The last 10 mainline Final Fantasy games are as much science fiction as fantasy. The single best-rated entry in franchise history, however, went back to the franchise’s roots in medieval high fantasy. It’s also series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi’s favorite.
We’re of course talking about Final Fantasy IX, which was released in 2000. Right now, it’s free to play with an Xbox Game Pass subscription, but it won’t be for much longer: It’ll be removed from the Game Pass library on May 15, 2021. So you better play as much of this adventure before it leaves.
The very last Final Fantasy game released on the original PlayStation, FF9 is smack dab in the middle of what I like to refer to as the franchise’s romantic era. Along with Final Fantasy VIII and Final Fantasy X, FF9 features a blossoming romance between a male savior protagonist and a damsel in distress with enormous magical power. They each have some measure of political intrigue, a world on the brink of war, and a nefarious villain scheming behind the scenes. But the Final Fantasy formula never feels formulaic when the world is this charming and the characters this unique and memorable.
While FF7 and FF8 edge towards cyberpunk, FF9 is the steampunk alternative, trading in flying cars and robots for classic mages and knights. You play as Zidane, a dashing actor-thief with a monkey tail and a bright personality who stands in stark contrast to brooding heroes like Cloud Strife and Squall Leonhart. He’s a rogue in the classic sense, literally functioning as the party’s Rogue or Thief while also flirting with every woman he encounters.
The story begins with Zidane on a mission from his acting troupe to kidnap Princess Garnet from Alexandria. Except the princess wants escape her wicked mother who is hellbent on dominating the world. What unfolds is a romantic tale of epic proportions that evolves from complex political intrigue into the realm of full-on cosmic conflict. The story oscillates between heartbreaking and uplifting.
FF9 is many things, chief among them a dramatic meditation on identity in a chaotic world. Every character experiences some kind of identity crisis, whether it’s not understanding who they truly are or their loyalties are tested in a world at war. As such, it’s endlessly relatable.
It also helps that the game is just plain funny — and that so many of the characters are weird.
Your black mage is a young automaton struggling to find his place in the world. You also get a goofy-as-hell knight who bumbles his way through life. Garnet summons mystical creatures to aid you in battle. The villain Kuja is an androgynous, uber-powerful megalomaniac with tremendous fashion sense who ranks among the franchise’s most memorable villains. The list goes on and on. FF9 is as much interested in its characters as it is in building out its novel, beautiful world.
Even from a mechanics and gameplay perspective, FF9 is unique. You bring four party members into every battle, and every weapon characters equip allows you to permanently learn an ability over time. There are also passive abilities to consider as well. Whereas other entries in the franchise offer a greater degree of flexibility, FF9 compels you to constantly consider party composition. Each playable character essentially has a job, class, or combat role. The way their skills relate to one another impacts the experience a great deal.
All things considered, FF9 takes about 40 hours to complete, so if you want to play through it all before it leaves Game Pass, you better dive right in.
Final Fantasy IX will be removed from the Xbox Game Pass library on May 15, 2021.