Now where did I leave off? Oh, right. Bug spit. FINAL FANTASY, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN!
The trip to the Antlion Caves was unremarkable, which in itself is remarkable, because it underlines the previous dungeon as a painful irregularity. Previous dungeon: took longer than FFII’s final dungeon. Next dungeon: three rooms. Our Bard-Prince went to get the Pearl from the Antlion, claiming the creatures were harmless, but obviously the theft of the Fire and Wind crystals have changed things and the Antlion instead tried to eat him. Kyle fought it off no trouble.
We reunited with Rosa and cured her illness with the pearl. Rose insisted on coming with us despite still being bedridden (she was fine moments later, disrupting a rare moment of Kyle and I actually agreeing with Cecil on something). Rosa was a White Mage as advertised, armed with bows (and limited arrows, as per FFIII) with the option of giving her staves instead. Unfortunately, either her aim or the bow’s was terrible (I’m not sure which determines accuracy quite yet), with her listed accuracy being around 30-35%. Luckily she had an Aim command that simply slowed down the speed of her attacks on the ATB bar. Luckier still, she had a Pray command that would (most of the time) heal the entire party for a small amount of HP and no cost to MP. We just used that constantly. When things got bad, we had her cast Cura, but Pray kept us above the water. The bow didn’t really come up in the end due to our constant blood loss.
Before the party left town, they stayed the night, during which Edward went for a walk and was attacked by a Sahagin. Sahagins are a kind of relatively harmless monsters with a history going back to Final Fantasy I, where its only strength was irritating us through sheer numbers. Sahagin were harmless in FFIV too… but that’s speaking relatively. Poor Edward had virtually no attack power, attacked with a harp, and relied on causing status effects to earn his keep as a support character, neither of which was going to help him against a fearsome monster with tough skin, sharp teeth, and no visible ears. During the fight, a vision of his late fiancée appeared to tell him to keep fighting, essentially providing him with a reason to both survive and to stay with the party from this point on. With Anna’s help, Edward was able to defeat the monster. It’s nice to have some substantial character motivation after all these games without it. All around one of the better moments in the story at the time of writing, if only because it showed off a use of scripted sequences to support side plots instead of just the main plot, which we had yet to see from the series.
Together, our party of four travelled to a mountain pass en route to the only Crystal-bearing town we could reach from here, Fabul, which lay to the east. Conveniently, it was the next one the Empire planned to hit – I suppose you could write a plot with the characters being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but this works too! The way to the town was blocked by an utterly arbitrary block ice, so Rosa had to nudge Rydia into casting Fire, which she refused to do after we burned down her town and almost everyone she knew, straddling the gap between terrifying emotional abuse and humour at the game’s obliviousness towards the terrifying emotional abuse. And Rosa is not helping, in that she forces Rydia to relive those painful memories for her own benefit. After casting the spell the one necessary time, Rydia gets it permanently (or as permanently as anyone’s skills are in FFIV, as you’ll see). Obviously it was there to help you trump the local undead but it was like Cecil and Rosa were goading her with the brutally murdered and burning ghosts of her past just to gain a minor advantage. I’m serious, every controllable adult in the party right now is a horrible person, and the game’s complete and utter obliviousness to this is darkly hilarious.
At the top of the mountain we ran into a monk named Yang being attacked by low-level enemies, apparently the only survivor of a larger group. We joined in to help him fight a Bomb enemy that turned out to be a boss in disguise: a “Momma Bomb”. Unfortunately, I hadn’t healed before the fight (I had planned to heal on the very square that triggered the fight, much to my frustration). Checking the wiki confirms the Momma Bomb can’t be killed except by extremes (she has eleven thousand HP at a time when only Cecil could cause more than 100 damage!). When she exploded (the party was braced) she turned into six normal Bombs that we dealt with normally.
Yang turned out to be from Fabul, which was famous for its monks… or at least it had been. It seemed the ambush we had just missed had wiped out every single one of the monks but him. I have to take a pause here to stress just how far away Fabul is from this mountain pass. I have no idea how every single one of their monks ended up all the way over here, together, at the same time, leaving the castle nearly undefended. He claims he was training, but couldn’t you all train in shifts? We continued the walk to Fabul down the other side of the mountain and across a very long walk over land (probably the longest over-land walk in the game), and settled in the inn for a nice nap.
Having delayed for an entire night, we bought Yang some new claws. Monks in FFIV fight exclusively with claws, never unarmed like typical Final Fantasy monks. That said, claws aren’t typical FF weapons, either: with few exceptions, the claws do not boost attack like a traditional weapon. Instead, the claws use the monk’s ability to dual-wield to mix and match elemental damage or status effects for a clever take on an old idea. You essentially never want to sell Monk weapons because they’re just as good later in the game as they are earlier on! Speaking from the future, this is still my favourite Monk system to date, and I wish it would come back. Maybe it has? I’m only a few games ahead.
We spoke to the king, telling him to ready the defences. To our surprise, the attack came almost instantly, which I don’t find fault with as a gameplay element but some fadeouts might have been appreciated. The king divided Rosa and Rydia to work with the White Mages to heal the injured, leaving us with a party of combat characters that couldn’t heal without items. Thankfully, Edward had a skill called Salve that would turn single-use healing items into group-healing items. Like Tellah’s Recall ability, Salve was removed from the SNES release, but this is a lot more surprising to me since it seems clear that it was created specifically for this scenario, where it’s a huge help.
Much to the discouragement of the people of Fabul, Kyle and I stretched out the siege, trying to kill Baron Captains that were commanding the other monsters. The Captains would have otherwise run away when their underlings were killed, and we wanted their EXP and gil! We had no trouble managing the battles, so had to watch with dismay as Cecil and co ran away from every other threat, without even showing us why they were doing it (seriously, nothing was even close to overwhelming us). Maybe the scripted sequences could have shown the monsters lunging at the party in feigned attack before the party retreated? As it stood, Cecil just took one look at a new group of monsters and bailed immediately. It was pathetic. That said, the siege was an incredibly well done sequence for the era in every other regard, if only the threat could have somehow been more palpable.
Finally, we retreated to the Crystal chamber, which was all glassy and ethereal against a starry sky. (Weird Marathon footnote here: around the time of writing, Kyle and I both had very vivid memories of the Mysidia crystal room from the opening being in a cave, but replays assure me that it was always in a starry field! Where’d we get that bad memory?) We expected the mysterious Golbez to show up to command the final push, but instead Kain appeared and outright attacked Cecil, refusing to explain his change in loyalties. Unbeknownst to us, this battle was a scripted event that Cecil was doomed to lose, but at the time we were treating it as a tactical challenge. Dragoons jump, hover in the air, and then land. Could we control the ATB system well enough to defend against his Jumps and hit him? Kyle blocked the first Jump with a Defend action (1 damage), but it was clear the ATB just wouldn’t line up if we kept Defending, so Kyle deliberately set up for an attack that would surely miss. Unfortunately, Kain landed on Cecil’s head and did 1500+ damage, knocking him out at once.
Despite the skull-splitting blow, Cecil apparently survived. Kain did not kill him on the ground, and was caught in his hesitation by Golbez, who it turns out is one of those wearing steel-Darth-Vader-types you find in fantasy RPGs from time to time. To cut to the chase, Golbez took out Yang and Edward in battle and kidnapped Rosa (she essentially just disappeared into thin air. I suppose we were supposed to take it as though she had been grabbed, similar to how the party “walks into” Cecil when a sequence is over, but it really just ended up looking like Golbez had made her disappear… which I guess is impressive in its own way!). Kain took the Crystal, and only then did Rydia come to her senses and Cured the rest. Which may be the most reasonable reaction I can imagine.
Speaking with the now-bedridden king of Fabul, the party came up with an extreme plan to get Rosa back: Cecil decides he needs an airship. This is a good plan! But it soon suffers the symptoms of the author knowing the whole plot: Cecil’s doesn’t want an airship because he wants to get into Baron itself. Cecil actually plans to break into Baron to get an airship, because the author knows Rosa is on an airship herself! Whoops! Cecil says that while Baron has airships now, they’ve never had a good traditional navy, and suggests they sneak in by sea. The king agrees and outfits the voyage. He also hands Cecil the sword Deathbringer, which has a chance of causing 1-hit-KOs. He implied it came from a wandering Dark Knight: unless the game suggests otherwise, I’m going to assume this is another FFII callback and he’s referring (directly or via references) to Leon.
We set off, but as the party is closing with Baron’s shore, we were attacked by Leviathan, arguably another reference to Final Fantasy II though of course he appeared as a summon in FFIII and was well on his way to becoming a series regular. Rydia went overboard, Yang went into the water to save her, and Edward and Cecil were still on board when the ship was broken to pieces.
This serves as our introduction to one of FFIV’s most infamous design decisions… something that could arguably be considered its gimmick! FFIV radically rearranges your party multiple times in the game, almost always without warning! I see it as a deliberately restricted counterpoint to FFIII’s free-form job system: now you’re forced into specific tactical situations, rather than being able to work it out through long-term cleverness. More tactics than strategy. Unfortunately, there are also certain downsides to this sort of approach, as we’re going to see as the journal goes on…