Okay, we got a little distracted by equipment and abilities, but now we’re on to the main event again. Last time on FF9 Versus, we got to experience the very first dungeon of the game, which was well laid out as an introduction to all the upcoming dungeon diving.
The story so far: The gang has escaped from the Evil Forest, but Blank is too petrified to go on (wow, I am so sorry for that. Not sorry enough to delete it, but still really sorry).
The boss in the Evil Forest is defeated, and there’s no way back (that seems to be a recurring problem – every semi important event thus far blocks us off from any kind of backtracking). The Ice Cavern is the second dungeon of the game, and adds a little exploration and puzzle solving/trap avoiding to the general ideas introduced in the forest. Vivi recalls that the cavern takes travelers up above the Mist, and that’s probably as far as we’ll get this time.
After some introductory text (yeah, Steiner is as doofy as ever, and Garnet is terribly sheltered) the characters automatically walk past the introduction screen and into the first proper screen of the dungeon. I mean cavern… whatever. Immediately, they are faced with a the first optional treasure chest of the dungeon. Well, immediately they were faced with more dialogue, but after that they see the first optional chest of the dungeon. It’s a lovely binary choice with a clear reward. Obviously, as the game goes on and dungeons get more intense, this will change, but for the first treasure chest in a dungeon, they made sure the choice was clear. You can step to the side, hop down a ledge, grab the chest, then hop down another ledge. At that point, you basically just loop back around to where you hopped down in the first place.
In the first dungeon, they introduced the fact that the encounters are random (take some steps, and eventually you get into a battle). Now, they are building on that by tempting you with a treasure chest in the knowledge that to get it you have to take additional steps beyond what the critical path requires. It’s risk versus reward. Get something shiny from the chest and risk more battles, or just continue onward and deal with less fights.
This first screen also introduces the dungeon’s trap: blasts of cold wind that force you into an enemy encounter. They fade in and out, and anyone that’s played a video game prior to FF9 likely knows exactly what to do about them: wait until they fade out and run on through where they were. It’s a very simply trap, but it makes things a lot more interesting than “just run forward” or “run to the treasure chest and then run forward.”
The second screen gives us two things to look into. A optional chest sits in view on the left side of the room, the path to it hidden behind the raise platform that leads forward. Off to the right is a more interesting puzzle – a staircase leading up to an odd looking section of wall. Head up to it, and you get a fun little cutscene where Vivi shows off what his magic fire can do to walls of ice (well, very specific walls of ice, but hey). This opens up a whole new set of possibilities: any slightly funny looking wall in the dungeon could be hiding something interesting. The obvious lead up (stairs to nowhere) helps introduce the concept without shoving it down the player’s throat, and gives you the knowledge you need to find other walls Vivi can melt without having to run along every single wall aimlessly.
Screen three gives us more things to investigate, and gets a touch less obvious about them. Right at the start, the path branches to the left and the right. Left loops around the long way, and away from the treasures just out of sight on the right. If you choose left, before you leave the room you’ll see the chests before you exit to the next screen. Also, there’s a slightly suspicious looking wall that hides another chest once Vivi burns it down. The right side has two chests, one on top of a platform with icy wind, one below with no clear path down to it. If you hurry, you might miss the prompt that appears at the start of the icicle walkway up to the platform. If you’re taking your time and investigating the area, you’ll see it, and the prompt will trigger another fire blast from Vivi that changes the icicle path to the lower chest. The puzzles are nothing crazy, but they make you look and think (a lovely upgrade from the run to the next screen nature of the Evil Forest).
Screen four is more of what we’ve seen so far (a suspicious wall on the left up a lone path, a chest with icy wind on the right, and a choice between more steps and a icy wind trap between you and the exit). Screen five is an interesting one. It’s a simple split path. The left leads to another screen, and the right leads to another screen. This is the first time the game gives the option of two next screens in a dungeon. Since the right path is all icy wind all the time, and icy wind is associate with traps (not to mention the doorway leading to the boss in the first dungeon also looked menacing), the left path is a lot more welcoming.
For players that make that leap in reasoning, screen six is the save room. Or at least it becomes that once the moogle in a block of ice is thawed out black mage style (this Vivi kid is unstoppable). Once a slight breather is enjoyed, the only path left is back to screen five and up the right path. This seventh screen treats you to a little cutscene where everyone just about freezes to death, but Zidane alone wakes back up. He heads to the next screen to investigate, and we get my least favourite boss fight in the entire game.
The boss itself is actually really cool – a creature called Black Waltz 1, which looks like a bigger and more evil version of Vivi. It summons a huge and awesome looking creature, the Sealion to help it crush Zidane. At this point, poor Zidane is solo against two big baddies. Unfortunately, having Zidane alone makes this a tough brawl (both of the bosses are heavy hitters). If you take down the Black Waltz first, you have a one on one against the Sealion, a much more favourable fight. If you try to take the Sealion down first, the Black Waltz starts healing it. The real trouble comes in that when at low health, the Sealion starts dealing more damage. If you choose the wrong one, you can easily get washed under by the massive damage Tsunami that the Sealion pumps out and the hassle of tackling two foes solo. If you choose right, it’s a challenging but interesting fight.
The issue I have with this fight is a lack of scaling. You aren’t likely to have enough time to correct your mistake if you chose wrong. That, and there’s no indication until you’ve already been wasting your efforts on the wrong foe that it’s, well, the wrong foe to tackle first. Unlike the mixed messages of the beginning and helpful tutorials just up to this point, you’re given nothing to go off of. If you choose wrong and do get crushed, the save point was just before this and the freezing cutscene was not exceedingly long.
With the Waltz defeated, Zidane rouses the rest of the gang and they head out of the Ice Cavern. You get a lovely scenic view of the upcoming village (probably my favourite segment of the entire game, so expect me to get real crazy with my upcoming analysis), and head down into the area free of the Mist. This marks world map segment number two, and a great stopping point for this time.
Next time, we’ll head into Dali – a totally normal farming village. Nothing suspicious going on here. Nope, totally fine. Don’t worry about it. Just farming.