This isn’t our first aside (and knowing my meandering style, it will certainly not be the last), but if I’m going to take myself seriously as performing and analysis of FF9 as a game, I need to devote some time to the equipment and abilities. The systems used to keep your characters alive and let them access optimal combat options are well developed in this game, and deserve close examination.
In previous Final Fantasy entries, control over character abilities has been accessed through buying spells, leveling up, or in rare cases equipping items or skills. FF featured the ability of magic users to buy spells at varying levels, granting them access to three spells at any level they had charges in (it was a Vancian spells per level/per day system). FF2 featured a similar system, but with a general MP pool instead of Vancian charges. FF3 and 5 both used you character’s class to determine access to magic, and FF4 magic was decided by class and level (not that you could change the class of characters, but hey). FF6 is where we see the first real hints of a system like FF9’s: Magic is primarily learned by equipping Espers to a character and earning a certain amount of AP. FF7 moved back to a more buy it and use it style of earlier entries (though with the quirk of spells being clustered onto Materia), and FF8 was just… well, it was a thing.
In FF9, a whole new system came into being, and it adds some genuine depth to battle and the decisions made surrounding battle and equipment. Abilities exist on certain gear (weapons or armor) and are slowly learned (by earning a certain amount of AP – depending on the character and the ability) from the gear while the character wins battles with that gear on. Because the people that made FF9 are cool folks, you can use the ability or spell as soon as the gear is equipped, even if the skill isn’t permanently learned yet.
Oh, and did I mention there are two types of skills? There are active skills (which you select from the menu during battle) and passive skills (which you activate in a separate menu using a limited number of points and are always on). Active skills generally consume MP, and you don’t often have enough points to keep all passive skills turned on. Your active skills are subject to the fight to fight and dungeon-wide resource management that is an integral part of most RPGs. Your passive skills are all about knowing what’s likely to come up in the area and where your limited points will be the most valuable.
But wait! There’s even more strategy involved in all of this. It’s quite common to find gear that’s worse than your current equipment, but has access to different skills – skills you might want. Skills you might want right now (or you might have already mastered and permanently learned all the skills on your better gear already). The game forces players to pick and choose: better damage and/or defense, or access and learn new skills that increase your options in battle and let you change the way things work (Level Up – a passive skill that increases how much EXP you earn for that character per battle – takes a lot of points, but it lets you beef up fast).
The interplay of these three systems keeps you constantly weighing your options. Do you use MP on a skill in this fight, or save it for later in the dungeon? Do you keep Level Up active and see your levels and stats shoot up faster, or activate Beast Killer and Bug Killer and slaughter the local enemies? Do you need to change your gear and finish learning that skill after the boss fight, or power through with inferior stats but earn a big chunk of AP from the boss?
FF9 wants its players thinking. It provides a giant variety of tools and lets you sort it out. It’s makes for a fun experience that actually gets your brain going, and that’s always a good thing.
Next time on FF9 Versus, I get back on track and we make our way through the Ice Cavern. Prepare yourself for a dungeon that I love, and a boss fight that I hate. Sounds like fun, I know.