So, with the matter of their dubious shared-yet-forgotten past out of the way, for now, the group decides to visit Edea’s Orphanage, but this visit ends quite abruptly. You’re not able to actually enter the orphanage, and Squall notices “something huge” nearby – Galbadia Garden, floating ominously above the nearby forest.
This is it. The grand finale of Final Fantasy VIII. Well, not really, of course… we’ve still got two discs to go! Part of me feels that the game would’ve been better off ending during this sequence. As a tale of high-school drama leading into a war between nations, there’s something symbolically satisfying about it finishing with a fight between the two schools, not that the Galbadian students are combatants themselves. The third and fourth discs take the story to high levels of wackiness that are surpassed only by the series-breaking revelations in Star Ocean 3 (no, I’m not writing about that one, probably).
At the same time, I think Disc 3 has a lot of interesting ideas and symbolism, and the setting, while divisive within my own opinion, is so wildly different to the more grounded countries you explore in Disc 1 that it would be a shame to miss out on them. The problem is that the entire plot of that disc feels like a distraction, but given that Ultimecia probably would’ve had more success if she’d covertly hunted down Ellone by herself instead of taking over the world, you could probably argue that the entire story is a waste of time.
But I’m getting ahead of myself again. We’re here to fight Galbadia Garden, so that’s what we’ll do.
Once Squall spies Galbadia Garden, he makes the decision to have their last stand. It’s probably worth remembering that Squall previously announced that Garden would serve as their mobile platform for war against the sorceress, but kept all of these children aboard anyway. Now he just compounds the issue by launching an all-out attack without evacuating them first. However, let’s just set that to one side.
You get to choose the orders Squall gives to the entire Garden, and people will shout at you for picking pointless or unimportant ones. Still, it’s always good to secure the hot dogs, and I’ll fight anyone who disagrees.
The companions gather, but Zell’s missing. The others make excuses for his absence, which it later turns out is something to do with Rinoa making a request of him. It’s a bit of an odd thing for them to worry about during this sequence, but I presume that the earlier story segments were already done when the writer(s) decided to insert the bit where Rinoa talks to Squall about his ring midway through this sequence, so they had to squash it in here instead.
The Battle of the Gardens, as I believe it is known, is divided into two main sections. The first part has you defending Balamb Garden from boarders (not the student kind), which is itself split between some impressive FMV set pieces, a variety of battles, and even a minigame. The second, meanwhile, is your traditional Final Fantasy dungeon crawl, culminating in some boss fights.
In this first part, you swap characters a few times, and it can get confusing knowing when you actually need to switch your Guardian Forces between them (yeah, I stick them all on the main three characters I use, if that’s bad then you’ll just have to face me in court). The game even warns you not to equip Guardian Forces just yet at one point. All the same, I panicked every time I swapped party members.
Squall meets up with Zell at the quad, and Zell asks Squall for his ring. Squall’s confused, but surprisingly agrees to the request despite Zell refusing to give a clear answer on why he’d need it. While Zell and the others are attempting to keep a certain level of secrecy going, Zell still lets slip that it’s something to do with Rinoa.
Once the defences are checked and ready, Galbadia launches its attack. Seifer strikes a pose for several seconds, and then directs his troops to drive their motorcycles off Galbadia Garden and land on Balamb Garden. It’s certainly a daring method of attack, but it works, and Balamb Garden feels the pressure as Galbadia swarms in on all fronts.
In the midst of the crisis, Zell feels that it’s a good time to hand Squall’s ring over to Rinoa. Somewhat confusingly, Zell’s promised to make Rinoa one of her own, but he apparently doesn’t need Squall’s one as a reference? Perhaps he’s like one of those painters who can recreate skylines after just one look.
Either way, Rinoa takes possession of the ring at this point, only for Galbadia Garden to ram Balamb moments later. She falls from the Garden but just manages to get hold of the side, left to dangle there for the next twenty minutes while everyone badgers Squall that he needs to save her while he’s trying to coordinate the defence, a role that they also hassled him to take on earlier.
Ignoring the demands to rescue Rinoa, Squall mosies on up to the second floor classroom (is there only the one?) and stops a Galbadian assault. This done, he’s called up to the bridge by Dr Kadowaki, whose urgent request is for him to give her a status report (Cid is conspicuously absent during this sequence, as I mentioned before).
Analysing his report, Dr Kadowaki decides that the only way to fix this is for Squall to go and beat up Seifer. However, the group gets angry at Squall for not saving Rinoa again, so he’s hassled off to go and save her (there’s a lot of “it has to be you” talk that wouldn’t be out of place in duty-obsessed FFXV, maybe the writers were the same). Only it’s not quite time to help her yet, because just as Squall resolves to go after her, Dr Kadowaki badgers him to deliver a speech, which he duly does, in probably his most effective out-loud moment in the game so far.
Squall recognises that people are likely tired by this point, but asks how everyone is and encourages them to not give up. He explains their change in tactic – that they’re going to straight-up fly into Galbadia Garden and take the fight to them. He emphasises that SeeD’s goal is to fight the sorceress, making this their destined battle (weakened somewhat when he adds “at least, that’s what I heard”).
At this point, they ram Galbadia Garden.
Now, it’s been a bit patchy trying to emphasis the silly way Rinoa’s handled in this sequence, since other things have been happening at the same time, so let’s go over it again. Rinoa falls from the quad but manages to grab hold, dangling from the flying Garden as it gets rammed repeatedly by its rival. The group harangue Squall about rescuing her, but then convince him to deliver a long speech, while she’s still hanging on, and then immediately after they speed Balamb Garden into the Galbadia Garden at full force, again, while she’s still hanging on.
The fact that Rinoa keeps her grip during this surely makes her the strongest human alive.
The Balamb attack force spills from their Garden after their Galbadian opponents fall from the sky and crash into the ground. Meanwhile, Squall gets distracted again on his way to help Rinoa. A child has got lost in one of the corridors (I told you to evacuate them before starting the battle, Squall!), and he’s interrupted by the rude appearance of a Galbadian soldier flying some sort of strange hover contraption.
Rather than initiating a turn-based battle, Squall can either allow the soldier to keep clonking him, subtracting health from a suspicious new health bar that appears on-screen, or activate the emergency exit behind him, causing the soldier’s next charge to send them both out of Balamb Garden and into the open air, where the soldier challenges you to a game of (sort-of) rock, paper, scissors.
The hover machine sends you on an impressive tour of the battle scene, in a glorious FMV you’ll probably only half-watch, as you’ll be busy trying to beat up this rude soldier. As with most rock, paper, scissors combat, this is one of those fights that can be extremely frustrating or easy as pie. I just spammed Squall’s punch the second time and won (I spent too much of the first taking screenshots), but I’ve for sure lost horribly in other encounters.
This unusual set piece is good news for Squall, though, as he then gets to use the hover machine thingy to rescue Rinoa, who’s still clinging to the Garden like a champ. Together they fly down to the surface, where the battle against Galbadia is in full swing. Squall runs past the entire conflict with Rinoa so they can have a chat about his ring somewhere quiet.
Okay, fine, so Squall’s probably sticking to his plan to go after the leaders and bring a swift end to this conflict, and it’s Rinoa who starts the conversation about the ring, but still.
Rinoa expresses her gratitude to Squall for saving her, and explains that she had to hold on, or she’d have lost Squall’s ring. Squall’s furious with Zell and demands the ring back, before explaining to Rinoa that it’s a lion, known for “great pride and strength”. Rinoa remarks that it’s not unlike him, though Squall admits that he doesn’t consider himself good enough. You get the chance to name it, which will come back to haunt you during the final boss encounter if you call it something stupid.
Apparently Rinoa’s asked Zell to make her one, and Squall becomes concerned about people getting the wrong idea about the two of them. While he doesn’t say it out loud, he thinks about how obvious people are being about trying to get them both together. Squall shows no interest in Rinoa’s flirting in this conversation as usual, and then they head on into Galbadia Garden.
Once inside, they meet up with the rest of the main party, and Squall delivers a last speech encouraging them to go after the sorceress with no hesitation, daring to briefly touch on the whole Matron thing. His mind is clearly not quite made up on the whole thing, but he carries on regardless.
Galbadia Garden is quite a contrast to the previous sequence, which was energetic and flashy. The same dour theme from your earlier visit plays, and you get to explore some of the rooms that were closed off to you before. Monsters attack you in the halls, but you can also find a few hiding Galbadian students, who give you keys to help you progress further inside. You can even get into a fight with unique enemies at the hockey rink, which is fairly easy to miss.
Partway into the Garden, you can find the Guardian Force Cerberus standing in the middle of the main hall. This was another boss that murdered me constantly when I first played, without understanding character-building or using any spells. This time around, I bopped him a few times with Squall’s gunblade and he gave up.
You can also run into Raijin and Fujin, who are much less belligerent this time around. Raijin just wants the old Seifer back, and leaves him up to Squall and the others. You'd think that might be a bad idea, given that Squall’s likely going to have to kill him if they fight, but Squall tends to spare named characters, so I suppose Raijin’s onto something.
Once you’re done with your key-collecting, it’s time to face off with the sorceress in Martine’s old office. Edea’s waiting with Seifer, and this is where Seifer tries to taunt them about fighting Matron. It seems that he’s also aware of his forgotten past and thinks everyone else should care about it too, but Squall doesn’t.
Seifer addresses the other party members as well. In my case, he tried to taunt Rinoa about their prior relationship, leaving unstated what they did, and Rinoa tells him to shut up. As for Zell, Seifer just delivers the usual “chicken-wuss” taunt, but also remarks on lots happening between them, which is probably the least-dismissive thing he’s ever said to him. Zell doesn’t rise to the taunt, instead showing enthusiasm at getting even. Squall describes Seifer as just another monster, and Seifer responds with “you guys are the monsters”. Having defeated Squall in word games so roundly, he starts his boss fight.
Once you’ve sufficiently thwacked Seifer, he drops to the floor, prompting Edea to rise from her chair in a most inhuman and unnerving manner. Insulting Seifer, she then disappears through the floor (as you do), and Squall rushes downstairs to the auditorium with his companions in tow. Edea smashes through a blue screen overhead and then addresses Squall from the podium.
She mentions that he’s the legendary SeeD destined to face her, and then dismisses him as an impressive nuisance. At this point, Seifer walks up next to her from somewhere (I thought he was injured? Did he have a shortcut from the office upstairs?) and she calls him worthless a second time. Squall thinks to himself that this shows that she’s not their Matron, and Edea starts the final battle (of Disc 2).
The first part of the fight involves fighting a severely-weakened Seifer, while Edea lets you take him down. Seriously, she just stands and watches, and you can’t target her. This, quite honestly, is Seifer’s last good moment in the story. Reduced to a shadow of his brash and powerful persona we saw in the story’s opening, he gets his final humiliation as the alleged sorceress’s knight, left to fend for himself while injured, and dismissed.
Unfortunately, it’s not the end of his story, and depending on what you do in the game, his finale is a farce. I’ll get around to that later, naturally, so let’s return our attention to Edea’s last appearance as an antagonist.
You know the drill with me and boss fights by this stage. I only had to do this fight once to win it the first time, but it took a long while all the same. This time around, it wasn’t my fastest attempt, but that was because I kept trying to Mug her for whatever item she had available to steal. Once you defeat her, a sequence of strange events occurs.
Everything is swallowed in light, and Squall thinks “my…body…”, which we can reasonably take to infer that he can’t move, given that he doesn’t do anything to stop what happens in this sequence. We see Rinoa walk on-camera in a most un-natural fashion, which is probably even more disorienting if she wasn’t in your party at the time. She kneels next to Seifer, says something inaudible to him, and then collapses. Seifer rises to his feet and marches off.
When the lights return to normal, Quistis runs in to check on Rinoa, and Edea addresses everyone. She recognises how much they’ve all grown, and notes how she’s feared this day’s arrival. She wonders whether it’s a “joyful” or “odious” day, before asking if Ellone’s safe. As Squall expresses his bafflement at proceedings, Quistis turns to him, ominously saying “It’s Rinoa..” before stopping. Squall wonders what’s wrong with Rinoa, and Disc 2 comes to an end.
So, what to make of all that, then? Well, I actually quite like this scene, and I think it proves that the orphanage twist could have been done better if it didn’t involve all that silly memory business. If they’d all known each other from the start, but not necessarily interacted much, then I think the pay-off from Edea suddenly addressing them all as her old self would have been much more powerful. I still like it, even now.
I’m not sure exactly how to put my finger on it, but I think it comes from a sort of “relief” at bringing all the pretences to an end. Edea’s not the villain, and this scene emphasises that she wasn’t who she seemed. That allows us to move past the difficulty of understanding “why Matron went bad”, and focus our efforts on the main villain. While we don’t know who it is, yet, Edea infers that she knows what’s actually going on, so we can expect to get some juicy info soon.
The Battle of the Gardens sequence overall works neatly with its two-part structure, even if the Rinoa business in the first half got on my nerves a bit – specifically, with how much everyone rails at Squall to do everything. Yes, I know you all want them to get together, but let’s save dating for a more appropriate time, guys.
The flying Gardens, while maybe a bit of a silly concept, provide a fantastic backdrop and spectacle, and while we don’t have a particularly strong reason to hate Galbadia Garden itself, it’s still satisfying to break in and challenge the sorceress and Seifer at the end of it.
However, we’re about to hit Disc 3. I’ve often thought of Disc 3 as the section where I stopped loving FFVIII unreservedly, but that’s not true – the orphanage sequence was absolutely the part that disconnected me from the game’s story. However, while I’m of one mind about the orphanage plot twists (I hate them and wish they never existed), Disc 3 is a more interesting conundrum. As I mentioned earlier on, I think there’s a lot of value to be found in FFVIII’s final sections, but also plenty of oddities, and it’ll be fun to take a look at them.
Let’s get started on that next time, though!