Last time on FF9 Versus, we got something very excellent for the story though boring for gameplay, and a bit of combat that actually requires you to pay attention to things.
The story so far: The princess is captured by plants, and Vivi is a full-power magic-using plant-murderer.
So we know how to fight plants, and since the princess has been captured by them this will probably be pretty handy to know. After a touch of story we’re on our way to the very first dungeon in the game, which acts as great training for upcoming dungeons. And then the world map, another dungeon, and some proper story progression and character development. How far will we get? Knowing me, likely not very, but here goes.
Upon completing the helpful “magic is plant murder” training battle, the plant proceeds to poison both Steiner and Vivi as it goes down. Zidane drags their miserable selves back to the wreck, and both are given an antidote and some time to recover. Zidane falls victim to the full power of the Dulcinea Effect, and talks to his boss about wandering off to save Garnet. After that, our first non-tutorial ATE events pop up, and we get a chance to see what else is going on.
Since this is primarily focused on the gameplay and less on the story, it’s worth noting that both of the ATE events are amusing, but are by no means necessary. Nothing bad will happen or important will be missed if they are skipped, which is nice. You do miss out on a chance to chuckle a bit, but that’s your call.
Once Zidane clears up his employment situation with Baku (via a liberal application of force), he rounds up the party of Steiner and Vivi to save the princess from the salad kingdom. We get a quick hint here of a cool ability that Steiner will have the next time you get in a battle, and it’s nice that story is continuing to inform the mechanics (how equipping different clothes grants access to different abilities and skills is beyond me, but it’s an entertaining system that encourages you to think about what you’re equipping rather than going for the highest available numbers, so that’s just fine).
At this point, you embark on a romp through the first dungeon of the game. It’s a great time to learn the basics of dungeon diving, and puts you in a very safe environment for your first outing. Back at the ship, any time you need it there is a bed you can rest in for free (though for the amount earned from any one battle versus the standard cost of staying in an inn, you have to wonder why they bother having anything other than free places to stay. Actually, it’s somewhat sensible from a story standpoint (since real inns charge money), and it would have been annoying to have to constantly weigh the cost of staying at an inn against buying potions/equipment), and on the first screen of the dungeon you only encounter a single enemy at a time. Since you’re level 1 all around, one enemy can actually do a bit of damage, but there’s no serious threat and full healing is right nearby.
The second screen of the dungeon (and when I say dungeon, I mean forest, but it’s all just visual dressing, really. Mechanically, it’s a dungeon right out of any RPG) features more than one enemy at a time. The game is giving you plenty of time to adapt to handling more complex battles where there’s actual danger. There’s also an ATE here that changes the music of the area, which is a nice touch.
The third screen is to most exciting so far, as it offers plants to fight against. This is your first chance to confirm that magic is effective against all evil plantlife (which it is), and see that Steiner’s Magic Sword (or Swd Mag, if you prefer) is even more powerful. Interestingly, the Magic Sword spells are dependent on Vivi’s spell list, but powered by Steiner’s MP count. Not sure how that works, but whatever, it’s a fun way to have an effective extra caster in the gang.
The fourth screen is the first safe zone since departing from the ship, and the game is generous enough to explicitly tell you that there are no monsters there so you can relax. There’s a moogle to save your game with (and deliver a letter if you’re playing along with the whole Mognet thing), and a pool of water that restores your HP and MP to full. It doesn’t get much more safe than that.
The fifth screen ends with an fmv previewing the boss plant(I lost count already. This game does not shy away from them even a little bit), and there’s nothing worth mentioning on the sixth screen. Well, that’s not entirely true. Given the visuals of the boss from the preview fmv, the vines are an indication that this is a point of no return. They’re not going to let you walk into this boss fight blind, it’s very clear that the first proper boss of the game is just ahead.
The boss fight is exactly what you’d expect given everything to this point: it’s big, it hits hard, and magic does some notable damage. Given Vivi’s low health, you can easily wind up with a knocked out black mage, which adds some real threat to the battle (especially since Magic Sword is your best damage output, and Vivi has to be up to casting the spells for it to happen). Partway through the battle your buddy Blank shows up, and the boss goes down without too much trouble.
The gang makes their exit while being chased by some unhappy plant-mantis-things. An fmv cuts in, and in grand old RPG tradition, the death of the boss causes the collapse of the entire forest. Well, less collapse, and more everything turns to stone. Unfortunately for Blank, the plants catch up with him, and he winds up a pretty statue.
After some talking and planning, we’re reminded that the Mist is not great for your health (between spawning monsters and driving you mad), and the gang heads off to look for the cavern to the south in the hopes that it will get them out of there. At this point, for the first time since starting the game, the player gets to step out onto the world map. In PSX era Final Fantasy tradition, it’s a fully polygonal world map, complete with the ability to control the camera that a 3D world makes possible. Like many of the introductions in this game (excluding the first couple combats and areas), it’s a safe, easy, and direct introduction to the mechanic.
Very near the exit from the forest is a blue-white spot on the side of a mountain at ground level, and walking up to it makes it clear that it’s an Ice Cavern. It’s here that we’ll find a quick and simple (though much more dangerous) dungeon, and a very oddly thought out boss fight. Well, we’ll do that next entry, but for now, we’re going to call it a wrap.