Our goal is to rescue the Espers who are being drained of their power as fuel for Magitek.
I love seeing how Final Fantasy rings changes on its ever-accruing mythology from game to game. The draining-Espers idea evolved from Cid's innocent mistake in FFV, in which the machines he created to amplify and collect power from the Four Crystals of Light inadvertently damaged them. FFVI fuses the concept of crystals, which existed right from the start of Final Fantasy, with the separate FF concept of summons, originally a job class ability like geomancy. We'll see beings turning to crystal again in FFXIII's L'Cie, while ShinraCorp, Odine Enterprises and Draklor are all spiritual successors of FFVI's Esper-juicing factory.
Before infiltrating the plant, we scout the three occupied towns around Vector. There's the port of Albrook, where not a single soldier recognizes Celes (amazing, huh!?). There's Tzen, another unlucky kingdom...
Remember, kids, "Kingdom good, empire bad."
And in Maranda, which a resident said used to be "this continent's most beautiful town" before the empire got its grubby mitts on it — I'll have to take his word for it, since all towns have the same graphics tiles — the soldiers have imported dogfighting:
There's a soldier chasing a woman at lower right. Ick. I go down there to try and extricate her.
First reaction: "SCORE! It's so hard to find canon f/f ships in this series! Celes/Aishya OTP!" Second reaction: "Wait. Isn't Celes the general who conquered your village? Oh, maybe you DO know that."
Also, remember that wounded soldier back in Mobilz whom we helped by penning a bunch of letters to his girlfriend? Sure enough, Lola's here in Maranda, happily reading the book he/we sent her. But she's boring, so she doesn't get a screencap.
Finally we head to Vector, the site of
It sounds like Director Cid is passing out the Gift of Magic like lollipops. Which is either ridiculously wasteful (poor Espers!) or sinister, since this makes at least three different children that he's experimented on. I keep being reminded of FFXII's Doctor Cid, but I shut that thought down quickly before I start imagining Vayne in a clown suit with Kefka's godawful laugh.
Once again, the game engine's party leader blindness yields amusing conversations:
Good question! Come on, Celes, answer the man! My hunch is that you're motivated with remorse over the Espers and Maranda, but I'd still like to hear you say it!
There's several secret Returners sympathizers in Vector who help us sneak in. I like this rebel's simple expedient of feigning to be a projectile-vomiting drunk.
Dungeon crawl time! It's another damned conveyor belt-and-catwalk maze, my least favorite type of labyrinth. Somewhere in the heart of Unsafe Workplace Hell, we hear Kefka's infamous whoop-whoop-whoop laugh again.
Kefka: I'm providing exposition! I'm spouting bald dialog!
Kefka: I'm providing signposts on the Path of Plot Advancement! R eeeee aaaa lll yyyy sloooooow lyyyyyyyyyyyyy.
(This game's habit of drawing out text one letter at a time with long pauses to build suspense occasionally becomes as clunky as FFX's overuse of MULTIPLE! DRAMATIC! CAMERA! PANS! AND ZOOMS! BECAUSE! NOW! WE! CAN!)
Kefka: I'm exemplifying my villainy with visible object lessons!
Yep, that's Shiva and Ifrit, and this is the FF game that started pairing them up like PB & J. I wonder how they were overpowered?
Waiting for Kefka to saunter off (I half expect him to say, "I'm leaving the room now! So it is empty!" thanks to this dreary patch of script localization), we follow the Espers down the chute and land in a room full of drained Esper husks. Ick. As per tradition, we have to fight them to win their assistance:
The two Espers tell us they're tuckered out, and they transform into magicite crystals to help us free their friends.
The summons in this game are a little like junctioning in FFVIII, a little like Materia in FFVII. Each party member can junction to one Esper, most of which boost a particular stat on levelup. While carrying that Esper, the character can summon it and master spells from it. So we're all going to be Magitek Knights, by and by.
Fighting our way through a legion of mechanical mannikins and Magitek armored units, we penetrate the center of the Magitek Research Lab where Espers float in giant test tubes. First time for this well-known Final Fantasy trope, and no less sinister.
Awww. poor little unicorn and carbuncle. :(
You know, Ifrit gave us his power because he sensed that Ramuh had given us his power, but what if Ramuh had done that under coercion and/or to get back at his fellow Espers in a final bitter act of vengeance? I worry about these things.
So anyway, Celes throws the switch, draining the test tubes, and the Espers all transform into magicite crystals. Before we can collect them, we are interrupted by an unlucky sports mascot dressed as a taco, or possibly a hot dog.
You're asking us? Wh-what're you?
...Wait, it's not a hot dog, it's Cid. Then again, I suppose some of the other Cids (II, VII, X) are hot dogs.
Once the Espers have turned to magicite, they fly towards Celes in an animation that's a throwback to the crystal shards of FFI-III and V. Give us job classes! Pretty please!
Drat. Well, I hope they're good summons.
Cid and Celes are reunited; apparently they're old friends. Like any father figure, he questions her about her dodgy-looking friends.
I like the fact that Cid assumes she's their leader. She is the general, after all.
His next question causes consternation in the ranks. [ETA: and caused me no end of confusion. I'm going to leave my unedited reactions to it here, and then give the correct translation from the GBA script in a little while. Bear with me, but keep in mind that the following screencap is a misleading translation]
It sounds like Cid's been warned against Celes as a spy, and he thinks she's come back to inspire the people of Vector to revolt against the Empire. This rumor must've spread far and wide, for that NPC in the village outside to be asking why she's sided with the Returners.
Locke is confused: he thought our mission was to rescue Espers. Yeah, well, even if Celes didn't come here to incite a rebellion, it's not a bad idea, is it?
Just then, Kefka shows up like the exasperating supervillain he is to cause trouble.
And here is where the scene goes suddenly pear-shaped. What the hell, Locke?
Cyan, of course, reminds us of his well-grounded suspicions.
Of course, I have been raising doubts about Celes' motivations, and I wasn't willing to accept her as a Returners convert when Locke first brought her into the group. However, we knew from the start that Kefka imprisoned Celes for defying him. So whatever game she's playing, she's not on Kefka's side.
Kefka lays it on so thick that if I had any doubts left about Celes being an imperial spy — which I didn't after Celes' "I'm free! The Empire can't control me!" during the Narshe battle — this would lay them to rest.
No it bloody well isn't.
In fact, it's just like Kefka to assume everyone's as big a rat as he is. He always thinks it's "delightful" when he's spotted somebody betraying somebody, even though he's totally misread the situation. (Exhibit A: Kefka assuming Edgar was abandoning his people, when Ed had already set in motion an escape plan for them.)
I imagine a pregnant pause, with the chuff-chuff-chuff of Evil Empire Machinery and the clank of Kekfa's minions sounding ominously on the catwalks.
"Locke...Please believe me..." Celes says.
SPIT IT OUT, YOU NECROPHILIAC NINNY! What is wrong with you?
While Locke's shilly-shallying, Kefka calls on his M-Tek soldiers to attack them. I guess our guys are all standing there tharn during this poignant scene of non-betrayal, because they're caught off-guard and bowled over by the same kinds of soldiers we've been mowing down easily.
Celes is catapulted over one of the railings, clings and dangles in a Rachel-like manner...
...climbs back onto the platform and throws herself in front of Kefka. She raises her hands with a white flash, and she and the soldiers and Kefka disappear.What the heck did she DO? She was holding six magicite crystals, which is a helluva lot of power. BOOM, perchance? I hope she didn't just imitate Rachel's self-sacrifice to save Locke's life!
[All right. NOW. Checking the GBA script, I find the translation of Cid's line up there is diametrically opposed to the correct translation:
CID: "Is it true you worked your way in amongst the rebels as a spy?"
So now I understand why Locke was acting betrayed and hurt and unsure whether to trust Celes during this pivotal scene. I'm still disappointed in him, as he should've realized that Kefka was lying and manipulating, but now everything makes sense. The sad thing is that I didn't check the GBA script until all the way to the village of Thamasa, so I spent several days of gameplay irked at Locke over this scene. Now, let's resume.]
Our heroes awaken, not entirely sure of what just happened. Cid quickly spots a problem.
[GBA script: "Oh, no! This is bad! That blast reversed the energy flow in the capsules! We need to get out of here!"]
It's amazing how often buildings and other large structures in the world of SF/fantasy have self-destruct mechanisms. I mean, does the Pentagon? I've always wondered.
We flee down the elevator with Cid.
Um, Cid? You're a genius. How did you not know you were killing/torturing Espers to give people magical powers?
[Once again, the GBA script makes more sense. Cid says, "There's no excuse for it, no matter how much Kefka may have threatened me." In which case he knew what he was doing (how could he not?) but was just afraid to speak up. Which is the usual way atrocities happen.]
Oh, I'm sure THAT is going to go over so well. Still, I appreciate Cid's determination to make amends.
During our conveniently 10-minute elevator ride — just how tall is this place? — Cid fills us in about Celes, whom he's raised since she was an infant.
[GBA script: "I forced her to become a Magitek Knight... If I ever see her again, I want to apologize for all of my mistakes."]
It's a pity I forgot to swap party leaders; Locke is the one who should be hearing all this.
Again, I get the impression that this Cid has Odine-like powers of self-deception. He's not Hojo, who was fully aware of and reveled in his sick experiments, but FFVI Cid is one rung down the "genius with no sense of ethics" ladder from FFV Cid, who was trying to create machines to help people, and had no idea he was wrecking the Crystals of Light.
The save point in the corner bestows the six crystals that Celes just snatched away from Kefka. So did she fall all the way down here? Where is she?
A whoop-whoop-whoop laugh signals Kefka's return. Cid body slams all four of us onto a minecart-like platform and sends us to safety before we can fight or find out WHAT HAPPENED TO CELES, DAMMIT.
Woot! Mine cart ride with trippy graphics!
After fighting various pursuers keeping pace with us as we whiz along train tracks at umpty-ump miles per hour (in a narrow, girder-lined tunnel, yet), we shoot out the other end and meet up with Setzer, who guides us back to his airship.
Kefka curses. "Crud! ... You won't get away!"
But OF COURSE the Magitek Research Facility has two giant cranes on top, specifically designed to catch the only airship in the entire world. Villains, always planning ahead.
We beat them with the almighty Chocobo stampede trick (I must say Setzer's "slots" are easier to use than later versions of the ability) ...
...and head back to Zozo, because Locke says he's worried about Terra. So am I, but, um...Celes? Left behind? Possibly lying injured at the bottom of that elevator shaft, at the foot of a Magitek Research Facility that Cid was afraid might self-destruct? Likely to be imprisoned or killed by Kefka, if she isn't already dead?
Nobody says a word about her, possibly lest they set off the Wrath of Locke. Okay, Terra it is.
Terra's lying just where we left her, catatonic.
Locke whips out a piece of what is probably Terra's crystallized grandma. This will help?
In fact, it does help. She glows a bit, and...
I stand corrected. It's a piece of her daddy, not her grandma.
"I remember it all..." Terra says. "I was raised in the Esper's World."
Hooray! We missed you, Terra.
Now it's time for...*drumroll* an epic Backstory Dump via flashback! Tell us a story, crystal daddy!
Maduin, sporting silver hair and a loincloth, is the gatekeeper of the Esper world. He finds a human woman (of course) has fallen through the gate. The oldest plotline in the world ensues:
Other, more friendly Espers help Maduin nurse her back to health. She awakens and begins questioning her benefactor:
"It's...yours now! It helps protect the Esper World," Maduin says, and bally well gives it to her. Did she ask for it? Noooo. Some gatekeeper he is.
Maduin, tactless, gives a rambling speech about how the "highly infectious" human world is full of "desire, greed and loathing." Sensing she's not welcome, Madonna — yes, that's her name — says she'll head back to the human world tomorrow. Maduin promises to guide her.
The next morning, he finds she's already gone. He tracks her back to the gate, telling her she can stay. "But humans and Espers can never coexist...!" she protests.
An artsy "falling in love" sequence portrays them pirhouetting around each other and shedding euphemistic white sparkles that join together into a baby. It's Terra, of course.
Two years later, Gestahl's soldiers breach the Sealed Gate to the Esper world.
I guess the wind must've weakened them; I'm not sure why the Espers are so powerless to defend themselves when human soldiers pour in and start dragging them back to the gate. Emperor Gestahl shows up to gloat after all the Espers in the vicinity have been hauled off.
Damn those ancients. Always leaving around evil weapons and secrets that come back to haunt their descendants.
Meanwhile, the Esper Elder prepares to sacrifice himself in a ritual to seal the gate, summoning a magical wind to blow all the "nasty" humans out. Maduin turns to Madonna, concerned for her, but she says, "I, for one, will not miss the other side."
However, she changes her mind about five seconds later, thanks to Maduin's drinking buddy being a loud-mouthed insensitive lout:
Wolf-man loudly accuses her of leading the humans to their secret entrance. Maduin tells him to get a grip, but Wolf-man only becomes more hysterical. "No! She's one of them! Soon she'll be wearing our hides!"
While they're arguing, Madonna flees with Terra back to the gate. Hard to believe she'd abandon her lover because of one unpleasant in-law, but I suppose staying in a world that hates you is a daunting prospect.
I'm not 100% sure whether Madonna really intended to flee back to the human world, actually, or just get away from their argument, but the result is the same. The irresistible wind draws her into the Gate, where Gestahl is standing after his own soldiers have been sucked away by the same force that kills red-shirts in a nanosecond but allows villains at least one minute's grace for a memorable exit line—
Shriek?! Probably not a good translation. Exit line delivered, he can no longer resist the tug of plot device and is dragged offscreen. Maduin finds Madonna at the top of the stairs...
Maduin assures her that he understands that. He tries to coax her back, but it's too late. Madonna gives a cry as teeny baby-Terra is whisked out of the entrance, and Madonna and Maduin are dragged after. They crash land in what looks like the Phantom Forest.
Madonna, evidently too stunned by the fall to be thinking clearly, begs the human who just led an assault against the Espers to look after her baby.
"Mwa, ha, ha... She will help us realize our dream faster than we ever imagined!" Gestahl gloats.
Madonna realizes her mistake, stands up and gives a Luke Skywalker NOOOOO, and gets finished off by one swat from Gestahl. The jaws of the gate close on the scene of Madonna and Maduin lying side by side.
So, that's our first in-depth glimpse of Emperor Gestahl, and we see he's a bad, bad man. He snatches babies and kills their mothers without a qualm. He called the Espers "beasts," the usual disgusting excuse for justifying slavery. He thinks nothing of attacking his neighbors or even another world to get more power. He promotes psychopaths like Kefka and lets him use child soldiers as weapons to destroy scores of his troops in military experiments. He builds an army through conscripts from conquered towns, who are beaten to death if they try to desert. And this is the leader that Cid's trying to convince to abandon a war he's almost won? Good luck with that.
Terra reverts to human form and shakes off her old passivity, at long last.
From now on, she can turn into her Esper-form when she's built up power in several battles; I keep forgetting to use it. (I think it boosts strength and magic a bit.)
Terra's friends rehash what we've learned for the umpty-umpth time, that the Espers snatched during her dad's flashback must have been imprisoned in the Magitek Research Facility, and that Celes' powers must've been drawn from them. HEY YEAH, WHAT ABOUT CELES?!
Locke readily agrees to return to Narshe, as Celes is now out of sight, out of mind. *facepalm* All right. Well, I am glad that Terra's showing initiative.
So, after a buttload of sidequests (and new Espers!), we head back to the mining village where our whole adventure began.
Oh, really? Seems to me that they'd vowed to fight back when Kefka's army was marching on them, only when they saw us stepping out to defend their town, they hid until the excitement was over.
Nevertheless, we fill them in on the mission to Vector.
It is? Actually, my plan is for you guys to attack Vector while I sneak into the imperial dungeons to free Cid and Celes, but if you wanna provide us with half a million gil and enough Chainsaws to equip the whole party, that'd be great.
Arvis pleads that they don't have the manpower to actually fight.
Banon knows just where to find conscripts for our cause:
Yeah. I'm sure the Espers will be THRILLED with us if we do that! There's no way we could be repeating the mistakes of a thousand years ago! And Terra had such great success recruiting that Narshe Esper you sent her to talk to.
Banon is totally confident in Terra's abilities to sell his bold plan.
Meanwhile, he promises the villagers of Narshe and the Returners will be attacking from the north. In about two weeks, I guess, since they don't have an airship to ferry them there.
The Path of Plot Advancement is a bitch sometimes.
And just to remind you, Terra, the good guys need to use you just as much as the bad guys do... maybe more...
Since I had Terra refuse Banon's request to become their "ray of light" earlier in the game, she has so far been dragged along according to other people's whims and the buffets of circumstance.
Terra mulls over Banon's words -- we get some of her thoughts about how her birth shows that an Esper-human bond of trust is possible -- and, with a nod, agrees (no player option this time, but I'm just happy that the character's choosing her own path):
But before we do anything, we need to wander around Narshe and buy stuff.
Mini-sidequest: back in Castle Figaro, there was a "Lone Wolf" in the dungeons that I refused to let out, because he was obviously the "Lone Wolf" thief-NPC in FFV that will steal treasures from you if you let him out of Castle Walse. He's escaped, and he's back to his old tricks.
He pops the chest and slips out under our noses. We chase him through the mines to find he's taken a moogle hostage. During the struggle, we get yet more people dangling off cliffs, a frequent job hazard in Final Fantasyland.
Decisions, decisions. Acquire an item that halves MP costs, or rescue a Moogle? Okay, okay, I rescue Mog. He has Lenna's old "summon animal allies to kick butt for us" ability crossed with Dance, and he actually turns out to be quite powerful.
I like to think that this is the same Mog that gives us sass in Final Fantasy XIII-2. He gets around, y'know?
All right. Party members buffed, armors bought, skills augmented, we head back to the southern continent and penetrate the imperial stronghold guarding the Sealed Gate. However...
Even our characters are bright enough to realize that this is suspicious.
Or not. Damn you, Path of Plot Advancement!
(I remind myself that I've got what I wanted now: Terra's autonomy.)
We dungeon crawl our way to the Sealed Gate. I tweaked the brightness a bit to make it visible:
Terra climbs to the top of the steps and communes with the gate, presumably using her father's pendant to try to open it (it's never mentioned, but "Terra's Pendant" is in our Key Items inventory).
Like a cuckoo on the hour Kefka pops out to disrupt our latest scheme.
The rest of the party attempts to hold off him and his troopers:
For once, Kefka isn't here to destroy us; he's come to spectate.
"The Emperor was right!" he cackles.
Yes, the heroes are once again doing the villain's dirty work for him. Repeat the Final Fantasy Mantra: WE SUCK.
We trade a few blows and insults with him while Terra, oblivious, continues her Aerith-like prayer:
Lots of rumbling and ominous door opening and -- you guessed it... a whole horde of angry Espers fly out of the gate like an airborne aerial stampede, knocking us over and knocking Kefka right off screen:
Bahamut, I presume?
Terra is flung down the stairs, and a rockfall covers the gate. We pick ourselves up and stagger back out of the caves.
Locke meets us outside to fill us in: the Espers burst out like angry hornets and flew off towards Vector. Well, that's basically what Banon proposed to do, so I guess the plan's working so far.
(More flat-as-cardboard translation.)
Back on the airship, we head to Vector to watch the show. Terra senses something coming. A huge Bahamut-ish Esper whooshes past (Locke protects her, fulfilling his White Knight quota for the day). Other Espers swoop by...
I'm sorry, Carbuncle, but you're too adorable to be menacing.
I thought this was Terra calling out to the Espers in longing, begging her own kind to stay with her, but I think it's another iffy translation— she's begging them not to attack Vector.
Which is odd, since that's the whole reason we opened the Sealed Gate, isn't it? I guess the reality is worse than she expected.
Disrupted by the Espers' neener neener flybys, the airship hurdles out of control. I'm going to start watching to see which is the first Final Fantasy airship to make it through an entire game without crashing. (I guess FFI and FFII airships had so little game time that they made it through, although II's got tractor beamed.)
After the fantasy crash landing which results in no injuries, we wander over to Vector to see how our Esper allies (cough) are faring. Looks like they've avenged Ifrit in appropriate fashion:
The Returner troops are wandering aimlessly through the burning rubble, and hasten to declare they had no part in this (well apart from hatching the plan in the first place).
Banon, also, seems to be leaping on "plausible deniability."
"What ARE you talking about?" he says.
HELLO! Haven't you been trying to get Terra to do that since the BEGINNING OF THE GAME?
I think I'm missing something in translation again.
Oh well. Fine If you don't want me talking to Espers, I think I'll just go talk to the Empire.
This whole sequence must be terrifying to Terra, marching into the nightmarish fortress where she was abused and experimented upon since early childhood. Talking to the emperor is probably the last thing she wants to do.
The emperor puts on a contrite face. So what's his angle?
Cid feeds us (or has been fed) the same story: the Espers' attack on Vector was so terrible that the Empire just wants to make nice so they go away. Either Gestahl is one of those bullies who crumples if he ever actually gets slapped, or he's playing us like a puppet.
Or there may be a more serious meaning behind all this. When Gestahl says, "The power of the Espers... I had no idea..." I couldn't help thinking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. An awful lot of 20th century Japanese pop culture seems to serve as a catharsis, coming to grips with two diametrically opposed distressing things: Japan's attempt at empire-building in WWII, and the unspeakable horror of two atom bombs and the deadly fallout from U.S. nuclear testing landing on their homeland, which is often symbolized by taint/pollution/poison.
Those two events seem to play out again and again in some form in everything from Akira to Nausicaa, if you're on the lookout for symbolism. It's not so overt here, but I have my suspicions.
And of course, it's all up to Terra once again.
The next screencap is literally the next line after Cid's. Talk about conversational whiplash... doom, gloom, destruction... dinner party?
Oh, come on, Gestahl has to be up to something.
Cid gives us a fun (!) timed minigame before the feast starts. We have four minutes-- hurry! to convince all the imperial soldiers in the vicinity that the war is over, and that they should lay down their arms. Riiight. Because they're totally going to listen to Magical Girl instead of a direct order from their own Emperor. Still, we pick up some tasty gossip during our recruitment run...
Pardon me while I continue to be dubious that an emperor who snatches babies and kills their mothers in front of their eyes has suddenly turned over a new leaf.
AND WHAT ABOUT CELES?!
Up at the top of the fortress, we stumble across Chekov's Wave Motion Gun (I assume):
Gee, I wonder who might be motivated to use that thing before the end of this game?
At the banquet, everyone's terribly chummy. Cid declares himself a Returner, just so that we can have equal representation.
Okay, I AM SO NOT DRINKING THE WINE.
We tactfully toast "our hometowns."
Again, I'm getting the impression there's some WWII metaphors going on here. Gestahl that says they're truly sorry for Kefka poisoning Doma. When we choose the "That was inexcusable" response (this whole conversation has many optional responses, the first time I can remember an FF game doing that), he gives another contrite reply and more bowing.
AND FINALLY SOME NEWS ABOUT CELES?
"By the way," the emperor says, "About General Celes..."
We're given three options on how to respond to this offhanded comment.
I sit on Locke's head and pick "Celes is one of us!" because DAMMIT, she risked her life to get us out of the Magitek Research Facility.
I would love to see a reaction shot from Locke somewhere in this sequence, but alas, his back is to the camera, and he doesn't say so much as "..."
Well of course he was lying (I guess Cid filled in Gestahl on what happened)! And...okay, yeah. I wonder whether she actually voiced that criticism aloud.
I'm suddenly getting an image of some real-world war room with the president and his generals. Right in the middle of the meeting, someone pipes up with, "You know what? This war is stupid." And they're all so bowled over by this logic that they call the troops back. "Oh, whoops, our bad."
At any rate, now we know: Celes wasn't just opposing Kefka; the whole war effort bothered her.
The dinner conversation drifts back to the Espers. Gestahl makes a humble vow:
Also, Gestahl has a favor to ask us. Here it comes...
Right. EVERYBODY needs to borrow Terra. But I appreciate that he's asking rather than coercing, and that we've busted through the "empire bad, kingdom good" binary.
"If Terra goes, I'll go," Locke butts in, as usual setting himself up as guardian.
Again, I'm picking up vague echoes of FFXII, in which we wind up teaming with the empire against greater threats. I like this sort of complexity.
As the banquet breaks up, Locke orders the rest of the group to stay behind (!)
HANG ON A SEC I DO TOO BUT THAT'S WHY WE BRING GAU AND MOG TO KILL ALL THE THINGS.
To my annoyance, Edgar agrees. The others stay behind to investigate the empire and try to figure out what's really going on, while Locke and Terra head out to play guardian and sorceress. Stay tuned, and apologies for the really long playthrough this time!</cut-text>
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