Final Fantasy IX is among of the best, if not the best entry in one of gaming's most illustrious franchises. It's a sweeping tale of adventure, friendship, war, loss, and oglops. It's a role-playing masterpiece produced by a studio that, back in the year 2000, was at the very top of its game. And now, the glorious PSone classic has been ported to PlayStation 4 with enhanced visuals, shorter load times, and built-in cheats.
With Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy VIII, Squaresoft had taken the series in a direction that veered away from its roots in traditional fantasy. Respective protagonists Cloud and Squall were still swinging swords (of a kind) around and whacking monsters with them, but they both existed in worlds that had a lot in common with real, modern life. Final Fantasy XV coined the phrase "fantasy based on reality", but the developer had been exploring that concept in detail 20 years prior.
Final Fantasy IX stands out in that it shook off the expectations set by its immediate predecessors. It embraced a much more traditional fantasy setting full of fairy tale wonder, and the resulting charm has proven to be timeless. 17 years later and it's still an impeccably crafted experience -- a story that grabs you with its near perfect opening act and doesn't let go until the end credits roll.
There's a confidence to Final Fantasy IX's storytelling that Square hasn't been able to recapture since. The game is expertly paced throughout as it throws its ragtag band of heroes into one haphazard adventure after another. The title's eight main characters all offer a different dynamic and outlook, with their interactions injecting a huge amount of personality into proceedings, not to mention a hefty dose of humour.
The game's narrative elements have quite easily stood the test of time, then, but what about its gameplay? Well, combat is still entertaining and engaging. Utilising the series' trademark Active Time Battle system, encounters are essentially turn based, but time doesn't always stand still, so it's safe to say that you're kept on your toes. What's more, a wealth of spells and abilities keep things interesting, adding a healthy amount of depth as you tackle the later portions of the release. There's a rewarding difficulty curve at work here.
However, outside of battle, it's hard to deny that things are a little rough. Navigating the game's pre-rendered environments is a very clumsy process by today's standards, and movement in general is horribly stiff. It's not like Final Fantasy IX is a platformer where precision really matters, but traversing locations can still be a pain in the arse.
Unfortunately, this annoyance is compounded by the fact that the aforementioned pre-rendered environments can look incredibly blurry. Their low resolution is highlighted by the enhanced character models, which boast crisper edges and much more detail. The contrast can be a bit jarring at first, but after a few hours of play, we got used to it.
Having said all that, our biggest presentation peeve comes in the form of the reworked battle menus. They're not especially ugly, but the command lists are big -- big enough to obscure important information that may pop up during combat. This doesn't happen often enough for it to become a problem, but it's a daft oversight in a port that should be the definitive version of the game.
Last but certainly not least, we have to once again praise the title's utterly brilliant soundtrack. It's a timeless collection of memorable music, from the wistful main theme to the thrilling battle tune. One of gaming's greatest ever soundtracks? We're incredibly tempted to say yes.
Not all aspects of Final Fantasy IX hold up perfectly in 2017, but the PSone swansong is still a stone cold classic. Although you could argue that the PS4 port should do more to enhance the experience, the adventure's core strengths in world building and storytelling remain, and they're as flawless as ever. When all's said and done, masterpiece is still a word that we'd use to describe Final Fantasy IX.