Final Fantasy IX PC Review
In many respects, Final Fantasy IX is the Wind Waker to Final Fantasy’s Zelda; though the game was conceived as a celebration of the series up to that point, the cutesier and more cartoonish visual style for FFIX did not sit entirely well with fans brought in by the more mature designs and futuristic backdrops that made up the two previous (and most popular) entries in the series. As a result, FFIX ended up as the lowest selling of the “Playstation Trilogy”, and it would be many years later when fans would develop a newfound appreciation, especially when weighed against the more divisive FF titles that would precede it.
While many of the other Final Fantasy titles would eventually be re-released (and even remade, a concept that fans hounded Square Enix for years to apply to a certain beloved entry) across multiple platforms, including PC and mobile, Final Fantasy IX remained exclusive to Playstation platforms via its original release and digitally through PSN. Now, nearly sixteen years later and following its recent mobile release, FFIX is now available again on a modern gaming platform, giving players a chance to relive (or discover) one of the greatest Final Fantasy experiences ever conceived, back when such a feat seemed impossible.
The story of Final Fantasy IX begins in the kingdom of Alexandria, where a young thief named Zidane plots to kidnap Garnet, the crowned princess of the kingdom. In an unexpected twist, Garnet had already made plans to sneak out of Alexandria for unknown reasons, and enlists Zidane’s aid in helping her, while her overprotective (and often overbearing) bodyguard Steiner and the Black Mage youth Vivi come along for the ride. What follows is an RPG-length adventure across multiple continents, as the group avoids the deadly pursuers unleashed by Garnet’s mother Queen Brahne while also meeting some additional friends and foes along the way.
Much like its more whimsical art style, the thing that sets FFIX apart from other Final Fantasy games is its persistent sense of optimism and wonder. Every moment feels like an adventure, and every character is given a chance to shine with their amusing quirks and likeable personalities. Main protagonist Zidane couldn’t be any more of a stark contrast to Cloud and Squall, great characters in their own rights but certainly not known for their warm personalities. Don’t assume that FFIX is a completely lighthearted affair, though: there are more than a fair amount of tragic and even disturbing moments, as every party member is tested to hang onto their bonds of love and friendship in order to overcome their individual perils. In particular, it would take a heart of solid stone not to feel attached to Vivi, the shy and often naïve child who learns to grow more confident amidst hardships that would break lesser men. The intricate balance between silly and serious moments as well as the endless collection of epic action sequences has made Final Fantasy IX the closest thing Square had to a Disney-inspired adventure long before Kingdom Hearts was conceived.
As with most FF games, FFIX bears no direct connection to other titles in the series. Yet its creation as a monument to the Final Fantasy legacy means that there are countless references, nods and easter eggs that call back to the eight titles released prior, some which should be familiar to even the most casual of players and some that may elude even the most hardcore (including a few nods to FFIII, which at the time was still Japanese exclusive). The most familiar carryover, however, is the battle system which incorporates most of the ATB (Active Time Battle) system that defined the series’ penchant for turn-based roleplaying. As in previous games, players control their party during random battles, where both players and enemies must wait for their respective bars to fill up in order to initiate a turn. Once a character’s turn comes up, various options become available, and it is up to the player to determine which decision will result in victory: should Garnet use her healing magic to restore a party member’s health, or should she summon one of her powerful Eidolons to try and finish off the enemy? Is this particular enemy weak to Vivi’s fire magic or his thunder? Should Zidane waste several chances to attack in order to try and steal a valuable treasure carried by the enemy (the answer is yes, always)? Every battle is unique, and every decision is crucial.
FFIX also includes a few interesting innovations that have yet to be repeated in preceding entries, such as the ability to unleash combination attacks with Vivi and Steiner, or the ATE (Active Time Event) mechanic that allows players to witness additional (and optional) cutscenes with different characters. The game also includes the concept of learning new abilities through equipment; certain weapons and armor contain skills that can be performed by the appropriate party member once they’re equipped. As players gain EXP to level up, they also gain AP to put toward these skills. Once a skill is fully learned, the equipment is no longer needed, and that character can equip that ability any time they like. Such skills include new magic for Vivi and Garnet, or more passive abilities like Steiner dealing extra damage to specific enemy types like bugs and beasts, or to give Zidane additional Thief abilities. These skills are plentiful and also crucial, though once again the skill cannot be permanently learned until the corresponding equipment is fully leveled. This can create scenarios where players may find a piece of equipment with better stats, but may choose not to swap the characters’ gear until they learn the latest skill. Whether this persistent dilemma adds to the overall experience or detracts from it is debatable, unlike the unfun and arbitrary card game, Tetra Master, which is totally inferior to FFVIII’s Triple Triad mini-game.
Though the core gameplay of FFIX remains unchanged (minus some handy additional features such as the ability to toggle faster game speed as well as downright cheats like max levels), the PC port does enjoy a few spruced-up improvements to the visuals. The character models have all been swapped out with higher quality versions, allowing for details that originally remained obscure. Similarly, the FMVs are a significant jump in quality from the original’s PSX-era compression. Unfortunately, nothing could be done for the pre-rendered backgrounds, which are still technically impressive to this day but also noticeably blurrier when compared to the sharper character models and text. A few other glaring issues remain on the PC version as well, such as the lack of true analog control (the analog stick only emulates the movement from the d-pad) as well as the possibility of Xbox One controllers spazzing out on the main menu. Unplugging and replugging the controller is one solution, while a much better one would be to use a Dualshock 4, though that also means having to deal with the Xbox button prompts in the game. There is also the issue of the battle UI being significantly larger than the original’s, obscuring a bit more of the screen as a result. As usual, modders are hard at work and should eventually offer alternatives to these glaring issues, but as of this writing they remain unchanged.
Inconsistencies aside, this is undoubtedly the definitive version of Final Fantasy IX, which to this day earns the distinction of being a truly classic Final Fantasy experience. Whether you’re an old fan eager to revisit this world or a new fan interested in trying a long lauded JRPG, the game’s timeless charm, polish and attention to detail is bound to resonate regardless of which side of the spectrum you fall upon. If anyone needed a clear example of what fans hail as a top notch FF experience compared to the less-received modern entries, look no further.