On the way back into Balamb Garden, Squall runs into Headmaster Cid discussing the mission with Quistis and Xu. It seems that Galbadia’s main concern was the communication tower, and they’ve secured its operation as part of their agreement to leave Dollet alone. This news angers Seifer, who believes that they could have been heroes if not for the order to withdraw. However, he gets a triple dressing-down, as Quistis, Xu, and Cid all admonish him for his reckless actions in ignoring orders.
However, Cid does add that he has some sympathy for Seifer’s choice, and begins to outline his philosophy on SeeD members not all becoming machines. After noting that he wants them to be able to think for themselves, he’s interrupted by one of the sinister Garden Faculty, who advises Cid that he has business waiting in his office. The Faculty member also infers that the Dollet Dukedom might have received better assistance, had they paid more.
After this, it’s time for the exam results. You don’t need to worry too much, as you’re guaranteed to pass if you actually got this far. In a rather odd turn of events, Squall, Zell, and Selphie pass despite their debatable adherence to orders. Selphie is slow at delivering her message and never returns to her team, while Zell and Squall follow Seifer’s orders in defiance of their overall mandate to guard the city square. I dread to think how the rest of the candidates performed their duties if they failed.
This isn’t a very interesting screenshot, but I’m including it because it’s important foreshadowing. FFVIII was my first JRPG of this sort, and I had yet to become used to certain plot twists, or how story elements would get introduced carefully. However, I’m still firmly of the opinion that this was never properly explored before the big twist at the end of Disc 2. We’ll get to that in more detail, but I wanted to touch on it now, so that we’re ready for the endless complaining that’s sure to burst out when it’s time.
Seifer is also gracious enough to applaud Squall and the others when they return from the ceremony. I like this aspect of Seifer – he’s a jerk most of the time, but there are these moments where you can get the sense that somewhere underneath he does have some values. It doesn’t absolve him of all the bad stuff he does, but it does make him more interesting and human, unlike many villains who you can never really imagine leading a normal life outside of their evil plans.
Back in Squall’s dorm, it’s time to change into a snazzy suit and get ready for the SeeD inauguration ball. We then rejoin Squall in the ballroom, who’s standing by himself off to one side. Zell attempts to shake Squall’s hand with no success, and Selphie goes around advertising the Garden Festival to anyone she can.
Then the game switches to FMV, with a significant shot of the moon through the glass over the ballroom. I never really paid much attention to it when I first played FFVIII, but a lot of emphasis is put on the moon in the early game.
Squall’s still idly standing by himself when his eyes fall on one particular woman, who returns his gaze and walks over to him. While this is a shot that is presumably intended to put focus on Rinoa’s beauty and grace, it gives me the creeps after the warped version that plays in the sequence at the end of the game.
In any case, the mysterious woman decides that Squall’s the right guy to dance with, and meets the usual wall of silence. Undeterred, she pretends to hypnotise him into liking her, which seems to be enough to at least prompt Squall to tell her that he can’t dance. This is no problem for her, though; grabbing his hand, she drags him away from his isolated corner, and they give it a try.
This scene is a good example of where FFVIII gets things right. It’s snappy and tells a lot in a short space of time. We’ve so far been presented with Squall as a stoic and skilled fighter, so it’s good to see his awkwardness and discomfort when he tries and fails to dance. We also see Rinoa’s persistence and faith as she goes after him when he tries to walk off, and patiently teaches him the right stance and moves, until eventually they dance together in perfect unison. The part where they bump into other dancers, and Rinoa sticks her tongue out at them, is also great.
However, as the dance comes to an end, Rinoa (still unnamed in-game) notices someone or something, and leaves Squall behind. He heads off by himself to a balcony, where Quistis comes to meet him. Praising him for his “flawless” dance (I presume that she missed the first part), she then chides him for dancing with an unknown person when he won’t dance with her.
It’s reasonable to infer that Quistis has a soft spot for Squall, though it’s very difficult to work out precisely why. As we touched on earlier, Squall’s a fairly divisive main character, and these early sections show him in quite a negative light. He’s needlessly rude to everyone, and nothing that he says or does at this stage really gives anyone a reason to want to see him succeed. Indeed, as Zell notes, the only person Squall actually acts positively towards is Seifer.
Quistis commands Squall to get changed and meet her at the training center, which she rather ominously labels as her last order. On your way into the center, Quistis also gives a brief tutorial on junctioning status magic to your attack or defence, to allow you to either affect enemies with debuffs or protect yourself against them. Taking advantage of this will give you the upper hand against the T-Rexaurs in the center, as you can just repeatedly send them to sleep with the right junction.
I just touched briefly on Squall’s antisocial nature, and here’s where it goes into overdrive. Quistis has brought him to this quiet spot to talk to him about her troubles – namely, that she’s been demoted from Instructor back to being a regular SeeD agent. Squall frankly doesn’t care. He’s fine with being ordered to go somewhere by his Instructor, but a fellow SeeD sharing her worries with him is far too much. Stating that people need to solve their own problems, he leaves her behind.
Although not entirely, as she’s still in your party as you head back into the training center. Back near the entrance, they find a mysterious woman under attack – the same one who briefly watched over Squall when he was in the infirmary. She seems to recognise Squall and Quistis, and even refers to the latter as Quisty, but neither one of them knows who she is.
After saving her from the boss monster (they take training a bit far in this place), a couple of men in unfamiliar uniforms hop in and lead the woman away. Left alone with Squall again, Quistis attempts to teach him that people need to rely on each other, but Squall just flat-out dismisses this. He heads on back to his dorm, where he runs into Zell, who announces that they have their own rooms now. Quite honestly, they feel a bit like downgrades, or you don’t get to see the full dorm, but it certainly feels more cramped.
On the next morning, Squall’s given his first mission. He’s to head to Timber and help out some rebels, as you can tell from the screenshot. Only three SeeDs are being sent because the rebels are apparently not paying too much, a fact that clearly bothers the Garden Faculty. It’s obvious from the exchange that this is something Cid has pushed for, as he quickly changes the subject.
After the briefing (“brief” being the important part there), you can talk to Cid again, and he’ll hand you a Magical Lamp, which he describes as a “cursed item” but doesn’t explain any more about. If you check the item description, it advises you to save beforehand. I have the sneaking suspicion that I didn’t bother on my first playthrough, and probably died. Using the lamp will toss you straight into a boss fight with the Guardian Force Diablos, who uses percentage-based attacks on you before clawing you to death when you’re low.
There are some smart strategies that you can deploy to defeat Diablos early on (his level is based on your party’s level in any case), but I just used his own Demi on him, spammed limit breaks, and ressed people who died.
Defeating Diablos earns you another Guardian Force, and the respect of your peers (only one of these is true).
From here, it’s off to Balamb Town to catch a train. Don’t go overboard with spending, if you want to continue the story, by the by – it costs three thousand gil for a ticket, and you can’t claim expenses. You do, however, get a fancy room on the train, at least one benefit of being a member of SeeD. Selphie watches the world pass by, while Zell goes and bounces on the seats. You have the option to let Zell tell Squall about Timber’s history, which is apparently that of occupation by Galbadia eighteen years ago.
Now, I said a lot of disparaging things about FFXIII’s opening compared to FFVIII in terms of structure, but I think it’s certainly worth pausing to take a look at the main cast now that we’re a few hours in. In FFXIII, we’d established the motivations of four or five characters by this point (Vanille was keeping most of her backstory hidden, so I suppose she could be left off that list). Lightning and Snow had Serah in common as their reason to fight, while Snow and Hope shared the death of Nora as an important provocation to action.
Sazh acted as comic relief, but was also a steadying influence in the group, providing a more cynical and calm view of Cocoon society. Vanille filled a similar role to Selphie, acting upbeat and silly while the world crumbled around her. As for antagonists, the Sanctum fulfilled that role, but there wasn’t a particular character who represented them at this stage.
Meanwhile, in FFVIII, the most attention so far has really been focused on Squall and Quistis, with some time spent on antagonist Seifer. Squall is clearly affected by something in his past, and Quistis has unrequited feelings for Squall along with the loss of her Instructor role.
As for Zell and Selphie, they are quirky characters who haven’t yet shown much depth. Zell fills the role of comic relief, but that’s almost entirely what he provides, except for this one exchange where he shares the history of Timber. Selphie is setting up the Garden Festival, but she mostly just gets excited at things and draws attention to them for the player.
It’s important to note that the overall conflict hasn’t actually been set in motion yet – we know that Galbadia are up to no good, but while that’s affecting other countries and communities, Squall and his allies have no personal beef with them yet. FFXIII starts off in the middle of one conflict that sets the characters against the Sanctum, and an hour or two in, it adds the next layer of that conflict – the branding of the party as l’Cie.
Since we’re just about to get into the fight against Galbadia as we join the resistance in Timber, you might consider it a bit churlish to point out that the main conflict’s still unclear, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s a difference in pacing between the two games that I feel is worth pointing out. FFXIII is a rushed flight from pursuers, while FFVIII casts you as students who go from their daily school life, to working as professional soldiers, and eventually to an all-out conflict against forces both human and inhuman. It takes its time with the story, and that’s part of what got me into the game when I first played it.
Now that we’re on the subject of plot development and characterisation, let’s return to the game, where the fresh SeeDs all pass out on the train after complaining of tiredness one by one. We then join a group of Galbadian soldiers in some unfamiliar territory, while greyed-out dialogue boxes express the original party’s confusion. Along with controlling these new characters in story segments, you can also use them in combat, and they have their own Limit Breaks, weapons, and animations, not to mention their battle theme.
It seems that Laguna, the lead soldier, is lost during a mission to fight against Timber, and rather than finding his way back to the mission, he hops in a vehicle with his friends Kiros and Ward and drives back to Deling City, the capital of Galbadia. After causing a traffic jam by parking in the middle of the road, Laguna heads on over to the Galbadia Hotel, where he apparently intends to muster enough courage to wave at the pianist Julia, who he’s been interested in for a while.
During this sequence, the greyed-out dialogue boxes from Squall, Zell, and Selphie continue to appear sporadically, and if you pick those options during certain conversations, Laguna and his buddies will acknowledge that their heads feel funny.
Encouraged by Kiros and Ward, Laguna attempts to walk over to Julia while she’s playing the piano and wave at her. It’s a rather odd way to catch someone’s attention, but it apparently works, despite his characteristic leg malfunction when he gets nervous. After he returns to his seat, Kiros and Ward bail out, as Julia herself comes over to speak to Laguna.
They head up to her room, where Laguna steadily loosens up before telling her all about his aspirations to travel the world and write about his experiences. He also invites Julia to talk about her own goal, which turns out to be to sing. Previously, she’s never felt she could write the lyrics, but her encounter with Laguna has apparently inspired her. Before they can get too close, though, Kiros interrupts, announcing that they have new orders. Julia asks if they can meet again, Laguna says of course, and then Squall and the others wake up from this dream.
The group idly ponders the possibility that an enemy of SeeD might have released sleeping gas into the room, but as they’re not missing anything, they drop that idea right away and never really check for any other evidence. However, Selphie starts talking about her dream, at which point the group realises that they all had the same dream. Before anyone can really discuss it, Selphie declares that they can’t possibly understand what happened, so Squall shelves the subject until he can talk to Cid about it.
It’s one of those cases where, if they talked about it for longer than two seconds, they could probably glean some reasonable information, or at least come up with some action points to look into: who’s Laguna, was it a specific vision of the past, when did it happen, and why did they see it? It’s a fantasy world, I know, but having shared visions like that would surely be important enough to dwell on? However, the relevant plot points are only set to be explored later, so the writer moves on quickly, which feels a bit too rushed to me.
Before we get started on the next major arc, let’s pause there ourselves, and pick up at Timber next time.