Rinoa does her best to make the ride back to the planet a romantic moment, and does an okay job considering her partner is Squall, but now it’s time for her big fear: Rinoa suspects that now that the Estharans know she’s a sorceress, they’ll take her away. I was confused by this, and this time it’s on me. Time for a quick confession: up until this point, I had been under the impression that Ellone was a Sorceress, and hadn’t even mentioned it because I figured it was so obvious! As a result, I didn’t understand why the Estharans would take Rinoa “away” when they did nothing to Ellone. Unless she was in space as a prison, of course. In hindsight my reasons for thinking Ellone was a Sorceress don’t hold up at all, but here’s my former thought process all the same.
First off, when we were first introduced to Ellone, we were told that Adel was looking for a successor, and was searching worldwide to find her. This caused me to think that she was looking for a successor that was also already a sorceress, presumably someone who was born as one (we hadn’t been told how they were made yet!) which was why it was taking so long to find an acceptable candidate. Secondly, the “White SeeDs” always introduced themselves as “the sorceress’ SeeDs,” and since they guarded Ellone… I thought they were her SeeDs! Also, early on I had an incorrect hunch that the White SeeDs were from Esthar – the only major, populated region that didn’t seem to have a Garden yet – which made even more certain that Ellone had become Adel’s successor as ruler of Esthar! On top of this, as I’ve complained in the past, the game outright refuses to explain what a sorceress really even is, and since Ellone is a woman with magical powers… why shouldn’t that make her a sorceress? Ultimecia and Ellone both have the power to reach back in time to possess others, so why shouldn’t that be a mark of a sorceress? Also, wasn’t Ultimecia is looking for Ellone, and also looking for sorceresses to possess? As you can see, I had a big pile of evidence at an early part of the story, but forgot to check in on it to make sure said evidence stood up over time, so I didn’t realize I was wrong until this very scene and I had to ask Kyle for some clarifications!
Unfortunately, Rinoa’s fears were well-founded. Despite landing the Ragnarok in Centra, south of Esthar, an Estharan delegate was waiting for us to take Rinoa into custody. She went without argument, saying it was what she wanted, and Squall respected that from her. Yeah, just wait and see how this turns out. But first it was time for us to get lost! We discovered we were locked out of the Ragnorok’s cockpit, and since the game had technically left us outside the ship after the cutscene was done, I decided that meant we were supposed to go for a walk in the nearby desert! I ran into a few Cactuars, which couldn’t avoid Squall’s attacks thanks to the game’s odd decision to give Squall perfect accuracy, which I just now realized I haven’t mentioned before now! Geeze, why even have evasion-focused enemies like Cactuars, ones that drop 20AP a head no less, when Squall has perfect accuracy and the game won’t even let you swap him out of your party? We also happened to stumble across a weird encounter with a UFO that just happened to be making off with a pyramid! More on this later (including a screenshot), but it turns out this was an important scene for a sidquest I didn’t even know about!
Eventually, Kyle checked the strategy guide and discovered we had to go to some random room in the Ragnorok before the plot would proceed. Yeah, I love you too, FFVIII.
Once we got to the right room in the Ragnarok, the rest of the party (except for Edea) appeared out of the ether of probability, one after another. Like I said: this narrative can’t even phase me anymore. Selphie told us that she got off the escape pod from Lunar Base just fine, but by the time she woke up, Ellone was gone. You can actually find the crashed pod on an invisible part of the map if you know where to look, where you can find Piet holding any cards you may have lost on the Lunar Base. It would seem nobody cares to rescue the guy, even after he went to all this trouble rescuing those valuable cards!
Zell explained that the reason Lunatic Pandora called the Lunar Cry to its location was because it had a “crystal pillar” inside that was somehow attuned to the moon, though what Tears’ Point had to do with anything, I still don’t know even at the time of writing (two hours or so from the end of the game!). It’s clear Esthar aimed to use this power during the war, but why would the receiver for the weapon – and so the only viable target – be in their territory? Were they testing it there and planning to move it later, somehow?
While Selphie and Irvine went off to explore the ship, Quistis and Zell decided to give Squall hell for “allowing” Rinoa to surrender Esthar. Okay: 1) first Irvine gets mad at Squall for not liking Rinoa enough (back in Deling), then everybody including Irvine gets mad at Squall for liking her too much (when she was unconscious), now these two are on us for just apparently not liking her enough? You’re just going to disapprove of all of Squall’s romantic decisions, no matter what they are, aren’t you? 2) This was her decision, and if you want to defy that, that’s your problem! Squall even points this out but the game is clearly against him on it, and it doesn’t have any argument except: “if you loved her you would have defied her, like a man.” I get that Squall’s romantic passivity is being cast as a problem by the narrative, but that doesn’t give him the right to disrespect her goddamned decisions! 3) Quistis begins to make this point about why Squall rescued Rinoa, saying it can’t have just been to hand her over to Esthar. Okay, why is this suddenly about what Squall wants and not what Rinoa wants? For that matter, why can’t Squall just want Rinoa to be alive and safe?
And if these guys were going to make this argument for some larger, save-the-world concerns… well, they’re not! They simply aren’t! But I want to raise the idea anyways because, fun fact! 4) The greater good is apparently no longer on the table! Remember the giant stream of monsters that descended to earth because of Rinoa’s powers? The powers she made a decision to confront, a decision that seemed like it might save billions if they can stop that from happening again? I wish I were joking but I’m not, but the hellish stream of monsters from the moon is no longer relevant to the plot. Besides for the fact that there are now wandering monsters in Esthar City and the wandering monsters immediately outside of Esthar have been powered up, the hellstream that looked like it was going to wipe out life on the planet is no longer a fact of the narrative.
So to repeat: Character consistency is no longer on the table apparently. Rinoa’s decision is no longer on the table, apparently! The greater good is no longer on the table apparently! Oh, and while we’re here: 5) Literally no one in this room knows what the Estharns plan to do with Rinoa or if it will be even remotely permanent, they’re only expressing outrage because of their authorial insight into the facts of the matter. Like I said not a scene ago: the game is on fire.
In any event, these two convince Squall to change his mind and to erase Rinoa’s autonomy. Meanwhile, Selphie manages to get the Ragnarok into the air to function as an airship, despite the game having fuel concerns not five minutes ago. Believe me, five-minutes-later retcons aren’t surprising me anymore at this point. So where are we off to, they ask Squall? Obviously, off to save Rinoa from hersel—no, I’m just kidding, it’s time to do like three hours of sidequests, goodbye to everyone.
But first, surprise bad news: Edea was no longer in the party at this point, and would not be returning. While her GFs had been unequipped, the game erased all of her magic inventory instead of returning it as well! Magic that had previously been a part of our three-character strategy! We didn’t realize what had happened at first, simply because we weren’t doing combat for the next few hours of sidequesting, but we started to notice that one of our three party members were underperforming even if we never quite nailed it on the head. I’m surprised to say that we actually did survive like this, coasting mostly on magic we had transferred to a fourth character at various points in the game after running out of space on the third (and a few that had gotten lost when we were still confused about the Switch command at the start of the game, two negatives somehow turning into a positive). The problem would remain uncorrected until late in the session when Kyle did some final customization work before the end of the disc, and even then we still hadn’t identified it. And we had to do the secret dungeon with this straggler in our party! Sheeeesh.
Since we were right next to it, our first sidequest stop was a nearby island that featured a disappearing and reappearing cactus. Tagging this cactus led to a battle with the Jumbo Cactuar. While Jumbo could use 10,000 Needles to do… less than 10 000 damage, actually, undermining the move’s signature power… it only did so infrequently. The boss was also a relatively easy kill, especially since we were willing to fire off some AP Ammo with Irvine, and also we learned it was weak against Water (a cactus that’s weak against water?) and Quistis has Aqua Breath. Limit spam for the win! The reward for this battle was the optional Cactuar GF, which not only does set damage when summoned but offers you multiple level-up upgrades (upgrade that permanently improve your stats more than usual when you level up) and also relatively rare Evasion and Luck junctions. Besides, any new GF is good news.
At this point, it was time to shelve combat for an extended Triple Triad break, and I do mean “extended.” We turned off the recording knowing this would take a while, and it went worse than even our most extreme expectations. The problem was: we needed to move the Queen of Cards back to Dollet so that she would continue with her sidequest, but she was currently in Deling City, which had only a 12.5% chance of returning her to Dollet. Worse, if we let her follow the most probable chain of locations, each of those would have the exact same odds of going back to Dollet! Make no mistake: the developers are dragging this out on purpose!
We tried to RNG manipulate for a while, but it just wasn’t working, and we largely don’t know why. It worked on the Lunar Base! Maybe the manips we found online expected us to be in other parts of the stoyrline? Or maybe differences between the PSX and PC versions got in the way? We did work out why some of them weren’t working, at least: it turns out that the PC version’s in-game reset command actually causes a hard reset, not a soft reset like the PSX’s in-game reset. A lot of RNG manipulations rely on you having access to both kind of reset, but PC players can only do hard resets. Hard resets work like this: if you save and then hard reset, the game will always give you the same random results after you reload, so long as you do the same actions. Soft resets, on the other hand, cause the game to roll new but still predictable results. Long story short: even after we stopped using RNG manips from the internet, we kept hard resetting in an attempt to get different results, which hard resetting will never do.
Oh, and just to put a cherry on it, we were still operating under the previously-mentioned assumption that the Queen would only move if we lost a card to her, and not if we won one back. That made us think that if we didn’t get her to go straight to Dollet, we’d have to put up with two card games for every town in the chain! And god knows how many total if she refused to play the right cards against us!
After a while, did something differently without realizing it (we have no idea what), and this caused the Queen to move to Winhill instead of FH. Winhill? Can we… go?… to Winhill? Turns out we could have gone to Winhill as soon as Balamb Garden went mobile! We were torn between sticking in Deling with 12.5% odds that refused to roll because of our hard resets, or the 30% odds at Winhill… although we could never get the Queen to go from Winhill either, since it also refused to roll thanks to the hard resets! Eventually, we learned what we were doing wrong with the hard resets and also a few tricks that came straight from a dedicated, math-heavy RNG manipulation guide, and finally got her to change results and go to Dollet from Delling, but this bullshit must have gone on for an hour or more.
Our recording returns as we arrive in Dollet and try RNG manipulate the Queen to go from Dollet to Balamb, where the odds of her returning to Dollet are highest. Better yet, the internet had very well-documented RNG manipulation tricks were supposed to get her to go back and forth without fail… none of which fucking worked. At the time of writing, I now know why the Dollet-to-Balamb manip didn’t work (it relies on you having not yet exploited a stack of randomized prizes in the Dollet pub owner’s “secret room,” but we had already done that by accident and didn’t remember) but why the Balamb attempt didn’t work, I just don’t know! PC version differences? Oh, and it was only now that we realized that we had forgotten lose the Chicobo card to the Queen, thinking we had done so during Session 4, and we tried to give her Alexander instead. Problem: she doesn’t care about Alexander unless she already or also has Chicobo. You have to do this in order! While we could give Chicobo to her now that she was finally in Dollet, she won’t turn cards into new cards unless she arrives at Dollet with them, not if she receives them in Dollet!
Thankfully, now that we understood the RNG fundamentals, it was easier to get the Queen to go where we wanted, even if we couldn’t guarantee it. We somewhat sheepishly surrendered Rinoa’s card to send the Queen out of town, then lost Chicobo to her to get her to go back, then won Rinoa back from her to send her on her way again (which took longer than we’d like to admit). Then we won back our cards from her son, and went out into the world to fetch the new Doomtrain card. The odds of the Doomtrain card showing up from the NPC that gives it are apparently terrible, but we lucked out and found it in only a few rounds. With that, we gave Doomtrain itself to the Queen (yes, really!) so that she would return to Dollet and create the last card. After that: we robbed her son again, and then went off into the world to recover all the new cards we had unlocked, including the final card, Phoenix, which was in enemy-occupied Esthar. Phew! What a useless hassle!
By the way, as part of this process we had to get back to poor, forgotten Balamb Garden. The only way to do this is to land the Ragnarok at Fisherman’s Horizon, and vice versa when you want ot return. Ironically, after all the time we spent on the Garden, it’s now virtually irrelevant to the narrative, and the fact that you work for the SeeDs is only brought up in one more mandatory part of the game! And hey, remember when Cid left the Garden to live with his wife? From a real-world perspective, the devs had him do that so that he wouldn’t be erased from relevance like the rest of his staff! Nice job everyone.
At this point we were missing exactly four cards: Squall’s card, which we’d have to earn at a later stage in the narrative; one card that we’ll get to in a moment; and two standard, “Level 7” cards, representing bosses, which have to be won from the general pool. We had lucked into all the other Level 7 (and 8!) cards during earlier parts of the game. But as it turns out, when I say the Level 7 cards were in the “general pool,” that’s a little misleading. Every player in the game has access to different levels from the pool, not necessarily related to one another. Some research revealed that the best way to get Level 7 cards is to go to the small handful of people that not only play them, but play very few other levels of cards, since it reduces the pool of random results overall. Level 7 and 8 cards are relatively rare, so a lot of FFVIII players like to play against Martine, formerly of Galbadia Garden, as he’s got a pretty good setup. That said, there are a few better options at this stage in the game. You could use the Elder in Shumi Village, the Artisan in Shumi Village, and there are some folks on Disc 4 later on that are better, too. Key problem: every single one of these fonts of rare cards follow the rules of the Trabia region. You know… a region with the Random rule in play! Sheesh, no wonder everyone favours Martine!
But we were gonna go for it, and that’s right, that means it was time for more RNG manipulation, except this time the RNG refused to cooperate with us even with our recent knowledge and experience. It’s a miracle we solved this at all and we’re still not entirely sure what we did to made the RNG behave differently when it finally gave in? But eventually the Random rule was abolished and Kyle was able to grind at the Shumi Elder until we had our missing cards, which only took about a dozen rounds, luckily. Two cards left to go!
The next card (and the last we could get without advancing the plot) would require a sidequest. We started off by going around the world and visiting a few key places where you could find the UFO from earlier. There’s basically nothing indicating these locations, by the way, and the one hidden on a beach has to be the worst. Thankfully, you can have Enc-None on to turn off random encounters while you do this junk, but you have to learn about that by accident if you aren’t following a guide, since the UFO scenes behave like random encounters in every other regard! This sidequest’ll get worse in time, but before it got worse, we got interrupted by a side-trip.
You see, it just so happens that one of the UFO encounters can be found next to Winhill, so we decided to go investigate Winhill itself. While the place looked mostly like how Laguna had left it, a lot had changed inside. For starters, two SeeD dropouts were now working there full-time as mercenaries, and were, embarrassingly, doing better than Laguna ever was, even gaining the respect of the people where he hadn’t. A lot of people in town were willing to talk about Raine, but we were given no details about her death, or the fate (or even existence) of her rumoured child. But as we checked out the manor at the back of town, we stumbled across a sidequest, wherein the man in charge was looking for his missing vase. For some reason, he suspected a ghost of stealing it!
Nearby was an obvious suit of armour, with a mysterious third leg part a few feet to one side of it (which was never explained, by the way. If the characters hadn’t explicitly mention it, I would have mistaken it for a graphical glitch!). By examining the armour, it seemed to come at us before collapsing and revealing a Chicobo inside. We were lucky, as this scene only happens if Irvine or Quistis is in your party, and we had both! Really unfair way to run a sidequest, by the way, as I understand there aren’t any hints if or even that you did anything wrong. Unfortunately, while the Chicobo turned out to have the vase, the vase had been broken and it only had one piece of it. It was up to us to search the rest of town for the others. One involved stopping another Chicobo at a crossing to get three prizes, including the vase piece and a mis-labelled Phoenix Pinion (mistakenly marked as a boring-old “Phoenix Down”). The others involved talking to people who knew Raine and learning a few trifles of her story, nothing that couldn’t have been gleaned from context, but still appreciated and sad. We even saw Raine’s “ghost” a few times. Ultimately the only prize for the quest was another trifle (even if we had come here after unlocking the mobile Garden, it still would have been a trifle), but the narrative was nice. I think I would have moved the Phoenix Pinion to the end of the quest to make it feel more rewarding!
Back to UFO business. The next step is the least intuitive yet: you have to land on top a specific mountain (which are valid landing and walking spaces for virtually the first time in FF history), to find the UFO near the Chocobo Sanctuary north of Esthar, an area full of mountains. No clues points you up here but the forests on top of the mountains, and nothing whatsoever to this specific spot, by the way. Here, you destroy the UFO in a single attack, only for it to crash elsewhere. At least it’s not in a hard-to-find location if you know where to look (which you don’t): it’s right next to the crater where Balamb Garden used to root. Again, no clues.
Once you get there, it’s time to meet the UFO’s pilot: an alien called a “PuPu.” You know, after the sound it makes, and not the scat fetish it won’t shut up about. You can straight-up murder the PuPu to get a relatively rare item (and after all the stalking and vehicular destruction, maybe that would be in-character), but you can also appease it, Magic Pot-style, by giving it five Elixirs. Hell, we’re barely using items at all, have all the Elixirs you want! When I accidentally wasted an Elixir on the party, I wanted to reset (and ultimately did) but Kyle urged me not to, because in his mind, we weren’t going to use it anyways! Giving the PuPu five Elixirs gives you its card for Triple Triad, the only card in the game that can never be replaced if you Refine it. If Refined, it turns into the incredibly rare Hungry Cookpot item, which can otherwise only be found as a top-tier item via Chocobo World or Angelo’s special ability, Angelo Search. The Cookpot teaches a GF a certain ability, but which ability I won’t say, at least not until we get the GF can do it naturally. In any event, we weren’t going to Refine the card, we were going to keep it, even though it’s an absolutely terrible Triple Triad card. After all: it was part of the collection! What a day we’re having.