Last time, I talked about FFVIII’s introduction, which took a more peaceful route than FFXIII’s battle sequence in the Hanging Edge. This time, let’s talk about how the format differs between the two titles.
Check out my incomprehensible diagram below, which (sort of) displays what you have access to in the opening chapter of FFVIII. The green blob in the middle is the section of the world map you can reach this early in the game, with each red blob indicating a location. The lines to either side show a general idea of the rooms, streets, and caverns you can explore.
It’s quite a lot. You get a guided tour of the Garden, but the town and cavern are all yours to investigate. Looking around the town will give you a little more background on the world at large, with references to Galbadia, Dollet, and Timber, along with someone expressing discontentment at the military students. This is a theme that comes up later, so it’s nice to see it being consistent throughout.
As for the Fire Cavern, it’s your mandatory first dungeon, and you get to pick a timer for completing it. I feel like stressful timers are a rather strange way to start off the game, but then I suppose FFVII did it, so why not here? These days, I can cheerfully breeze through on the shortest timer, but I’m pretty sure that my younger self, with little experience of these games, went for the longest estimate. There are the smallest of deviations you can take during the dungeon, only one of which actually has something at the end of it.
Now, I’m being a little uncharitable to FFXIII here, but this is roughly what you explore during the first chapter of the game. Regardless of which character you’re controlling, you’ll mostly be running along straight tracks, with a few minor deviations for hopping to different platforms, or navigating round boxes. The important thing to state is that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
FFXIII’s opening is about pace. You’re escapees from a train that was set to take you to a quiet execution spot, and your route of escape is along the tracks. You don’t have time to go around the world map and explore a pleasant seaside town, and certainly not to socialise and play card games with fellow students at school.
However, the problem is that even if the first chapter didn’t need this sort of freedom, many players were expecting it once that first series of action sequences had ended. However, that was not the case – the following chapters are just as linear, most of them following a similar corridor-based route.
Pretty much all the previous numbered Final Fantasy games offered ways to explore the world early on. FFXII let you wander around Rabanastre, FFIV had the city of Baron and popped you out into a world map, and even FFX, which was similarly linear, gave you several social spots where you could relax, along with the option to backtrack.
FFVIII’s starting section rates highly on my list because it’s both well-paced and open. You can see there’s a wider world, and you get to explore a small bit of it before getting drawn into the story’s overarching crisis. The upcoming sequence in Dollet manages to deliver a linear battle sequence without it feeling excessively restrictive. Let’s return to that idea when we get there, though.
Entering the world map gives you the chance to get into fights for the first time, so keep delaying the plot and look at what FFVIII’s combat has to offer. Venturing into the forests can give you a nasty surprise, if a T-Rexaur finds you. Quistis will start your first encounter with one by noting that you might want to run instead. When I first played the game, I ignored her advice. That’s also when I learned that there’s actually a save feature, and that one should make use of it.
Consequently, my very first playthrough of FFVIII ended in total defeat and a full restart.
The other fights in the area are a lot easier, and allow you to get to grips with the basics. As with all the other numbered FF games, you can attack, cast magic, or use items. The active time battle (ATB) system introduced in FFIV returns, along with a rejig of the Limit Break system. In FFVII, you had a bar that filled over several fights, until finally you’d get the option to unleash your character’s unique and (hopefully) overpowered ultimate attack. Here, it’s a little different.
Instead of being restricted to a slow-filling bar, you can use Limit Breaks at random when you’re at low health. Refreshing the menu/swapping between characters’ menus makes the game recalculate if you’ll get the Limit Break option, leading to a bit of refresh spam if you’re at low hp and the game’s insisting that you can only use Attack. It also means that Limit Breaks are essentially on-demand in this instalment; leaving your characters low basically gives you the freedom to keep using Limits Breaks on every turn.
It’s a risk-reward thing, to a certain extent, but it also cheapens most other forms of attack. Sure, if a boss gets time to throw out attacks, then it can quickly lead to a party wipe, but most story bosses can be destroyed by Limit Breaks (especially if you’re patient enough to do the speedy Zell trick five hundred times over the course of the game). Note that this tactic doesn’t always work on many of the side/superbosses, who will cheerfully annihilate you unless you’ve properly prepared for them.
Now, I want to talk about magic, but to do that, we first need to understand more about Guardian Forces. Most Final Fantasy games have their own set of summons to collect, and in FFVIII, they are central both to your character’s stats, and also to the plot (well, part of it, anyway). If you don’t equip Guardian Forces, all you can do is use Attack, and nothing else, so your first step is to equip at least one per character.
Once you’ve done that, you can start using Draw to collect magic. Unlike the systems of earlier Final Fantasy entries, where you used magic points to cast spells, FFVIII has you collect spells as though they were items. And just like with items, spells can run out, meaning that you’ll need to keep collecting them throughout the game.
However, there’s another restriction. The character progression system is done, in part, through gaining levels, but it’s most notably done via the Junction system, which basically means that you equip spells, a bit like gear, to certain stat slots. For example, if you have a Guardian Force that knows Str-J, you can use magic to empower your Strength. The more spells you have, and the more powerful/appropriate the spell, the more Strength you’ll get.
This is both a nice bit of customisation, and an incredibly restrictive one. For starters, it’ll put a load of your magic spells out of action, especially the more powerful ones. You can still use them, but doing so will lower your “equipped” magic, which in turn will lower your stats. And then you’ll have to go collecting spells again.
It’s also a massive time drain. Spells can be collected from enemies using the Draw command, and this can take a while. You can stack up to a hundred of each spell, and the number you draw in combat ranges from one to nine. This is mitigated somewhat by the Guardian Force system, which allows you to teach Guardian Forces various useful abilities on top of just stat slots, such as converting items and cards into more spells. I usually use this to boost my characters’ health to high numbers in the latter part of Disc One by making a bunch of Curaga spells from Tents.
(Side note: the original release on Playstation 1 was spread across four discs, and I’ve not completed a playthrough of the PC version, so I haven’t shaken off the habit of thinking of its plot progression in that format).
Note that I’m not a powergamer, and I don’t know the deepest nuances of powering up your characters. Consider what I’m pointing out to be the basics, to be quickly dismissed once you encounter someone more knowledgeable.
Beyond attacks, Limit Breaks, and magic, you can also summon the Guardian Forces themselves. They have their own hit points, so they can also be used to protect dying characters, if you don’t have time to heal them, for whatever reason. It also means that enemies can attack them before you summon them, and certain later bosses will just straight-up murder them instantly when you try to use them.
When I first played the game, little understanding how to use my characters, I liked to summon Guardian Forces in every fight. Every single one. Can you imagine? That’s hours of watching their animations over the course of that playthrough. It probably doubled its length compared to anyone else. Unlike FFIX, which took steps to rein in the animation lengths, along with giving you options to shorten them, FFVIII plays the entire animation every single time, even within the same battle.
Most if not all of the offensive Guardian Forces have abilities that damage every enemy on the field. There’s a particular fight later on that requires you to kill an enemy without murdering their hostage, and Guardian Forces will still damage the hostage. My younger self couldn’t understand how to overcome this encounter, since I lacked the potions to counteract the GF damage, my spell collection was limited, and my magic powers shoddy. This was, in fact, what led me to discover the true power of Zell’s Limit Break.
But that’s enough of that, you get the idea. Let’s finish off the Fire Cavern to close this article. As I mentioned before, you can pick a time limit. This benefits your SeeD rank, which affects your salary later on, when you become a SeeD (oops, spoiler!). Most enemies are easy to deal with, and it’s one of the early spots where you can find a Draw point, one of the ways to collect magic spells. Since the cavern’s pretty short, and has no real branches, it’s easy enough to get to the boss with plenty of time to defeat him.
The boss in question is our cheerful fellow in the picture above, Ifrit. A Guardian Force of fire, he’s there to act as a bit of a punching bag, and if you use Shiva, an ice-based summon, against him, he’ll express his dismay. This is a nice little way of underlining the system of elemental weaknesses, which Quistis discusses further after you defeat him. He grants you access to equipping elemental spells on your weapon to give it an element-specific bonus, so if you’ve been collecting Blizzard from monsters nearby, you can start thwacking enemies for a nice bit of bonus damage in the Fire Cavern.
With the pre-requisite for your exam done, it’s time to return to Balamb Garden to get ready for Squall’s first major trial. See you next time!