Where does one start with a revered classic like Final Fantasy IX? Straight from the golden Squaresoft original PlayStation era, FFIX is, simply put, a masterpiece with a deserved reputation among Final Fantasy fans.
How do you Prove That you Exist? Maybe we Don’t Exist
Coming out of a high in Final Fantasy VIII, the series was flying. The mood was good and my blind faith in the series, at the time, had sold me on IX before it was even revealed. It certainly came as a shock that the team, headed by Hiroyuki Ito, decided to take the mainline series away from the fantasy-but-heavy-sci-fi set up of VII and VIII (though each in a very different direction), and instead into a more traditional medieval fantasy setting. Not only that, but the chibi-proportioned character models of FFVII fame/infamy returned, in a fashion, with said models holding far more detail than before.
What really sells the visuals is the beautiful static imagery that makes up the towns, landscapes and dungeons of the impressively diverse world of Gaia. FF games never have difficulty in pulling you into locations that feel alive and IX excels at this. From the stone pathways surrounding the lively town centre and theatre setting of Alexandra, to the quirky wooden walkways and straw roofs of the Black Mage Village, all the way to the other-worldly and completely messed up dungeons of Pandemonium.
The level of love given to the design of the locations is matched by the grandiose world-spanning narrative and deep-story, which sees main character Zidane teaming up with Princess Garnet to turn on her mother, the corrupt Queen Brahne, leading to quickly escalating consequences and revealed secrets of the world’s power structure.
The classic FF turn-based action you know and love (or loathe; get out of here), works as well as it ever did, with negative status effects being largely useless and a good old heal/buff/summon/magic combo doing the business. It’s not the most tactically diverse system but there’s still room to go about battles with your own added flavour. In Final Fantasy IX, abilities are linked to equipment.
The game’s colourful cast work in unison, landing together in forced circumstances but building into one of the most memorable Final Fantasy crews. Steiner’s oglop fears and belittling of Zidane, Zidane’s cheeky retorts, Vivi just generally being Vivi, Kuja, the game’s antagonist, being an evil sod who’s utterly brilliant at being evil, Freya being kick-ass at jumping, Quina being weird, it’s all great fun.
At this point you may be thinking ‘that’s all very nice but what does this have to do with this current-gen release, what’s new?’. Here’s where things get a little mixed.
The text panes are sharp but, when layered on a backdrop of an up-resed PSX title, it looks straight-up tacky at times, displaying very much like the mobile port it was designed around. What’s more, the character models have been reworked with HD textures but without much extra detail. The muddy look of old is distinctly sharpened to leave Vivi (and the other guys you won’t care about as much), looking like they’re walking along a low budget green-screen advert. Admittedly, this problem did occur in the original, but the low-poly and fuzzy texture look meant it all blended in more on a CRT TV. It was a worthwhile sacrifice in the year 2000, as having that level of detail in a 3D environment wasn’t remotely close to feasible on the old hardware.
That said, it’s admittedly nit-picky because, let’s face it, without either this type of makeover or the unique 240P tube look the characters had messed up pixelated faces so, short of overhauling the lot, what else could they have done? To that end, it’s fine and at least this way there’s hope for a future remake a la Final Fantasy VII (perhaps we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves and see how that one goes first).
The FMV cut scenes always looked amazing and they hold up remarkably well, especially with the well-handled upscaling.
On the gameplay side of things, there are some fantastic quality of life touches to combat the monotony of level grinding random battle loops. There are options to speed up the game dramatically, turn off random encounters, battle assistance (puts your whole party into Trance mode) and ‘9999’ mode which makes all attacks hit the damage cap. Of course, these are all on the extreme side. It really feels like Square Enix should have doubled down on quality of life changes with some Bravely Default style tweaking to allow a more customisable encounter rate and more granular speed options, that said, it is but a small gripe in an otherwise decent package.
Rounding off the additions, you have an autosave feature which means those extended runs towards that one boss that was giving you grief are now slashed. Given the hardware can easily handle it, a save state option would have been better.
Final.. This will Take a Minuet
My son, TheJazzMan himself, and I decided to tackle this game together. His history of Final Fantasy is limited, with some time spent on XIII, XV and a smidgen of VIII, whereas I’ve tackled all mainline FF games besides II, for some reason. With that in mind, I thought it best to grab some of his thoughts, as a first-time player.
Mike: “So, does anything stand out to you so far?”
JazzMan: “Background art.”
Mike: “What do you make of the battle system?”
JazzMan: “Did the original have all the extra options like the faster movement and all that?”
Mike: “No, no it did not. Does that surprise you?”
JazzMan: “Yes and no, the ‘9999’ mode and Battle Assistance doesn’t, but I presumed the speed options and safe travel would have been there.”
Mike: “Nope, we had to grind like chumps. And swap discs…”
Mike: “…What did you think of the cut scenes?”
JazzMan: “They look really good. If you showed those cut scenes by themselves, you’d never guess it was a PS1 game. It all looks impressive. The background looks really nice. 7 and 8 were very sci-fi but this one’s more medieval.”
Mike: “Do you prefer the settings of 7 and 8 to 9?”
JazzMan: I don’t really have a preference, I don’t really remember much from playing that small bit of 8 bar walking through a futuristic city and I’ve only seen videos of 7. I quite like medieval fantasy settings generally but, no, no real preference.”
Note to self: must rectify that, the boy must play VIII to the end!
Mike: “So what’s your final verdict?”
JazzMan: “I like it, I’ll play more Final Fantasy games in the future”
Mike: “Yeah, they’re not all that good.”
JazzMan: “I think Noctis should be in Smash.”
Mike: “Erm, we’re way off track here.”
Nobuo Uematsu’s masterful compositions mark one of the most memorable soundtracks that’s ever graced the series. Atmospheric, catchy, exhilarating and very Final Fantasy. The title theme is unforgettable but the one that will stick with you forever is the World Map theme, ‘Crossing Those Hills’. This warming track is simply delightful, and the peaceful tones evoke that comfortable ‘home’ feeling. And yeah, the battle music never gets old.
So, should you buy FFIX for Xbox One, PS4 or Switch? Absolutely. The game suffers from marginally disjointed partially-modernised visuals but that doesn’t mean it’s any less enjoyable in terms of raw gameplay and story.
Overall Score: 9/10
What’s here is the same experience as the 2016 Steam release and, even if the minor additions don’t quite go far enough, Final Fantasy IX is every bit as magnificent as it always has been. This game holds up perfectly to this day and there’s never a bad time to revisit this classic. If I had the nostalgia specs on, this would be a perfect 10.
Format: PS4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One (reviewed), PC, Android, iOS
Price: £16.99 (Xbox Store)
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Square Enix
Age Rating: PEGI 12
Release Date: 14/02/19 (Xbox Store)
Review copy provided by publisher