Next up… well, next up was some menu diving, during which we discovered that we were sitting on two new Blue Magic items we didn’t even realize we had. We also corrected a few Junctions that had been left vacant when Edea left and took our magic with her, though we didn’t realize that was the cause at the time, and assumed the character’s GFs had gained the Junction slots since we had last checked.
Next up after that, our plan was to continue with sidequests, but since the upcoming quests would involve more fighting, we decided to fetch Rinoa before we continued, since she was well and away our weakest party member thanks to her repeat absences and would benefit from the EXP. I had put off rescuing her under the logic that we’d be trapped by the plot after rescuing her (we were going to defy Esthar in their own territory, after all), but we needn’t have worried, since you actually get her back without a fight! You go to Adel’s “memorial” and learn Rinoa is going to be sealed away permanently and probably in space, just like Adel (although how they were going to maintain her without a space station, I don’t know). You know, I had actually wondered why Adel had been sealed instead of killed (we get an explanation later on) but I can respect them not trying to kill Rinoa, who’s done no conscious wrong, even if I don’t agree with their method. In any event, all it takes is a swing of a gunblade to break the mechanism and a quick hug from Squall to change Rinoa’s mind about keeping others safe from her dangerous powers (hey, at least he learned how to hug at last!).
It looked like it was time for a fight at the entrance (remember, Esthar soldiers were enemies in that one Laguna flashback, so a recolour fight wouldn’t be out of the question), only for an Estharan politician or officer to show up and gesture to the soldiers to let us go. He didn’t say a word, and he was a pretty big guy that Squall said he recognized, so the pieces rapidly fell into place in my head and I pieced together a good chunk of FFVIII’s remaining unknowns. Good show on the game for at least one good mystery, I’ll say. If you genuinely don’t know the surprise yourself, I’ll put off spoiling it until the game gives the big reveal.
Rinoa asks to go see Edea’s house at this point for some reason, basically so she can later give a speech next to a pretty background. I wish I were kidding, the game would have been way more efficient if she had just done it on the airship. We ignored her and went off to do sidequests instead, and basically forgot she even asked after an hour or two. Our first task: to deal with the Solomon Ring.
The mystery of the Solomon Ring is tied up in a series of magazines called “Occult Fan,” which can be found around the world. Unfortunately, one of them is permanently missable, being a part of that damnable Fisherman’s Horizon quest I was complaining about ages ago. Not that it matters much. The two of the magazine’s hints are opaque, and a third is a deliberately misleading, and the fourth… well, the fourth is going to take a while to explain, and that should tell you enough. Oh, and did I mention that two of the magazines mention the PuPus instead of the Solomon Ring, mixing them into this and confusing things even further when they actually have nothing to do with the Solomon Ring? The magazines issues about the PuPus and the Ring should have probably been divided, with clear indication about which issues were dealing with which urban legend, the UFO (the PuPus) or the “ghost” (the Solomon Ring quest).
The first magazine shows an unclear picture of a Wendigo, and mentions a man “making a fence with steel pipes.” This mishmash is supposed to clue you in to the fact that you’ll need a Steel Pipe object, which can be Mugged from Wendigos. Issue 2 mentions a Malboro, so assuming you can get the groove of the mystery, Malboro Tentacles are an obvious second component. Issue 3 is the closest thing we have to direct instructions: it says the Solomon Ring can be used to summon a special GF if you have “666 items.” It doesn’t say which items, and that’s only half of why it’s misleading, as you don’t need six-hundred sixty-six of them either. It’s actually trying to tell you that you need 6 of item #1, 6 of #2, and 6 of #3. If you put the clues together, that means 6 Steel Pipes, 6 Malboro Tentacles, and 6 of something from Issue 4. Issue 3 is the magazine you can lose forever by overlooking a well-hidden room during your first trip to a town! I’m telling you! Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire practice run!
Missability aside, the fourth magazine is arguably the worst: not only does it scramble the PuPus into this even further, but it’s mistranslated. The fourth item you need is the “Remedy+,” an item you have to Refine into existence, but the magazine calls it an “ST Full Recovery Medicine” instead! The ST means it’s “Status Full Recovery Medicine,” a direct translation of the Japanese name. You can really tell that FFVIII was a game of the early internet, since some fans and walkthrough writers still believe the “ST Full Recovery Medicine” refers to the PuPu’s love of Elixirs, inadvertently proving that said walkthrough writers never solved the Solomon Ring puzzle on their own. And I don’t blame them! Who could, with clues like this?
Each of the four ingredients also forces you to go through a “puzzle” of sorts to find them, above and beyond the clues in the magazine. As I mentioned, Remedy+s have to be Refined with the help of Alexander, itself a missable GF. The Steel Pipes weren’t so bad, since Wendigos are relatively common. I think the fact that Steel Pipes are exclusive to Mugging was the intended “puzzle” here (Chocobo World and Angelo Search notwithstanding). Lastly, the Malboros are just assholes that are virtually a puzzle to fight on their own. Kyle had to properly equip the party with special status defence items, and also prep Quistis to use her Blue Magic spell Degeneration, which would instantly kill them. Oh, and to increase the odds of encountering a Malboro and also to train Rinoa, we went to “The Island Closest to Hell,” one of two seemingly nondescript but evocatively named islands (the other being “The Island Closest to Heaven”) which were stocked with Level 100 monsters regardless of level scaling. Great names, by the way, for real! On the plus side, high-level Malboros drop 8 tentacles if they drop any at all. Too bad the first one we found gave us Hypno Crowns instead. Rinoa gained 5 levels on The Island Closest to Hell alone.
If you gather at least 6 of each ingredient and then use the Solomon Ring from the menu, the new GF will join you immediately with no need for a fight (and I healed for one and everything!). This new GF is Doomtrain, a new incarnation of the memorable Ghost Train boss from FFVI. Besides doing light-type damage when Summoned, it also causes a number of handy debuffs.
While we were hunting, we also started what I thought would be a trifling sidequest, only to discover it was actually ruthless, and tied to another of one of the least-earned achievements on Steam. This was the Obel Lake sidequest, a quest that takes place entirely on the world map. The quest gets started with you helping a “shadow” in a place called Obel Lake near Timber (the shadow is completely invisible on the map), and after you do it will begin giving you hints as to where to find special stones with writing on them, which eventually combine how to find some treasure. Oh, and one stone sends you on a second treasure hunt all on its own, not tied to the rare Steam achievement. While most of the shadow’s hints are optional after the initial quest, allowing you to just follow a walkthrough straight to each final location, one of the interim hints is mandatory, which confused the crap out of us (it’s probably mandatory because the stone is tied to Balamb beach. If they hadn’t locked it off, you might have stumbled on to the stone at the start of the game and been very confused!). Most of the stones are in extremely precise, invisible hotspots on the map, one of them on the damnable explorable mountains like the PuPu ship. They’re so hard to find that it’s unlikely anyone ever did this quest fair and square.
Like I said earlier, there are two end treasures. The first is in a very hard to find spot on an island, while the other, the one tied to the achievement, involves doing a quest in a valley full of misleading, talking rocks! Each rock has a different colour described only in text, and since the rocks are invisible to the player, it’s not really clear if the valley is filled with a thousand rocks, all with the same behaviours based on their colour, or if there are just four rocks that are shouting at you at a distance, I don’t know. You have to deduce that only one colour of rocks is worth listening to, because the others are liars, and that even the rock you should listen to is giving you directions in reverse! Oh, and the rocks only start showing up if you find the first, invisible trigger zone in the first place, despite them being in a huge open area. During the rock quest, I found it helpful to pay attention to the tiles formed by the low-res textures to divide the area into squares, and that seemed to make it easier to narrow down the treasure’s location at the end of the hunt. Neither of the treasures were really worth it (although the main prize is especially rare), and back in the 90s it would have been a total waste of time, but the relatively rare achievement is nice if you’re into that!
At this point we took a break to eat, and accidentally forgot to turn on the recording for a few minutes. This lost section included our earning Doomtrain and the start of the next quest, but no big deal. On an embarrassing note, we forgot to give this recording a break and allowed it to run for the rest of our session, inadvertently recording 5 hours in one batch, the longest since we promised never to do that again after recording nearly all of Dirge of Cerberus in one go! Ah well. Did I mention we fucked up the sound recording during this session, as well? I didn’t?
While I was angling to hunt down the few remaining items we needed to synth the party’s remaining ultimate weapons, Kyle had a different idea, and tracked down the Deep Sea Research Lab, this game’s bonus dungeon. Normally we’d skip bonus dungeons because the challenge is too much, but here’s a game design question for you: what is a bonus dungeon in a game with level scaling, anyways? I say it’s just a regular dungeon! Let’s hit it up!
Our recording chimes in a few minutes into the first obstacle: a great, blue lamp is in the middle of the room, and a voice that says those that “follow” the blue lamp will all die. What it means is that it’s time for a game of “Red Light, Green Light,” with this giant… uh… blue light. When the lamp is glowing, stop or be attacked. Move only when it’s on. If you can touch the lamp, the voice asks a question. If you get that question “right,” it will ask a second question about why you want to fight, and you’re presented with two options: “For the sake of protecting something” or “None of your business.” Believe it or not, neither is the correct answer, and Kyle already knew the secret: you have to select a secret, blank option at the bottom of the list. This is much harder to find than the similar setup in FFVII’s Shinra Manor, since there’s no backing box behind the list of options to give away the hidden entry. When Squall gives this non-answer, the voice is surprised and reveals itself: Bahamut.
The fight against Bahamut went very smoothly, thanks in a large part to Quistis’ Mighty Guard Blue Magic (which we had won from a Behemoth in Esthar at some point, quite possibly during the otherwise trifling walk to win the Phoenix card during the Queen of Cards nonsense!). Mighty Guard was great as ever, including Protect and Shell to the entire party as usual, and also now including Float and Aura, the latter of which allowed Kyle to Limit Spam Bahamut to death in only three minutes! Wow! Naturally, Bahamut was a GF. While we stuck to fundamentals for the time being, one of the Bahamut’s many, tempting abilities was to unlock an enemy’s rare drop list. This list isn’t always better than the regular drop list (and it does nothing to Mug), but I personally didn’t want to be caught without access to a specific item list if we needed to grind again! Bahamut also had a unique ability to give you Protect at the start of a fight, but we didn’t unlock that before the end of the game.
To our confusion, the game doesn’t let you proceed in the Deep Sea Lab at this point, arbitrarily forcing you to go back to the airship and then return to the lamp room before it adds a short bridge to carry on. Once we were in, it was time for a confusing dungeon that Kyle decided to just walk me through using the strategy guide. He’d know best. Here’s how it’s supposed to work: this abandoned research lab is divided into several levels that are, themselves, connected to a now-drained section of underwater ruins. Problem: the amount of steam power (yes, steam power) left in the lab was limited, with only 20 “units” worth (in practice, only 16, as four are used automatically during the initial tutorial) that you have to ration throughout the dungeon to open doors to specific rooms. To avoid having to draw multiple doors, the game implies that the entire lab rotates and so one door can lead to multiple locations. If you can get to the bottom of the lab with 10 points left (those 10 points being a last-second troll), you can fight the boss. If you fail, you can choose to restart the dungeon with 20 (16) steam points. It’s pretty clever all-in-all, and while we used a walkthrough to get through it, I think I’ll try it on my own if I ever play the game again.
We weren’t far in before we realized the enemies here were really souped up in comparison to others, either because of some natural advantage or, more likely, because of the higher party average after The Island Closest to Hell, Rinoa notwithstanding. It didn’t help much that I wanted to farm the famous Black Magic spell Flare from the Tri-Heads that lived in the area (they also had the multi-status-effect-inflicting Pain spell, but we didn’t have room for it). Believe it or not, but this was virtually the first time we had Draw in this entire Session, and it almost felt unfamiliar! While I didn’t exactly tap the enemies for 100 Flares like I had done for other spells in the past, I did waste quite a lot of time here, and it’s not like the enemies were easy to kill to boot.
There’s a trick part-way down the dungeon: you have to either unlock a “Steam Room” to gain back a few steam points, or you can go to the bottom and have Zell and Zell alone open a door, but at the cost of alerting a number of set encounters you can’t avoid, even with Enc-None. We didn’t take Zell up on his offer. For our part, we hadn’t even thought of Enc-None until we got to the end of the dungeon and discovered to our annoyance that the dungeon didn’t seem to have an automatic exit like virtually every dungeon in the franchise since FFIV, and so we’d have to walk back. Oh, we’d have easily survived (we have virtually all the Potions we could ever want, plus GF abilities to restock of necessary), but it would have been a chore, and it was getting later into the night.
At the end of the dungeon, it’s time to use a final steam machine and fight the bonus boss: Ultima Weapon. This wouldn’t be the three-minute snorer fight we had with Bahamut, and nevermind that I didn’t have the same luck at getting Squall’s Limits with Aura as Kyle had. Instead, I kept Quistis and Rinoa on low HP, Quistis so she could use Mighty Guard as necessary, and Rinoa in hopes of getting Angelo’s invincibility Limit, although it only happened once. Meanwhile, Squall Triple-cast Ultima into Ultima Weapon’s face for ~10k damage a turn. Squall did okay, especially since his HP was now maxed, but Ultima Weapon took a particular dislike to Rinoa and kept one-shotting her with a special attack, and would frequently kill Quistis to boot. Thankfully, Kyle had wisely swapped out our long-lingering Card ability for the Revive ability, which would heal a dead person to full HP. Unfortunately, it was on Rinoa, which meant she was often just as dead as Quistis. And don’t forget that full HP doesn’t put you back in Limit Break territory like a Life spell! But it was something.
After Ultima Weapon’s defeat (15 minutes or so), we were done. Our prizes were 100 Ultima Stones that you could use to Refine a whole lot of Ultima spells, and also the second-last GF, Eden, which we Drew from him during battle. Eden has the game’s most powerful summon spell, Eternal Breath, and is an unusual GF in a few ways. For starters, GFs track their affinity with each party member each time you Summon them and use related magic. For most GFs, this means 20 points of compatibility each time you Summon, but you also lose a small amount when you Summon other GFs. For Eden? Only two points when you Summon her, but you gain one point when you Summon others! Of course, both those numbers are terrible, so it’s better to just buy her love with items meant for the purpose.
The second thing that makes Eden unusual is the Devour ability. Ahhh, Devour, one of FFVIII’s fan-favourite fun facts (“Final Fantasy fan-favourite fun facts”). The Devour command, also taught to a GF with the Hungry Cookpot, allows you literally eat a weakened enemy, no matter how big, along with a comical “censored” box. It’s amazing. Generally, Devour is used for healing, though it can also hurt you if you eat something that isn’t good for you, but a small handful of the game’s strongest monsters can actually boost your stats, one monster per stat. Unfortunately, the only monster that can boost your Speed stat with is the PuPu, which is only available once and isn’t even worth it.
By the way, did you hear the joke about the guy who tried to hack Devour onto Cait Sith in FFVII, but he tried and he tried and it kept doing nothing, until finally he kicked Yuffie and Tifa out of the party and tried again, only for the game to crash? I guess you could say a “Final Fantasy fan-favourite fun fact for famous feline fakers finally, fatally failed far from female friends.” Fictionally.
After escaping the Deep Sea Lab, it was time to grab some of the few remaining sidequests/loose ends we still had lying around. First, the Whisper item, which gives Quistis the much-beloved White Wind Blue Magic. We had missed this item while hunting Adamantoises for Adamantines earlier in the game, as it’s a Mug exclusive and Adamantines are a kill exclusive. It took some time for the turtles to show this time around, so when we failed to Mug the Whispers from them on our first attempt, I checked online and learned that they’re guaranteed to give them up if they’re at a lower level. To that end, we used the Tonberry GF’s LV Down ability to lower the level of a later turtle to get the Whisper, not that any more turtles showed up for an additional span of boring, boring time. After that, we needed Energy Crystals and Star Fragments, both of which could be found in post-Cry Esthar, the former from an infinitely respawning copy of the second boss, the Elynole, and Star Fragments Mugged from a lucky encounter with an Iron Giant (we had encountered two of these in the Deep Sea Lab, but I got my wires crossed and misread that they needed to drop the item, not be Mugged of it. Also Odin showed up one time).
At this point, Squall was now at Level 97. The rest of the party… was not. Quistis was just short of 60, Rinoa in the 50s, and everyone who hadn’t come to Deep Sea Lab was short of 40. Weird thing we learned: Squall needs almost as much EXP to go from Level 97 to 98 as the others do to go from Level 38 to 39. I don’t know what’s up with this game.
At this point, Kyle did some serious work with the party’s build. There’s some walking around in the middle here, but his party-wide update took just short of ten minutes! During this process, he Refined enough spells for the entire party, inadvertently fixing the “Edea is a magic thief” problem from earlier. He did a great job with the Junctions and everything, and it was all him, too, I couldn’t have done anything to improve on it. The only thing I can take credit for was stumbling across advice on how to get Aura spells.
Kyle went to Esthar to do also this stuff (before we remembered yet again that our GFs can contact stores remotely), which was when he remembered or discovered that the Ragnorok can be landed on a specific building on the overworld map instead of forcing you to walk up the highway. Would have helped if the game let you do that more often!
At this point, we headed over to Lunatic Pandora for the big showdo—oh, shit, Rinoa wanted to do a thing at the orphanage hours ago, that’s right, dammit, dammit, turn around!