"The fun and magic that made the game memorable are still present, but also improved upon in many meaningful ways."
Editor's Note: This review is based on the Nintendo Switch version of the game.
I finished high school about 15 years ago, as of this writing. My memories of those days are fond, talking Magic: The Gathering and video games and just letting my nerd flag fly. My friends and I revelled in the golden age of RPGs, so the work of Squaresoft was a hot topic for us. One particular quote from my good friend Eric, which I can only paraphrase, has always stuck with me, as he summed up the three main Final Fantasy entries of the era: "Final Fantasy VII is like an anime, VIII is the emo afterschool special, and IX is the Saturday morning cartoon." I did not play Final Fantasy IX for many years after high school, and I could only question why it took me so long when I eventually did! Final Fantasy IX was a truly magical experience that returned to the roots of fantasy established in the first entry of the series. Bright and bouncy, with a decent level of drama and a memorable cast, the game lived up to my friend Eric's assessment at the time. However, a little older and wiser though I may be, I'm not sure his reductive statement holds true anymore.
For those who have not experienced FFIX in any of its previous releases, the story is like many in the formative franchise: seemingly straightforward before ramping into convoluted. The tale begins in the flourishing kingdom of Alexandria on the Mist Continent with a celebration for Princess Garnet Til Alexandros' 16th birthday. Players first run through the city streets as Vivi, a delightful young boy styled after the series' classic black mage who has come to take part in the city-wide festivities. Focus then shifts to Zidane, member of the Tantalus Theater Troupe, self-proclaimed lady's man, and a thief who players then lead about in an effort to kidnap Princess Garnet. Finally, Adelbert Steiner, Captain of the Knights of Pluto and staunch protector of the princess, is surrendered to player control as he searches the castle for his regal charge, only to find her pursued (or is she?) by her captors. On the surface, the developing plot of political intrigue as Mist's kingdoms go to war seems like the thrust of the game, but the deeper players go, the more they discover that a greater conflict for the fate of world is at hand. In truth, it is a story we have seen before in many iterations, but that does not make it bad, since it is told well.
As each member of the eight-character cast comes together, joining the tale at various points before the whole crew is assembled for the endgame, players experience the true magic of FFIX. Underlying the overarching plot contrivances are eight people who attempt to find themselves during this global crisis. In my initial playthrough, I definitely found the heart of the game endearing by the final credits, but I glossed over much of what was offered in terms of character development. Or maybe it is not that I glossed over it, but rather that I identify differently with each character than I did before. Either way, the veneer of a childish Saturday morning cartoon still presents itself up front, but if you really read into the heart of matters — like Vivi's struggle to discern his origin and grapple with mortality, Steiner's insecurities and the collapse of his status quo, or Garnet/Dagger's conflicting loyalties to family and the greater good — you will truly be affected as the characters navigate very human problems. Players will likely identify with one or more of the characters' struggles, which makes the game matter.
Also remaining intact are the game's core mechanics, which Square has always offered a fresh spin on in each iteration. Battles in FFIX are turn based and fought with the classic Active Time Battle (ATB) system, but also introduce the Trance mechanic, which functions much like Limit Breaks in FFVII in that it charges as characters take damage. However, unlike FFVII, players cannot keep their power in reserve: once Trance triggers, it is active until the Trance Meter empties or the battle ends. This can be frustrating if players hope to utilize a character's transformation, which comes with boosted physical damage and enhancements to their unique skills, for a pivotal battle.
The other "gimmick" is the Ability System, where each piece of equipment has one or several skills attached to it. A character has access to their applicable class skills so long as the item is equipped and they have the available Magic Stones to set the ability. However, each ability can be mastered for permanent use as players net Ability Points in battle, which slowly fill an item's Ability Gauge. With each level gained, characters obtain more Magic Stones, which allows more abilities to be equipped. SInce each character is locked into a specific role (such as thievery, blue magic, or healing), the Ability System allows for a decent amount of customization to suit the party's needs as players see fit.
Lastly, Square found a way to reduce the party's carbon footprint with the Synthesis System! Once players come to a new locale and inevitably find new gear, they render the old gear useless. But with a visit to a synthesis shop, they can combine some pieces of equipment into powerful new weapons, armor, and accessories. While this does reduce the gil earned from selling gear, the unique spin is a welcome change to the formula of equipment acquisition.
Alongside these various mechanics, all the other familiar trappings of FFIX can be found in the remaster with no changes, from the fun and frustrating Tetra Master card game to the equally infuriating, if amusing, Chocobo Hot and Cold. With a strong core experience on hand, players can only benefit from the remaster's newfound polish.
The refresher this title needed largely comes from quality of life improvements that make the story, and the inevitable grind to power up characters, more palatable. Square Enix brought over the same Booster Functions from the previous remaster ports that allow players to tackle the game as they see fit. Should you wish to play the game as intended from start to finish, except for the reduced encounter rate, you can. If, like me, your life is busy and finding time to squeeze in a 40+ hour RPG is a challenge, the addition of Speed Boost, Battle Assistance, and the 9999 booster makes battles and movement a breeze. If replaying the story is one's focus, players can activate Safe Travel, disabling any encounters except boss fights. To make these mandatory encounters effortless, the added boosters in the Config menu will remove the need for any grinding in the game! Master Abilities will automatically master each newly available ability, Gil Max booster fills your bank account to the brim, and Level and Magic Stones Max promotes characters to level 99. Unlike the other boosters, these three cannot be reversed once activated. This flexibility really makes the game less daunting, and it can make poking around the world for various hidden treasures, sidequests, and mini games arguably more fun.
With the added functionality of the Switch to take the game on the go, playing in short bursts on a lunch break or while commuting is now better than ever. Thanks to the revelatory Auto Save feature, players can worry less during those long runs between a save moogle and a decisive battle. Should you lose a fight or need to close the game at a pivotal moment, you no longer have to reload several screens and encounters away; instead, the game allows you to continue from the nearest major checkpoint. Again, in today's busy world where time is precious, this feature is a must for games that don't have a "save anywhere" feature. Under the hood, the remaster offers some other subtle improvements, like skippable cutscenes, the ability to turn off many of the lengthy battle opening animations, and as previously mentioned, a reduced encounter rate.
As the opening cutscenes flicker to life, players can witness the most obvious improvements this remaster offers. The FMVs have received significant polish in beautiful HD, which when coupled with the improved anti-aliasing, brings the story to life and proves the animations have actually aged quite well. In game, character models and treasure chests have also received an overhaul, with crisp, well-defined textures that really pop off the screen, and each line of text is incredibly clear. Again, this goes a long way towards breathing new life into the PS1 classic, especially with a world as vibrant as FFIX's. However, these graphical improvements unfortunately clash against the lower-resolution backgrounds that did not receive the same treatment. While the anti-aliasing definitely makes the divide appear less pronounced, there are certain locations in the game that make it painfully obvious these HD models are running around on dated, pre-rendered backdrops. On the plus side, the HD chests have become incredibly obvious for completionists to pick out! Another oddity in the update is the noticeable framerate drop on the overworld map. The game stutters along, regardless of being docked or in handheld mode, which can be jarring compared to the otherwise fluid gameplay. Lastly, and this may be because I was running it from a micro SD card, the game does linger in loading limbo longer than I would have anticipated, mostly when battles start. While I cannot confirm this as fact, it seems to only happen in the first battle after loading from a save. These failings aside, the game still looks and plays great, as the developers have made a clear, concerted effort to throw new paint on this nearly 19-year-old game that once pushed the PS1 to its limits. It makes revisiting the game that much easier when it sits next to the latest releases on your digital shelf.
Musically, the soundtrack stands up alongside much of Nobuo Uematsu's work, and it wears its medieval inspirations proudly where injected. In almost every respect, FFIX seems to be a return to the classic high fantasy that informed the series' earliest titles, and it offers Uematsu a lot of creative room to play within the soundtrack. In some instances, Uematsu runs with this, using various motifs (like "Melodies of Life," for example) and working them into different moments of the score. Like the story and setting, the soundtrack falls into a "safe zone," so to speak: it never really pushes creative boundaries but still makes for a cohesive work full of whimsy, drama, and emotion. Plus, the fun cameo of "Rufus' Welcoming Ceremony" from FFVII is a neat easter egg. The sound design team was also up to the task, incorporating sounds new and old into each moment of the game. Footsteps echo through quiet halls as Zidane searches for his target princess, and magic rings out with every twinkle and flourish of sound. The world is teeming with life, and the game's library of sounds emphasizes that well, even if they are becoming a bit dated.
Returning to Final Fantasy IX many years later has been a delight for me. The fun and magic that made the game memorable are still present, but also improved upon in many meaningful ways. Square Enix and GUILD STUDIO Inc. have added the necessary quality of life adjustments to this cherished tale, making it accessible to both longtime fans who live increasingly busy lifestyles and new gamers who can relish in keeping gameplay exactly as intended. As some of the series' biggest entries make their way to Nintendo, Final Fantasy IX's remaster is one not to miss. While the game is available on mobile devices and the Sony family of handhelds, I feel confident that the Switch is the definitive system to play this title on the go, especially since it allows you to seamlessly throw it up on the big screen at will. Whether you are a returning fan or someone new to Final Fantasy IX, this port is the best way to play a classic from a beloved RPG series.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.