Sunday, 7 July 2013

Final Fantasy IX (PSX)

Final Fantasy 9 title screen
Holy crap, am I up to Final Fantasy IX already? Man, that's a lot of JRPGs. This one was the last of the original PlayStation era (and the first of the PlayStation era to not get a PC release, annoyingly.)

Alright, like always I only intend to take a quick look at this to get an idea of what the gameplay is like and how it's evolved from its predecessors, but it's an RPG so I'll probably end up grinding for five hours before I even get to the second dungeon cave.

Shockingly for PlayStation Final Fantasy game, this begins with an impressive pre-rendered sequence showing off some of the prettiest CGI that money could buy at around the turn of the millennium. Though this time around it seems that they've broken the trend of every new FF game taking place in a more futuristic world than the last, as that's a pretty old school looking airship.

After the video finished I found myself on board the vessel, playing as a short guy with a monkey tail called Zidane (or whatever the player wants to call him.) I was allowed to walk around in the dark for around ten seconds before getting dragged into a boss fight.

Oh shit, our enemy is a guy with a dragon head armed with a cutless and somehow I get the impression it's fake. The dragon head I mean, not the sword, but I don't see any eye holes in that thing so I'm considering him a top level threat to anyone unfortunate enough to wander too close to him while he's waving that blade around.

He's leaving me no choice but to take immediate and decisive action to neutralise that threat, either through use of overwhelming force, or preferably by knocking his hat off. Sorry mate, but you're a danger to yourself and others with that thing on, so we're going to have to intervene.

The gameplay and combat menu seems to be all exactly how I left it in the last game. First I wait until a character's ATB timer bar fills up and then I get to choose a command for them from the box.

Zidane's a thief though, so he comes equipped with the steal command, which makes me think there's going to be more of an emphasis this time on trying to take things from enemies each battle than in earlier games. Also I've finally got my four man team back again after being stuck with just three in FF7 and FF8 for no good reason I can think of.

Eventually we split the dragon head open to reveal our boss Baku underneath and with surprise combat practice over we can get down to discussing business.

It turns out that Tantalus, the infamous band of daring thieves (that's us) is headin' to the Kingdom of Alexandria in disguise as travelling actors to kidnap a princess. And then after that we're going on a heroic quest to restore the power of the four crystals right? No? Okay then.

After playing through a whole lot of Final Fantasy games in order I'm starting to see a trend emerge here. It feels like FF protagonists have been getting more morally ambiguous with each new game. I suppose I should check that out and see if it's actually true.

A study of the progressive moral degradation of Final Fantasy protagonists.
Warrior of Light.
First there was the nameless Warrior of Light: paragon of justice and the selfless saviour of all humanity, not to mention the elves, the dwarves and everyone else in the land for that matter. Even at the beginning of the game he was motivated only by the desire to restore the crystals and bring balance back to the world. Pretty much an all-around nice bloke.
Firion.
Second came Firion, an orphan who began his game fighting back against the evil empire that wiped out his home town to stop them from moving on to conquer the entire world. Okay there's a touch of revenge driving his actions, he's not entirely fighting for the sake of others, but he's more concerned about finding and saving his missing friend than getting payback. He's firmly on the side of righteousness.
Luneth.
Another warrior of light, acting for purely selfless reasons to protect the world. Though this time the kid's only fourteen, which seems a little young to be fighting a life and death struggle against the forces of unimaginable evil to me. He's clearly a decent guy, but his adult guardians who just let his team wander off into danger unsupervised are dicks.
Cecil Harvey.
So far so good, but then we move to the SNES era and things get a little bit darker. The very first thing Cecil does in Final Fantasy IV is murder innocent mages to steal their crystal, and things go downhill from there. Sure he was only acting under orders from his king and he feels real bad about it later, but no matter how you look at it he's clearly a little morally grey at the beginning.
Bartz Klauser.
Okay it's hard to argue that Bartz is a step lower than Cecil the Dark Knight on the scale of morality, but he did abandon his pet chocobo outside a cave! The poor creature broke its leg trying to look for him and would've died if it wasn't for a kind pirate who found the poor creature and nursed him back to health. Oh also Bartz tried to steal the pirate's boat earlier without the slightest bit of guilt. Plus he was so indifferent to saving the world in what I played of FFV that he didn't even come across as the protagonist in his own game.
Terra Branford.
And then there's Terra, who spends the first 20 minutes of her game slaughtering miners who were just trying to defend their town. To be fair she was under mind control at the time, but even when she got her wits back she wasn't exactly jumping at the chance to save humanity from the evil empire. Not that I'm saying she's immoral for having her own agenda, it just puts her a few steps down on the morality-o-meter from 'absolutely selfless warrior of light'.
Cloud Strife.
Then the PlayStation era steps things up another notch, its first protagonist kicking FFVII off with a bang by committing an act of terrorism that destroys a fair amount of a city and kills countless innocent people. Well okay the bombing was actually carried out in an attempt to slow down the destruction of the planet and save literally everyone, but Cloud didn't give two fucks about that. He did it purely for the money! Oh and then his employer went and left his adopted four year old daughter to tend a bar alone in a rough neighbourhood and Cloud didn't even blink an eye at this. The guy had a long character arc, but he definitely started out as a bit of a bastard.
Squall Leonhart.
Well I can't say Squall himself ranks lower than Cloud, he's just a miserable loner really, but he does work for a PMC which recruits vulnerable orphans and trains them to fight from an early age, wiping out memories of their childhood and warping their perception of the world by implanting mythical creatures into their mind to increase their combat power. I dunno, the whole set up seems a bit dodgy to me somehow, and Squall is as much to blame for the situation as anyone.
Zidane Tribal.
And now we have Zidane, introduced as a professional thief who doesn't think twice about abducting a sixteen year old girl from her house for money. A princess no less, which is pretty much the original and ultimate video game crime. That puts him on basically the same level as Bowser from the Mario games. Actually it puts him on the same level as the nefarious Garland from Final Fantasy 1 now that I think about it, who kidnaps Princess Sara at the beginning of the game. So the fall to the dark side is now complete; our hero is now as heroic as the main villain from the first game.

In conclusion: yep, they definitely seem to be getting darker. Following this progression, logically Final Fantasy X is going to star a serial killer clown with a heart of gold. So I guess I've got that to look forward to.

Meanwhile in that Final Fantasy game I'm supposed to be playing, the Tantalus group's airship comes in to dock at Alexandria castle, while a diminutive black mage looks on from the picturesque cobblestone streets below.

Oh so I'm playing as this black mage in the blue coat now?

This guy's called Vivi and his purpose in life right now seems to be to get into Alexandria castle so he can watch the Tantalus crew put on their play. Fortunately he has a ticket, so this shouldn't be too hard. I just have to steer him through these pre-rendered streets until I find a place to hand this ticket in.

The ticket was a fake! Disaster! All Vivi's dreams have been shattered and he no longer has purpose in his life.

Fortunately the ticketmaster (who seems to be some kind of wolf creature) is kind enough to give the kid some trading cards, and then sends him off to find a guy called Alleyway Jack to learn how to play. Uh, no I don't think I will do that thanks, as it's incredibly suspicious and creepy.

With nothing much else left for me to do on this area, I went into the corner and played jump rope with some girls for a bit. 50 jumps later and they were handing me a free card as well! The whole world has gone trading card mad.

Anyway in true Final Fantasy style the story won't progress until I find the right NPC to speak to, so I guess I'm going to have to go pester everyone until I stumble across the one holding the plot trigger.

Success! I finally reconnected with the plot and it led me up to a small maze on the city rooftops. It's so nice to get to play a level that takes place outside of a cave for once, and this is actually a fairly original setting. No enemies though, just the occasional nest with money hidden inside.

AGH! Holy shit Square, don't do that to me!

I got Vivi inside the castle via the rooftops and he joined the audience inside, triggering the next FMV cutscene showing the Queen's delight as the Tantalus thieves open up the back of their airship to reveal a theatre stage hidden inside and the crew in costume as the characters.

Well Baku is in costume anyway. Wait, I'm fighting Baku again? I've only had two fights in the game so far and they've both been against the same guy.

I've got to give the developers credit though for giving me a SFX command, which sets off harmless pyrotechnics during the fight to thrill the audience. Very novel. Anyway I chose attack several times and that got all that over with.

Oh cool, it's one of those Quick Time Events! Success is entirely optional fortunately, but what the helpful message box fails to mention is that this drags on for round about FIFTY BUTTON PRESSES and if you screw up you only get to retry it after the whole damn thing has finished. Even if you deliberately screw up every input it still drags on for about a minute.

Anyway, this sword fight is actual a clever scheme to get our two fake actors past security and into the castle so that we can grab Princess Garnet and make a run for it. Of course she's likely to be in the royal box watching the play, surrounded by security, but I'm sure Zidane has a plan.

Oh hey, it's a mysterious woman dressed in a classic white mage outfit that obscures her face. Well finding Princess Garnet was easier than expected; now we've just got to get her onto our airship somehow in full view of half of Alexandria.

Which would be easier if she hadn't just ran off on me down the stairs.

Uh, what? Don't tell me I'm playing as these annoying twin jesters now?

Oh wait this is just a cutscene of them freaking out about the disappearance of the Princess. That's fortunate, as I already want to throttle the pair of them every time they open their mouths. Just one of them would be annoying, but both of them together is torture. It's a shame as I was actually starting to like this story as well.

Oh come on, just let me play as someone! Hang on... I am playing as this guy. Man even Final Fantasy VI didn't flip between protagonists this fast.

It seems I'm playing as Captain Steiner, commander of the Knights of Pluto, who has been ordered by the Queen to bring back Princess Garnet. Final Fantasy IX features a number of homages to earlier games in the series, so I suppose this is a homage to all those times I've had to wander around every room in a castle until I eventually stumbled across the hidden plot trigger.

And this bit must be a homage to the time I had to climb 118 flights of stairs in the Shinra building in Final Fantasy VII! Actually it's not nearly as bad as that, and I didn't even have to find and shout at all eight of the Knights of Pluto before it let me progress! Still, this whole section feels like pointless padding and I'll be glad when I can get back to Zidane again.

Man, I've just had a terrifying thought: you don't suppose the Princess is hiding all the way back in the room I started off in, like King Edgar in Final Fantasy VI?

Awesome, she actually was at the top of a tower! Not the tower I was in exactly, but hey it was close enough.

Unfortunately for Steiner and Zidane, Princess Garnet manages to escape both her pursuers by swinging across the courtyard to stow away aboard the Tantalus airship. So basically all Tantalus actually had to do here was put on a play and Garnet would have kidnapped herself.

Annoyingly, Steiner swings across to the ship too, so now I'm back to controlling Zidane who has to fight a boss fight against the guy I was just playing as. Plus I'm stealing his leather hat. I have no idea why a knight in shining steel armour is carrying a leather hat around with him, but who cares, it's mine now.

Actually now that I think about it, his outfit is kind of weird isn't it? He's basically got armoured shorts and a t-shirt on, with steel sandals and a metal hat. Must be summer in Alexandria.


ANYWAY, STUFF HAPPENED AND NOW WE'RE ALL ON STAGE AND GARNET'S HEAD IS ON FIRE.


Vivi, you jumpy little black mage, what have you done? Wait, Vivi's here too now? That means that finally all the playable characters are on deck and I can get a party together if they'd just stop trying to run away or kill each other.

Time to end the play and set sail I think, especially as Garnet pulling off her flaming white mage outfit here and revealing her identity to the entire audience kind of gave the game away, and I don't want to see what the Queen looks like in a bad mood.

But first, another boss fight against Steiner. Is this going to be a thing, where I have to fight every boss twice?

This time around I have Vivi and Garnet in the party however. Vivi seems to be a standard black mage type, with terrible physical damage and considerable fire magic, while Garnet is a white mage with a few summons that I can't access because she doesn't have enough MP yet.

Oh by the way, the game has dropped the magic junctioning from Final Fantasy VIII entirely and gone back to a traditional mana system. I actually liked the concept of using junctioning to boost stats, but using a limited stash of combat spells to power them wasn't really the smartest way of implementing it, as it pretty much ensured that players would never cast a spell in battle. But no such problem in this, so I'm back to unleashing arcane forces upon my foes.

Avert your eyes from my magicks, foolish knight, as observing such wonders can only lead to irresistible curiosity, and trying to comprehend the unfathomable occult powers at my command could drive a wiser man than you to utter madness! Or just stand there and get set on fire then, see if I care.

Oh shit the castle has chain arrow cannons! They're not just preventing our escape; they're tearing chunks out of the ship! The Queen does realise that her precious daughter is on that thing, right?

It's interesting I reckon that they've gone back to a traditional super deformed art style in this after taking a step towards realism in Final Fantasy VIII. It works though I reckon, as the game has a really appealing look to it. In fact I kinda wish they'd stop interrupting the story with boss fights and just give me a movie to watch, because this is a fantastic cutscene.

You've got to be shitting me? Steiner boss fight, take 3!

I've got enough leather hats mate; you can piss off now and take your bomb with you! Wait...  a bomb?

Oh shit, well that ain't good. I'm hardly an expert on airship maintenance, but I'm pretty sure that when the little propellers on the side fall off, that's a bad thing. It doesn't look too good for the houses underneath either really. I'm starting to get the impression the Queen doesn't really give two fucks about her subjects, loyal knights, or her daughter. She just really hates thieves.

Either that or she just wants them to stick around and finish the damn play. No one likes to be left on a cliffhanger.

Well we survived, kind of, though now we're all stuck in the middle of the EVIL FOREST. You'd think that this set up would lead to some kind of gameplay perhaps, but the cutscenes ain't over just yet! In fact the game is just so eager to give me cutscenes that a little menu has started to pop up every now and again to let me spy on what the other characters are up to.

So it has finally happened, the Final Fantasy series has gotten to the point where the only real choice I have is what optional cutscenes I decide to watch.

Awesome, character equipment has made its glorious return, after sitting out Final Fantasy VIII entirely. Collecting actual armour and weapons is so much more satisfying than drawing magic.

Plus this time around equipment has certain skills attached, like the 'Protect Girls' ability in this case. If I equip this item and slot a few magic stones into its socket then I get to use the ability. And if I fight a few battles with the ability activated I get to keep it forever even when I equip something else.

It seems like it could be a fantastic system to me, as it makes every bit of equipment potentially useful, even if it's not as powerful as what I already have. Then I'd have to decide whether I want to suffer playing as a weaker character for a while for a long term gain.

Also different characters learn different abilities from the same item to suit their class, so equipping an item on Zidane to teach him an ability might prevent Vivi from equipping it to learn a new spell for the time being etc. Trade offs, decisions to make, and all perfectly intuitive; seems like a sensible character development system to me.

I think like this menu, it's slick and accessible, and it has a nice look to it. It even brings up a little help box when I press select which describes every item and ability, like in Final Fantasy Tactics.


SOON.


I managed to walk like two screens into the EVIL FOREST before running into another boss fight. I can't believe I'm starting to miss random encounters.

Fortunately I'm not fighting Baku or Steiner this time and the battle is teaching me a new gameplay feature! The Limit Break feature from the last few games has evolved into Trance, which gives me a character a new skill to use for a couple of turns once it has charged up, and also makes them look really ugly. At first I thought it'd just tinted him a nasty shade of magenta, but then I realised that he's actually grown purple fur to replace his outfit. Either that or that's what he looks like when he's in the buff. Either way this is the first time I've found anything to complain about in the game's art design.

Limit Breaks never needed a justification, the characters were low on health and desperate so they fought harder, I can get my head around that. But this... makes no damn sense at all, it comes out of nowhere, and the characters actually refer to it in dialogue so I can't just dismiss it as being a weird battle mechanic. Apparently in this world people just occasionally turn purple and naked and get really good at fighting.

Anyway this little boss fight actually got me nowhere, and I'm not turning this off until I reach proper gameplay, so... back to the ship!

I'm having another boss fight against Baku; this is a thing that is actually happening.

So far I've had 8 fights in this game, 7 of them scripted boss fights, and 3 of them against this guy. That is just incredible.

The thing is, they've actually put the effort in here: the room has been smashed up since I was last here, so it's not like they're just padding it out with no new content. This fight is actually here to serve the story, as it's about Baku testing Zidane one last time to see if he's ready to leave the group and rescue the Princess, as that was apparently more important to the developers than giving the player a fresh challenge.

Oh by the way, you know what annoys me about this HUD? They've dropped the little gauges that Final Fantasy VII added under my health and mana numbers to visually indicate at a glance how far from a full tank they were at:

Well technically FF8 dropped them first, but that's no excuse! It means that I'm never sure when I should be using my potions. Why would they remove a perfectly good feature that worked and had absolutely no downside?


SOME CUTSCENES AND A PAIR OF BOSS FIGHTS LATER.


I can't believe I had to fight the EVIL FOREST boss twice in the end as well. Well I ain't quitting yet! I'm not turning this off until I reach some actual Final Fantasy gameplay and maybe even a town. Assuming this isn't just a series of scripted boss fights for the next 60 hours until the end.

Anyway, I've got the Princess back and even Steiner's quit trying to kill me for the time being so I'm doing alright. Okay I admit it; I only put this screenshot in because I wanted to show off the cool little moogle tent.

It's the world map! It's amazing; I've reached an actual overworld!

I can't really go anywhere though but this cave, as even the EVIL FOREST has been closed off to me now, but still at least I get to run around the misty landscape and fight random encounters for a bit! Actually I'd better not now that I think about it. I've only got a limited stash of potions to last me until I reach a shop and I can't guarantee that Zidane can steal enough of them from enemies to replace the ones I'll use up in combat. Because I'm definitely not using up Garnet's MP to heal myself until absolutely necessary.

It's been easy enough to conserve Vivi's MP fortunately as well, as not only is Steiner a tank with a sword attack that hits like an artillery shell, but he can also combine his skills with Vivi's to charge his sword with magic. There are definitely well defined character classes in this game and Steiner's class is God of Death. (Vivi and Zidane on the other hand are skilled at blowing stuff up and stealing all of your stuff respectively, while Garnet current excels at just standing there.)

And of course the first actual dungeon in the game is a cave. Still, it's a pretty looking cave I suppose, so I can't really complain too much. Plus they've added a bit of interest to it by temporarily blocking off certain paths with icy wind. Crossing the wind seems to trigger a fight, though if I wait for it to die down for a moment I'm able to cross safely. It's not much but at least it's something to keep my brain active.

Plus I think the way I can blast open hidden walls with fire magic using Vivi is cool. It's always nice when a magical ability is acknowledged outside of battles.


A FEW SCREENS OF AN ACTUAL GENUINE ICE CAVE DUNGEON LATER.


Moogle in ice cave yelling you bastards
See, I knew it was a bad idea to free this frozen moogle from an ice block using Vivi's fire magic. The poor guy was nearly cooked in the process!

Still, it all worked out in the end, and now I've got a moogle shaped save point handy in case I screw up. Moogles make the best save points, because I can actually just talk to them and bring up the save menu with a single button press, instead of having to walk up to them then open up my menu screen and select the save option from there like in every FF game leading up to this.

Freedom once again! Well, freedom to walk over to this town anyway, which is awesome as they'll probably have a shop there, or at least an inn, giving me access to limitless resources. So I can finally use magic in random battles for a bit without worrying about running out and being totally screwed when I eventually make it to the next proper boss fight.

Speaking of boss fights, I ran into a few of them around this part of the story. I had to fight three wizards in fact, one after the other. All basically the bloody same as far as it matters to me. But whatever, I don't even care anymore, because I've finally been taught how to use those trading cards I've been accumulating.

This game seems to play out a bit like Triple Triad in FF8, except with arrows on the side of the cards instead of numbers. Though there are still numbers on the card, vague mysterious numbers of purpose unknown. So far I've just been making sure to put my card's arrows facing their card's empty edges, and that seems to be enough to flip them to my colour.

Anyway I reckon that means I've achieved all my ambitious goals for Final Fantasy IX now. I found a dungeon, I reached a town, I used my cards and I even fought an enemy that wasn't a scripted boss encounter! I think I'll turn it off now as I don't want to push my luck.


So what did I actually think about Final Fantasy IX: The Interactive Movie? Well, I felt like I was mostly just putting up with it while I waited for a chance to break free of the narrative for a while and do my own thing, but I actually wanted to put up with it. I found the characters to be very likeable and it's nice that my party members have strong personalities, opposing agendas, and that they even straight up work against each other sometimes. Zidane in particular is a great lead character so far, as he's an enthusiastic optimistic fun-loving extrovert who's quick to step up and take charge if necessary, which is a big change from... well, every other FF lead I guess. It's a definite contrast to Squall in the last game, who had "..." as a catchphrase. Plus it's totally in-character for Zidane to break into people's houses and raid their treasure chests, meaning he's the only FF hero who makes sense.

The story so far as been genuinely enjoyable to me too. I actually gave a shit about what was happening, probably due in large part to the amazing FMV cutscenes. But that's just the problem really, I'd rather watch this as a movie than have it constantly interrupted by all the pointless walking around and repetitive boss fights. And I don't want an A.T.E. button that brings up a list of extra cutscenes to sit through, I want to actually encounter these things happening myself through my own exploration.

I know the game's going to open up sooner or later and I'll eventually be flying all over everywhere in my own airship, but right now the balance is all wrong for me and I'm not enjoying it as much as I should be. Still, this is a definite 100% gold star candidate, as I'd have no problem with playing more of it.


Four thousand words later and I've finally shut up about Final Fantasy IX, but I'm always eager for feedback! Talk about the game, share your own thoughts, or disagree with everything I just said, anything's good. You can even accuse me of being impatient and unprofessional if you think that'll help me improve what I do. The comment box is there for opinions, as long as you're not an asshole about it.

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