We began Palom’s Tale with an entertaining but odd note, as we found him on a ship that had been lost for a month after losing their compass. I can’t help but wonder if this scene was added to fill a gap in the timeline or something to that effect, but since this game is so bad at conveying a sense of time, I can’t imagine if that’s really the case (indeed, the delay will never come up again, even though the people Palom talks to all seem to be in a rabid hurry). The ship had been trying to take a journey from Mysidia to Troia, where Palom is supposed to train the newest Epopt, which you’ll recall are the city’s eight leaders.
We learn two important things. Firstly, that Palom is trying to follow in Tellah’s footsteps to become a Sage, which he seems to think involves learning both Black and White magic and not a lot else. Porom’s Story will later suggest that, while this does encompass the fundamentals, there’s more to the role of “Sage” that Palom is ignoring in his short-sightedness. The Elder of Mysidia has refused to give Palom any Sage training and set him off on this journey, which leads us to point two: the Epopts traditionally get White Mage training, not Black, because they’re pacifists. The game builds up suspicion about this over time. While I will try to list the clues as they appear, I have a feeling I’m going to fail, as they span multiple chapters. The game is being rather clever about this one plot (Ed. which is funny, because it never goes anywhere.)
Before I forget, Palom seems to have dyed his bangs silver (I like to believe it happened in a magical accident) and has stuck some kind of broach or device into his hair. The former looks fine, while the latter really looks quite silly. I’m not sure what to make of it. Unfortunately for my aesthetics, the 3D version dropped the former while keeping the latter!
Lucking their way on to the Troian coast, the ship turns past a massive building by the coast that I naturally assumed was a lighthouse. Kyle turned out of town and went immediately to the tower, and we found it was actually a “Tower of Trials,” which was locked (it must be nice to live in a world where place names are presented to you when you arrive). Following instruction, we found a nearby chocobo forest to cross the river blocking the route to Troia, and began to poke around.
Remember when I went on and on in the FFIV journals about Troia being sexist, and said it had something to do with how they keep talking about their government instead of anything related to the plot? Thankfully, now that Troia is deeply enmeshed in the plot, it doesn’t come off like a weird sexist setting at all! Funny how treating women and matriarchies as characters and societies instead of devices and jokes makes that work. In fact (partially because we came back here so quickly in Edge’s Tale), Troia has really come off as the best realized and most involved of the game’s towns
Palom met some of the locals (in Edge’s Tale, one of the “locals” meets him as well… and it’s too bad this conversation can’t take place in this chapter no matter who you talk to!), and one of the young women even flirts with him, but unlike our predictions, he doesn’t flirt back. Palom has become kind of sullen in the past 16 years, quite in contrast to his childhood boisterousness. At first it seemed as though he was just put out by being denied Sage training and being put on a boat for a month to do a job he doesn’t want to do, but Porom’s Tale would elaborate on the changes to his personality and show they’re more thorough and long-term. One thing both he and his sister end up doing is to reject their “Lord” and “Lady” monickers. This is probably best adapted section of the Interlude: the twins were happy to have the labels in the Interlude, so you can see them ironically coming to reject them as childishover time. That said, while the Palom’s sullenness makes sense, I’m not sure he would reject the title when he seems so desperate for power. Porom I could understand, but the young man trying to master all forms of magic to become all-powerful and praised? Oh well. Subjective.
Palom presents himself to the Epopts, and we get our first sign of an interesting subtext in The After Years that implies that the people of the world don’t just reverse the Crystals, but actively worship them, making the Epopts a spiritual order as well as a political (later, it will outright be stated that the Dwarfs pray to their Dark Crystal). This really casts an odd twist on the opening lines of FFIV, when the Red Wings wonder if the gods are punishing them for stealing the Crystals. From this new perspective, they could have said, “the gods are punishing you for stealing them“! The Epopts tell Palom that one of their member has fallen ill, and they require him to train a replacement at once. They were very brusque, something only amplified by the suspicious behaviour of the new trainee: a woman named Leonora. As Kyle and I remarked part-way through the next dungeon, “she’s so full of shit,” but it’s since become hard to tell exactly what shit she’s full of: not only does Leonora seem to be protecting the same mystery as the rest of the Epopts – about why she needs to be trained in Black Magic – but she has another secret that will land before the end of the chapter.
Leonora is in her mid-twenties, just three years older than Palom, but was only Level 3 when she joined the party, where Palom was Level 15. The Epopts told Palom that any Epopt in training would have to reach the top floor of the Tower of Trials and recover the Mantle of Something or Other. We also learn that Leonora is not Troian by birth, but was taken in by them earlier in life. Palom tried to bring up the suspicious Black Magic issue, but the Epopts deflected the question so well that I was at least willing to accept it as authorial fiat. Should have been more suspicious, Palom!
While we considered doing some grinding to help even out our two mages, we eventually headed straight to the Tower, in belief and hope that it was properly scaled to Leonora’s level. We were so hopeful that we took a Chocobo to get there, assuring there would be no experienced gained en-route. FFI would physically attack you with the controller if you tried to pull off a stunt like that!
Once at the tower, Palom began the Black Magic training, giving Leonora the “Fire?” spell, which caused less damage than the real thing but only cost 2MP as opposed to 5. The lectures on magic in this section were weird, as Palom implied that magic was much easier to master than it would seem one minute, and then much harder another minute. Perhaps this had to do with Palom’s pig-headeness, but it was still confusing to the reader. One thing that is clear is that anyone who can use magic can use both branches of magic, they just might be predisposed to using one or the other. Heck, from what they were saying in this chapter, I’m not sure if there are any limitations on who can learn magic at all!
The dungeon was simple thanks to it being littered with Healing Pots: a feature from the original game where certain generic pots were scripted to heal you to full HP and MP (FFIV’s way of not designing levels around the space-consuming Healing Springs of FFIII). At the end of every few floors, Leonora would solo fight one or more Tiny Mage recolours who we could only be hurt by her in-training black magic spell. Each time, she would get more confident, starting as a scared civilian and eventually starting to speak up on her own. In conversations, even. Palom would then teach her the next in the series of basics: Blizzard? and Thunder? in turn. Sadly, Leonora never really became a good Black Mage (she gained Intellect at a similar rate to Palom, but started 20 points below him and so never caught up!), which was unfortunate, because it’s kind of hard to fight wandering monsters with a party full of mages. And ooooh boy, was that only going to get worse.
Along the way, Palom became suspicious that Leonora was actually training to be a Sage and he was being duped, since she already had some White magic, but after she denied that, Palom began to shift his suspicions in the proper direction, as you’ll see in the next paragraph. At the end of the tower, they discovered that the MacGuffin was actually a labelled plinth, and that there was nothing to carry out. Palom and Leonora had a fight showing that she will put up with his attitude so long as it doesn’t come against Troia and the Epopts, whom she deeply respects. Now, at this point, there was a lot suspicious things going on in the tower, that would come up in dialogue between Palom’s lessons and his and Leonora quasi-bonding. These mysteries were punctuated by the strange, double-wide throne at an apparently unused half of the final level. …But we still don’t know what’s up. The game once again forced us to trudge out on our own. I know the original, episodic release was trying to extend its lifespan but Leonora started with Teleport and nothing happened on the way out, so this is silly. You know that, right developers?
We went back to the Epopts, and Palom threw his suspicions straight at them, pointing out something most Final Fantasy characters would have ignored: the monsters you spend 90% of the game dealing with. The fact that the Tower was stocked with “guardians,” the Tiny Mages, who could only be killed by specific kinds of Black Magic (he ignored the wandering monsters like they weren’t even there, but this is still progress) meant that a proper White Mage Epopt would be dead by now. He demanded to know what was going on, and the Troians told him about Baron’s recent militarization and said that they were actually training a war-mage to defend them against Baron. Palom was quite upset by this, having apparently idolized Cecil more than I would have thought, and he left without realizing that the Epopts had largely deflected his question: Cecil had arrived on the scene far too late to be the real reason behind these affairs. Indeed, this if nothing else might have been the reason behind the “month-long trip” aspect. But it’s hard to tell. At the time, my suspicions about the Epopts were waylaid, only for them to be roused again during Edge’s Tale. You’ll see what I mean in a bit.
Leonora found Palom a room to sleep in in the infirmary, as the castle had strict rules about men staying elsewhere. There, Palom brooded about Cecil before he got an idea that brought him to his feet: one he doesn’t spell out but it’s probably the same conclusion Edge and Edward will draw in their tales, especially Edge. More on that when we get to that. Palom got up and bumped into Leonora, who told him (though she didn’t think he’d believe her) that the Earth Crystal was “crying.” They went to the other Epopts, and learned that an airship was inbound. Either before or after that piece of info was dropped (I can’t recall), Palom scrapped together a plan that seemed substantial at the time. To us, the plan was obvious, and we would have advised the same: take the Earth Crystal to the place that even Golbez had not been willing to pursue it, the Lodestone Cavern. But wait, wasn’t the magnetic effect of the cave caused by the magic of the Dark Elf in conjunction with the Crystal? While you might expect that Palom plans to cast the spell himself, the game actually seems confused on this point and thinks the cavern is magnetic at all times!
It later turned out Palom only had the first part of that plan (flee with the Crystal), and Leonora was the one who decided to go to the cavern, which was kind of funny, actually. When Leonora agreed to join up with Palom’s plan (not knowing it was incomplete), the Epopts agreed to trust the Crystal with one of their own, and Palom and Leonora slipped out a secret passage as the doppelganger arrived at the front gates. Wait. Troia: the nation that had its Crystal stolen by guile, now has a secret passage out of the Crystal Chamber even though it’s a theft risk, but Fabul, the nation whose survivors were trapped at the dead-end of the Crystal chamber and should have been wiped out… did not? Oh for fuck’s sake.
The tunnel was another stinking water cave, and was packed with monsters that could, depending on luck if nothing else, tear us apart. Alligators that could attack twice, clams with absurd strengths stats, and the bad luck of showing up on an Attack-High lunar cycle meant that both Kyle and I died to unremarkable wandering monster groups (TPK + 2). There was no boss on the way out: Leonora simply came up with her idea to go to the Lodestone Cavern, and we went to the Chocobos to find a black one that could get us there. As we did, we were spotted by members of the Red Wings, who tried to chase us. In chasing us, I imagine that they ran into Luca and Rydia: though those two did not appear in this Tale, it seems like the logical flow of events. Unintentionally covered by our unseen allies, Palom and Leonora escaped into the cavern.
The cavern was not so hard. As mages, we weren’t carrying anything metallic in the first place, so weren’t really at any disadvantage. Part way down, we discovered an illusion that had been set up by the Epopts: Leonoroa showed us the way around, and naturally we had just gotten around when the leather-equipped Red Wings showed up to be floundered by it. Saving up, we headed to the false Crystal Chamber, where Palom pointed out that they can’t hold out forever because they rely on MP. Leonora said that he was not acting like himself, but before Palom could accuse her of being presumptive, they were interrupted by plot holes, as the Dark Elf suddenly revived. He said something about being the eternal life he had been rambling about in the original game (making me wonder if he does indeed ramble about it in the original English SNES release, which apparently has very different dialogue for him) and claimed that he had never actually died. I supposed the Earth Crystal had accidentally revived him, but we were given no explanation.
Kyle lost to the Dark Elf, because he had thought the fight was a guaranteed loss at the time (that Astos turned Leonora into a Pig did not help matters). Now, Kyle tends to play guaranteed loses like they aren’t, which is far more entertaining, so don’t think he just sat down to die, but there is a difference between Kyle’s attempts at play-fighting an impossible fight and a genuine attempt. Indeed, the Dark Elf wasn’t exactly pulling his punches, but I handled him well enough when I got the controller. When the Dark Elf turned into his dragon form, however, he proved invulnerable to magic, but we were “rescued” by Shiva. The doppelganger had gotten past the illusion wall.
Palom came up with a desperate plan. He had Leonora give him the Crystal and then use Teleport to escape the cave, and then he used Break to turn himself back into stone. This is either a brilliant or stupid plan, and I’m not sure which. It depends on if the Crystal turned to stone with him, something I don’t think he can promise. If it did turn to stone with him, it’s a brilliant plan. If it did not, and Palom was counting on his grubby stone fingers keeping the doppelganger from one of the greatest powers in the world. Luckily, Leonora arrived and uses Esuna to cure him, which just plain worked. Holy crap, even The After Years thinks FFIV was full of shit. I like this expansion more and more every day!
What happened next isn’t chronologically arranged in my mind, I’m afraid. Suffice to say, Leonora revealed that the reason she felt she knew Palom was because they knew one another as children: she was the girl he was “flirting” with at the end of FFIV. And I was surprised by that because I had only put that scene in the FFIV write-up on a whim, I didn’t really expect anything to come of it! She said she had always liked how he boasted and was generally a jackass in a way that boosted people’s spirits, prompting Palom to give the fitting sentiment that Leonora was a terrible Epopt but a great partner for him. They gained a Band attack, probably the strongest we had seen, doing about 1500 damage to the doppelganger (indeed, the only thing that hurt her at all), but the doppelganger just shrugged it off.
And I have to say, for all I’ve been enjoying The After Years, its villain’s dialogue is a real low point. Every time she speaks she has to underline that she’s either an alien or a robot by calling the Humans present an “inferior species.” Every time she speaks she has to take issue with some aspect of Human behaviour, to the point where I wonder if she considers anything natural behaviour at all. Yes, we get it, you’re not Human, you don’t have to say it time (Cecil’s story) and time (here) and time (Edge’s story) and time (Edge’s story) and time (Edge’s story) and time (Edge’s fucking story), and time (Porom’s story) and time (Porom’s story!) and time again!
The point is, she finally started attacking and we died immediately. Like that was even a surprise.
By the way, I couldn’t help but notice that every time we see this person, she’s using a different Eidolon, and only ever uses that one Eidolon throughout the encounter. This might just be for variety, but I’m wondering if she’s actually one person at all… Either way, she took the Crystal, left Leonora unmoving, and Palom screaming before he collapsed. Quick cut to Porom’s story which I’ll get to later, and then…