I’m going to be honest with you here. I haven’t played any of the Final Fantasy titles other than Final Fantasy XV. I’ve heard great things about Final Fantasy VII, IX, and X, and mediocre things about X-2 and VIII, and yet despite being a huge fan of RPGs (namely the ones of the turn-based variety), I figured it was finally time that I invested time into the classic titles I’ve heard so much about. Thankfully, Final Fantasy IX stealth dropped on the Switch, and I have been given my first classic entry of the series to tinker with.
Final Fantasy IX is yet another Final Fantasy title that is releasing on the Switch and Xbox One, after having already released previously on the PlayStation 4 in the past. The release also marks the first time ever that a PlayStation-era Final Fantasy title has graced a Nintendo and Xbox system, which is undoubtedly exciting for those who may never have previously been able to play them. Unlike those who have played the titles in the past, I have not a single smidgen of nostalgia for the series, meaning I kind of feel like I may be the best type of person to put these re-releases under the microscope.
Final Fantasy IX is my first foray in to the classic PS1 era of Final Fantasy games
I’m happy to report that I can see what FF fans have been ranting and raving about all these years, because Final Fantasy IX’s epic world, delightful cast of characters, and solid-yet-simple turn-based RPG gameplay reaffirms its status as a Final Fantasy classic, despite some minor hiccups in regard to the port.
The story begins in the Kingdom of Alexandria, as the Tantalus Theatre Troupe arrive to perform the ‘I Want to Be Your Canary’ play, which is performed annually on Princess Garnet’s birthday. However, this Theatre Troupe are actually a group of thieves that masquerade as performers in order to steal, and they’ve been tasked with kidnapping the Princess. The Princess when approached by thief and main protagonist Zidane decides to leave of her own accord, unbeknownst to the Queen, whose unrequited lust for power sees her commit atrocities that quickly plummet the world Gaia into a land of darkness and war. Although they face an uphill battle, it’s up to Zidane, Garnet, and a bunch of allies along the way to save the land of Gaia from Queen Brahne and her army of Black Mages.
Performing the play is so much fun
The narrative is an absolute epic, with countless awesome moments and unexpected twists and turns that are sure to keep you entertained. The characters are all superbly written and all play a role in the narrative. What I find most impressive is the changes that each of the main cast members undergo as the narrative progresses. Steiner when you first encounter him is a knight who has the utmost faith in the Queen of Alexandria, and as news breaks that she is waging war, he is quick to dismiss those claims, as he’s blinded by his loyalty. As the story progresses however, Steiner begins to realise that he was wrong which in turn leads to him becoming more than just a puppet of the nation he once swore to fight for. Each main character goes through their own trials and tribulations throughout the plot, which in turn makes them in-depth, interesting characters (just wait until you meet Vivi). The amount of effort put in to each main character in Final Fantasy IX is amazing, making them a party of characters I won’t ever forget.
Vivi goes through some rough stuff
One of the most impressive aspects of Final Fantasy IX however, is how perfectly the world of Gaia is presented. Each locale you visit, especially the large towns and kingdoms, all feel alive and seem like they continue breathing even when you’re not directly there. The game constantly cuts between different characters in different locations in Gaia, which further aids Gaia in feeling like a living and breathing world. Lindblum feels like a busy and vibrant town, while Burmecia with its drab weather, rundown buildings and lifeless bodies in the streets manages to perfectly articulate that it’s a nation in the midst of a horrific war. The attention to detail in the world of Final Fantasy IX is simply breathtaking.
Another great example of the excellent attention to detail in the world building can be seen when you encounter a soldier named Dan fleeing with his family from Burmecia. You have a brief yet memorable encounter, and later on come across the family again in Cleyra, where the Burmecians were set to seek refuge. Tiny little moments like these make the world of Final Fantasy IX feel real, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say that it’s arguably one of the best built worlds I have ever experienced in an RPG.
Each new location in Final Fantasy IX has its own distinct feel
In terms of gameplay, Final Fantasy IX follows the blueprint of your standard turn-based RPG. You wait your turn to attack, and then you select the attack best suited to taking down your enemy. The Active Time Battle system (ATB) does tinker with the turn-based nature of battles slightly, forcing you to be on your toes and select your attacks quickly, as if you take too long your opponent may have the ability to attack you again. You can set the ATB mode to wait instead of active, which stops enemies from attacking when you’re within certain menus, but it doesn’t particularly make a great deal of difference. I do respect the ATB systems attempt to stress me in to picking my attacks swiftly, as if I was actually in real life combat, however the wait in between attacks makes it hard to appreciate. What I do appreciate however is that things that happen in the narrative can affect a character in battle. For example, in a time of great emotional pain, characters automatically enter trance mode, which sees the character deal more damage than usual. The fact that these boosts have something to do with what the character is dealing with in the story is an interesting gameplay mechanic, I just wish we saw it more often.
The ATB system is interesting but feels rather slow
If you’re feeling lazy when it comes to battling enemies or progressing through the game overall, there are a few additional cheat features that can quicken up what is a lengthy adventure. Whether it be high speed mode that allows you to set the game at a lightning quick speed, or the safe travel feature that allows you to avoid random encounters in the overworld, there’s always a feature there to make things easier if that tickles your fancy. Hell, there’s even a 9999 damage mode that you can toggle on if you want to feel absolutely no satisfaction when winning battles (c’mon folks, play fair!). These features are appreciated, but other than the high speed and safe travel options, I don’t think purists will be messing about with them too much.
When you aren’t in battle or traversing the world of Gaia to progress the narrative, you’ll probably spend a considerable amount of time equipping your party with the best items and abilities. New weapons and equipment that you can either find, steal or buy can be swapped out for other items, with better stats and abilities on offer. Each character also has a certain amount of magic stones that they can equip that grant specific buffs, whether it be health upgrades or the ability to deal more damage to specific types of enemies. Levelling up particular weapons and equipment can also net you new abilities, so make sure to check out which items need upgrading.
Equipping specific abilities will help make your battles a little easier
Although I love what Final Fantasy IX brought to the table in terms of narrative, world building, characters and gameplay, I did still have a couple of annoyances with the game. Firstly, the ATB system even in its ‘Active’ state, is far too slow, with the wait in between filling up your ATB meter and getting off your attacks feeling far too long. Also frustrating was the fact that in non-scripted battles, characters unlock their trance ability far too late in to a battle. I can recall countless times where a character like Steiner would go in to trance mode, only for the battle to end before he even got the chance to attack.
Minor gripe, but a gripe nonetheless, is the fact that you can use items on party members that they probably shouldn’t be able to use. For example, the revive item known as a Phoenix Down, can actually be utilised on non-downed characters, resulting in the waste of an item. Many RPGs nowadays bar you from using an item incorrectly on a character, so it’s insanely frustrating when you’re in a crucial battle trying to revive an ally, only to press the wrong button and use the item incorrectly.
As mentioned at the beginning of this review, the port does falter in some areas. For example, the 3D character models have undergone a nice upscale, while the 2D pre-rendered backgrounds remain exactly the same as they did almost 20 years ago. The untouched backgrounds already looked particularly dated, but it’s made even more apparent when the character models are looking far crisper and cleaner. Another issue is the fact that issues that have resided in this port for years on other systems still exist in this ‘new’ port. From the background music resetting from the beginning each time you exit a battle (which causes you to often miss the best parts of the overworld theme), to the game still having the ‘no emoticons allowed’ option in the character naming screen that was part of the game’s mobile port. Some of these qualms can be seen as nitpicky and minor, but it just makes me feel like Square Enix aren’t giving their classic ports the respect they deserve.
The pre-rendered backgrounds are really starting to show their age
Final Fantasy IX is a timeless classic. The narrative remains strong and gripping throughout what is over a 40-hour story, in part due to some of the best world building I have ever seen in a game, as well the brilliantly written cast of characters who you can’t help but connect with as the narrative builds. Complementing the superb story is enjoyable turn-based gameplay that despite being a tad slow, manages to remain interesting throughout the lengthy game. Also aiding this port are additional features that weren’t in the original game, such as the ability to speed up the game, and turn off random enemy encounters. The port still has a few issues, and the battles are admittedly pretty slow, however if you can look past a few minor blemishes, Final Fantasy IX is still an absolute treasure.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch | Review code supplied by publisher