Tender Love and Chocobo.
When and if Final Fantasy IX would receive some 21st-century TLC from Square Enix has long been a point of contention. Despite previously finding the lack of new developments disturbing, in hindsight the wait for the PS1 classic’s modernization couldn’t possibly make more sense. If you look at the troubled tale of the XIII series on PC (mainly the first game) or consider recent lackluster PC efforts like Bandai Namco’s port of Tales of Symphonia, I now feel almost relieved that Square took its time getting to Final Fantasy IX. PC port mistakes have been made, lessons have been learned, and now, classics can receive the attention they deserve.
With that sentiment at the fore of its effort, Square has indeed done its oft-overshadowed classic justice. If you consider what is and isn’t feasible when spit-shining a PS1-era title while not giving it the full remake treatment à la Final Fantasy VII, then the effort here is not just acceptable, but admirable. I won’t focus too much on story and gameplay here, as that information has been available (and hasn't changed) for well over a decade. But I will try and zero in on what this Steam-ificiation does right, and an area or two where maybe it fell a bit short.
The first thing everyone wants to know about is visuals, and though the experience doesn’t entirely transcend “mixed bag” territory, a bit of imagination really brings out that full HD feeling. First, the good: character models have been redone, and the attention and care that’s gone into them is apparent. Textures pop, characters have limbs instead of lumps, and articles of clothing, while not exactly flowing in the wind, no longer resemble painted encasements or full-body tattoos. The same can be said of enemies, who now possess a visual clarity that was never present in the old version of the game.
Despite these reworkings, there is the occasional sense of moving puppets or paper dolls, a problem found in countless HD reworkings. Luckily, because the effort of re-creating these geometric meshes is there, the feeling falls short of becoming a nagging problem. I’ll take the added fidelity any day, and within a few hours there’s no way you’d want to go back to the PS1 version.
The same can’t always be said of the entire game world, and this is a dilemma for both the developers and critics alike. Backgrounds in IX were a savvy creation at the time of the game’s release—artful blends of pre-rendered assets and 2D props that worked together to form gorgeous, often painterly locales. What this means in HD, however, is that we have shiny new character models imposed on backgrounds that, while still pleasant, look woefully blurry in comparison. I’ll admit that this also faded from the forefront of my mind as I played, and there truly are moments where everything onscreen works together and achieves beauty the original never could. For this reason, I can’t exactly blame Square Enix for not being literal wizards with the original asset files, but the shortcoming is still worth noting.
Up next is the game itself, and frankly this is where translation to PC is not just a flawless recreation, but also a substantial enrichment. Quality of life tweaks are abundant—all items and NPCs the player can interact with are now tagged-up with a familiar '!', eliminating the need to mash X (yes, I still chose to use a DualShock) at everything that moves. Meanwhile, battles have been enhanced with a shiny new GUI that, while maybe a bit large for the still-not-quite-widescreen presentation, represents a substantial improvement in both usability and looks. Perhaps best of all if you’ve played the game before is that random encounters can be toggled on and off at will, with minimal hassle or guilt from the game. Call me a stick in the mud, but later in the adventure, I’d far rather have these turned off while I’m engrossed, and turned on when I want to grind experience or heat up a frozen pizza. As such, the option’s inclusion is appreciated.
What remains are a bevy of perhaps more peculiar but still fun additions that I can only really refer to as “cheats.” Tripling your play speed, capping out your party’s levels, insta-learning new abilities upon pickup of new gear, and even maxing your Trance meter at will have all been added as part of the new “boost” system. While I shudder at the thought of 12-year-old newcomers having a field day and experiencing Final Fantasy IX this way for the first time, I can also understand why it’s fun for a game well over halfway toward its 20-year anniversary to include them. One tweak nobody should take issue with is the inclusion of autosaving. It happens fast and often, and though it’s not exactly as uber-precise as the save states you’d find in an emulator, the convenience boost can be a lifesaver nonetheless.
At the end of the day, Final Fantasy IX is still a terrific game, and unlike many from its era, its core gameplay and plot have aged admirably. Its identity as a pure, classic Final Fantasy isn’t as shiny as maybe it ought to be thanks to indie development and Bravely Default, but it’s an experience worth having nonetheless. I can very confidently say that it’s the definitive version of the game (not that the mobile port is hard to beat), and with asking price, replayability, and nostalgia all considered, Square Enix’s latest classic remodeling is exceedingly difficult not to recommend.