Final Fantasy IX has the best story in the series

This might sound like I’m damning with faint praise, but I mean it: The older I get the more I realise Final Fantasy IX had the most touching and coherent story out of all the Final Fantasy games. A couple of weeks ago, Final Fantasy IX came out on the Switch and I busted through the first disc’s worth of content in about eight hours.

It’s an adorable tale about a botched kidnapping that leads to a battle for the fate of the world. The main reason Final Fantasy IX’s story is the best in the series is that it doesn’t bloat the narrative with high concept nonsense. Well, not up until the last quarter of the game anyway.

Zidane is part of a gang of thieves called Tantalus, who have been hired to stage a performance for the royal family of Alexandria. The plan is to kidnap the beautiful Princess Garnet during a key point in the performance. Zidane goes to capture Garnet, at which point everything goes bonkers. It turns out Garnet wants to be kidnapped. Her mother has decided to conquer the world with an army of lethal black mages and Garnet needs to muster the neighbouring kingdoms to stop her. On the way, Zidane and Garnet form a ragtag party of adventurers, discover the puppet master behind the war and uncover a plot to destroy the world.

As a key example of how simple and effective IX’s plot is, let’s look at one of the cut scenes: Zidane and the bumbling royal knight Steiner are racing to retrieve Garnet, who is fleeing the castle in disguise.

I guarantee your day just got a little bit better after watching this scene. Garnet’s cheeky smile as she evades Zidane is adorable. It’s especially powerful when you realise this is one of the first real moments of agency she’s had as a pampered royal. Zidane’s face going from terror to realising he’s been duped is a great beat for a character whose arc is about learning humility. And Steiner flailing madly before crashing into the ship is just funny. This is one of the best cut scenes in Final Fantasy history. This game feels like what would’ve resulted if William Goldman wrote a Ghibli film, which I’m devastated will never happen.

But of course, this is a Square Enix game and no Squeenix game would be complete without some utter nonsense crammed into an otherwise solid premise. For reference, see the thousands of videos trying to explain the plot of Kingdom Hearts 3. Let’s examine where the story takes a nosedive, which happens right around the three quarter mark.

Spoilers/needlessly complicated guff in 3, 2, 1…

There’s a parallel world called Terra whose people are mindless golems because Terra doesn’t have enough souls. Final Fantasy IX’s main baddie Kuja, along with Zidane, were made by a Terran named Garland to start wars and kill lots of people in the main world of Gaia to free up more souls so Terra can merge with Gaia, which will let the Terrans have souls again. Unfortunately, Kuja is driven insane by the realisation of his own mortality, destroys Terra and tries to destroy Gaia because he doesn’t want anything to exist if he has to die.

Christ…

Even after this brain melting reveal, the story succeeds in being a simple good versus evil lark that questions what it means to be alive/sentient. Princess Garnet discovers her mother is getting magic murder troops from an evil wizard and it’s up to our heroes to prevent as many deaths as possible.

And there is a shocking amount of death considering this game looks like a Saturday morning cartoon. Whenever the black mages show up, lots of innocent people die and you’re powerless to stop them. At one point you’re too late to save a city and come across several rooms filled with dead people, children included. Even the wholesale slaughter of black mages is played for sad beats. At one point the party find themselves under attack by a bigger badder black mage. When the previously robotic black mage crew try to protect you, this happens.

Now the music and editing does a lot of heavy lifting here, but how the hell were they able to make Vivi, a character who’s only facial features are glowing eyes, so visibly devastated? At this point, it’s established that the black mages are unthinking kill-bots, so why is the falling black mage with their eyes blacked out so gut-wrenching?

The above sequence becomes all the more devastating when you realise the theme of the game: You’re going to die, so make the most of what you have. Eventually, you discover a bunch of black mages who became sentient and escaped the war. They form a village and try to come to terms with their newly found sentience. Also, due to planned obsolescence, they only live for about a year. What makes the scenes in the village even more poignant is that Vivi, one of the playable characters, is revealed to be a prototype black mage who became sentient faster than the others. At the end of the game, it’s estimated that sweet little Vivi, arguably the moral centre of the cast, has about a year left to live. Final Fantasy IX’s cute little ending (Zidane and Garnet reuniting during a new production of the play from the first act) is devastating because you’ve just read Vivi’s final message to his friends.

Molten hot take arriving in 3, 2, 1…
Vivi’s offscreen death is way sadder than Aerith’s onscreen death in Final Fantasy VII.

Vivi starts off as a bumbling kid, faces discrimination because of his appearance, makes a bunch of friends and dies after saving the world. Also, Vivi is one of the best characters and was probably in your party for most of the game, making his fate all the sadder.

Final Fantasy IX was purposely designed to have simpler narrative than previous instalments and it’s all the more effective for it. Unfortunately, the series hasn’t achieved this level of emotional depth since IX. Final Fantasy X has one or two lovely moments but features one of the most widely mocked scenes in video game history.

Final Fantasy XII was fine, forgettable but fine. Then along came Final Fantasy XIII, a disaster of a game with an utterly incomprehensible narrative. Final Fantasy XIII’s plot makes Frank Herbert’s Dune look like Where’s Spot. Now we’re at Final Fantasy XV, a game that left audiences so underwhelmed Square Enix had to release a free patch to fix the story.

They got it right once and show no desire to do it again. Even if the ‘Souls For Terra’ plot is a bunch of nonsense, Final Fantasy IX has the best, most emotionally effecting story in the entire series and is massively underrated. Also, the game has Quina Qu in it, who looks like Pennywise the Clown got the Michelin Man pregnant, so straight tens from me.

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