While I was well prepared to move on with the plot, Kyle was reading the guide around this point and spotted one last bonus location on the main map. Unfortunately, by sheer coincidence, I found the first of the four seals at just that time, and accidentally dumped two of our party members off there as part of the plot. More on what happens to them later, since I need to finish discussing the consequences of my poor gameplay decisions. Deciding I should just carry on with the plot at first, I let off another group of two at the next spot, and only then changed my mind, so we were left with just the remaining party of four for our trip to this new location! Thankfully it was just a town: Daguerreo, a library town that sold the game’s best equipment (after a puzzle) and synth recipes. We didn’t have near enough money for everything, and went grinding for some cash by fighting the Grand Dragons outside, and also the Gimmie Cats, who try to trick you into thinking they’re Friendly monsters when they’ll actually just steal from you! The Grand Dragons are incredibly dangerous even this late in the game, so we decided to go back to the Iifa Tree to Eat the Level 5 Death ability off of a Stroper.
…Oh god, we made Quina eat a dick. I hate everything.
Dageurreo also has an altar to convert Ore items to Aquamarines, which brings up a mechanic I haven’t mentioned yet: most summons derive their strength from the number of certain gemstones you have in your knapsack. Since Ore is plentiful and this idol exists, this makes Odin (who relies on Ores, not that we have him yet) and Leviathan (Aquamarines) the easiest summons to power up in this unusual way. Most of the other summons have to be synthed via Ore-related recipes, and finding all the extra ingredients is sure to put most of them behind the times. One requires a chocobo-exclusive item!
Anyways, the plot. Zidane was splitting the party into four to deal with each of the seals. Each seal was located in some airship-only zone, only one of which Kyle and I had actually spotted earlier in the game (the Earth seal, for the record). Eiko wanted to get Garnet alone (almost certainly, and time would prove this to be correct, to interrogate her about her relationship with Zidane). She got annoyed when Zidane objected. Look, Eiko, for once I agree with the Cecil Harveying jackass, a party of two White Mages and no White Mages in all other parties is just a bad idea. But we had no say in the matter. Long story short: Eiko and Garnet went for the Water seal, Freya and Amarant to the Fire, Steiner and Vivi to the Air, and lastly Zidane and Quina to the Earth. (Oh, and if you must know, Eiko doesn’t get any information out of Garnet.)
FFIX kind of played to my expectations: it used jump cuts to show the parallel journey through each seal dungeon. What didn’t meet my expectations was the dungeon’s sheer brevity. You do one QTE where Zidane and Quina to dodge some moving walls, and that’s it. Eiko and Garnet dodge some… ice? Slime? Just really heavy droplets of water? But you don’t control any of it. For comic effect, you don’t even see Steiner and Vivi until they’ve pissed off the boss and she’s chased them down the hall!
Speaking of the bosses, they’re familiar faces: the Four Fiends from Final Fantasy I! That made it even more disappointing when the game only lets you fight the one of them. The game seems to want to restrict your control to Zidane, and won’t let you participate in anyone else’s fight? They really should have let us, they’d be interesting fights. Yes, even the Garnet and Eiko one. (By the way, I just addressed Tiamat as “she” in the previous paragraph, but the game actually has Steiner and Vivi use “he.” It’s just another mistranslation, since Tiamat is almost always a lady goddess and/or lady dragon, be it in mythology, in Final Fantasy I, and yes, even the all-important D&D sources that FF was pulling from in the first place.)
As for Lich, he was a total pushover with our well-equipped Blue Mage. Quina even had equipment to absorb Earth damage! Liche took extra damage from Water attacks, which wasn’t… grand with the low-accuracy Aqua Breath spell, but what the hell, the fight was quickly over.
The party reunited now that they had placed the mirrors at the four seals. With little else to do on the world map but to proceed with the plot, we made straight to the portal on the Shimmering Isle, and found ourselves in the alien, chrome-plated world of Terra. Garland arrived to greet us and asked Zidane his name. When Zidane tried to answer, Garland was disappointed and blamed Gaia’s blue moon for reasons he left unexplained before he teleporting off. A short and unremarkable dungeon crawl later led us to a teenaged girl who looked a lot like Zidane, complete with tail, who led us to a town called Bran Bal. Just after they arrived, the Invincible made an appearance, for the first time with no cloud cover, and the sheer shock of her childhood memories caused Garnet to faint. For whatever reason, this absolutely marked the end of my patience with Square causing protagonists to faint when they recover their memories. They had used it as a plot device time and time again, and I guess I had to hit my last straw eventually. I’m not sure how I’m going to address the inevitable future incidents, but don’t be surprised if I just start booing in the summation. Booo! Your shallow barrel of plot tropes increases neither the drama, nor the mystery of the situation! Booooo!
For what it’s worth, I did get a laugh at the young woman insulting Zidane for constantly shouting in his confusion. This was probably supposed to be a dire moment, but not only was it true, but it reminds me of a complaint I made about Sora in Kingdom Hearts. The melodrama is strong in these two!
The party went into Bran Bal to find a place for Garnet to rest, which resulted in them finding even more people that looked like Zidane. Though I did note that literally everyone has a shorter and thinner tail than Zidane. The… uh… Ballans? Brans? The people of Bran Bal were very robotic in their way of speaking, but were hospitable enough, adn put Zidane up in one of their rooms. By poking around we were able to find a Moogle, but as we never returned to the Moogle, we never saw a Stiltzkin encounter, and so lost our shot at a rare diamond and the Ribbon and achievement for buying at all his locations! Kind of a cheap way to hide him, too? Among the obvious complaints… we’re on a different planet! I get the joke, but why would I look for him here to begin with?
Talking to the people of Bran Bal made Garland’s plan mostly clear, except for a few bits here and there that honestly make it hard for me to summarize without re-reading and summarizing each and every line of NPC dialogue in the town. I’ll just give it a ballpark and hope for the best. The people of Bran Bal are genetically engineered humanoids called “Genomes,” and Zidane is one of them too. They’re trained to have no personality, possibly a hypnotic side-effect of the light of this planet’s moon, which has been giving Zidane headaches and that the other Genomes have mentioned as well (and it would also explain Garland’s opening comment from the start of the dungeon, when Zidane showed signs of independence). They’ve been monitoring the flow of “energy” from Gaia to Terra, which turns out to be souls. Apparently Garland has been stealing souls for some time, draining one planet after another. Once he has enough energy, specifically from Gaia, he will put the Terrans’ souls into the final generation of Genomes, who will inherit the final planet, Gaia, as their new homeworld.
Zidane asks why all the sci-fi gobbledygook when he could just kill the Gaians and take over the planet, but “Girl” (it’s getting harder and harder to refer to her without a name) says that Garland tried that once and had a major setback. I’m disappointed by this explanation… but half because I know that if they hadn’t given me an explanation, I’d probably, ignorantly, have said that an explanation just like this would have appeased me. It doesn’t, and I’ll cop to that. This slapdash, virtually nonexistent explanation is supposedly the reason behind the bad guys’ entire methodology, the reason they’re doing what they’re doing instead of something more direct and clearly more efficient. The Emperor from FFII summoned demons because his own armies weren’t adequate to conquer the world. Ultimecia from FFVIII has Seifer salvage Lunatic Pandora because it can cause mass death (I mean… nominally) and rescue Adel at the same time. The Masters of FFLIII flooded the player’s world to minimize casualties on their side, to avoid alarming the one person who could fight them (Sol), and because they don’t consider you worthy of their attention (hey, go figure, FFLIII’s actually got a pretty solid base there!). Garland and Kuja are draining souls away slowly over the course of generations instead of days… “because shut up.” That’s really disappointing.
By the way, I’m a little disappointed by how much TAY seems to have cribbed from this game, much like I was with Crisis Core and FFVIII, but I guess that’s what I get for playing out of order. If I had played them in order I’d have seen these references as references instead of unique ideas that would later be unmasked. Oh well.
Garnet revives back in bed, and asks the others to go looking for Zidane, unable to do so herself. Despite a few encounters with the others, Zidane ultimately follows the girl for a meeting with Garland in his fortress of Pandaemonium, where the souls gather. Nicely done reference, and one used to a different purpose! Zidane appears inside via a harp-like teleporter, there’s that motif going unmentioned again, and meets up with Garland, who tells him that Zidane was originally sent to Gaia to “disrupt the cycle of souls,” aka by killing lots of people in a really contrived manner like I was just complaining. He reveals that Kuja was Zidane’s predecessor in that role, and has been hiding his Genome heritage. Kuja was sent to Gaia ahead of Zidane to serve an “angel of death,” a comparison that Zidane seems to make up here, but Garland later use straight to Kuja’s face, so I guess he likes it! Anyways, Kuja, like Zidane, became independent. One thing I really like about this scene is that Garland insists Kuja and Zidane are alike, but his only basis for that is the fact that they’ve disobeyed him. To an abusive shithive like him, the only quantity that matters in his children/servants is obedience, and so defiance is the only aspect of their personality he’s been arsed to notice, and can’t understand that anyone might see something else! Incredibly realistic. What a punk!
Garland reveals that Kuja rebelled purely because Zidane had been created to replace him, which Garland still expects Zidane to do after he ages just a little more. The Iifa tree, he says, is the physical representation of this Lifestream-esque cycle of souls, and leads Zidane to an observatory of sorts to look at it. Zidane won’t actually use the observatory, and so I don’t quite understand Garland’s metaphor at the time of writing, but oh well. Zidane refuses to work with Garland, and promises to outright destroy Garland and Terra instead. Unfortunately, Garland has some kind of control over Zidane and uses it to cause him to faint. Unfortunately, Kuja has arrived elsewhere on the planet.
Zidane wakes up in the middle of a crisis of identity, as flashes of his friends play in front of his mind. Ultimately, he wakes up and finds his real friends, but pushes them away, insulting them and trying to push his way to Garland, despite monsters getting in the way. While this is happening, the game’s most famous theme plays, “Not Alone.” The sequence goes on like this, Zidane pushing his friends away as they try to help him regardless. The outpouring of support from his teammates is heartwarming, and I can see why this is one of the most beloved scenes in the Final Fantasy canon, but when it came to Zidane himself… unfortunately, Kyle and I had some complaints.
We really had a long talk about this one. We were mostly on the same bases, but I’ll say Kyle had the most apt complaint, and may have very well had it for nineteen years now. It’s very nice in isolation, but why is it happening? Zidane has done a complete personality flip for one reason, unless the light on this planet really is hypnotic. If it is, then we come to the complaint I made in FFVIII: mind control is an extremely boring minor plot device. It can make for a hellish horror trope as a central plot element, but as a minor plot device, it’s just forcing an outcome the author hasn’t earned. If it’s not mind control, then Zidane has heard: “You were supposed to kill everyone on Gaia” and decided to reverse his entire personality based on that one revelation, which the authors also haven’t earned! During our discussion, I made the comparison to, “I am your father” from The Empire Strikes Back as a single line that has massive impact, but even that didn’t have Luke shoving Han behind a locked door and calling him an asshole.
The second major problem, which we’ll call “my” complaint in place of Kyle’s, if only for organization’s sake, is something that I’d been building up to for a while. What’s the summary here from Zidane’s perspective? “Stop shoving your friends away, they care about you and want to help,” right? Zidane has been shoving his friends away to “protect” them this entire time, and this is the capper of that character trait. In fact, you can see things from a wider perspective, this message is Final Fantasy “pulling a Kingdom Hearts” by challenging its previous conclusions. I often praise Kingdom Hearts for taking a second look at its old conclusions and revising its opinions on them, changing, apologizing, growing, and here’s a rare example (so far!) of Final Fantasy doing the same. You see, five games later, this message is calling Cecil Harvey a jackass, just like they did with the player-party in FFII. Good. I am here for this, fucking wreck Cecil. But it also leaves me in an awkward position with the “Never Alone” scene in general. While the outpouring of support from Zidane’s friends is great, with Zidane himself, I’m stuck with the realization that even at the scene’s best, all it can say is something I already said about Cecil on the original blog, coming up on ten years ago!
The third and last major complaint is one that we’d both arguably had the entire session, if not even longer, and I’m only really putting it here because not only is this the worst example of it, but I’d might as well stick my complaints in a block. Despite Zidane’s friends throwing themselves at his side and all but at his feet, the only person who is able to snap Zidane out of his funk is Garnet. Kyle and I only talked about this at the end of the session, but this scene here, with Garnet being the only one of Zidane’s friends who can rescue him from his suicidal charge, implies they have a special, probably romantic relationship. So here we go, ahem: Zidane and Garnet aren’t in a romantic relationship. They are, at best, semi-close friends and I’d say Zidane should rightly have a closer connection with childhood friend Freya or actual on-screen friend Vivi, and if anything I feel a little insulted that he blows everyone off! Zidane and Garnet have only generously shared a single romantic moment up to this point, and it ended with the rediscovery of a traumatic childhood memory that ended with the death of her mother and everyone she ever loved! And yet, the idea that these two have a special, and probably romantic, bond oozes out of a lot of FFIX’s minor narrative decisions.
I didn’t mention this at the time, but during the trip to Alexandria at the start of the disc, there was an ATE where Marcus and Blank get to talking about Zidane’s slump, and Blank says that it’s because Zidane has “never been in a serious relationship before,” and while this could be read as referring to his and Garnet’s friendship, it was absolutely not true of a romantic relationship either at the time or even now. Zidane’s feelings for Garnet are almost entirely one-sided and she still vocally rejects him at times, yet the game frames this as some sort of early romantic relationship rapidly progressing to “maturity” instead of what it actually seems to be, which is Zidane, the harassing stalker, badgering Garnet into romantic submission. At best, in that “forcing yourself into the author’s frame of mind” that you have to do from time to time, especially when you try to read like I try to read, I still only see them as friends who might hook up, instead of an active couple, and the game prioritizing a maybe-romance over Zidane’s friendship with literally everyone (except maybe newly “redeemed” Amarant) is scummy as shit. I described it to Kyle as the devs having Zidane “saved by his boner.” It’s ridiculous!
Long story short, the party eventually talks Zidane down and they reunite to finish the dungeon. More on that next week!