Working on advice from a walkthrough, we unlocked the Airship and tracked down two out-of-the-way towns built to equip Evokers, Bards and Geomancers. These might have been useful if we had had any of those classes (especially an Evoker, as the town sold all of the Summoning spells that would ever be sold, not bad!), but as far as we were concerned, the towns were really only useful for buying a hats for our Mages (and later, a hat for our defence-starved Dark Knight, but that’s a jump ahead). The Mages would not get better armour virtually until the end of the game, with one exception. We came to just accept that they were never going to get any better.
From there, we went to the northwest continent and found a gigantic walled city. I do mean gigantic. It wasn’t entirely filled with buildings, but the entire countryside was cobbled (though trees grew through the stones out of ill-repair, which was a very nice touch), and if there’s a bigger set of city limits than this in the entire Final Fantasy series, I will be surprised, and triply so if it’s not from a futuristic game like XIII. The shape of the continent invites this comparison, so I’m not exaggerating when I say this city had to be bigger than most of the northeastern United States.
Not able to get in through the front doors (“You can’t have a door on a country!”), we flew over and were quickly shot down and stranded. (Fun fact: none of your replacement vehicles can ever sail in the water again, so if you took off the moment you stepped into your airship, you probably missed every single surface world aquatic enemy from your bestiary permanently!) Inside the city, we found trouble. The country was called Saronia, and its king had ordered its soldiers to fight amongst themselves non-stop. He never specified they had to be armed, thank goodness… or maybe the animators were just being lazy and never animated them with weapons. Their constant attempts to punch one another unconscious looked silly either way.
We set out on our quest and whoops found what we were looking for in the first building we entered. Okay, let’s step back. Saronia is broken into four distinct towns and one castle. The castle won’t let us in. One town has a tower in it that used to be home to the country’s Dragoons, but that was long ago and now it’s full of monsters and Dragoon treasure. Another town has a weapon shop ignoring the King’s irrational ban on businesses, and is selling Dragoon spears. The game is trying to tell you to be Dragoons. Keep that in mind for later. If you didn’t bring good armour with you, however, you’re just plain boned. Thanks for that, game.
One of the towns (the southwest) had a tavern in it, where we found the King’s son, Alus, being mildly harassed by men that had mistaken him for an imposter. We murdered them, of course. Alus told us he had been kicked out of the castle by his father, and he and Arc took a liking to one another. This was literally the first thing we did after crash landing, it was either very fortunate or frustratingly inopportune, since now the game was badgering us to to go the castle when we just wanted to search around! Once we were done searching the country, we retunred to the castle, where the King mysteriously let his son return, with us in tow.
Inside the castle, we were invited to sleep before visiting the king, but the King showed up to murder his son in his sleep. The King resisted against his apparent hypnotic state and we all woke up to see the King’s advisor egging him on from the shadows. The King finally resisted the influence by stabbing himself instead, and died telling his son he loved him. At no point during this display did our party attempt to restrain him, during the murder or the suicide.
With his puppet dead, the adviser transformed into a bird-monster named Garuda to attack us. Hey, did you remember to turn into Dragoons? Remember: the game wants you to be Dragoons!
Except that’s a stupid idea. The trouble here is that the clues telling you to be Dragoons are leftovers from the Famicom version, where a party full of Dragoons was the ideal plan against Garuda. In this version, where Square Enix went and made things harder for no good reason, this boss is considered the hardest boss in the entire game, one of the hardest in the franchise, where even the game’s advocates will admit there is virtually no good strategy to use against him but dumb luck and hours of grinding. It is a complete and utter crapshoot, and you’re more likely to die in three turns than anything else, as the boss has no weaknesses and has a commonly used group attack you can do little to combat but pray your Dragoons are in the air when it goes off. So you should still use Dragoons, right? Well, no, because they’re not very strong in this version and his other attacks will still take them out. Kyle pressed on multiple times until he won almost through sheer stubborn determination. There are a few strategies that will improve your odds, but the odds are still absurdly against you even in the best of circumstances. Square Enix should be ashamed.
Alus, now King, had the gates opened and even brought out a new Airship for us. It had been found in some nearby Ancient Ruins, which we would later learn had been caved in since this ship’s excavation. This golden airship, the Nautilus, was a good find: the fastest airship in the game, and it would later gain a new power, but for now, speed would do. We set off, the PCs reminding us that we were supposed to find Doga. Right. That.
If we had looked around a little more thoroughly, we might have found the old woman who had told Luneth about Doga, though she is perhaps even better hidden than Doga. She can be found asleep in a cave to the south, guarded by a parrot. I presume the parrot might have explained why she was sleeping so soundly and where to go next, but we never visited the cave at this point in the game. Luckily, we got the details from other sources. The woman’s name is “Unei,” and along with Doga and the mysterious, evil Xande, they were once apprentices to an Archmage named Noah (the FF Wiki calls Noah a Magus, but I don’t recall the term being used to refer to him? His name was attached to the White Mage job in FFI remakes!). When Noah died, he gave his apprentices, Archmages in their own right, shares of his inheritance. Doga was given mastery over magic; Unei, over the Dreamworld, and Xande was given mortality, which he didn’t want. Furious, Xande turned to evil and you’ve seen what happened since. The people told us Doga could be found to the south, down a canyon our old airship couldn’t traverse thanks to magical winds. The Nautilus would have no trouble. Indeed, the Nautilus was so fast that its encounter rate was virtually nil: we didn’t know it COULD end up in random encounters until virtually the end of the game. Valis77, on other hand, is attacked at every corner, so it’s clearly a change between versions.
We headed up the canyon and found Doga’s hideout, where we were promptly jumped by a pack of Moogles. This would have been particularly surprising if we had been playing the game back in the day, as this was their first appearance in the series, but in this version a Moogle sends us our mail, so it was almost not even noteworthy. It turned out the Moogles were working for Doga, and he called them off, allowing us to buy items at their very expensive spell shop
Doga led us into the back, saying he had to enchant the Nautilus to help us move on with the plot. For some reason, this involved going into another damnable Mini’d dungeon. We refused to play along this time and did not even change classes, letting Arc barrel through the end pretty much on his own. This was impressive, as we weren’t even overlevelled. I am, to today, convinced that we go through on sheer rage alone. Doga helped, casting Flare from time to time, but we take most of the credit.
It did help that there wasn’t a boss in the dungeon. In fact, I’m not entirely sure why we were there at all. There was the spell, but the game just never specified why it had to be cast there. Indeed, he casts the spell while standing next to you, like it was no big thing, and only moves to the centre of the dramatic, final room, where he tells us his big plan: to unlocking the key to a place called Eureka. Surely this is why we came, especially considering the Nautilus spell was almost as underwhelming as the Plunk That Shook The World? But when he finally did unlock the Key, he was somewhere else entirely. The mind boggles.
Doga left some more immediate instructions as well. He informed us that his spell allowed the Nautilus to straight-up dive under the water (whoa), and he instructed us to find a sunken place called the Temple of Time, which housed a lute belonging to Archmagus Noah that just might wake Unei. Fair enough. Time to go everywhere else.
The first thing we discovered with our new submarine involved a walled-off area we had seen in the past, and its strange inland lake. Underwater tunnel no doubt! It turned out this housed a town that sold all spells to date (set up like a sort of magical swap-meet, and I’ll admit, I laughed), which was certainly a convenience in a Job System game! We also found an Undersea Cave, where I died. We let off the game for the night there, and Kyle came back later during his own time, as we both reasoned that nothing plot-related was going to happen in this discarded cave. He informed me that there was nothing inside but a few pieces of equipment, nothing to write home about, though probably not worth skipping all the same.
Finding the Temple of Time during our next session, Kyle and I began joking about how this would be an awful place, because it has a name that is more synonymous with Zelda, but is a water dungeon, which are all-but-uniformly awful in Zelda. But his niece was there as well, and she asked why it was a “Temple.” That was a good question. It didn’t look like a temple. It looked as though someone had drawn a custom set of Ruins graphics distinct from the others we had been seeing, but added water to this one. I asked Kyle when he thought the majority of dungeons in Final Fantasy would look like actual places instead of generic hallways, and we weren’t really sure. Having already played FFIV and TAY at the time, we could tell you: it wasn’t there!
Cross-franchise worries aside, we didn’t have much trouble with the Temple, though it drained us of our health and resources by its sheer size. This turned out ugly when we were near the end of the dungeon, where we ran into a Behemoth, a rare random encounter heads and above beyond the norm for the area. I beat him by treating him as a boss, but we were in such bad shape after the fight that we might have retreated from the dungeon (indeed, I started) if we had not given into our Marathon Prerogative and checked a walkthrough to learn that there was no other boss. That’s odd. I realize the boss in Saronia was overpowered, but counting the optional Underwater Cave, that makes three dungeons in a row with no boss! It almost feels kind of… barren?
We took the Lute to Unei’s cave… eventually. Besides some other chores, the major reason we were going around the world in our golden turtle-ship was because the walkthrough had tipped us off to a fault in the game’s interface, which had hidden an entire plotline from us (yikes). It seems the Moogle who delivers letters in the DS remake wouldn’t give the letters to anyone but the addressee, meaning we had to swap party order to follow every plot thread. If the game explained this, we missed it during two separate playthroughs!
Between Princess Sara’s letters to Ingus and Cid’s letters to Luneth, we got two quests: one to find a Smith to repair Sara’s necklace, and one to exterminate a monster from Cid’s basement. This was all meant for a sidequest that would get the Smith to make us the Ultima Weapon, but we later learned that Ultima would not work on any of our intended final job classes and let the quest hang on its final step. I want to say for the record, however, how surreal it was to have Cid talking about the monster in his basement like it was some sort of common vermin. This monster was a common one, sure, but was Humanoid, and from a later area in the game than we were even at. If it weren’t for some optional bosses that were hiding on the Floating Continent (more on them later), this Monster would have been the strongest thing on the Floating Continent, and shouldn’t have been treated like a raccoon that got stuck in the storm cellar!