Lot of game mechanic chat today, since FFVIII front-loads a lot of this stuff, but at least it’ll be over with when we’re through!
From here, we headed out onto the world map, where everything looked just… just terrible. The world map has easily the worst visuals in the game so far, with blocky textures and meshes and… ugh. At least your character disappears into the forests when you walk into them, which is a detail I hadn’t expected after past Final Fantasy games.
We headed straight to our destination, the Fire Cavern, where two men were waiting for us from the Garden. It was incredibly unclear who these men were supposed to be. Obviously they were supposed to be Garden employees, but the game never bothered to establish their actual job. They were wearing what looked to be kasa – a wide-brimmed rice hat, sometimes associated with Buddhist monks in the real world. The kasa hid their faces.
The men were here to facilitate a challenge that I still don’t understand. Here’s the short version: they asked us to estimate how long it would take us to complete the mission, from a list of 10, 20, 30 or 40 minutes. After making your choice, you would be competing against a timer that ran during battle, victory poses, and even dialogue (dialogue counting against the timer was a real piss-off, let me tell you). It seemed kind of rude to ask you to bet how long it will take you to complete a dungeon with no idea how long that dungeon is going to be, doesn’t it? The game might have been trying to say “Since 10 minutes is an option, the dungeon must be short!” but how do we know that? Maybe 10 minutes is a bluff! Or maybe just for hardcore players! I mean, FFVIII has a special reward for heavy grinders in just an hour or so!
Kyle tried to explain the betting mechanic in more detail, but because of spoilers, he could only say so much, and since the game has yet to return any rewards for our efforts as I write this (Kyle says this is understandable, for some reason), I still don’t quite understand what he was talking about! (Ed. Don’t worry, I’ll explain the system in full in the Journals for our second play-session, when I have the information I needed to understand what was going on!) In any event, I estimated 20 minutes.
Our objective was to go into the Fire Cavern and acquire an additional GF, and it didn’t take much thought to realize it would be Ifrit. There wasn’t much to say about the dungeon, either, except for some exceptionally powerful Bombs that nigh-demanded we use a Blizzard spell if we wanted to defeat them before they exploded. Naturally, we didn’t even have the Blizzard spell (save Shiva’s Diamond Dust), so I might as well take this opportunity to explain how one acquires magic. Sure, you can gain a handful from “Draw Points,” which appear on the map and regenerate over time, and can gain more from a few GF abilities that turn items into spells. Those are fine (and the second is actually the ideal), but many of your spell casts at the start of the game will come from monsters. Many GFs have the Draw ability, which you can equip to your command list like any other. After you’ve done that, it’s quite simple: you use Draw on bad guys and you get spells! Each enemy has a set list of spells. Weaker spells are easy to pick up since they come in crops of 2-9, while Kyle informs me that the strongest spells can come in as small as 1-2, depending on your character’s magic stat. Remember, this goes up to 100! Thankfully, you can use Draw over and over so long as you’re willing to risk the monster, as the monster never “runs out.”
Unfortunately, Drawing from monsters is a tedious process. You’re probably supposed to use the “GFs turn items into spells” method more often. But just because it was tedious to Draw from enemies didn’t mean that I didn’t do it, just that I was frustrated and bored from time to time. I blame the Marathon. Normally, I would never bore myself to make things easier, and will happily pass by opportunities to make a game easier if it ruins my engagement with the game. I’m responsible for my own play experience, there’s no reason to bore myself by using an overpowered item or strategy! But the Marathon has become our place for abusing broken systems and smashing games’ challenges into teeny-tiny atoms, and Kyle had been excited about atomizing FFVIII for a while now. Usually we have fun with it, and we eventually had fun doing it with FFVIII too, but it meant several 10-minute sessions of sitting in the same battle, using Draw over and over again, talking about something else!
If you did want to fix the system, I think the easiest way to do it would be to limit the number of times you can use Draw per enemy or per battle. Or maybe Draw should have been, I don’t know… merged with Attack, like a magical version of Mug, meaning you damage your enemies every time you Draw, forcing you to end the fight or to use up Cure spells on the bad guys, which you won’t want to do because when will you get more? Alternately, they could have just not used Draw to begin with. They clearly wanted you to make extensive use of the “GFs turn items to spells” system, so why not use it exclusively, and simply have enemies drop more (and more varieties of) items used for Refine system?
At the end of the cavern, it was time to fight Ifrit, and I was delighted to see that FFVIII had brought back in-battle dialogue, and even had Ifrit responded to our actions like summoning Shiva! The battle itself was simple, but not boring, like a lot of previous Final Fantasy first bosses had been. True, this higher level of engagement came at the cost of several front-loaded tutorials, but as someone who’s nowhere near as bothered by tutorials as most gaming critics, I found this a marked improvement! Also, Square finally got rid of that “don’t attack while the first boss is doing X” mechanic that had been in the last four games in a row. I suppose they could have, and should have, replaced it with some other complex mechanic, but goodness knows the Mist Dragon mechanic should have gone to bed with the Mist Dragon!
In any event, defeating Ifrit got us both his GF and his card for Triple Triad. I also managed to eke out my win just before the 10 minute mark despite having bet 20. I was disappointed that I hadn’t bet 10 minutes at the outset, since I could have made it, so I was a little reassured to learn that the Japanese version originally forced you to leave the cavern before stopping the timer, since I wouldn’t have been able to beat 10 minutes under those conditions.
Unfortunately… it turns out that the time estimate mechanic didn’t work how I expected. My knee-jerk assumption was that there was going to be a different prize (or penalty) based on the different betting categories: if you bet 10 and made it, you’d get prize A; if you bet 20 and made it, you’d get prize B, etc; and if you don’t meet your time, you get nothing. And I think that’d be the common assumption, because it’s simpler and games do stuff like this all the time! In fact, this game will do it the next time it asks you to bet on a timer! But that’s not actually how this section works! Instead, it works based on how close you bet was to the actual time without going over, Price is Right-style. This meant my bet was nearly ten minutes off-mark. If the game had made that clear, I might have played differently, or given it another try! Sheesh! This feels like a less unfair cousin of King’s Quest 1’s “IFNKOVHGROGHPRM” bullshit, in that the actual solution is magnitudes less intuitive than what I assume would be the average guess.
Oh, before we get too far away from Ifrit, I should note that I learned about Limit Breaks during the Ifrit battle (Quistis’, if I’m not mistaken). Limit Breaks in FFVIII become available randomly based on your current health percentage, and as a matter of fact can actually appear even if you’re at fairly high health, though they’re far more likely to trigger at low. I’m glad that FFVIII’s Limit Breaks, unlike FFVII’s, allow you to still use regular attacks while they’re available. When they become available, you can selective them by holding right from the Attack command, though I’m kind of annoyed at how sensitive the controls are when it comes to selecting them, as I often found myself kicked back to the main actions menu while trying to select my Limit, which can be really frustrating when you’re on low HP!
Since I just mentioned a frustrating control issue, I should mention that FFVIII has fixed most of my control complaints left over from FFVII, and is generally a more comfortable play. I would still prefer a text menu when selecting my target, though, rather than arrows that point to the target and move relative to the camera.
Once we returned to the surface, Kyle, who was poring over the strategy guide, suggested we grind in the forest a bit in hopes of getting a drop from the local caterpillar monsters that would enhance Quistis’ “Blue Magic” Limit Break options. Unlike past Blue Mages, Quistis doesn’t learn Blue Magic from attacks, but rather from items. This is not unlike Rydia’s rare item drop Summons from FFIV and TAY. Thankfully, Quistis’ items have much higher drop rates than Rydia’s 0.4% garbage: this first item for Quistis had a nearly 70% drop rate, and could be stolen for 100% once stealing was available! The odds of later Blue Magic items (I asked Kyle to check the strategy guide to give me a number, but not a source) look to be around 10%, which still isn’t that bad compared to 0.4%! But despite that 70% drop rate, the caterpillar wouldn’t give us shit, and we were in the forest for ten minutes before we found not a Blue Magic drop but a T-Rexaur, an extra-powerful, random encounter no doubt intended as a callback to the Tyrannosaur from FFI.
Quistis urged us to run from the T-Rexaur, but… naaaaah. We stuck it out, because despite the T-Rexaur having what turned out to be 13 500 HP, enemies in FFVIII dynamically adjust to Squall’s level, so it couldn’t have been more than a moderate challenge (the level-scaling is not near an extreme as say, Elder Scrolls IV). The monster’s most powerful attack would take out about half the party’s HP, but that was easily managed, and it was weak to ice… though we only had Blizzard spells on Squall at this point, who was also the person with Shiva, so that slowed things down a little. While the T-Rexaur eventually took out two of our GFs (including Shiva) and the fight took twenty minutes total, we were ultimately victorious and won a Dinosaur Bone synth ingredient for our trouble. We won our stupid Blue Magic pickup from a caterpillar in the very next battle.
The T-Rexaur gave Kyle time to explain some of the basics of FFVIII’s so-called “Crisis Level” system. This system is not described during the game, or at least it hasn’t been yet (thanks, Square). Long story short: the odds of getting a Limit Break are determined by your “Crisis Level,” which is calculated a number of factors. While Limit Breaks can be triggered as low as Crisis Level 4, Crisis Levels actually go up to 8, and Limit Breaks get stronger at those higher Crisis Levels. Crisis Level is chiefly determined by your current health percentage and negative status effects, but there are other factors, one being a fully random number, just to fuck with you. The spell Aura is basically the only factor that allows you to safely increase Crisis Level. Anything else revolves around maintaining low health (manageable), trying to operate with dead party members (unreasonable for everyday, but good for a rescue), and experiencing detrimental status effects (once again good for a rescue, but not much of a strategy since there aren’t any ideal status effects. Even harmless old poison is dangerous when your HP is almost gone!).
After one last tutorial from Quistis, she ordered us to get into our proper uniform for the SeeD field test, though we took the opportunity to explore campus instead. During this section, Kyle tried to challenge the same opponent to Triple Triad… and promptly lost our Ifrit card, which delightfully earned us the “Loser” achievement on Steam! This immediately became a point of contention for Kyle, and he went on to challenge the guy over and over again trying to get it back. He also kept losing, and lost so many times that we soon didn’t have enough cards to compete! Once we were finally allowed back on the world map (which would prove to be some time from now), Kyle went on an aggressive Card-gathering mission in the overworld and Fire Cavern. But before that, it was time for the big SeeD exam.