With the pre-requisite for the exam finally sorted, Squall returns to Balamb Garden. Quistis sends him to get changed, and then it’s time to meet your next companion, Zell Dincht. Lively and noisy, he instantly runs into a wall when trying to socialise with sour Squall, and loses out even more when we find that Seifer has been named team captain for the upcoming exercise. Seifer thinks very little of Zell and has no trouble in provoking him several times.
I’m not quite sure of the thinking behind making Seifer captain. He’s failed the test at least a few times beforehand, and commands little respect from the official SeeDs, so you’d think that he’d need a bit more babysitting to keep him in line. Perhaps that’s what they’d tried during his previous tests, so this time they were checking if a leadership role would suit him better.
Either way, Seifer makes little effort to behave as captain. He’s rude to Squall and Zell repeatedly, and barely attempts to follow his official commands. We’ll see more of that, but next up is our first visit from Headmaster Cid.
This Cid was the first I encountered in Final Fantasy, and I didn’t realise at the time that there would be one in (almost) every numbered entry. He gives a brief speech encouraging them on their mission, and notes that if they fail, the actual SeeD members will clear things up instead.
After he’s finished, it’s time for the big mission. Everyone piles into a car, which sets off for Balamb Town. Squall brings up the subject of the mysterious girl who visited him in the infirmary, but Quistis doesn’t know who he’s talking about. Seifer uses the opportunity to wind up Zell and insult Squall, but the latter barely reacts.
Actually, that’s a thought. We haven’t talked about Squall yet. Before playing the game, all I had to go off was his appearance, and I have to say that I liked his visual design, and his gunblade is an appealling weapon to use. How is he as a character, though?
Well, he’s divisive. Squall is very grumpy and insular. At a few points in the game, you get to decide his responses, and they tend to be either a reluctant yes, or a dismissal. In many cases, it’s two different ways of saying no. His catchphrase is “…Whatever” and he doesn’t show any interest in connecting with the people around him. Quistis clearly finds him amusing, but he seems impatient with her at best.
When it comes down to it, Squall is only really passionate about his profession, and even then, he doesn’t get excited or animated, he just talks more when the subject comes up. This is probably at its clearest when Seifer decides to go against the mission in the upcoming sequence, and Squall agrees, suggesting that it will be a good chance for him to test out his training. Zell is frustrated at Squall for suddenly being all “buddy-buddy” with Seifer, but he doesn’t quite get it. Squall is only really interested in his work, he’s not cosying up to Seifer.
We can talk more about his eventual development later, but for now, I’ll just say that I wasn’t hugely bothered by Squall’s anti-social nature when I initially played the game, without reading other people’s opinions to sway me. I imagine that this is largely down to the fact that I was fairly anti-social myself at the time that I played it (and probably still am). There was also my expectation that this would eventually be addressed by the story as part of his character arc.
Back in the present, the group arrives at the harbour in Balamb Town and boards their ship, which then immediately sets out for Dollet. On board, Xu (an official SeeD) briefs the group on the mission, after first taking at swipe at Seifer’s many unsuccessful tests up to now. It seems that the “G-Army” is attacking the Dollet Dukedom, and has pushed their forces into the surrounding mountains.
SeeD’s been hired to eliminate the G-Army inside the city, which Seifer apparently considers to be the “little, dirty work”, even though you’d think that liberating the current enemy stronghold would be the harder part. Xu also emphasises the importance of the order to withdraw, which will become relevant soon enough.
The ships arrive at Dollet, and the battle begins. We briefly cross paths with Selphie, who’s part of the team in charge of interfering with the G-Army’s communications, but then it’s into the streets to fight the enemy.
Let’s talk about combat again. We’ve been over the Junction system, and everything that orbits around that, but what does an average fight actually look like? When I tried to convince a friend to give FFXIII a go, he told me that he’d tried the opening, and all you did was hit attack, so he didn’t like it much.
But is FFVIII all that different? Well, yes, and no. For most fights, you’re probably going to be hitting Attack as well, but not necessarily. You can also cast any magic you’ve stocked up, which in most cases at this stage will be one of the following: Fire, Blizzard, Thunder, Scan, or Cure. You can draw Esuna, Double, and Protect from bosses, and maybe some normal enemies I’ve forgotten. I’m pretty sure you can get Sleep and Silence somewhere as well.
Other worthy mentions are Limit Breaks when you’re on low health (with some exceptions), or you can spend five minutes stocking up spells. And let’s not forget that you can summon Guardian Forces, something I gleefully did in my first playthrough to defeat tiny bats with colossal lightning devastation.
Squall will generally kill most G-Soldiers with his regular attack (and pressing the button to fire his gunblade as you strike), so you probably don’t need to shake things up too much. Attack spam will get you through most of these early fights.
But the point is that you don’t have to do that. FFVIII doesn’t overwhelm you with combat options in this early stage, but it does give you options. FFXIII hampers itself by waiting too long to give you your special roles (two chapters, which will probably take a couple of hours, if not more). For the most part, your choices are single attacks, or Blitz, which hits multiple enemies. Both games let you use items, though FFXIII doesn’t have anywhere near the same variety later on.
The difference really comes down to the willingness to let players explore their options. General combat doesn’t have to be difficult, but if you have too little choice, it becomes stifling. I enjoy FFXIII for sure, but I don’t feel that it got this early balance anywhere near right.
Back in Dollet, though, Squall, Zell, and Seifer make their way towards the central square, where they’re to clear out any G-Army forces and then defend. Seifer is eager for battle, and runs down the street calling for soldiers to fight them. Once they’ve emptied the square and begun standing guard, he swiftly becomes impatient.
However, an opportunity arises. A squad of G-Army soldiers sneaks through, heading to the Communications Tower, and Seifer decides that this is important enough to ignore orders. Squall agrees with him, leading to Zell’s bemusement that I mentioned earlier. However, Zell puts up little resistance, and they head off towards the Communications Tower. Nobody notifies anyone else in SeeD about this.
Across the next bridge, they run into wounded Dollet soldiers, who inform them that the Communications Tower has been infested with monsters for a long time now. Well, actually, the soldier specifically says that the Communications Tower has “always been a nesting ground for monsters”, so I don’t know if that means that it was dangerous even while in operation.
Further up the hill, Seifer enthusiastically shares his desire to fight, noting that he fears nothing. He also spouts the above line, referring more to the classical notion of romantic, as opposed to something naughty. Seifer is a big fan of the ideal of a heroic knight, and that’ll become a huge part of his character arc soon enough.
You might also have noticed Selphie in the above screenshot, and that’s because she drops in (literally) with a message for Squad B’s captain, but Seifer’s off and running, so she joins up with Squall and Zell instead. Together, they set off for the Communications Tower, and she swipes any magic that Seifer stocked up until now.
Atop the Communications Tower, it’s time to face off against Major Biggs, who’s apparently in charge of doing repairs. While not a major (hurr) part of the plot, he and Sergeant Wedge crop up a couple more times, and I was particularly fond of them in my first playthrough. While not to the same extent as Cid, Biggs and Wedge appear in a few different Final Fantasy games, and are named after characters from Star Wars.
Biggs successfully finishes activating the tower as Squall and co arrive, and swiftly notices that he’s got no reinforcements. Before he can flee, though, Seifer appears, forcing a confrontation. However, Seifer disappears from the action for the entire boss sequence, which is a little odd for someone so enthusiastic about engaging in battle.
All the same, it’s fight time, and Biggs poses little threat. He’s joined by Wedge partway through, but both are blown out of the fight by the giant monster Elvoret, which apparently has been roosting atop the tower. I’m not sure how such a creature remained out of sight, but obviously it has hidden talents. It’s the first boss to have a summon available to draw – Siren.
Once you’ve taken down Elvoret, Selphie decides that now’s a good time to actually share her message – they have orders to withdraw to the beach by 1900 hours. Seifer, continuing to display no leadership skills, runs off by himself, so Squall, Zell, and Selphie continue to stick together.
However, Major Biggs is still alive and kicking, and he activates a giant robotic spider called X-ATM092 (I have never managed to remember this name and probably never will), which he sends after the party.
What follows is a memorable sequence where the X-ATM092 constantly attempts to initiate fights with you while you retreat to the beach, and it returns to life even when you seemingly kill it. You’re encouraged to flee from it once you temporarily disable it, and I’d always assumed it could not be permanently destroyed. As it turns out, it actually can be, but you’ll miss out on a dramatic cutscene if you succeed. You do, however, get bonus points in your SeeD exam.
There are several strategies I’ve found on the internet for defeating the X-ATM092, but I just went with my Limit Break abuse instead, and that seemed to work out just fine. Some of them, no doubt, bring a faster end to the fight, giving you a better final score for the exam, but I hadn’t planned for this in advance, so I my team wasn’t built around efficiency.
Whether you destroy the X-ATM092 yourselves, or reach the boat and let Quistis shoot it down instead, the Dollet battle sequence ends with SeeD withdrawing on their ships, returning to a peaceful Balamb Town. Seifer meets up with Raijin and Fujin, his two lackeys. He idly comments that Squall and Zell only got in his way, before heading off in his usual manner. You can explore the town again, and some of the conversations have updated, but your next destination is Balamb Garden for a debriefing.
Let’s take a break for now, before attending the SeeD graduation party, and meeting up with the other half of the game’s logo!