The world distorts and we get a genuinely impressive, prerendered CG where the room melts and the characters fall out the floor into a liquid world full of visions of the past, not unlike an visual representation of what Crystal Blue was supposed to be in Enix’s Terranigma a few years earlier (in practice, Crystal Blue only showed up as bubbles with no details, and had to be described in text. I just want to give Enix credit for the idea even if Square is doing it way better in this instance). The party promises to meet up at Edea’s orphanage once inside time compression, similar to Squall and Rinoa’s promise in the real world and probably based on it. Luckily (and I must impress: luckily), the party is not instantly killed as per Ultimecia’s plan, and end up in Edea’s prep room in Deling City. There, a save point appears and suddenly multiplies into over a dozen save points, as though compressed there through time. Heh, that’s clever. Then they go through the door only to end up in the same room! But don’t get attached to this weirdness, because unfortunately this is the last of it (except some special effects in the next battle), which is a damned shame. In the second prep room, they see Edea surrounded by after-images like Rinoa from before, only for her to split into multiple Sorceresses that attack you in turn. Kyle’s impression of this scene was that they represented Sorceress of the past, but mine was that they were more of an abstract, representing the idea of Sorceresses, or even some sort of panto. As you will!
The multiple sorceresses were absolute jokes, even after they were upgraded part-way into the fight. Far more impressive were the constantly melting backgrounds, taken from various parts of the game. Great work here, especially in Timber where the otherwise unimpressive 3D backgrounds looked like the melting set of a stage play. Less impressive was the beach set, which was so flat you could barely see it melting, neverminding how long Kyle and I had spent on the beach hunting for turtles earlier in the real-world day. I’d have maybe excused the beach if backgrounds had been selected at random, but nope, pre-set!
The final “Sorceress” (that’s what they’re called, scare-quotes and all!) is an actual boss, but still so trifling that I’ve seen two walkthroughs that skip describing her entirely. She’s taken the form of some sort of snake monster, and casts Ultima after a countdown just like JENOVA-Synthesis at the end of FFVII… even though Adel cast Ultima almost freely, one boss fight ago! Can we move on?
After this is done, you wake up in what appears to be Edea’s orphanage, only for them to arrive in its future-version, where all is ruin. There, they find several dead SeeDs from the future (footnote: how did Ultimecia rise to power when the people of the past knew she was coming?), and Ultimecia’s fortress was floating just off the coast like Ganon’s Castle in OoT floats over a pit of lava. The party climbed the chains that connected it to land, passing several doors that were suspended over the abyss. Probably best if you ignore these at first, because your active party only reunites with your back-benchers when you reach the end of the chain. Once the party reunites, they prep themselves to go into the final dungeon. Or, you know, we could go check out those doors!
The three doors actually lead to three separate locations on the now-time-compressed world map. All towns in the game are locked off, as are many other locations. You never regain access to these places. This is a very, very mean-spirited move on the part of the developers and FFVIII deserves every bit of flak it might have gotten for it in the past, plus mine. The only reason I’m not personally mad is because I knew it was coming, thanks to several decades of spoilers about how FFVIII gets fucked up on the final disc, and that Kyle made it clear when to set a backup save on Disc 3. Now, even though most areas are locked out, a few are still available. Cleverly, you can put off earning Odin until Disc 4 if you want to “keep” him in exchange for never getting Gilgamesh!
The only thing that’s new in the world of time compression is that the Ragnarok has moved, and is nowhere near any of the three starting locations. You have to find a Chocobo at one of the Forests (still accessible) and walk a long, meandering path to find the thing. Besides regaining your airship (and opening a fourth door outside Ultimecia’s Castle for a shortcut), all this does is give you access to members of the Card Club of all possible people. It seems the Card Club have survived the events of the cataclysm and are now offering all Level 9 and 10 cards if you can win them, including cards that you otherwise had to earn via sidequests and have otherwise burned up for Refinement. The only exceptions are cards from the Queen of Cards’ quest if you haven’t unlocked them yet (the Queen herself can be found on the world map if you know where to look), and also the the PuPu card can be permanently lost – and frankly, since it’s not a good card or a good material for refinement, I wonder if this might have been an oversight. In an ugly fun fact, if you didn’t complete the Card Club quest during the main game, the Card Club doesn’t show up, and ergo probably didn’t escape the time compression! You killed them, Squall!
Despite our amazing coverage of events so far, Kyle suggested that we skip recovering the Ragnarok, as the Card Club had nothing to give us. His reasoning? It was 2:30 or so in the morning and we were operating under some delusion that we might clear the game before 4. Yeah, no. I later went to the Ragnarok on my own time just to say that I had. Fucked up my recording of it, by the way. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
On to the castle. You know, it’s funny, but this is the first 3D castle we’ve ever explored! Look at the detail, the signs of battle and Castlevania-esque hints at horror! And the 2D games were never that fond of castles as dungeons to begin with, come to think of it (they preferred to use them as “towns” of a different sort), so this feels like an outlier? Certainly as a final dungeon! I made a list of them, but it wasn’t all that interesting, so I’ll suffice to say that only FFII and FFT ever bothered to have you adventure in more than a handful of castles, with most games averaging 0-1!
But for all the novelty of a 3D castle, Castle Ultimecia disappointed with something that I feel should have been its centerpeice: it has no space-time distortions at all, despite that being the nominal theme of this final disc, dropping the ball from a floating platform over a sea of destruction. Great send-off, FFVIII. The only reason I feel remotely happy to be here is because, apparently, previous Final Fantasy’s developers would rather set a dozen dungeons in caves for every time they dare have to touch a brick wall.
The final dungeon begins with you splitting the party into two, FFVI-style but with a different end result. We chose Squall, Selphie and Irvine to continue in one team, while Quistis, Rinoa and Zell would be in the other. Unlike FFVI, the parties were walking around in the same area, and could go to all the same places, allowing you to solve its “co-op” puzzles in whatever way you want! You could switch between parties at green circles located throughout the dungeon, but unfortunately had to manually switch GFs, Magic and Junctions every single time, which was a big pain. I know, maybe we could have had 6 sets of GFs, magic and Junctions instead of just 3, but why would we have even wanted to do it prior to this?
Our choice of characters gave us some funny results from level-scaling, since Squall dramatically outclassed the level averaged enemies, but Quistis and Rinoa were only barely ahead of their team’s level average, meaning both teams got more-or-less equally-dangerous enemies, despite being less than equally capable of dealing with them! Level scaling doesn’t really work with the FFVI “you’d better have trained everyone” system of splitting the party, but at least we weren’t walking around the final dungeon with a party of untrained Level 20s, which is more than possible!
As soon as you enter the castle, a green light appears and seals several of your “powers,” and a list appears outlining what’s missing in rough. Long story short, almost all your combat abilities are shot except for standard Attacks and fleeing, though your Junctions are intact. But this is one time where you shouldn’t take the long story short, because we soon began to experience… unforeseen consequences. Thankfully, nearby monsters were from the start of the game (I didn’t remember this game even had a Flan enemy!), and the way to unseal enemies was pretty obvious, as a giant boss waited at the top of the steps, and I can put two and two together. Kill a boss, regain a power. Let’s do this. This first boss was the Sphinxaur, one of the only enemies in the game whose HP does not rise with level-scaling, and whose Vitality barely rises, considering that you have to kill it with nothing but basic Attacks! Suffice to say the boss was a complete and utter joke, relatively weaker to our current party than Ifrit was to our starter party. They did give it two forms, but it hardly mattered. I think I personally might have allowed a little more variety for this opening boss battle. Maybe if this game had a traditional Defend command, the player could have been forced to use it to intercept special attacks?
After defeating the boss, we were actually allowed to pick which ability we would unlock from the aforementioned list, and I chose the ability to summon GFs in combat. Kyle said he would have gone for Limit Breaks, which had also been sealed, but I don’t think I’d do that without recovery magic, and for all I wanted magic, I wasn’t confident in the underused magic system’s ability to support me if we came across a defensive boss (which it turns out is actually very easy to do if you’re unlucky). As a result, my plan was GFs first, then Magic, and only then Limit Breaks. Unfortunately, while things played out pretty well at first… well, I already mentioned the unforeseen complications.
I decided to split up the two teams to cover more ground: Squall went east and Quistis west. Probably a bad move, as I later learned (after the session was done) that the easy bosses are through the big doors in the middle, right behind the Sphinxaur. In my defence, haven’t RPGs trained us to ignore the big middle doors, because isn’t the big boss always behind them? Just saying. The castle showed a lot of odd design patterns in my mind. Several rooms in the castle were quite large with only one exit and others were quite small with multiple! For some reason, possibly because I assumed Sphinxaur’s fellow bosses would also block doors, I walked through nearly half the castle before finding another one: the Red Giant, a very dangerous boss to fight second! This is a now-recurring recolour of the Iron Giant boss, here making its first appearance under its modern name (after appearing in FFVII as “Wolfmeister,” for some reason).
The Red Giant was nearly immune to regular attacks, and would make comments throughout the battle whenever the player barks up the wrong tree. What an unpleasant find for our second boss! Thankfully, GFs win out over Magic in this case, since the Red Giant is fully vulnerable to Diablos’ Gravity-based attacks. Bad luck for the Red Giant, since Squall had such an absurdly high compatibility with Diablos after the Tonberry-hunting sequence, so we could summon the gravity devil in only a few seconds! Bahamut and Cactuar backed Squall up, though Red Giant’s blanket dialogue programming acted like they weren’t doing serious damage even though they were still doing around half of Diablos’ massive damage, still a considerable amount!
One interesting footnote about the bosses in Ultimecia’s Castle in the Western release (other than Sphinxaur) is that they offer you alternate draw points for missable Summons, which otherwise can’t be reached on Disc 4. Of course, you have to unlock your power to Draw in the first place for you to do it! Kyle and I didn’t have to worry about this, since we had all the GFs that would have fit here. The Red Giant is the alternate draw point for Pandemona, who is otherwise drawn from Fujin in Balamb Town.
I unlocked Magic after killing the Red Giant, and began to backtrack with Squall after discovering most of the doors in the east wing locked. I eventually got bored of this and used a green circle to swap parties over to Quistis, Part-way down the road, her party ran into a key on a bridge that slipped away from us. Turns out that if you walk instead of run towards it, you can get it right away, but it doesn’t even matter, because if you lose the key, it floats across the dungeon and comes to rest in front of the very door it unlocks. Quistis’ party went from there up a spiral tower, then up and down a clock, only to find a save point we couldn’t use, because the Save feature was sealed along with our combat abilities! Okay, okay, I had noticed that after killing one of the previous bosses, but the real bad surprises are coming!
The save point was there for a good reason, too: we had accidentally found our way to Ultimecia’s boss door, and there was no way in hell we were going to fight her with just Attack, GFs and Magic, and no recent Save! Besides, we were so close to 100% across the game that it’d be silly to stop now just because of a few gimmick bosses, even if it was the middle of the night and we were trying to get done before dawn. Kyle backtracked, and then told me that there was a secret boss if you ride along the clock tower’s counterweight. This turned out to be Tiamat, Fiend of Air, who was also the hardest of the area’s midbosses. And we’d have to fight her with just Attack, GFs and Magic, and no recent save! We are smart people.
Kyle did this one, and we got some bad news four minutes in when we realized we had overlooked something key in the “Sealed” list: “Resurrection.” It turns out the game had independently sealed our ability to revive people from death! Despite Zell and later even Angelo’s best efforts, Rinoa was dead on the ground, and Kyle would now have to fight the Fiend of Air with only two party members, and even the slightest slip-up would leave him on one.
Thankfully, Tiamat had an entirely predictable AI. This is the first game in the series to acknowledge Bahamut and Tiamat’s D&D origins as antagonists, making them recolours and giving Tiamat a “Dark Flare” variant of Bahamut’s Megaflare, which “counted down” by spelling out one letter at a time. It took her several turns to charge it, which meant Kyle could Slow her with Doomtrain and then tank her attacks with GFs. The fight seemed tight… until Zell took a hit and we discovered he could absorb all the damage from Dark Flare, Tiamat’s only attack, meaning she literally could not win short of Zell going full-FFII on his own jaw. Being the strongest of Ultimecia’s bosses, Tiamat is the alternate draw point for Eden, arguably much easier than actually drawing Eden from Ultima Weapon.
Unfortunately, it was now 4am, and I couldn’t stay up any longer. During the early phases of the Tiamat battle, I suggested that we unlock Save from Tiamat, then save for the night and quit. But when Rinoa died, I figured we’d have to unlock Resurrection instead, because I figured we’d never make it to the save point with only two party members, and I began to check the strategy guide for the easiest remaining boss so that we could use it to unlock Save. While that wouldn’t have been an awful plan, I lucked out, as the extended Tiamat fight gave me time to spot a technicality in the strategy guide that I had missed in the game itself: the seal on your commands doesn’t apply outside the castle! This means we could still use the save point outside the castle without unlocking a thing! Which surprisingly means that your “sealed” Save command only prevents you from using a single save point? Thinking it out, I also remembered that we could use Diabolos’ Enc-None, and everything fell into place. We unsealed Resurrection at the end of the fight, revived Rinoa, and walked out the front doors the way we had come. This ended Session 5.
Between Session 5 and 6, I got Boko to Level 100 in Chocobo World, earning the side-game’s final achievement. I still wanted to beat the final boss of CW, but I just don’t have the button-tapping skills, so I put it off in hopes that Kyle might be able to do it next time he came over. Kyle is much better at button-mashing than I (Ed. he didn’t have any better luck, I’m afraid). Next, I tracked down the Ragnorok in FFVIII just to say that we had. With that behind us, it was time to wait for the next session. There are only a few hours left until the end of Final Fantasy VIII.