Before you read this review, take a few minutes to read a review of either Final Fantasy VII or Final Fantasy VIII. You done? OK. Final Fantasy IX is just like that… except more so.

The basic Final Fantasy gameplay still hasn’t changed much since the original NES game, and all the “cinematic”, “epic”, “movie-like” qualities of the Playstation iterations are still there. So instead of repeating all that, I’d rather focus on what FFIX does differently.

One nice addition is the Ability system, which like Materia and Guardian Forces before it, is the main method for learning skills and magical spells in the game. Abilities are attached to weapons and armor, and can be used by a character as long as the wear it. As you battle with the weapon/armor you slowly gain ability points. Gather the required number of points, and you learn the ability permanently, allowing you to change equipment without screwing up your character. The system leads to some interesting micromanagement decisions. Do you put on the better armor and lose an important ability, or wear the inferior armor until you get some more ability points and learn the skill? It’s a tough choice that makes the often mundane task of equipping your character more interesting.

Each character is also limited in which abilities they can learn from any given weapon or armor. This gives each character a unique list of skills that sets them apart from the others and helps to reinforce their characterization. This is something I felt was sorely missing from the Materia and Guardian Force systems, which let you equip any magic ability on any character you wanted.

The FMV cinemas that the FF games have become famous for have actually improved since the amazing showing in FFVIII. The characters look nicer and move more naturally than ever before. Explosions are more explosive and lighting effects are more, uh, light. It’s everything you’ve come to expect from Square’s team. The increased graphical detail spills over to the in-game graphics, which feature much more expressive and animated character models (Although I still think they look out of place in the pre-rendered backgrounds. Hopefully Square will utilize the polygon power of the PS2 in making some true 3D environments for FFX)

While these movies and cut-scenes are amazing to watch, I felt they were a bit overused, especially near the beginning of the game. In my first two hours of actual real-time game playing, I had direct control of my character for about 45 minutes. The rest of the time I was watching some beautiful movies, or jamming X to get through the characters’ dialog. While this ratio improved throughout the game, the non-interactive storyline elements tended to be clumped together at key points in the story. Forty minutes of running around and battling would be followed up by twenty minutes of storyline. Better spacing of smaller bits of the story would have been appreciated,

Most of this story was revealed through the new Active Time Event system, which prompts the player when an important event is happening away from the current character and then shows it to you. While this system led to some nice dramatic irony at times, in the end it felt tacked on. I got the feeling that the developers were trying to make the “sitting and reading dialog” part of the Final fantasy games more “interactive” by letting you choose which parts of the story to hear at what times. It’s like a “choose-your-own adventure” book, except your choices don’t change the outcome at all, they just change which part of it you see. Not exactly thrilling.

The overall form of the games story has taken a slight change from those of FFVII and VIII. In the previous games the story centered mainly on the one main character (Cloud, Squall) and his closely-knit band of heroes, fighting against an encompassing evil. In FFIX, the story feels more like a conglomeration of eight separate storylines, one for each character, than one overriding quest. This method of storytelling was executed surprisingly well, with each character being evenly developed and having believable motivations (Exception: The unexplainable Quina, who’s purpose in life is to “eat new and exciting things”). On the downside, this storytelling technique makes each of the characters feel like their own disconnected entity, and lessens the feeling of camaraderie among the playable characters. It takes some getting used to, but once you do, it’s a welcome change.

Another very welcome change in FFIX is the improved translation and localization for a U.S. audience. Character dialog sounds much more believable and less broken than it has in previous Square outings. The translation team went as far as to give each character consistent speech mannerisms throughout the game, making them all the more believable. A great example of this is princess Garnett, who has to consciously dumb down her speech when she is pretending to be one of the ‘common folk’. Zidane, the games main character and ‘bad boy’, has to essentially teach her how to speak like a normal person. As the game progresses, you see Garnett’s act getting better and better, until she actually sounds more like Zidane than a princess.

The improved translation makes possible another thing largely missing from the Final Fantasy series up to this point: humor. FFIX’s tension is often undercut by absurd situations that can catch the player totally by surprise. The main outlet for this comic relief is Steiner, a clanking, clueless guard whose sworn duty is to protect princess Garnett. His exasperated tirades against Zidane’s advances towards Garnett (complete with arm waving) are pretty amusing. Another scene casts Steiner and a few other characters in a scene of mistaken love based off a dropped love note. I won’t give anything away, but the ensuing mix-up is very engrossing and wholly entertaining to watch.

Other small gameplay touch-ups help out FFIX. Little touches like word balloons over characters heads being used for dialog and the new “exclamation point” system for finding things hidden around the landscape make a world of difference. The card game system has been improved too, and is even more of a time-wasting diversion than before. And of course, FFIX is packed with the requisite optional Final Fantasy extras. Between finding crystals based on the constellations, delivering letters to moogles and countless other side-tasks, this game could keep you occupied for a long while.

I was disappointed with the way the storyline fell apart near the end of the game. Everything that had been building up throughout the games first three discs was seemingly thrown out the window for disc 4. An example of this is the final boss of the game. This boss remains unintroduced and unmentioned until about 5 minutes before you fight him, at which point he gives a lame “I want to destroy the universe” soliloquy. Your party proceeds to defeat him, and he is never heard from again. If it weren’t for this glaring storyline inconsistency, this game would have scored at least half a point higher. On the plus side, once you get through the absurdity of disc 4, you are treated to an amazing, 30+ minute FMV ending.

I couldn’t help feeling as I progressed through FFIX that, despite all the incidental changes, I had played this game before… twice. While I still enjoyed the game for what it was, I couldn’t shake the memories of Final Fantasy VII, and how much more engrossing and fun it was for me. But I’m just a jaded gamer who’s played one sequel too many. When it comes down to it you either like Final Fantasy or you don’t. FFIX won’t change your mind, but it will definitely affirm your position.

Final Score: 8.5/10