I’m currently putting together a series of articles chronicling my time throughout Final Fantasy. Sometimes I’m going to stray from that and play something that isn’t really part of that series, but there’s still some connection to be found to it and I want to write about it. These connections form more of a scenic route on my journey, and while I hope to look at these without making too much comparison to those other games, I’m still carrying the thoughts and feelings I picked up along the way.
How strong the connection Vagrant Story has is somewhat arguable. It’s made by the same team as Final Fantasy Tactics, and is supposedly set in the same world, but outside of similar aesthetics and articles mentioning such, I probably wouldn’t have been able to tell. There’s also the fact that this game isn’t called “Final Fantasy: Vagrant Story”. For larger corporations like Squaresoft names are often chosen in relation to marketing, so it’s clear with that messaging that they wanted to distance this game from that branding.
I can see why they did this, as it ended up being a very difficult game for me to parse from a play perspective. I actually gave up on this one after around ten hours because I hit a brick wall. What was initially fascination with such peculiar role-playing systems eventually became frustration with something that I lacked the patience to have it work for me.
Before I really get into that I just want to set up what Vagrant Story is for those unaware. This is a medieval-fantasy action RPG with only a single playable character, where most of the game is set in dark dingy dungeons broken up with combat and the occasional platforming puzzle. That protagonist is Ashley Riot, an agent in pursuit of a cult leader in order to resolve a hostage situation.
In terms of how the mechanics of this game play out, it’s like they really thought about how something like Metal Gear Solid would map to an RPG. This isn’t a stealth game, but a lot of work is done to emphasize Ashley’s lone-wolf nature, it really sells the feeling of being an agent in enemy territory where nobody is there to help and all resources have to be found on-site. The circle button is also used to confirm menu decisions in both of those games, but that’s a rather frivolous comparison. It’s funny because some older games press articles covering this game would call it “Medieval Gear Solid” and I used to think that was a rather simplistic comparison, but now it seems somewhat appropriate to me.
There’s no levelling up and very small amounts of stat growth throughout the game, so character growth is heavily weighted towards equipment that has to be found. This was the source of my struggle with Vagrant Story, as especially with weapons there were just too many things for me to mentally juggle. It wasn’t simple enough to just have big strong weapons, certain enemies are only weak to specific kinds of weapons, and even with that it also has to be trained on that particular type of enemy as well. I thought I was understanding the way things worked, but then I’d go into a boss fight and it felt like trying to demolish a house with a teaspoon. If I had the time and willpower for it, I would have probably gone back to reassess my equipment loadout, but I don’t as doing so seemed like it just wouldn’t be interesting. It’s a real shame too because I like everything else about the game.
The presentation is dripping with atmosphere. Everything is dark and cramped, really contributing to the feeling of a hostile environment. This is one of the few games Squaresoft made entirely in 3D graphics for the Playstation, and the jittery nature of polygons on this platform really emphasizes how fragile the spaces are, like they’re ready to collapse in an earthquake at any moment. It’s something that screenshots can’t give a good impression on as it looks better in motion.
There’s also incredible direction on the game’s cutscenes, with a real kinetic energy that would eventually be used to strong effect in Square’s Playstation 2 efforts like Kingdom Hearts. Characters speak in an old-English-style dialect, which is not as insufferably overbearing as it was in Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions, as it still maintains clarity and good pacing. I was so invested that even after giving up on the game I took to Youtube to watch the remaining cutscenes.
Some of Hitoshi Sakimoto’s best composition work is in Vagrant Story. The music can really sell the foreboding atmosphere, but it gets to its best during the bosses where it brings in the oppressively percussive sound that he excels at. Some of it might not work as well as tracks to listen to on their own, but taken in with the rest of the game’s atmosphere they really shine. Sometimes there isn’t even music playing, and all that’s left is the quiet creepy sounds of the dungeon, bringing the real loneliness of the game to focus.
I know that comparisons to Dark Souls are tired at the best of times, as it’s overused to just mean “game that is difficult”, but I think there’s a case to be made here. This is a game where quiet spaces are punctuated by bombastic boss battles. When I first tried to get into Dark Souls, I bounced off after about ten or so hours on the first few attempts since I didn’t really understand how it all worked. Eventually everything just clicked for me and I ended up playing through to the end and loving it. Maybe some other time Vagrant Story will click for me.
I would not have anticipated playing fifteen Final Fantasy games in a year but I did it. The really astounding part is that’s not even the halfway point, they made so many of these and they’re still making more! I’m certain that if I do catch up at least a few spin-off games will come out before then.
Anyway that’s the future. This article is actually going to be about something from twenty years ago: Final Fantasy IX. It’s interesting that it is the twentieth anniversary year yet I haven’t seen a lot about it online. It was likely overshadowed by Final Fantasy VII Remake coming out. Let’s talk about the old game.
Final Fantasy IX
There were a couple of things that really struck me when I started playing this recently. The first is that visually this game holds up really well. It seems that while FF8 seemed to take more steps towards realism, 9 goes in the opposite direction and opts for a more exaggerated cartoonish look that plays more to the strengths of what consoles at the time were capable of. It’s nice and colourful, with some great character designs that make it really easy to tell what they’re like at a glance. If you were to only show me a silhouette of them i could probably tell you which one it is (something that gets much less likely with newer games).
The second thing is that battles in Final Fantasy IX are so slow! There is a lengthy load before they even start, and the meters that fill up before a turn starts are just so slow. Normally in these games I would have the battle speed on a medium setting, in this case I put it to the highest possible speed and it still felt like it could have gone faster. The amount of time between picking actions to do on turns and characters actually doing them was long enough that I had sometimes forgotten what I’d picked. Even the battle music has a slow buildup to account for the amount of time it takes to begin. I assumed that this was initially because it was pushing the Playstation to its limits since there’s now four characters in a party instead of three, and a lot more visual effects going off. However it just seems like that slow speed is just baked into the game, as my recent playthrough was on a version that came out last year.
This wasn’t too much to push past as in a lot of other ways this game opens really strongly. This era of Final Fantasy games always seems to start strongly with a lot of forward momentum. There’s new area after new area, with the right amount of intrigue, and new characters come in who are endearing immediately.
One of Final Fantasy IX’s biggest strengths is the cast of characters. Pluckish protagonist Zidane brought a good amount of energy in. Princess Garnet and Freya keeping confidence after horrible tragedies they experience won me over so much. Vivi is one of my favourite characters that they’ve ever put in one of these games. He already began timid and anxious at the opening, so when he found out he was created to be used as a puppet with a short lifespan and used that as forward motivation instead of completely giving in to despair, it was inspiring. It’s even reflected nicely within Zidane’s character arc when he finds that he had a very similar origin.
As strong as the characters are it really feels like a lot of them don’t have enough to do. Outside of Zidane, Vivi, Steiner and Garnet it feels like the game just doesn’t do anything with the rest of the cast past their initial setup.
There are also just characters that aren’t very good. Amarant only ever seemed to exist in my mind when I can see him on the screen. Kuja is a dull villain and largely a mishmash of what came before him.
That last point is indicative of one of the biggest issues that I had with Final Fantasy IX; I’ve seen so much of this before and those older games did it better. It goes with how the game treats these characters in that it brings a lot of these ideas in again and just doesn’t do anything with them, and sometimes damages things that could be better.
Mist being used as a resource to power machines used for warfare that’s destroying many cities is reminiscent of the lifestream in FF7, where it’s misuse is harming the world. However much later it’s found to be something that’s pumped in by a villain from another world to specifically be used in war machines so that the world will destroy itself. Conflict being influenced by a shadowy figure behind the scenes in order to colonise a world is an interesting idea to base a villain on but it ends up disrupting other things that came before it.
Take Garnet, a kind princess who had to reckon with her mother Queen Brahne using heavily destructive magic in order to take over the world. It was something that really drove the story forward, but the resolution to that part of her arc is really unsatisfying. Brahne wasn’t known to be a conqueror by a lot of people, and many cities didn’t have a lot of resources to defend against her because they just didn’t expect this. When she eventually died against Kuja, on her deathbed her greed and lust for power dissipated almost as if she was being influenced by someone else. Finding out that actually the Queen should be kind and someone else did makes it feel that Garnet’s (and also Steiner’s) initial internal struggles were a waste of time.
And the game is content to continue to waste time in the moments just after that. It takes a lot of time to show Garnet becoming the Queen of Alexandria, and what could have been an interesting break to focus a little more on developing characters instead becomes a tedious wait for the plot to start happening. It’s around this point where I felt like I was burning out on the game.
This game having a more traditional character-growth system didn’t help with that. It felt like the games before this were getting really experimental and allowed for decent parties to include any character. In Final Fantasy IX, because every character is now a specific class that has a specific role in combat, I have to include specific characters to have a useful party. The only things that made them stronger were experience points from combat. I missed having to manage things like materia and junctions to build what I wanted. There is an ability system where new moves and passive buffs can be gained from equipment, but it’s a bit of a missed opportunity. It’s an interesting way of making all sorts of equipment useful, but abilities don’t allow for much experimentation as the best moves are ones that do more damage/healing, and the best passive buffs are ones to resist status effects (which could be achieved in prior games with equipment).
My feelings on these systems seem really weird to me now, especially since those are what made the game feel safe to me after I struggled with Final Fantasy VIII almost a decade ago. Now I have a lot more experience with RPGs feeling safe isn’t the only thing I look for. I don’t say this to mean that games shouldn’t be easy to understand, because I appreciate those too and have a great time with them. It’s just that in this case the rest of the game didn’t make up for it, and I was also already finding comfort in the stranger mechanics of prior games.
However there’s still some good stuff here, like the music. It’s an enjoyable soundtrack, but for many of the tracks it feels like there’s something like it in a previous game that sounds better. That said Nobuo Uematsu always has some tracks that just sound weird, and his music in that style is especially fun here. Gargan Roo has a sound that I think is best described as “squelchy”. Black Mage Village creates a walking-pace-tempo town theme out of instruments normally used for 90s rave tunes. The music that plays in the Crystal World being a foreboding rendition of the prelude is also a nice touch.
There are also some other things I really liked, such as the way it showed how other minor characters went about their lives. Sometimes it would cut away to them just to give scenes without the main party present, and at other times a button could be pressed to see more of them (what the game calls the Active Time Event system). It was just cool to see things like guards at their post discussing pickles, poor children plotting to overthrow nobles and a few more. The side-quest to deliver letters to moogles was also neat as the letters would usually include their reactions to events taking place in the game.
When I was planning this whole thing out, I made a decision very early on to play this game on the Nintendo Switch, mostly to be consistent as I’d be playing a few others in the series on this platform. Sadly it’s an imperfect version of the game as it did crash for me a handful of times, but luckily there is an extremely generous auto-save that meant I never lost more than a few minutes of progress. There were only six crashes over the course of 45 hours of playing the game, but so far every other game I’ve played for this has had zero. The extra speed-up option in this one goes at a higher speed than the ones in the ports of FF7 and 8. It’s fast enough that it’s almost unusable at times. The filters put onto the game’s CG backgrounds make them look a bit strange as well, especially when they move as the upscaling filter seems inconsistent on each frame of animation.
Those are mostly nitpicks however, as in other ways it’s a better port than FF7 and 8. It’s not as ridiculously loud as the others and sound effects are often truer to how they were on the original platform. FF8 and 9 featured a reverb on all sounds on the Playstation, which was created using the sound hardware of the console. As current platforms don’t have that, FF8’s port had no reverb and all sound effects sounded much too tinny. In FF9 they actually managed to rework them so that there is reverb included, so it was hard for me to tell if the sounds were more detailed compared to the prior games, or just that they didn’t mess things up this time. The way the character models looked was nice too. The higher resolution textures on them seemed to make them look painted on. Combined with the cartoony proportions and exaggerated movements to emote, it made them look a bit like wooden puppets which fits in really well for this game.
So to close on Final Fantasy IX, I didn’t like this game as much as some of the others. That isn’t me calling this game bad either, I really did enjoy myself while playing it, I just think it could be better. Playing Final Fantasy games mostly in order honestly casts a harsher light on this one. However the weather is now getting much colder, and coming inside after a walk to sit down in a warm room to play this was appreciated and felt very cosy.
If you’re someone that really likes Final Fantasy IX in particular I think you should give Dragon Quest games a go. That’s not meant to be a dig, just I think you’d enjoy them, and I like having excuses to talk about how good Dragon Quest IV is, a game that I’d like to play again some time (no I’m not doing a Playing Dragon Quest from the Start project).
It’s going to be a bit of time before I play anything with Final Fantasy in the title, probably not until the new year. Some other games are coming out, and I do want to take a bit of a break. I do have a few other FF articles planned for the rest of this year so don’t worry about that. If you haven’t read any of the others I’ve written you can check them out here.