Initially released during the year 2000 for the PlayStation One, Final Fantasy IX is a classic entry in the long-running franchise. After Final Fantasy VII took the franchise in a bold new direction, Final Fantasy IX acted as a call back to some of the series’ earliest games. This review is for the PS4 and PC versions of the game which are identical, except for achievements on Steam vs trophies on PS4.
Final Fantasy IX follows the story of Zidane as he unearths the secrets of his past and his home world, Gaia. While the mash up of medieval times with futuristic technology is interesting, the plot itself is not. It has a lot of your typical Final Fantasy concepts and themes, without much to differentiate it from the other titles. The story also tries to be more complicated than it needs to be. Especially towards the second half of the game when it throws several plot twists at you without much substance. However, I was getting some Shakespearean vibes from one of the story arcs involving Zidane. Story aside, something that Final Fantasy IX excelled at were the characters.
The main party members are all fantastic, each with their own defined character arcs. I was more interested in the individual motivations of Frejya and Vivi, than I was with the overall story. And Zidane is an excellent main protagonist. Japanese RPGs are especially guilty of having brooding protagonists with very little depth and personality. Final Fantasy IX throws out the window by giving you a fun-loving and quirky young man as the hero of the story. Seeing him grow throughout the story was one of the more satisfying elements and made the ending worthwhile. In fact, all of the characters showed some level of growth and had their beliefs challenged to a great extent. I loved how the characters tackled similar problems in their own unique way. It gave them a lot of personality and made me care about each of them.
The various supporting characters and villains are also outstanding. Final Fantasy IX devotes plenty of time fleshing out its main villain, Kuja and giving the player a reason to want to beat him. I also appreciated how the dialogue of the NPCs would change depending on what was happening in the world. You really feel that these regular people are worried about their safety and wellbeing. It adds to the overall immersion and is an excellent form of world-building.
Before we move on to more about presentation, let’s discuss the combat system. Final Fantasy IX uses the traditional Final Fantasy Active-Time Battle system. During battles, each of your four characters have their own “time-bar”, which, once it fills up, lets you select a command. This brings up my first issue with the combat system, which is how slowly the bar fills up. There is a fast forward option, but this makes it too fast for regular battles (helpful for late-game grinding though!). Another problem is that there is a delay between selecting a command and it being executed. Say you want to use a potion when one of your characters’ health is low. There’s a few second delay before the potion is used, which is enough time for several enemy attacks.
The slow pace of the combat is remedied towards the late game, especially once you unlock haste/auto-haste. As you would expect, abilities like haste are a very important aspect of Final Fantasy IX. Abilities are integrated into the weapons and accessories you buy and requires you to have it equipped. However, you can have your characters learn these abilities by obtaining the required amount of AP through battle. This is more important than levelling up and will be the reason for any grinding you have to do. The fast forward feature makes it much easier to learn these abilities, especially when combined with Ability Plus. Of course, the PS4/Steam versions come with the option to let characters instantly master abilities instantly. I personally didn’t use this (opting for the fast-forward method), but it is a great option for people who hate grinding.
There isn’t a class or job system like in early Final Fantasy titles or the more recent Final Fantasy XII: Zodiac Age. Instead, each character has their own ability type such as Vivi’s black magic or Garnet’s summons. While there is very little character customisation in this regard, the fact that you can use four party allows for some different combinations. There are plenty of abilities that each character can learn, so I didn’t really miss having a job system. Nevertheless, it would have been a great addition and added some more customisation options.
Moving to some of the out-of-combat elements, Final Fantasy IX uses a random encounter system. The encounter rate isn’t too bad, but it felt a bit higher when traversing the world map. Thankfully, there is an option in this HD version to turn off encounters completely. I love having this option as it lets me explore a new area without the constant hassle of fighting enemies. But then when I needed to grind again, I could just turn the encounters back on. Just to note, there are some random battles that are unavoidable and turning off encounters won’t change that.
There is also a synthesis shop which contains a few weapons and items exclusive to synthesis. The items you find here tend to be better than those you can buy at a regular store, so they are definitely worth looking into. Just as a warning, after a certain point in the game, you lose access to a few shops forever. These shops happened to contain some materials needed for synthesis, so make sure to buy as much as you can, and never sell any of your old weapons/armour.
To conclude the review of the combat, I would also like to mention that Final Fantasy IX is very easy. The balancing isn’t perfect, and it is very easy to over-level and crush enemies with ease. I think part of this has to do with a certain speed-running quest that I won’t spoil. Regardless, there are very few moments that provide actual challenge or require strategy.
The PS4/Steam version of Final Fantasy IX is also supposed to be a “HD” version. However, the only HD part of actual gameplay are the 3D character/enemy models. The pre-rendered backgrounds are still the same resolution, making for a very odd look. I do understand the difficulty of modifying pre-rendered backgrounds, as simply making them HD would make it look worse. And re-doing everything from scratch isn’t a feasible option either.
Despite this, the background artwork still looks very good to this day. The backgrounds are colourful and detailed, with a huge variety of environments. Strolling through the city of Lindblum or overcoming the Ice Cavern made for some spectacular experiences. The overall look of the game holds up extremely well for a PlayStation One game, no doubt about that. That being said, I am still disappointed that the entire game couldn’t receive a facelift.
What did receive an overhaul were the FMV cutscenes. These were fully remastered in HD, and they look stunning. These make for some of the best cutscenes that the entire Final Fantasy series has to offer. They are packed with action, emotions and a whole lot of heart. If you want to check out a sample, watch the announcement trailer for Final Fantasy IX on PS4 linked at the end of the review.
The last aspect of presentation is the sound design. Final Fantasy IX’s soundtrack mostly composed by Nobuo Uematsu, and it really shows. There are so many memorable and epic tracks throughout the game. Final Fantasy IX is also the last main series game to use the iconic bass line that plays during the start of normal battle theme. A real shame since it did such a great job of getting you excited for a random encounter. Nobuo Uematsu always manages to create these outstanding soundtracks which adds so much to any given scene. This is one of his best works, and my personal favourite of his.
Final Fantasy IX has a lot of great aspects to it. There is so much to love about the game, from the loveable characters to the masterful soundtrack. Even though the HD “upgrade” isn’t as substantial as one would like, and some components, like the battle system, haven’t aged as well, this is an adventure that is worth playing.
The HD version of Final Fantasy IX is available on PS4 and Steam as a digital download. There is also a PS3 digital version which is an emulated version of the original PS1 game, however lacks the features of the HD versions.