It occurs to me that I forgot something very important in Part 4. It’s really easy to walk right past, but it’s the first opportunity to sink your teeth into the game spanning (and eventually required) collectible card game. The game – Tetra Master – isn’t nearly as transparent as Triple Triad from FF8. Or as helpful mechanically. But hey, at least it’s mandatory at some point!
Sounds good to me.
So, I was a bit distracted by Stiltzkin and completely forgot this interesting introduction. I say interesting for two reasons. Firstly, even though the card game is eventually required to proceed, this introduction is entirely miss-able. After joining up with the rat kid, Alleyway Jack (a badass name for a four-armed badass) wanders down the alley. You don’t have to talk to him, he’s just wandering through on his own – it’s not a cutscene. Why make an introduction to a required game aspect optional and actually rather easy to miss? Who knows. It’s one thing to let the player say they don’t need the tutorial, quite another to not offer it if they don’t seek it out.
Second, though there’s a long list of text heavy explanations (rather than a nice play by play of an actual game of Tetra Master), there’s a lot of information missing from the tutorial that Alleyway Jack gives. I wonder if this tutorial served as inspiration for putting a lot of the information in the Strategy Guide on a website (PlayOnline, what were you guys thinking?) rather than in the book that people paid money for expecting it to contain a complete guide.
What do I mean by incomplete? Well, for the long list of things that Jack covers with you, there’s some very basic information being left out. Like, what do those numbers and letters on each card mean and how do they affect play? Or, how do I get more cards? Even when the game starts to answer these questions (after, say, two dungeons and a couple forays out onto the world map) it doesn’t give you any straight answers. This is another example of the confused design that shows up here and there through FF9: they’re going to force you to play this game, but good luck figuring out how.
One final strange decision is made: rather than give you a play by play battle with action suggestions, commentary, everything you would expect from a tutorial card battle in pretty much any other game with card battles, they just throw you in to an actual card battle. Yeah, it’s a real battle. Yeah, you lose a card if you lose the battle. Learn by doing kid, learn by doing.
This is the time for me to talk a little bit about forced minigames in RPGs (especially Final Fantasy). In FF7, there are several required minigames. Each one gives you a full explanation of how to play them, and the ones that you have to win let you try and try again (Chocobo Racing to escape the Gold Saucer being the main one) or are simple to learn, intuitive, and relatively easy (the motorcycle battle comes to mind). Others let you progress even if you fail (the submarine), which makes things all nice and friendly. In FF9, the card game is a pain in the ass with (almost) no real incentive to play. In FF8, the card game was far more fun (in no small part because it was far less opaque with its mechanics), and it gave you huge incentive to play (you can turn cards into powerful items and spells given the right GF abilities). The only incentive you’re likely to find to play cards in FF9 is to not be totally unprepared for when you are made to.
This is another one of those missed opportunities that seem to be all too common in FF9. This tutorial could have been skip-able without being miss-able, but even though it’s the introduction to a required piece of gameplay it’s easy to miss. This is par for the course at this point though, so it’s not any sort of surprise. For all the early fumbles like this, the setting, plot, and characters quickly come to overshadow with their excellent quality. That’s in the future, so let’s stop this here and get back to getting there.
Next time on FFIX Versus, we’ll be back to the usual story stuff. Sorry for the strange aside.