Zidane, Steiner, Vivi and Garnet are thrown from the airship during the crash, and while Zidane returns to the crash site in safety, Garnet is nowhere to be found. Just as Zidane arrives, we’re introduced to one of FFIX’s weirder features: Active Time Events, or as they’re more commonly known, “ATEs.” As in… the word “ate” in capital letters, throwing me off every single time it appears. It’s honestly even worse than “GF” was in FFVIII, probably because it’s full word. ATEs are optional vignettes you can view by pressing Select when prompted by the game. Kyle described them as “stuff that happens when you’re not around” (not unlike KHDDD’s “Flashbacks”), but I don’t know if I agree with him. Sure, he’s right… but FFIX hasn’t been afraid to hop between characters up to this point, so why stop now? Maybe the ATEs are a sort of semi-deleted scene: scenes that would have disrupted the pacing, but they didn’t want to get rid of them for good, so the game asks if you want to disrupt the pacing manually, instead?
There’s an Achievement tied to watching all of the ATEs, and it’s very rarely earned, since a handful of the ATEs are apparently very easy to overlook. Since looking at a guide would mean risking narrative spoilers, Kyle and I agreed to just accept that we’ll miss the Achievement this time around, and that I’ll get it again on some subsequent playthrough, if ever. I suppose Kyle could have kept his eye on a guide since he’s played FFIX before, but eh, I don’t mind. In any event, since ATEs are optional scenes and were probably made optional for a reason, I don’t expect that I’ll mention them very often, for summation’s sake.
Zidane goes off into the forest to find Garnet and Vivi, and soon comes across Vivi trembling on his own. You soon discover why, as a plant monster called a Prison Cage is nearby and has captured Garnet! Steiner is also on scene, trying to rescue her. The Prison Cage is an interesting creature, since it actually debuted in Square’s Bahamut Lagoon, and went on from FFIX to inspire the Parasite Cage boss in KH1 and CoM! This is probably the weakest incarnation across all four games (it’s basically the game’s first “real” boss, or rather midboss), and this first encounter ends early to boot, when the plant-monster makes a break for it.
While the fight does end early, the Prison Cage doesn’t run for it before Zidane enters “Trance,” this game’s version of Limit Breaks. As you can imagine from the name, it takes more than a few cues from Terra’s ability of the same name in FFVI. Trance builds up as you take damage, not unlike FFVII’s Limit Breaks but without the buildup from your own actions. Once it’s filled, you automatically enter Trance, even if you don’t want to, and will run out after only a few turns, making this one of the harshest and arguably most annoying Limit Break-inspired system yet. Still, the benefits are all right: your stats go up and you typically gain a character-specific special ability while it’s running. Unfortunately, this special Trance skill replaces one of your normal skills, which you might have wanted to use instead, making Trance even more annoying. Still, the extra firepower is appreciated, and I haven’t found it in me to hate the system… at least, not yet.
Zidane’s Trance ability is “Dyne,” which gives him a list of special attacks that replace his Skills menu. You unlock more Dynes as you unlock more Skills, even if the attacks don’t necessarily match the Skills they replace!
The Prison Cage escapes with Garnet, and Vivi is distraught about it, ashamed at having been paralyzed with fear during the initial attack. Unfortunately, he ends up captured himself moments later when the Prison Cage returns. This time, Vivi is able to keep his cool (even more impressive, considering he’s in a monster’s belly), so you fight off the boss with Steiner and Zidane all while Vivi casts constant Fire spells at its captor while inside its vegetable cage! Steiner is so impressed by this show of magic that he begins to address Vivi as “Master Vivi” (Vivi-sama in Japanese, I’d imagine).
The Prison Cage shoots some spores at the party as it dies, infecting Vivi and Steiner. Thankfully, they return to the Prima Vista and learn that the members of Tantalus have an antidote for the spores, but it takes a while for the antidote to cure the person (hey, realism!), and the two of them are too ill to stand in the interim. Tantalus outright imprisons Steiner at this stage, both because he’s a threat to them and to keep him from dying in the Evil Forest in an vain attempt to rescue Garnet. Elsewhere in the ship, Baku insists that the group stay put, and Zidane protests, wanting to go after Garnet himself. Zidane’s so insistent on going after Garnet that he’s willing to quit Tantalus to do it! Baku seems to understand how Zidane feels, but also feels he has to enforce his own rules. He ultimately forces Zidane to fight him for a third time, this time one-on-one, making this the first time where you might have to reach for your item bag. Thankfully, FFIX starts you off with a small handful of items (something more RPGs should do, in my mind), so this isn’t a huge difficulty spike.
During this sequence, you get an ATE that spells out that Tantalus accidentally left Ruby, the woman I mentioned off-hand, behind in Alexandria. This will be relevant later, though I can’t imagine how it happened, considering she was outright on the ship just a few minutes before they left!
Since Vivi and Steiner have recovered in the time it took Zidane to finish his business, Zidane manages to convince them to join him in his little quest. Vivi is your standard Black Mage as far as gameplay is concerned (unsurprising given the costume). His Trance ability is “Dbl Black,” which is essentially Dualcast, as it allows him to cast two Black Magic spells a turn. Sadly, just like Dualcast, you can’t choose to cast just one spell with Dbl Black: it’s two or nothing. Because casting two spells costs him two actions, Vivi’s Trance expires twice as fast and never lasts long at all! As for Steiner, we’ve already discussed how he’s a standard knight in standard gameplay, so I’ll just talk about his Trance, which is simple: Steiner’s doesn’t gain any new abilities during Trance (the only character where this is the case), but gets an even higher stat boost during Trance to compensate, 3x instead of 1.5x!
During this sequence, Steiner asks Vivi a special request, and they come up with an unusual combo ability: Sword Magic. Sword Magic allows Steiner to do elemental attacks, not unlike a Mystic Knight (except you cast each time instead of just once, soooooo… not like a Mystic Knight at all). Unlike Mystic Knights, who can cast spells on their own blades, Vivi has to cast the spell, and so must be in the party, have the spell, be conscious, and not be Silenced, which is asking a lot! On the other hand, the enchantment takes place during Steiner’s turn, comes out of Steiner’s MP, and doesn’t impact Vivi in the slightest. There’s some neat new ideas here, I hope it stands up for the rest of the game, and that other new ideas keep this kind of pace!
At this point, Kyle remembered the game’s Abilities system. He explained it to me and started setting things up for us, only for us to take one step out of the room… and get a tutorial for the Abilities system! That gave us a laugh. Abilities in this game represent a wide variety of powers both new and old Final Fantasy powers, and are learned via AP though the medium of your equipment of all things. Unlike FFVII and VIII, FFIX has several equipment slots, though not as many as past games (five, to be precise, one weapon and four types of amour). Every piece of equipment can have Abilities on them, though some Abilities can only be learned by certain characters (for example, only Vivi can learn Black Magic). You get to keep the Ability temporarily as long as the equipment is equipped, but if you want to permanently learn it, you’ll have to max out its AP bar. I was already familiar with this sort of system from KHBBS’ Command Deck, Half-Minute Hero 2’s Skills, and a number of indie RPGs I’ve played that are more direct copies. I’m quite enjoying it here in the original source.
Support Abilities are the most common abilities and have to be equipped at a cost of “Magic Stones,” which are frankly mis-named. “Magic Stones” are actually a character stat that rations how many Abilities you can have active at one time, and probably should have been called something else, since “Magic Stones” implies they’re some sort of item!
Learning these sorts of Abilities is a game-long task, and one we set to work on as soon as we could. Our opening equipment set gave Vivi access to Blizzard and Thunder along with the Fire we already knew he had, and having a full set of Black Magic from the off is always appreciated.
As we were moving out of the Prima Vista, computer-controlled Zidane passed through two rooms without robbing its chests, forcing us to turn back and do it manually. C’mon man, I thought we were working with a professional Thief!
After all that prep, the Evil Forest is actually quite simple, strictly linear in fact. After a quick forest stroll (less than five minutes even with encounters), it was time for the first proper boss in the game, the Plant Brain. Part-way through the battle, Blank arrives on scene and joins the party. There are actually three separate triggers that can cause him to show up! In my case, I’m embarrassed to say, he showed up because I hadn’t healed Zidane and the Plant Brain clobbered him into unconsciousness. My screw-up with Zidane aside, the Plant Brain had no chance against us, thanks to Vivi’s Fire spell and Steiner’s Fire Sword. Something of a letdown after the solid Ifrit battle that opened FFVIII, but at least we didn’t revert to the “Attack when it’s [sic] tail is up” pattern from FFIV-VII. Some references should be shelved, even in a reference-heavy game like FFIX!
Killing the Plant Brain allows the party to reach Garnet. The party gives her the antidote to the spores, only for them to discover other evil plants coming to investigate the death of the Plant Brain! Garnet still can’t move thanks to the spores, just like Vivi and Steiner earlier in the night (good setup!), so Zidane carries her while the party makes a break for it. After a few forced fights, things get even worse when the Evil Forest starts to petrify. The game will later – and very loosely – imply this is some consequence of the Plant Brain’s death, but I find that unsatisfying. It may be that there’s more going on here than meets the eye and we’ll get the details later, but somehow I don’t get that impression and I think this is just going to be a weak sequence in my mind. That said, do you remember what I said in the FFVIII Journal about needing to introduce absurd concepts in the early game, when the reader’s suspension of disbelief is still in good supply? Well here you go! Because this is the early game, it only costs me a little of my suspension of disbelief to buy that killing the Plant Brain will petrify the entire forest! Sure, the devs might have better spent my limited credulity on a core concept instead of a one-time event, but if a petrifying forest is how you want to burn up my fictional credit, it’s your game!
The party does their best to flee the wave of petrification, but Blank falls behind after saving Zidane’s life at one point, and ends up petrified along with several plant monsters, leaving him essentially dead… maybe? I’ve already complained about petrification-treated-as-death in FFIV, TAY, and FFVII (indeed, TAY made the complaints itself!), but FFIX will turn my assumptions on their head by using an ATE to show us that Baku knows what happened and hopes to revive Blank somehow! This is more intelligent than Cecil, young adult Palom, and Red XIII combined, and only builds up my growing esteem for this game.