Right, where we we? Oh, yes. Infodumping. Brilliant.
Squall’s “study panel” offered a gameplay tutorial, and also explained a few really shallow things about Balamb Garden and the world. Honestly, for all the reading involved and the complaining I just did, this is one of the least informative infodumps I’ve ever experienced. But let’s summarize what’s there. Balamb Garden is a military school, the first of three opened by the headmaster, this game’s Cid. In addition to schooling, they also operate their own mercenary force of their best and brightest graduates called “SeeD.” (Get it? Gardens? Seeds? Get it??) The field exam Squall was taking was actually for SeeD.
The game even skimped a little information about “GFs,” an incredibly important part of its setting, simply saying that they were developed by studying “a sorceress,” which is an odd thing to say considering another part of the game implies sorceresses aren’t necessarily historical? “GF” stands for “Guardian Force,” which makes for some unintentionally funny reading in the present day, where “GF” stands for “girlfriend.” The game uses the term “GF” almost to the exclusion of “Guardian Force,” and I soon got curious whether the characters were actually saying the letters “G.F.” or if they were actually saying “Guardian Force” every time and the text is simply abbreviated so it would fit in the box? I suspect that it’s the latter. I base this on how the game handles another abbreviation used later in the game: Squall says that a room is “on the 2F,” as in “on the second floor.” If the game had really wanted him to say “two-eff,” they presumably would have written “on 2F,” with no “the” stuck in the middle.
Naturally, I couldn’t make this kind of conclusion if it weren’t for a solid localization, and FFVIII is happy to supply! The translation here really is improved, and I don’t think I had a localization complaint until nearabouts the end of our first play session… and I don’t even remember what it was, so it must have been minor! I already knew from my research that FFVIII was the first Squaresoft game with a modern localization team, but… I’ll be honest, I still kind of expected it to be awful. I mean, having a professional localization team didn’t stop most Japanese-to-English jobs from the 90s from being awful, so the odds favoured awful here, as well, right? But they pulled off a good one, and congrats to them!
But back to the subject of GFs. GFs are essentially this game’s incarnation of Summons. They’re far more integral to the gameplay than any other Final Fantasy from FFIII to FFT, which is funny because it also makes them a lot more mundane? FFIV: a reclusive society of powerful beings who have made special contracts with a select few human beings, and guard them jealously! FFVI: the lynchpin of the entire plot, whose alliance or abuse can dominate the world! Fast forward to FFXV, where they are the gods of the world itself! FFVIII: oh, this high schooler has three of them.
GFs don’t work at all like past Summons. We’ll start with their use in-battle. FFVIII uses an ATB system, just like the past four games, and when you cast a Summon, it will take a certain amount of time to cast, at which point the Summon will unleash its powerful spell as usual. But while the GF is being Summoned, the player character’s HP is temporarily replaced by the HP of the GF! Not only can this help you tank hits, but you can summon the GF for free over and over until the GF is finally killed during its summon period, at which point you’ll have to revive it with an out-of-battle item or at an inn. Unfortunately, just because Summons are built into the game at such a fundamental level doesn’t mean that their animations are any shorter. As a matter of fact, most Summons have a special ability called Boost that you can use to play an op-in, button-tapping “mini-game” of sorts where winning will increase damage and losing will fraction it. It’s there to distract you while the boring animation plays out. It’s like they learned only part of a lesson after FFVII!
GFs have to be equipped to a specific character, and gain EXP and AP at the end of every battle. As they level up, they allow the character to use special abilities – indeed, every single combat option in the game, besides the standard Attack, must be learned via GFs! – and also allow the character to equip magic to their statistics, resistances and elemental attack properties to boost them. For example, Quezacotl’s “HP-J” ability (HP-Junction) allows you to equip spells to your HP stat, boosting it, and certain spells boost HP higher than others. Each spell increases each stat in its own way, for example: restorative spells boost HP the most, Thunder spells boost speed, etc.
Like a distant cousin of the Famicom Final Fantasy trilogy, FFVIII uses an ammunition-based magic system. Unlike the Famicom games, the ammunition is tied to each spell rather than to tiers, and the ammunition you can carry is very high, going all the way up to 100. Ammunition does the heavy lifting for Junctions: the more casts you have on-hand, the higher the stat boost you’ll gain from stats that are Junctioned to that spell, and yes, that means your boost decreases as you use spells! Each character has their own pool of spells, rather than being drawn from a common party pool, but you can easily transfer spells between characters, meaning you essentially only have to keep three sets of magic on-hand at any given time, even though it means more menu-diving than I honestly enjoy. Where do you get those spells? Wellllll… let’s put that off for a minute. But by how much? Unfortunately, that means explaining an entirely unrelated game system, but this pulls together in the end, I promise!
In any event, logging in to the tutorial gave us two GFs that Squall had apparently earned in the past (I’m not sure on whether or not you have to do this specifically to get them, or if they show up in some other manner if you avoid the study panel? I don’t do my research on a game until after it’s cleared, to avoid spoilers). This was Shiva and Quezacotl, and the game actually offers you the chance to name them as you please! Indeed, this is arguably why Quezacotl was called “Quezacotl” instead of “Quetzalcoatl,” because the custom naming field only allows for nine characters in English! The improved translation job means better and more accurate names for mythological creatures, at least when it isn’t obstructed by technology! Shiva filled her usual role as an ice summon, while Quezacotl was our new thunder summon, temporarily replacing Ramuh. Poor Ramuh who would alternate as the Thunder summon with potential replacements starting in FFVIII and going all the way to FFXII before returning as the default thunder summon from FFXIII onwards. Guess you just can’t mess with the classics in the long run.
While we’re on the subject of the study panel, I’d like to briefly lampoon the fact that the game goes to lengths to explain that everyone at the Garden is allowed to wear whatever clothes they want, but only Seifer and Squall actually do so. This is essentially just a noisy writing hack the devs used to justify having both a Japanese high school and to just flip off the idea of not using their character designs, and I find it funny how transparent it is about trying to have its cake and eat it too. It’s a bit like the uniforms in WB’s Harry Potter films, but without the part where the HP films implied the kids were being rebellious.
Speaking of comedy, the study panel also tells us that everyone in the school is obsessed with the cafeteria’s hot dogs. In the Japanese script, the cafeteria specializes is “bread,” which I understand to be an umbrella term that refers to a wide set of baked goods and bread-based dishes, so it doesn’t tell us much. (Ed. We arguably get to see some of the bread in a much later cutscene, but even that’s just a sampling.)
Squall headed out of class, only to meet-cute-collide with a fellow student. I knew her at a glance from Kingdom Hearts as being Selphie Tilmitt, though she wouldn’t introduce herself for some time. For the moment, she simply identifies herself as a transfer student from one of the other Gardens. I’m guessing she means Trabia Garden, as Selphie comments that her Garden was smaller than Balamb, and the study panel had already told us that the third garden, Galbadia, is the largest. See? I’ve been paying attention! Apparently she had transferred here on the day of the SeeD field exam, specifically to take the SeeD field exam as they don’t offer it at her Garden, which is pretty bullshit, though I know weird shit happens in real academia so I’m willing to give it a dubious pass. In any event, not knowing that Squall is in a hurry, Selphie asks him for a tour of the place. Squall obliges by heading to the foyer of the Garden and showing her a map. This is the best passive-aggressive joke Final Fantasy has ever made.
During the “tour,” we learned that Selphie had somehow already inserted herself into the school’s “Garden Festival committee,” which we already knew from the study panel was a complete joke. Sure enough, if you go in that direction after the “tour,” she shows up to hassle you about whether or not you play an instrument. I… play… sword?
In another part of this section, Kyle and I picked up a set of cards for FFVIII’s most prominent mini-game, Triple Triad. By the way, FFVIII insists on calling Triple Triad by the name “Cards” instead of its proper name, as though the developers or localizers hadn’t settled on “Triple Triad” until an hour before FFVIII went gold. Just outside the garden, Kyle found his first Triple Triad opponent and lost handily.
Triple Triad is simple enough at the base. You first create cards outside of the card game using Quezacotl’s “Card” ability in battles, which is used Pokemon-style (when enemy HP is in critical) to capture monsters and turn them into Triple Triad cards. Each card has four numbers on it arranged in a cross, indicating the strength of that card in each of its four sides. At the start of each game of Triple Triad, you select five cards from your collection to go into your hand. You then play the cards to a 3×3 grid, with a random player going first. The aim is to “capture” opponent’s cards by placing your card so that its sides outrank the sides of adjacent cards. For example: if you play a card with a 4 on its right side next to a card with a 3 on its left side, 4 beats 3 and you capture the other card. Cards generally can’t capture after they’re been placed, but you’ll still want to keep their exposed sides strong so you don’t lose them. Whoever controls the most cards at the end of the game wins, but to compensate for the fact that there are only 9 spaces on the board but 10 cards in between both players, the player who goes second gets to count the unused card in their hand at the end of the game as a “free” card, so a tie is possible. Should there be a winner, the winner gets to keep at least one of their opponents’ cards, possibly more depending on circumstances.
The purpose of Triple Triad is to win valuable cards and then to use GF abilities to convert those cards into valuable items. Since we had just lost, Kyle and I were now one card short and weaker than ever, but it took us a while to start gathering more Cards from the wild, so, uh… well, wait and see. One of the interesting things about Triple Triad is that the rules vary based on your game world region, which I think is a clever touch, but Kyle tells me that feature will be infuriating before too long. I can already blame the minigame for inflating this post to the point where I can’t cover the game’s first dungeon, so if Kyle’s right…
Heading out of town, we met up with Quistis, who gave us a hands-on GF and Junction tutorial, which I desperately needed as the text-only tutorial from the study panel hadn’t been any help to me at all (the Japanese version only describes the systems in question with text, but the international version added several scripted demo tutorials). Quistis then joined our party, and we equipped both of our GFs to Squall. This left Quistis with nothing but her base Attack command. This was my doing, and I did it because Quistis was giving off an air of being only a temporary party member who might not see combat before leaving the party again (say, to let Squall do the test on his own). I was mistaken. If I had to do it again, I’d have given her a GF from the off, and we eventually did, but for the time being, I might as well make the mandatory joke: “Ah yes, that feel when no GF.” Quistis knows it well, as we will soon learn.