Black Mages! Black Mages!
Final Fantasy is a series that shaped my taste in games in an astounding way growing up. Believe it or not, young Rich wasn’t exactly a social butterfly. Once I made it to high school I would carve out my own group of friends with similar interests, but when I was younger, 60-hour Japanese role-playing games are how I spent the bulk of my free time.
I really found this love of Final Fantasy and JRPGs in general on the original PlayStation. I had a SNES and an N64 but they were in the family room. My sister and even my parents would enjoy playing games on those, but the PlayStation was mine, the first console I got to keep in my room. Which led to a lot of all-night gaming sessions and being incredibly exhausted at school the next day.
In 2000, still a few years before I’d get my hands on a PlayStation 2, I begged my mother for a game called Final Fantasy IX. I had dabbled in other Final Fantasy games, mainly VI on the SNES, but this would be my first 3D Final Fantasy and the first one I’d complete. Final Fantasy is one of my favorite series as a whole, but Zidane and Vivi’s adventure made me fall in love Final Fantasy and more importantly JRPGs in general.
Final Fantasy IX (PlayStation, PC, iOS, Android, PS4 [Reviewed])
Released: July 7, 2000 (JP PlayStation), November 13, 2000 (NA PlayStation), February 16, 2001 (EU PlayStation), February 10, 2016 (iOS, Android), April 14, 2016 (PC), September 19, 2017 (PS4)
Final Fantasy IX is clearly dated at first glance, although, the PS4 version has smoothed over all the textures and touched up character portraits and menus enough for you to take notice. The art of some of the backdrops still holds up magnificently. They look more like paintings that a game is taking place in front of and the FMV sequences look pretty sharp too.
The turn-based Active Time Battle system still works great, albeit a little slow. Each character in your four-man party can attack once their ATB gauge is filled, and enemies’ gauges, as well as allies’, are still filling while you select tactics so slow players might miss out on an attack or two. If you’re worried about not being quick enough, you can change the battle to “Wait Mode” in the menu. As I said above the ATB gauge is a bit sluggish so it won’t be a concern for most.
A second gauge underneath your ATB gauge will fill up over a slower period of time. Once filled, the character enters Trance. In Trance a character’s appearance is altered slightly and they gain a considerable strength boost; some characters also get new abilities like Vivi’s double black magic which allows him to cast twice per turn.
Aside from combat, gameplay is your typical role-playing fare: light puzzle solving and quick dialogue exchanges with non-player characters. A number of side quests open up very late game, but the plot is pretty linear. Final Fantasy games have a habit of feeling a lot more open than they actually are.
Turn-based combat and exploring sprawling world maps has always been my jam, but Final Fantasy IX‘s story still stands out to me. It brings Final Fantasy back to its true fantasy roots all while not forgetting the things it had learned in VII and VIII. It has a more believable romance than Final Fantasy VIII, and save for Quina, I can’t think of a party member I don’t genuinely like. Of course, it isn’t without character flaw. As villains go, Kuja is little more than an angsty Kefka wannabe. Judging by his outfit he’s also a huge fan of the Thong Song.
One storytelling mechanic still stands out to me after all this time. Whenever your cast of characters is split up, you’ll often be able to watch Active Time Events. They function as in-engine cutscenes that usually involve the downtime antics of other party members or lesser characters. There are few Active Time Events you’re forced to watch and some that you can even miss. Watching an easily missed scene might net you some extra context along with an otherwise lost item. I’d always wished this storytelling mechanic had made its way to the series earlier or at least stuck around post-IX.
For those who enjoy delving into side exploits, Final Fantasy IX‘s Tetra Master card game remains intact. They’ve even taken the liberty of adding a card icon above NPCs’ heads if you can challenge them. No need to blindly hit square in front of every character on the street. Tetra Master is no Triple Triad, but it’s good quick fun.
The music of Final Fantasy is always worth talking about, but like most games in the series Final Fantasy IX has a few standouts. I still get goosebumps listening to Kuja’s theme despite not finding the man himself particularly threatening.
The PlayStation 4 release of Final Fantasy IX hides (not really) a few secrets beneath its surface. In addition to the cleaned-up look, a few easy-to-toggle cheats are built into the game, most of which are also on the Steam release. From the pause menu, you can toggle things like battle assistance and a fast-forward mode that is becoming very common in these RPG re-releases. Any of the cheats toggled from the pause menu won’t affect trophy progression, but other cheats buried deeper in the menus both can’t be turned off once activated and disable trophies. I’m not much of an advocate for cheating. I much prefer playing the game as the developers originally intended, but I’ll admit I did use that fast-forward function to cut out a bit of that level grind.
This game feels like a home run after almost two decades. The look may be a bit dated, but the gameplay still holds up, and the story still resonates. Final Fantasy IX is certainly worth the time of a first-timer or a nostalgic fan like myself. It’s always a pleasant surprise to see how well a complex RPG can hold up almost 20 years later and a joy to have one of my favorite games easily accessible on a modern console.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game purchased by the reviewer.]