Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Final Fantasy 9 (2000: Squaresoft)

In Context

I played Final Fantasy 9 when it came out.  I’d just come off of the awesomeness that is FF6, and it was following FF8, which received a lot of backlash due to its Final Scifi theme.  So for this one, Square went back to the drawing board, or at least, they tried.  They focused more on the Fantasy aspect of Final Fantasy (a good idea), and went back to feudal times.  Rock, right?  Um.

This was an interesting time in my life.  I was in college, therefore had way too much, and yet never enough free time.  I was learning Japanese as my foreign language and was interested in All Things Japan.  (I grew out of this, I promise—much less obsessed with things, promise, I didn’t just buy tickets to the So You Think You Can Dance Tour, really…. I call it “phasing” now….)  So at the time I viewed this game through a different lens than I do looking back on it now. 

At the time, I was disappointed with the game.  I finished it.  I beat the heck out of it.  I got all of my characters up to level 99, I had all of the blue magic, I PWNED that game.  But, it wasn’t as satisfying as playing either of the previous games I played, and I haven’t gone back and played it through more than once (I did try a second time, much later, but didn’t finish).  At the time, I couldn’t tell you why I didn’t like it as much, now, I think I can make a better stab at it.

The Plot (What I can remember of it)

The main character is monkey boy (he had a name, but who cared about him enough to remember it?  Okay, Zane, or Zidane, or whatever) and he is a Thief and performer.  He gets mixed up with the Princess who is on the run from her crazy, mother Queen, and they have to defeat her and set the country back to harmony and peace.  I think.  Oh, and monkey boy is an alien.  There is a main bad guy who I had totally forgotten about until I read a synopsis online.  Therefore he is not worth mentioning at all if he was that forgettable. 

The most interesting storyline in the game is Vivi, who is a black mage, but turns out to be a created being, with a very short shelf life, and was created to be a mindless worker for the Queen.  He goes through a wonderful story of self-discovery and grows up to be a hero. 

Oh, the Japaneseness

This is actually a multifaceted issue, so we’re going to break it down even further than that.

Japanese:  Character design

My biggest problem with this was the change in character design.  Looking back on FF8 (and actually I think this started in FF7) the recent Final Fantasies have moved away from the class-based character into the stylized anime-like caricatures of the job-classes. 

Originally, in FF1, the characters didn’t even have names—they were their class.  You had Fighter and Black Mage, because that’s all you need—these characters don’t have to have backstory!  But in subsequent FFs, the characters were more than characters that happened to have a job class.  Cecil was a fighter, but that wasn’t the extent of his character—he was a character that happened to be a fighter.  However, during FF7 and 8 (looking back), I noticed that the characters were much more individual on a whole.  Yes, Tifa’s character was more than just Fighter, but when you think back, perky fighter is what comes to mind (but at least it’s not just “fighter”).  In FF8, the classes aren’t defined at all, each character could easily be focused on whatever you wanted them to be, their sterotypes were much more invested in the type of character they were (moody main pretty boy, the compassionate sharpshooter, the … girl—okay, not a perfect example). 

In FF9, this changed in a different way.  They went back to basics and had a discernable class for each character.  It takes it back to Black Mage, and Thief, and Knight, and White Mage, and Blue Mage (wait, what?), but it goes beyond that.  Instead of being a character that the story fleshes out, most of theses characters are never more fleshed out than their job classes.  They become stereotypes of their own jobs.  The Knight is a knight, so he is loyal and true to the Princess.  Why?  Because he is a knight.  The Blue Mage … is a weird thing that eats the magic of other beings because it is a blue mage.  Kaaaay.  The white mage is nothing more than a white mage.  And a princess.  But other than that, they don’t really show much of a character.

To be fair, this isn’t all of the characters.  Black mages are typically awesome and popular, and Vivi should have been the main character of this story.  Vivi’s story line about how he was really an automaton and was destined to break down and effectively die was interesting.  He was defined as a character who faced mortality and didn’t want to give it up so soon, as well as the finding out who he really was theme.  That was interesting. 

The monkey boy also had a self-discovery story arch, but this one took us to outer space and was just kinda … weird. But I digress.  The basic point for this I’m trying to make is that it’s interesting when characters change and grow throughout a story.  In this game, much less than they did in 8, and worlds less than they did in 6, the characters were more stagnant.  They didn’t grow, change, discover themselves.  For the most part, they were given situations, they dealt with them, they moved on.  It made the characters true to their stereotypes, but not as interesting to watch develop.

I really wish that the Knight’s character 1) wasn’t so Dumb. And 2) had progressed past the loyal knight character.  While he does change his allegiance from the queen to the princess, it’s still pretty weak.  Fighters are an integral part of the FF series, and it really disappoints me that this one was so weak.

I wish that the monkey boy had been a little more memorable of a character.  Seriously, I remember that he was the love interest, a thief, a weird alien thing, and that’s about it.  I remember nothing about his character itself.  He is just so vanilla in my head that he is washed aside in favor of more interesting, richer characters.  I feel that if he’d had some more memorable, strong qualities as a character, as opposed to what he was suppose to be, he would have been a much stronger and more memorable main character.

I wish the Queen had more of a motivation other than “She’s Crazy, we need to bring her back to the wonderful mother she use to be.” 

Quina.  Um.  I wish this character wasn’t in the game?  I like the idea of a blue mage that absorbs other’s magic.  I get that idea and I actually think it’s really cool.  But the character design got away from Amano on this one…

Japanese:  Why is that in there?

Japan is weird.  It is their basic starting ground—the culture is so extremely different from mine that I will always have to consider it a little weird.  Some of the things that Japanese people go “of course it is this way,” just make me scratch my head and go “No, not of course, that makes no sense.”  But that is the way of culture differences. 

However, this does enter into the equation when speaking about storylines.  I’m reminded of Battle Royal, where one of the kids on the island is just stark raving mad.  Of course he is.  There’s no explanation to why he is mad, what mental trauma or psychological reason for his insanity, only that he is crazy.  Maybe it goes under the “Because it’s COOL” category.  In any case, several of the things in FF9 fall under this category in my head. 

Why go to space?  “Because it’s COOL.”  Because it gives the game a new edge that past series didn’t have.  Because they really wanted to make a Final Scifi series, but the fans hated that idea, so they gave it to us anyway.  This is something that I really wish they’d stop doing.  They keep trying to slip the scifi into my fantasy, they did it in 10, 10-2, and 13.  I really think that if they want to go that direction, commit a portion of the company to do so and stop calling it Final Fantasy.  Call it something else. 

Why is Quina … um … Quina?  “Because it’s COOL?”  I guess they wanted a quirky weird thing to capture the younger crowd?  And maybe that’s one of my big problems with the game.  While earlier installments had silly, juvenile humor inside of them that adults could recognize and enjoy as well (the purple octopus from FF6, it was silly, and ridiculous, but still amusing), this game had a lot that seemed just to be for the children to enjoy.  The character designs of the Queen and Quina, the dumbness of the Knight, these things seemed to be targeted more towards little children—to get the kids to laugh.  However, this is the same game that deals with mortality and the giant, deep, question of “If I’m going to die soon, is my life worth anything?”  One of the biggest things that every writing teacher I’ve ever had taught me was “Know Thy Audience.”  You need to pick an audience to write for and stick to it.  If you want to make a game for little kids to laugh at—do that.  If you want to make a complex game for complex people that deals with deep, profound issues—do that.  If you want to make a complex game for adults that kids can also enjoy (FF6, prime example), please! Do that!  But when you have such off kilter, mismatched themes in the same game, it really doesn’t help the game to be enjoyable by anybody.  (See That Scifi Guy’s review Robot Jox for another excellent example of why this doesn’t work.) 

I love the idea of a blue mage.  But the character design completely turned me off of enjoying this character.  I love the fighter/knight classes, but I hate dumb for the sake of comedy characters.  I like pretty boys, but there has to be more going on there.  It’s like the bones of a great game were hidden inside this game, but the meat was left in the sun too long and the whole thing spoiled.

Japanese:  Gotta catch em all!

I’m going to go back to the side games, because the ones in this one really started to get on my nerves. 

I’m going to go back to the side quests in FF6 and compare them with the ones in FF8, 7, and 9.  In FF6 the side quests (and, yes, they were quests) were based in the same ideas of regular gameplay.  You went to a really hard dungeon, you fought some really hard monsters, you found the secret weapon of awesome, you tried to live and get out with it.  It goes along with the whole fighting for honor and glory theme.  And the whole dungeons and dragons idea.  Or, you go to a place, you do a thing or solve a puzzle, you get a new character.  Rock.  It goes along with the regular gameplay. 

In FF7, we first saw actual side games.  Like the races.  Where you could just play minigames because you could.  You could spend more time in these games than you did on the regular game itself, if you wanted to—they weren’t necessary.  FF8 had something similar in the stupid card game, but not as many choices of ways to waste your time.  FF9 continued this theme by spending a lot of time on the card game (which I never understood, so never played) and the stupid chocobo digging.  FF10 was even worse, but we’ll get there. 

I think my big point is that I like playing fantasy games where I level up my characters and lay the smacketh down with my mighty weapons.  I liked dungeon crawling to find the lightsaber (was that called, the Atma weapon?  I don’t remember, it was a lightsaber, and it rocked).  I liked going to try to encounter Gau.  I liked that those sidequests kept with the spirit of the game itself.  Even a bunch of the side quests in FF8 had do to with finding out more of the back story and actually realizing that Squall was Leguna’s son.  Digging with a chocobo is lame.  I really wish that the Final Fantasy series would stick to what it’s good at and not keep trying to branch out and make newer and better side games to cover up the fact that their games are getting more and more boring to play.  Stick to the basics, have a really good story to complement, and you won’t need to bloat up your games with other crap to try to make it more interesting to play. 

Square Problems:  Playability

I believe I said it in an earlier review, but I need to restate it here.  I hated how this game taught you abilities, but more than that, I hated playing this game. 

Playablility is one of the biggest necessities for me in a game.  How fun is it to actively play.  FF8 was fun to play.  Drawing magic was boring, but the actual fighting system was not bad—especially once you learned boost and had something to do during the summon’s attack sequences.  FF6 was awesome.  Because you had to give all 4 of your players their instructions before you found out what the baddies were going to do, it added a level of complexity (and frustration) to gameplay that made it a strategic battle.  I liked that. 

FF9 was just not fun to play.  And looking back on it, I can’t even tell you why.  I remember that I really really really didn’t like how you learned abilities—how you had to play with a character, and a piece of gear, that may or may not be the level you needed to be playing with in order to learn a thing.  That often-times I’d have something equipped not because it was cool, or strategic, but because I needed it to learn a thing.  That takes away the point of getting the cool things.

I’ll say it again, I liked that you learned magic from the summons in FF6, because no matter which summon you had equipped, it was useful.  Maybe not the best for that particular situation, but still useful.  FF8 was the same way.  When you base the learning of abilities on items that are stagnant, it really brings down the enjoyment level.  3 of my party members are doing damage in the 600s, but this one guy is doing damage in the 100s because I need him to learn a thing on that knife.  Lame. 

I think the other parts of the lack of playablility with this game had to do with the plot.  Of all of the storylines in FF9, Vivi’s was the only one that was really interesting.  I seem to remember that Freya and Amarant’s stories weren’t bad, but I can’t really remember what they were about—which is kinda the point.  You want to have stories and characters that are memorable and interesting, right?  I remember that Quina was a cook and I spent a lot of time catching frogs.  Not so good.  Both of the white mages seemed very empty to me.  And monkey boy.  Yeah, aliens.  Because I need aliens in my fantasy story.  Yep. 

If your goal is to make a game that people need to play for 70+ hours in order to beat, then you need to fill that game with interesting.  No, not side games, but sure, have players have to level up—and make the fighting interesting enough that they want to do so.  Have the sidequests be actual quests instead of games. 

In conclusion

This game was pretty much a train wreck.  Square tried to go Back to Basics, because that’s what the fans clamored for, but they seemed to have missed the point as what the Basics were.  Yes, it does mean Fantasy, but it also means awesome story telling, deep characters, and gameplay that is interesting enough to want to spend 10 hours walking around in a circle in a forest so that I can kill me some Tyranasaurs and level up a bunch before I go and beat the big baddie.

I think the biggest problem with this game was that the developers wanted to make a different kind of game, so they tried to compromise with their fans, and it turned out horrible because of it.  Just like the line with too juvenile and too mature, they needed to pick a direction and stick with it. 

Also, giving a character a class and a bit of a backstory does not a deep character make.  What if the Knight was actually in love with the princess and followed her not through a sense of duty, but out of unrequited love.  (And wasn’t Dumb.  That would have helped so very much!)  What if the Queen had a better motivation for going crazy?  Or looked less comical so that we didn’t know that she was automatically the bad guy from the opening movie?  What if the blue mage actually had a character instead of a cosmic joke, so that we have a reason to connect with the character, and the others characters have a reason to connect with the character.  I’ve been in D&D campaigns where the characters have no good reason to be together in a party, and the blue mage in this game exemplified this—it’s not fun unless all of the characters actually have a halfway decent reason to be there.  What if, and I’m going out on a limb here, there weren’t aliens?  Or the girl had any good reason to want to be with the guy, other than he saved her life a couple of times?  This would, of course, mean that their characters would have to actually be developed.  Fallacy. 

Really, I wanted this game to be just as good as FF6, which is my benchmark for a good RPG, and it missed the mark so far that it hurt.  Especially because the potential was there—they just made some really poor decisions.

1 comment:

  1. As I said on your review of 8, this game's card game was insufferable. I read somewhere that there were items to be gotten earlier than normal - items from which powerful abilities could be learned - if one could just suffer through and beat the computer. Except that never happened, because the computer started with better cards than you had and took your cards every time you lost. At least in 8 you start with a few aces-in-the-hole to get you going.
    I also remember that 9 required you play one game of the card game in order to progress the story. Game designer's note: If your game is so bad that you have to force people to play it, you probably should spend more time trying to make it fun before you release it.

    In other news, I totally agree about the characters. They needed such better writing. The knight, even down to his facial design, reminded me of Inspector Zenigata from Lupin III, and may have been an intentional throwback to him.
    But even Zenigata had moments of cunning and this powerful drive that makes people root for him (like a talking Wile E Coyote, really).