As I’ve mentioned in the past (during Persona 2: Innocent Sin), Session 1 actually took place months ago, as a way of putting off Persona. After that, we stuck to our guns for both Persona 2 games and only came back after the fact for Session 2. Unfortunately, Session 2 would be abbreviated thanks to car troubles, but we did a fairly solid run at it all the same. The session carries us from Qu’s Marsh through to the return to Linblum in Disc 2. As you can see from the screenshots, we switched to recording in widescreen for the session.
The session opened by promptly mauling Vivi to death with a Hedgehog Pie, an overworld monster. We then had to return to Linblum to find the inn, despite it being one of the largest towns in the entire series to date, us having not played the game since before P2IS two games ago, and oh yeah: some intermediary rooms we had never seen pasted in just for extra bullshit. It took seven minutes, which is more than you’d expect from an inn, to say the least!
After puttering around in small corners of the map (which was something I did all day for some reason, despite knowing from FFVII and VIII that the 3D games doesn’t typically hide things in niches and peninsulas like these, and only finding a single, optional location for my pains later in the session), I decided to go on with the plot, overlooking a major site on the east end of the map that we ended up visiting at the end of the session instead.
Instead, we headed to the nearby site of Qu’s Marsh, a hard-to-miss patch of land that lies right between Lindblum and your first overworld checkpoint on the way to Burmecia. Qu’s Marsh houses an optional party member, after a fashion. To be precise, this party member is mandatory later in the game, but you can also get them for this early part of the game in a similar fashion to Mog from FFVI. Since you’ll be running short-handed without this new character, and for a fair amount of time, they’re a lot more important than World of Balance Mog ever was, though Kyle didn’t seem all that… fond of them.
Qu’s Marsh opened with us finding the two tutorial Moogles that had appeared exclusively in previous ATEs, which surprised me as I didn’t think they were, uh, diegetic? Go figure! After this, we entered a patch of reeds that obscured the characters but shook as you moved, and I was confused to find some apparent side-paths didn’t work. The actual fact of the matter is kind of clever from a design perspective, but not so impressive from a user perspective: the room with the reeds is actually re-used multiple times in this location – for example, if you move north of one location or east of another – and changes the paths that are actually “open” depending on which version you’re in at the time! Thankfully, this wasn’t used to create a maze… or at least – he says, given the cut-off point for this session – it hasn’t been done yet…
At the end of the path, we came across our optional party member, their face a coulrophobic nightmare, looming over a frog pond, as they licked their chops. This was Quina Quen, a member of the Qu Tribe, and the party member we had seen earlier in Alexandria (they were also present at the Festival of the Hunt, though we missed them). The Qu are not human (Quina confirms as much later on, which is appreciated given the stylistic range of human features in this universe). They have wide bodies, blanche-white skin, and clown or perhaps mime-esque faces with Muppet mouths and long tongues hanging out down to their midriff. Quina in particular is dressed in a chef’s hat with a bonnet-like trim, and wears what looks roughly like a low-hanging apron on top of the rest of their dress. It won’t surprise you to learn that Quina has a lot to do with cooking, as do all Qu as it happens (given that all Qu’s names start with “Qu,” Quina was only a few real-world years off from being named “Quinoa,” I imagine).
Quina wants to snack on one of the frogs, and the objective here is to have Zidane catch one when it hops onto the shore. The game is actually fairly generous when it comes to the catching (you can even catch one that’s in mid-air and all-but landed back in the water) but isn’t always so generous about getting the frogs to hop out and stay there for more than a second in the first place. It may be that your position affects the frog’s behaviour, but I can’t be certain about that. After giving Quina a frog, another Qu named Quale arrives and scolds Quina, eventually taking us all aside to their home. There, Quale lectured Quina about widening their eating experiences by travelling the world on a gourmand’s tour, specifying that Qu marshes would be the most helpful, though Kyle and I have yet to find another, and so I don’t know what he means. Quina joined the party on those pretences.
Quina is a Blue Mage, and a more traditional one than Quistis “Limits Only” Trepe in that they can cast their spells with impunity. That said, the way they learn spells is entirely different than any previous game, FFV-VIII inclusive. To get a Blue Magic spell, you have to weaken an enemy ala Pokémon, and then eat them alive. “Eat” requires enemies at 25% health or lower, while Trance gives you access to the highly-situational “Cook” command that works at 50%. Thankfully, both moves kill enemies instantly if you land them, so Cook isn’t completely useless as you could use it as an alternate attack against standard enemies. Unfortunately, since most games in this series have Blue Magic systems that hate you, there are no indications as to which enemies are worth wasting your time whittling away their health to earn.
You know, come to think of it, this is not the first time Final Fantasy has combined vore with mimes, although in the last instance it was a mime who was vored, and not the reverse.
This whole eating thing is all reminiscent of FFVIII’s Devour, an extremely rare ability that most players never got to play with, and so also represents a long-standing Final Fantasy tradition dating back to FFIV: exploring niche abilities from previous games in a more readily-available fashion. The most notable example was Square moving Summoners from a secret job class in FFIII Famicom to a central role with Rydia in FFIV. Arguably the same happened with Dragoons between those two games, although they were less niche in FFIII than Summoners. It also happened when they moved Steal from last-character-in-the-party Edge from FFIV and giving it to Locke and Zidane at the starts of FFVI and IX, respectively. It’s something I always have a lot of fun with, though Kyle doesn’t seem to like Quina’s mechanics in the slightest, and if there weren’t a gap in our party, I’m not sure we’d be using them at all!
Just to make Quina weirder, their choice of weapon is the Fork, a weapon class with a wild damage formula that can range anywhere from weakest in the party to well and beyond the best of the party. I’m reminded of the Masher weapon from Super Mario RPG, though that was just one-of-a-kind, not an entire weapon class! I should probably be thinking more along the lines of FFT’s axes. To help make Quina’s eclectic move-set more attractive to players, the game makes sure that all Forks in the game have the same ability loadout, giving you not only a high-AP ability that increases the frequency of Trance (Quina’s Trance being so niche that it virtually requires this if you hope to ever use it), but also allows you to upgrade their weapon with impunity, whereas everyone else in the party might lag behind on shittier weapons just to make sure they learn a skill or two.
After Quina joins, we get a scene where Vivi actually reveals something about his past. This is incredibly surprising in hindsight, because the game has to treat all of Quina’s scenes for the next stretch of the game as optional, and as a result, the scenes have almost no serious impact on what happens for the next few hours. Quina just pops in from time to time to provide a line or two during crowd shots, or does things entirely on their own. Long story short: for the next stretch of the game, poor Quina only has a few ATEs to call their own, since ATEs can be granted and handled in total isolation to the main plot. The only reason this scene with Vivi showed up is because, like I said earlier, you have to recruit Quina later in the game, and guess what? It happens in the same place, with the same attached Vivi scene!
Anyways, the Vivi scene itself. Vivi announces that Quale resembles his grandfather, Quan, and goes to ask if they know one another, Quale gets flustered, simultaneously claiming not to know about Quan, yet also addressing Quan as a member of his own tribe and as a “bigot.” Vivi decides to let the matter lie.
On our way back to the frog pond, we got the option to hunt there as Quina, though the game didn’t immediately explain why we’d want to do so, except from a roleplaying perspective. Kyle filled me in: each frog you catch from now to the end of the game gradually builds up a total towards a prize list, which tops at 99 with Quina’s Ultimate Weapon (Ed. It also powers up a certain Blue Magic spell, which encourages you to go even beyond 99). The invisible catch is that if you clear out the entire pond, the frogs take even longer to come back, but the more breeding pairs you leave alive (or something like that) the faster they restore. We’re building our way to the infamy of FFX’s minigames, I see! Unpleasant!
While exploring the rest of the marsh turned up nothing in the traditional sense, it did cause us to come across some axolotls that used the old Blue Magic starter signature, Aqua Breath (familiarity with pre-existing Blue Magic spells is the closest you can get to identifying enemies which magic you can Learn in every new game, and naturally, plenty of Blue Magic is brand new to this game!). We grabbed some after more than a few annoying attempts. Yeesh, you’d think 25% wouldn’t be this hard to land, but here at the start of the game, it really is!
By the way, it was around here where I finally noticed one of FFIX’s major limitations, and it was only because of a neat feature that would have otherwise have been a positive! It seems the game isn’t fond of including more than one enemy type in a single battle, probably because of tech limitations. Oh, it’ll happen, and those instances where it does happen make me wonder why they didn’t do so more universally, but it’s rare and usually restricted to event battles (you’ll recall the Black Waltz #1 and Sealion fight). And not only are all enemies in a group the same, but overworld encounters typically come off a really short list to boot. Like, I’m getting the impression of two, maybe three enemy groups per region, sometimes even one! The “nice feature” that tipped me off to this limitation was the fact that each enemy group makes its own sound when the opening camera pans are complete, and no sooner had I wondered what happened with mixed groups than I realized there weren’t any!
We finally got back on track to relieving Burmecia from its siege, though to do so, we’d have to pass through a cave system called Gizamaluke’s Grotto. Unfortunately, it too had been attacked, and you have to wonder why. Alexandria doesn’t have access to Burmecia to begin with, which makes it an unusual target, and attacking their connection to Lindblum (a connection that’s even further away from Alexandria as I understand it) makes even less sense at first hash. Final Fantasy doesn’t typically have its villains commit mass slaughter just because they’re eeeeeeeevil until the final act (not even Exdeath, who was chomping at the bit to get started the moment he woke up, but still wasn’t able start wiping people out en masse until Act 3), so what’s the plan here? I’m delighted to say that, unlike FFVIII where basically half or more of the bad guy’s plans collapsed under scrutiny, this one actually does hold up in the long run, though the baddies could have theoretically done even better… or “worse,” as the case may be. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Suddenly concerned about her king, Freya runs off into the grotto. Freya, wait, we have to go back to the overworld to save! It’s very important! Okay, now we can save your keg or whatever.
As a dying soldier explained, the gameplay gimmick in the grotto is a preposterous locking system made of bells that melt after you use them, costing the Burmecian military millions annually. To make things worse, this potentially interesting idea (and you know it has potential because it’s basically just a Zelda key setup) was undercut by a truly weak crop of level design. If I break it down: you go through a tutorial door; then choose from three doors, one of which is a dead end with an immediate replacement bell; and the other of which lead to different parts of the same room. And that’s… it? There are basically just two doors, and in a strictly linear order, with a Let’s Make a Deal finale that turns out to be a total fake-out (there were other ways to make all three doors accessible even if you didn’t want to lock players out!). Were you even trying?
In the second room, you end up running into Zorn and Thorn again, in charge of a strike force of Black Mages that keep shouting “KILL!” as they steamroll the unfortunate Burmecians. Aw, c’mon Burmecians! These chumps take like two close-combat hits, max! That’s actually really pathetic as enemies! I’m actually a little confused as to why they’re passing off such unremarkable enemies as superweapons? The game never bothers to make any of the generic Black Mages so much as stronger than the curve, and I’d argue a lot of them are below the curve (it reminds me of Seifer’s boss battles in FFVIII in that regard: a supposed big-shot who for some reason seemed weaker to us than the other bosses, except this time at the standard enemy tier?). After fighting through the Mages, Zorn and Thorn fled the scene, leaving us to work out the rest of the dungeon’s “puzzle” on our own. The next room saw encounters with a Lamia enemy, who could Entice the party members into Confusion and buff her attack so hard that she could one-shot us (thankfully, the game didn’t stop buffing after reaching this high point, often giving us free turns!). To complicate things, Kyle’s strategy guide had informed us that the Lamia had a Blue Magic spell, so we got wiped out once and nearly twice trying to get it.
Speaking of Kyle’s strategy guide, the BradyGames guide hyped as “The ONLY Official Guide”… it’s a slapdash piece of crap. Huge chunks of its content are “Enhanced by PlayOnline,” meaning the content was online instead of a part of the book, no better than the walkthroughs that were killing the strategy guide industry. I can’t decide if this was done because someone myopic suit at BradyGames misunderstood the situation and decided that “the internet is beating us so let’s get on the internet,” or if the guide was simply incomplete and they were using PlayOnline as their dumping ground for everything they had missed by press day. Pathetic.
At the centre of the Lamia room was a giant bell, and when we approached it, a Moogle named Mogmi ran up. You know she’s a woman because she wears a vest! I’m not even kidding, that’s how the game distinguishes lady Moogles. Mogmi explained that she and her husband, Moguta, had just been married in this very hall, only for the bell to fall from the ceiling during the Alexandrian attack, trapping Moguta underneath. The party couldn’t lift the bell, but Mogmi got an idea when she sniffed out a Kupo Nut on Vivi, one that he apparently got during an ATE in Lindblum. Personally, I don’t even remember it, but it has been several months. The nut goaded Moguta into a cartoonish burst of strength to eat his favourite food, and the two of them darted off into the next room purely on the comedy momentum of the previous scene. That really just happened.
Moguta actually serves an important side-quest purpose, as he remains in this dungeon (we’re not far from the exit, but that’s still surprising for a one-of-a-kind NPC “shop” like this) and will reward you for giving him Kupo Nuts that you receive from the Mognet sidequest. Why they don’t just give you the Mognet prizes directly, I don’t know, but Final Fantasy has been going down a path of increasingly obscure sidequests during the PSX and PS2 era, and eventually you just sort of shrug it off as one of those things you’re never going to do. I mean, probably. We did virtually 100% FFVIII, after all.
If you want, it’s possible to return to the surface via a vine in the back of the Moogle’s room, which leads to encounters with Grand Dragon enemies that are way out of your bracket, existing purely to be EXP fodder for anyone willing to puzzle out defeating them this early in the game. Naturally, the vine doubles as an easy access point to Moguta once you get an airship.
Moguta gives you the special bell you need to reach the boss room after you try to leave, a flying ray called Master Gizamaluke (just Gizamaluke in the battle due to space limits). While normally an ally of the Burmecians, Gizamaluke was now under control of Zorn and Thorn. Unfortunately, Gizamaluke had a bad habit of Muting or outright offing Vivi before our Black Mage could do anything. Actually, I haven’t mentioned it yet, but we’d been having loads of trouble without a White Mage in the party! No defensive buffs for boss fights were just the tip of the iceberg – we burned through nearly thirty potions over the course of the dungeon and had to restock! We haven’t under-shopped for items since… well, the very end of P2EP, but before that, we hadn’t under-shopped for items since FFII’s Jade Passage!
Naturally, it didn’t help that we had Zidane do nothing but Steal the entire fight and he still didn’t get away with the Ice Rod we were really hoping for, since it would have taught Vivi his first –ra level spell (ironically, we later got the Ice Rod from a shop, but because we had other –ra spells to learn at that point, we didn’t equip it until we were settling down for the night, so Vivi still doesn’t have the spell!). Yeah, this fight was kind of a ramshackle. You can’t top what happened to us at the end, though, when everyone but Zidane was dead, and Kyle basically started attacking Gizamaluke as a Hail Mary, only for it to work and save the day in a single blow!