can't just throw in a character arc and a history, then complete neglect it only to toss it back at us at the very end with no explanation. Freya is like a book you read a third of then skip towards the end. And so we have an absolute waste of a character and uniquely sounding story that is disheartening and completely dissatisfying. Perhaps if they didn't start her so strong, perhaps if they didn't suddenly have Fratley appear, perhaps if they didn't have the amnesia angle and just kept her always searching and maybe finding him at the end...perhaps then you could have had one of the best supporting characters in RPG history. As it is, you have a half-hearted rat-human Dragon Knight that is utterly forgettable, and that's a sad thing.
It's as though the game knows this, too. One thing I do like is how Eiko has a crush on Zidane. This is sweet and cute and innocent as a child's crush is...but it's also just a reminder that Zidane and Garnet are the couple. So what is Eiko left with? A sudden change in purpose as it shifts from that to the desire of having parents. At the very end, she's adopted by Regent Cid and his wife.
I'm sorry...did they even meet? Why would this happen off screen?
Why? Because the game needed to figure out how to end her story and that's the best they could come up with.
This is a problem with a lot of RPGs, don't get me wrong. There's usually a core group that is given the most time and effort, which we covered in Part II, then there's a few supporting characters that are decent enough, then there's throwaway characters you don't care about. You can't put effort into every single one with equal measure, even the great Final Fantasy VI didn't do that. Eiko is a throwaway character that really was throwaway by accident rather than design. You can see there's time and effort put into her, but it's as though they completely forgot they had a character already that covered all the bases Eiko was expected to cover. As a result, Eiko is barely above the actual throwaway character, Quina Quen. Hell, they couldn't even give her a proper full name, taking Amarant's last name and swapping the "o" and the "a." That's just lazy.
I am probably one that loves it, but I'm not blinded by this fact. Like any good critic, I can see and look at the faults of something, and Final Fantasy IX has its fair share of faults. The difference with me and others that love the game is that we accept the faults but, more importantly, admire and love the things it does right. It's a balancing act, and Final Fantasy IX is one of those things that really rides that balance close to the vest. There's many things that are good but don't really distinguish itself, such as the music, and a select things that are great and bad, such as the thematic motifs and dialogue and the gameplay design that stretches throughout the many hours you put into it.
It's a game that also doesn't have a large, passionate faction either way. Those that are lukewarm to it are fine if someone loves it, and those that love it are fine with someone can take it or leave it. It doesn't have the fanatical either way, which is odd because nearly every other Final Fantasy title seems to have this and Final Fantasy fans, in general, are pretty fervent about their series.
I suppose it boils down to the mutual understanding that Final Fantasy IX is, more or less, a take it or leave it game. Even those that love it tend to understand this fact and can see the dividing nature of it. I've never seen anyone get passionate if someone says something disparaging against it and I've never seen anyone outright say "you're stupid for liking this game" to anyone either.
While I'm a staunch believer that anything can be looked at objectively, and I hope I managed to express that in this third part, this three-part look at Final Fantasy IX, obviously, is a completely subjective work. That's the point of it all. I'm not trying to sway one way or the other the readers of this article to see my view, just to be aware of it. For me, it is a game I love, even though I might not put it overly high on a personal favorites list. It squeezes into my Top 10 from time to time, but a lot of that depends on how I'm feeling that day. So why do the odds of what is good outweigh those that are bad for me, personally? For one, I loved its approach to its story despite the dips to cliche. It's told smartly and surprisingly clear with not a lot of room for plot holes, forced plot devices and loose end. That's number one for me because I felt I hadn't played an RPG that just took its time with its story and tended to focus on "events" rather than weaving itself nicely. The second element was the tonality of it, its ability to balance a rather serious question with a sense of lightness rather than a heavy hand (though that hand does show up in some key areas, as I've noted). It doesn't dwell often on exposition and I honestly felt that it tolds its story better visually (I am a proponent of show, don't tell) than we'd seen up to that point - Final Fantasy IX is very, very well directed game. As a result of this, it never feels like it's talking down to you.The fourth thing is the art design, some of the best, true fantasy art we'd seen from Square that is a combination of steampunk and classic fantasy devices (Lindblum alone earns a lot of that credit as one of the genre's best designed locations). Honestly, if Final Fantasy VI was remade with pre-rendered, artistic backgrounds, it would probably look a lot like Final Fantasy IX, and seeing as how Final Fantasy VI is my favorite game from the series, I'm sure that has a lot to do with my personal enjoyment of the title. Truth me told, I think a lot of the Hayao Miyazaki-esque style and approaches to art and storytelling has a lot to do with my enjoyment as well as his work often shares similar themes and ideas. In fact, I love the art so much I have the Final Fantasy IX artbook and the detail and time spent into the design of this world (the good part of it, mind you) is astounding. I just liked its "old style" to everything. Some worked better than others, but are thoughtful and the nostalgic trip and overall "thanks Final Fantasy" feel is something it excels at from art to script.
But here's the major thing that makes my personal fondness of Final Fantasy IX, and I don't expect others to share it or even see it: death. If you go back to the first few paragraphs in Part One, I mentioned losing a number family members in a rather short period of time. I replayed Final Fantasy IX years after these events and my opinion changed. Why?
It's an easy answer, actually: a personal experience was reflected. It's like when you break up with a significant other and you listen to depressing love ballads. What's more is I really hadn't dealt with the concept of death outside of movies and television. It's quite different when it happens close to you when compared to just watching it happen to someone else. So what was it that I saw in Final Fantasy IX? Well, it wasn't comfort, necessarily, as it was a unique look and, perhaps, a directness to the idea of everyone passing on and us dealing with it in different ways. I was well over the deaths by now but I couldn't help but see a little bit of my numerous, numerous thoughts I had during that period creep up and be addressed in Final Fantasy IX. It ran the gamut of emotions as anyone who deals with the loss of a family member might have. Some were brief and fleeting, others were sad and depressing. It didn't sit you down and say "it's alright." I had enough of that by then and like I said, it doesn't talk down to you. But it does sit and say "human emotion is complex, and death the most complex undertaking in every facet. There is no right or wrong way in dealing with it, but it will pass in whatever path you choose to deal with it in."
A personal touch? Certainly. Does it make the game a masterpiece? Certainly not. But it does make it something that I can relate to, and that's more than I can say for any other video game ever made. While I can admire other games more for their completeness and uniqueness, their craft even, they aren't going to quite have that personal attachment that this single, one game has. It's not a nostalgic trip or something that made an impression on me as a videogamer, it was something a little more than that and the only videogame I can say that actually does it (there's countless songs, books and movies that do it as well, so Final Fantasy IX is in a select group).
It was at this point I started to understand what my movie criticism professor was addressing: the separate subjective and objective self. We can be critical of something and maybe even see it as "bad" but that doesn't necessarily mean we won't have a personal fondness, attachment or even love of it. As a result, it's one of those things you kind of understand others not enjoying because they don't have that personal appreciation for it. It was a right place and right time for me as well, so even if someone has dealt with death in their own time doesn't mean they'll play it and see what I see as well.
Either way, subjective or objective theorizing aside, you should play it. There's no reason to not play Final Fantasy IX, if anything pick it up for the pretty pictures and atmosphere (which gets quite a few RPGs by alone) - it's far too creative to just ignore in that aspect. Even its detractors will still recommend it to people because, while it may not push the envelope, it's a well made game despite its problems. Though, like them, I would probably recommend a good number of games first. Final Fantasy IX is my personal title, yet not my favorite if that makes any sense. Maybe there's a title you have an extensive fondness for as well. Not just one that makes you think of your childhood or was a "first" for you, but something that, within its digital walls, somehow spoke to you, moved you, maybe had you thinking here and there of things that a more than just videogames. Life. Death. Love. Despair. Understanding. Acceptance. It goes on.
It's a trip, purposefully so, down memory lane and though it comes at some costs, it manages to handle all with a sense of maturity and adult appeal, not to mention polish that, quite honestly, has been lacking in Japanese RPGs and especially in the Final Fantasy series. I had considered doing a list of all the past Final Fantasy references, but that would kind of ruin the fun. It's made for fans, and half the fun is being surprised by those little nods. That and it would take far too long to assess them all and list it out. And this three-part article has already gone overtime. Throw in artistry, atmosphere, storytelling with intelligent thematic motifs (life is, indeed, a stage it seems) and a hell of a good localization, and you have a solid RPG that may not be for everyone, but everyone should probably pick up at some point and will probably find some things to like about it no matter how turned off they might be by its various faults.
In the closing moments of Final Fantasy IX, a letter is read as images of the characters and scenes play. It's written by the character Vivi who, by this point, has passed away. I was confused at the time until I realized the arc for him couldn't have ended any other way, and it took some gutso by the writers to see it through. It's not on screen. I like to think of him, quietly, passing on in his home surrounded by his "children." I can only hope I'm so lucky.