Welcome to Ultimecia Castle, the final dungeon of FFVIII. At long last, it’s time to bring the fight back to Ultimecia herself. Standing over the corpses of White SeeD soldiers, Squall realises that SeeDs have been fighting across generations, and resolves to put an end to Ultimecia’s reign. This decided, the group runs up one of the chains and arrives at the front entrance.
There are a few portals on the way up the chain that will send you to various locations around the world map. As the world is time-compressed, though, most towns have been blocked off, and there are practically no NPCs to talk to at all. It seems that Time Compression combined FFVIII with FFXIII…
Anyhow, you still have some access to certain dungeons and monsters, so you can grind to your heart’s content. You can even find Ragnarok hanging around, and use it to fly around the world. Some card club members join you on the ship as well, having somehow made it through Time Compression too. It’s just as well, as you won’t find any shops anywhere else in the world.
I’m not a huge fan of this. I can understand, to an extent, why they made the world feel so much more isolated after Time Compression, and I suspect that development time concerns might have led to them picking an easier route to give you access to the world map despite the story events, but it still leaves you with a bland and empty planet to explore. If you’re not the sort to keep multiple saves, then you will have lost out on most of the available world at this stage.
Let’s also pause before the final dungeon to talk about this divide in the story in more detail. To summarise the game so far, you got involved in a struggle against the oppressive Galbadian regime, which was taken over by the sorceress Ultimecia, who’d possessed Edea. Ultimecia used the Galbadian military to search for Ellone, but suffered a defeat when she came into conflict with Balamb Garden directly, and she lost control of Edea. At this stage, she decided to use Lunatic Pandora to initiate the Lunar Cry, in order to bring the sorceress Adel back to the planet, and then possess her and capture Ellone. However, Squall and company interrupted Ultimecia’s plan and headed to the future intending to kill her.
There are several story threads floating about, and the Point of No Return kills off a bunch of them. Along with denying you access to the world map, you also never see the proper resolution to the following:
- The Galbadian war machine
- Timber’s independence
- Seifer and his ambitions
- The Lunar Cry’s impact on Esthar and the world in general
- Lost memories and the price of using Guardian Forces (which could technically still play out in the future, but doesn’t)
We can assume the answer to many of them. For example, we get to see Seifer fishing with Raijin and Fujin in the final cutscene. However, you never see his reaction after Adel’s defeat, or get any conclusive details about how many of his actions were influenced by the sorceress, and to what extent. He just gets a seemingly happy ending despite the many terrible things he did during the game. Nobody ever seems to treat him as a victim of Ultimecia.
The Lunar Cry was a long-feared event, and it brought a great deal of destruction to Esthar, along with the long-term threat of powerful monsters, but you get very little time to deal with the consequences. Even if you don’t follow all the story events the moment they’re presented to you, the Lunar Cry only really affects Esthar itself, and the rest of the world remains oblivious to it. While you’d feel that this event would reshape the world and change the focus of the game, it’s a last-minute set piece that quickly gets forgotten.
As for Galbadia and Timber, I know I probably put too much weight on the Timber Resistance storyline, but the early human drama is focused on what happened to the people of Timber, represented through Rinoa, Zone, and Watts. A lot of detail is put into the various resistance groups hidden around the town, and personally I felt quite invested in seeing an end to Galbadia’s occupation.
You can probably assume that Galbadia’s power is broken by the end of the story, after its leader was murdered and replaced by a sorceress who eventually abandoned them. Seifer led them for a while as well, but his focus was on Lunatic Pandora, not the general administration of the country, and he too leaves them by the end of the story. Did the Siege of Esthar bring an end to their military, or at least damage them enough that they decided to give up their ambitions? Whatever cults of personality may like to have you believe, a dictatorship is propped up by more than just the leader, and there’s every possibility that Galbadia may have retained their control of Timber and other territories besides, continuing to persecute the people long after the end credits.
Do we really need a resolution to that, though? My answer is an emphatic yes. Ultimecia’s storyline obviously drives the main conflict of the game, but it’s a fairly wacky concept that’s harder to relate to, and probably isn’t quite so relatable to players as the human drama that precedes it. Ultimecia herself has very little screentime, so we barely get to consider her fear of death, or her attempts to avert her fate by breaking time and becoming some form of immortal being at the centre of the universe. In terms of personal investment, I get a lot more out of the parts of the game where Galbadians are disagreeing over how to treat the populace, or where the Timber soldiers’ families get threatened and they stand up to their bullies.
Still, I don’t feel this is reason enough to write the game off, but there’s a definite recurring theme in fantasy where the personal conflicts give way to grand schemes far beyond regular understanding.
Let’s return to the game at hand, though. Ultimecia Castle is both a good and bad final dungeon. There’s a tendency in some games to rush the finale, which might be nice for impatient players, but usually carries little in the way of satisfaction, ultimately. This dungeon, though, is detailed and filled with battles and puzzles, all leading up to a grand confrontation with Ultimecia herself at the end.
Let’s go into what I think is good first. The way the dungeon works is that you divide your characters into two parties and explore the castle. However, your various abilities are locked within the castle, and are recovered one-by-one by killing each of the eight specific bosses hidden around the dungeon. The first encounter just has you using Attack, so you can guess how strategic that turns out to be.
However, the other bosses have a bit more to them, for the most part, with a variety of counters and hard-hitting abilities at their disposal. One of them can be afflicted with Death, however, which made his fight end somewhat prematurely. While you can still cheese them with Limit Breaks as usual, you may run into a couple of hurdles here and there.
The castle itself is beautiful, and there’s a strong Castlevania aesthetic to it all, not that I’d ever played a Castlevania game when I first came here. I’d almost go so far as to say that it’s the most detailed location in the entire game, with a variety of animated and moving parts. Along with the puzzles, it feels like a lot more effort went into this than any of the other dungeons. Lunatic Pandora had a lot of impressive imagery, but it’s quite a static location, and you very rarely interact with any of it in the present.
The Art Gallery has a series of paintings that display several different scenes and landscapes that hint at history and worlds beyond what we see in the game itself. This simple location really opened the game’s universe up to me, sparking my imagination.
Where I think Ultimecia Castle suffers is in quite how the puzzles work. While it’s nice to have to think a bit, some of them are just on the wrong side of obscure, which is in part down to what sort of things the game teaches you. Character weight, for example, has never come up before, but you need to take that into account for solving the lift puzzle. Additionally, some of the locations are hidden off-camera, which is never really a satisfying trick in a game that forces you to experience it from a static viewpoint.
Additionally, the two-party system isn’t ideal (does it work anywhere?). You’re generally better off keeping your Guardian Forces on one set of characters, so you end up having to swap your junctions around, or, of course, you could just give one character Diablos and Enc-None so you can just run about without getting into any fights. Either way, while it’s a neat way to solve some of the puzzles, it feels a bit unnecessary.
Lastly, the monster selection is a bit weird. I ran into a lot of creatures from Balamb on my way through the castle, which I suppose could be considered nostalgic, or an indicator of the melding of timelines, but either way it felt weird to have starter monsters running about here, especially when I feel that specific monsters help give a dungeon its identity.
Still, overall I think Ultimecia Castle serves as a decent finale to the game. It’s quite an unusual medieval setting compared to most of the other locations, which are either close to modern day, or heavily futuristic. This is especially odd considering that it’s way in the future – I wonder how much civilisation even remains in this era. We only see the castle, the Deep Sea Research Center, and the orphanage ruins (and maybe a couple of other areas I’ve forgotten) – everything else is locked in Time Compression, so it’s not clear what’s present in this timeline and what’s not.
There is one particular fight here that I have yet to clear – the optional superboss, Omega Weapon. You can fight him in the chapel once you’ve solved the bell puzzle, and he proves a fairly sturdy challenge. Admittedly, I’ve not spent much time on trying to beat him, but he packs a punch and seems to have endless health. Maybe I’ll give him another go one of these days.
When you’re done unlocking abilities, it’s time to confront Ultimecia herself (or you can just go for her without doing any of that, but I don’t recommend it).
The final confrontation in FFXIII has a lot of dialogue, and I mean a lot. There are multiple cutscenes before, after, and in between fights, and you need to set aside maybe an hour to watch and play it all. Here, though, the opening conversation’s one-sided and brief. Ultimecia grumbles about SeeDs, complains that she had nearly succeeded, and then makes an odd threat about sending you to some sort of dimension where you’ll be her slaves forever.
If the goal is to make Ultimecia seem inhuman and far above caring about the main party, I think it would probably be better not to have her talk at all. Moreover, nobody in the party addresses her – they just stand there waiting for her to start the fight. I suppose we can be grateful that we didn’t get any melodramatic speeches about bonds of this, that, and the other, but it still seems weird not to have them speak.
Ignoring that, though, I think the encounter with Ultimecia overall is pretty good. In my original playthrough, I struggled to win, even with my strategy of abusing Zell’s Limit Break. I’m not entirely sure how I wasn’t able to succeed – I can only assume that I had rubbish spells and stats despite all my grinding? Even if I died a few times, I would’ve thought I’d have worked it out after a few tries.
However, that wasn’t to be the case. I ended up returning to her every so often over the course of several months, taking one or two attempts before shelving the game again. I think I actually completed FFVII in the interim.
These days, it’s a different story, as with most of the game. My attempt to clear it this time was pretty garbage, mind you – I pushed too hard, provoking the second phase’s massive area attack while my party was still on low health from the first phase’s Maelstrom, which lowers your health by sixty-six percent. The only reason I survived was because Rinoa’s dog resurrected her, which as a random chance isn’t something to rely on. From there, I was able to resume my Limit Break cheating with Squall and Rinoa and win the day.
But let’s go into how the fight itself works. In short, you start with any three of your six party members – Ultimecia chooses who your starting line-up is at random. When one of them dies, you have to resurrect them fast, or they’ll end up absorbed into time, an ability that has a rather unsettling animation of a cherub flying down and reducing the target character to shards that disappear into thin air.
This is a slightly inconvenient system, and you’re probably best off killing all the spare characters either before the fight, or before Shockwave Pulsar in the second phase. You can stick this in my list of things I don’t like about the two-party system. FFVII also tries to bully you into using more than one party right at the end of the game, but it’s easier to ignore there. FFIX didn’t bother trying.
When you’ve attacked Ultimecia enough, she summons “the most powerful GF”, which turns out to be Griever, the lion on Squall’s ring. Now, there’s apparently some sort of stuff about this being a creation based on what Squall regards as the most powerful force in the world, which Ultimecia magically manages to conjure, and yadda yadda yadda.
I think this is all unnecessary and ignore it. I don’t really need anything more than to understand that:
A) There’s one GF more powerful than the rest
B) Squall reveres this being
C) Ultimecia has brought it under her control
I don’t care about any hocus pocus about creating whatever based on blah. It’s symbolic enough that it’s a lion, okay?
Also remember that he’s named whatever you called him at the end of Disc 2. I hope you don’t regret your choice! (I’d called it Grauplin in my first playthrough, for reasons I cannot remember.)
When you damage Griever enough, he’ll use Shockwave Pulsar, a hard-hitting spell that can wipe you out if you suffered Maelstrom in the first phase and didn’t bother to heal up before using Duel on him. He can also destroy stacks of your magic, which is extremely annoying, and pressures you to try and bring a fast end to the battle. Fortunately, Renzokuken did just that, leading into phase three…
Ultimecia (who was standing or flying or whatever off-screen during that last phase) announces that she’s junctioning herself “unto Griever” (I still think “unto Grauplin” even now), and she and Griever transform into the above monstrosity. I’m sure that this phase has abilities, but I blasted through it in one Renzokuken. I believe that she summons little adds now and then to give herself bonus powers, and partway through the fight she’ll lose her backside and become more physically violent as a result.
She has quite a dramatic death animation at this point, and sparkly glitter falls about the surviving party members in slow motion as the camera moves around and shows the destroyed remains of the Master Room. You might be forgiven for thinking that the fight’s over and you’re about to be treated to the ending cutscene.
Well, I’m afraid not. Ultimecia comes back, bigger and badder than ever, and it’s you versus her in a final tussle amidst the destruction of reality. She brings a variety of new powers to the fight, including such classics as reducing the entire party’s health to one, Ultima, Meteor, or later in the battle, a hard-hitter called Apocalypse. It’s a lot to deal with, and you’ll be on your toes for the duration.
Or, just let her reduce everyone to one hit point, use Holy War to make the party invincible, and then destroy her with Limit Breaks.
You, the viewer, decide!
Ultimecia’s design in this form is particularly impressive and frightening, from her faceless visage down to the fact that her corpse appears to be hanging upside-down below her waist. The entire lower part of the combat arena, which basically is a starscape, is being absorbed into Ultimecia while you fight her, signalling the culmination of her plan to compress time and become the centre of all existence.
Another nifty feature of this fight (or incredibly inconvenient, depending on whether she gets off an attack) is that, once you get her to a certain point, she starts delivering enigmatic lines each time you hit her, which signals the coming end of the fight. She gives a speech about remembering childhood, and how time will always slip through your fingers. However, she never finishes – after uttering an enigmatic “And…”, she’ll die on the next strike, and that’s the end of FFVIII’s gameplay.
The last cutscene’s long enough to be worth its own article, and I have a sum-up for the entire game too, so let’s reconvene next time for a final chat about Final Fantasy VIII.