Last time on FF9 Versus, we finished up Vivi’s opening segment, and covered the introduction of Steiner. Also a slight aside because I completely forgot about cards.
The story so far: Vivi is hyped to watch the play, Steiner is watching over the princess, and cards are for chumps.
With a little luck, this will be the last post covering the very beginning of the game. There’s a lot to cover in a chronological sense, but so very little to talk about in an actual mechanical sense. We start to see the game actually come into its own at this point, which is very exciting stuff.
The game starts up again after the fmv with the play put on by Tantalus: I Want to Be Your Canary. The events of the play are very much your standard star-crossed lovers fare, and leads into the game’s second battle. Like the first, it falls flat as a tutorial. Unlike the first, it gives you a fun little element tied to the story to play around with: SFX. The SFX are flash, over the top, and deal absolutely no damage. It’s a lovely touch, a reminder that the mechanics of the game are directly tied to the storytelling. Sure, you need to finish the fight with basic attacks like always (though imagine how interesting it would be if you had to fill an excitement bar by performing the SFX and SFX combos instead), but your characters are actors on a stage: they are there to put on a show, not come across as thieves.
Once the fight is over, a bit more of the play unfolds, and a daring fight takes place directly in front of the audience. By daring fight, I mean a session of Simon Says, but at least it does look somewhat entertaining. This is minigame number three (after jump rope and cards), and just like the a good required minigame, it measures quality of success: there is no failure state that prevents forward progress.
After the fight concludes, Zidane and Blank head inside, kit up as fake Knights of Pluto, and head off to abduct the princess. Unfortunately, after another fake choice (this time, either choice leads to the exact same events (rather than a but thou must loop)), it turns out the princess is also heading off, and the duo run after her.
We are then introduced to the two worst characters in the game. Someone was closely studying the success of FF6 when they made this game, and the strange Kefka acted as a template for the quirky Zorn and Thorn. Unfortunately, that same person failed to understand what made Kefka great, and instead of mentally unhinged, the jesters appear to just be a bit on the dull side with a large dose of obnoxious. Once they have played out their first appearance (as well as the appearance of the most badass woman in FF9 – Beatrix (and right after Zidane checking out the princess like a scumbag)), Steiner sets off to find the princess. This is where the game finally starts having you use what you’ve learned and stops telling to to just go blindly forward in spite of all the opportunities around you.
With Steiner, we have an area that isn’t prodding you forward in any obvious way. There’s no message on the screen, there’s no flow of foot traffic, there’s no rat kid yelling at you to hurry up and follow him. You’re told to find the princess, and you can go anywhere that you please. The earlier scattered items help prepare you for the optional hunt here: the Knights of Pluto are hidden all about the available areas of the castle. Finding all of them nets you a reward: a powerful healing Elixir (amusingly, you won’t be needing anything of this caliber for a very, very long time). The area design here is rather well thought out: the final destination is at the top of a tower, very obviously out of the way. Interestingly, it’s similar to the design of Alexandria, to the left and then up leads to the end. If you haven’t found all of the Knights and want to, odds are decent that you’ll notice you’re on the way to the end of the optional hunt before you get to the next cutscene/fmv trigger (either due to the parallels to the Alexandria map, or the out of the way location).
Once the next cutscene and fmv plays out, you’re back in control of Zidane, helping Garnet escape. Well, once you find out that she’s trying to escape. Up until then Zidane is still planning to reroute things into a kidnapping. You run from Steiner until finally, he ambushes the gang and triggers fight number three. Once again, it’s Steal O’Clock, so there’s still no real introduction to the finer points of the combat system. The chase continues to play out after the battle, and the characters wind up on stage. It takes the reference to FF6 all the way to completion: the characters wind up in the play. In a fun subversion, rather than things going crazy on stage, the play continues almost exactly as you’d expect it to. Well, until Vivi gets chased onstage and Steiner declares open season on kidnappers and people that sneak in to the theater (both equally serious crimes in the kingdom of Alexandria, I guess).
This is where the game finally gives you a true and proper introduction to combat. In addition to your two actors (they take their art very seriously, and only SFX is available while they are onstage), you have a white mage (the princess – who was dressed in traditional Final Fantasy white mage robes up to just before the battle starts) and a black mage (Vivi – who already looks just like a traditional FF black mage). You get a chance to play around with some actual skills that impact the flow of combat (Cure and Focus being chief among them). As an added bonus, Steiner will not attack the princess – he is there to rescue her, after all. This, the fourth fight of the game, is where we see the combat system in all its glory on display for the first time.
Once this fight is concluded, we’re treated to another fmv where the queen decides that the best way to save the princess is by firing tree sized spears on chains at her. And when that doesn’t work, a cannon fires a weaponized Bomb monster. A new fight starts, but it’s mechanically identical to the last one. To avoid it feeling stale, there’s a constant dialogue running where the gang is trying to get Steiner to notice the bomb behind him. Following the comedy style of the game so far – Steiner only notices when it’s too late, and the explosion does some real damage to the ship (though not to any of the characters standing a few feet away).
The escaping theater airship goes down in flames, and sets us up for a few things: a new game mechanic (super mixed feelings about it, but that seems to describe most of this game for me), some setting information (the Mist), our first foray into a dungeon of sorts (with a boss and everything!). Look forward to probably not all of that (because I get caught up on the slightest crazy) things next time!