For my seventh solo challenge in Final Fantasy 5, I decided to attempt the first of what I've chosen to label on my website as the "Insanity Challenges". These are the characters that were emphatically not meant to be played without accompanying teammates, and are generally lacking all of the things that you would typically associate with a conquering hero. So with that in mind, let me introduce you to the Bard class!
Ahh, Bards. Is there any other character class more deserving of scorn in the Final Fantasy universe? For the uninformed, Square has a long tradition of sucky bard characters dotted throughout their previous games. FF2 (the original Japanese version) served up Gordon, a weak and irritating bard, FF4 gave us Edward, who was also weak and irritating, and the Barb job in FF3 was... umm, weak and irritating? I'm not sure why Square seemed to think that anyone would want to play as characters who whined constantly and had the sole redeeming quality of being able to play the harp. The one saving grace is that the poor English translation of FF 2/4 gave us one of the more amusing lines ever in video game history, lovingly reproduced above.
"But wait!" I hear you say, "Bards aren't as useless in Final Fantasy 5!" True enough, but "not as useless" doesn't exactly make them good either. The main role of the Bard in this game is to use Song magic, some of which mimics other spells (like Stop and Charm) while others buff the stats of the party. It's quite useful in a normal, mixed party to have a Bard singing a Song that increases everyone's Strength or Level, for example. It's not so useful to have a solo Bard trying the same thing, since every time he takes a hit his song will be interrupted and have to start over again. And you tend to get hit a lot when you're a solo character! Song magic is therefore a bit of a mixed bag for the solo playthrough; handy at times, but not good enough to rely on overmuch.
The Bard's only other ability is the "Hide" command, which works the same way as Edward's "Hide" command from FF 2/4: the Bard runs off screen, where he can't be damaged by anything. Naturally, you can't hurt the enemies either from off-screen, and have to Return to issue any other commands. For many of the boss battles in this game, the best tactic for the Bard to employ is to Hide at the outset and wait until the opponent has expended all of their magic points. Maybe not the most heroic thing in the world, but it'll get the job done! Of course, not every boss uses magic, and many of them that look like they have magic are actually using abilities which can be repeated endlessly, so what do you do then? That's when it gets fun.
The main weapon for Bards are harps, which do (very low) percentage-based damage. Thank heavens they can use daggers, or else the variant would be unbelievably tough. Still, large portions of the game must be done with physical attack alone, with a character who has atrocious Strength and Vitality stats. Believe me: this is a profoundly silly venture to be taking on. As such, I decided to have fun with it and name my character Spoony the Bard. Here's what he looked like upon switching to his job, right after completing the Wind Temple as usual:
Strength 20 is bad enough (that's very low), but only 18 Vitality? Ugh. Note that Spoony still doesn't even have 100 hit points yet. The Dancer is the only class with lower Vitality and hit point growth than the Bard. Magic Power isn't too bad, but the Bard only has one attack in the whole game that uses this stat (Requiem), so it's almost irrelevant. The only plus that I could see in terms of stats was Agility, which was above average for Spoony at 33. Maybe that will help him run away, eh?
I won't deny it: I was dreading the Karlabos battle like you wouldn't believe. Spoony had no choice but to take on that damned lobster with his sad little Dagger, attack 14, and his Strength was so low that he had to get all the way to Level 13 just to pick up a fourth attack multiplier. (By contrast, the Knight class gets the same attack multiplier at Level 6!) As part of the preparations, I went back to the Wind Tower, where the Wind Mold enemies have a slight chance of dropping Elixirs. Yes, not even 2% of the way into the game yet, and Spoony already needs to farm Elixirs to make his way past a difficult boss. Sheesh! Well, I managed to get two of them that way while building some levels. At least the game is kind enough to provide a chance to get Elixirs in the very first dungeon!
At level 14, Spoony was ready to take on Karlabos. He was getting an additional fifth attack multiplier as a result of a complicated bug with the way knife damage works (I really don't want to go into it...) so now was an opportune time to do so. I tried over and over again, using my two Elixirs as seemed appropriate, always hoping against hope that Karlabos would use the "Fight" command instead of "Tentacle" or "Tailscrew". Finally, after something like 30 tries, Spoony emerged victorious:
Take that, you red bastard! It took nine successful attacks at an average of roughly 75 damage per attack to win out. Wow, that was tough. The one good news was that this successfully proved that ANY character class can make it past Karlabos with nothing more than the starting melee weapons. I had been dreading the start of the game with several character classes (especially Time Mage and Summoner), but now knew that they wouldn't be any tougher than Spoony.
Why didn't I use any Song magic against Karlabos? Well, Spoony doesn't have any songs to work with yet! Since you aren't supposed to get the Bard job until close to the end of the first world, there are no songs or harps to be found anywhere until much later. That's part of what makes this an "insanity challenge".
Because Spoony had gained so much gold while preparing to fight Karlabos, I had already bought 99 potions before entering the Ship Graveyard, and that made this area a cinch. Even though Spoony might lose half his life or more in each battle, he could drink a few potions and be up to full for the next fight. Siren was actually quite easy: Spoony hid until her magic-casting human form used up all its MP. Then he returned to the scene and attacked her, going back into Hiding whenever Siren swapped over to her undead form. I did the whole battle without taking a single point of damage - ha!
Just fighting normally on North Mountain was tough; even healing up to full after each fight, Spoony sometimes got killed by the regular enemies. He just had so little offense, and SO little life to work with! I realized that I was probably going to have to resort to FF1 tactics, doing leveling in specific places and then running from most battles when actually doing dungeons, rather than combining the two as I normally do in this game. Anyway, at least Spoony could Hide from Magisa and wait until all her magic points ran out:
Working like a charm! Then she called in Forza, who did over ONE HUNDRED DAMAGE with each attack!!! See that life total? The 343 number? That's Spoony's max health at level 16. How long do you think he's going to last against that kind of punishment? Yeah, that's what I thought...
The only solution was to go back to the Ship Graveyard and farm some Elixirs, while building some levels at the same time. I estimated that Spoony would need three to win the battle without having to rely on especially good luck, and by the time he amassed that many, Spoony was up to level 20, where he finally picked up another attack multiplier. Now he was all the way up to 6 * 14 = 84 damage, less than that against foes with armor. Umm, yay. In the return engagement, Magisa was of course a non-factor, but the battle against Forza was long and extremely tense. I had Spoony in the back row, where his damage was cut in half (attack multiplier = 6/2 = 3) but Forza's was actually cut by more than half (9/2 = 4.5 = 4) so I got the better end of the deal. I slowly wore down his 850 hit points by doing ~35 damage per attack, and yes, Spoony did have to drink all three of the Elixirs just like I planned. But my estimate was perfect, and Spoony emerged victorious with about half his health left. Alright, now we can finally move on to the next area!
Worus had no weapon or armor upgrades for Spoony - still using the same Dagger as before, base damage of 14. Great: it's like playing a Black Mage, only with no magic! However, to be fair, the Bard does enjoy one advantage in that marvellous Hide ability. Not only can it be used in boss fights to drain away their magic points, Hide grants a 100% successful chance to run away from random encounters. I made use of this in Worus:
There are Garkimasra super-enemies down in the basement, which pretty much auto-kill normal characters and are all but impossible to run from. But Spoony could Hide from them and escape perfectly! Thus I was able to loot the Elf Cape located down there (you can see Spoony flashing it in the picture) which is normally out of reach for my characters. This was one spot where the Bard's cowardly nature worked to my advantage!
Spoony found a Silk Robe in Worus Tower, taking his Defense all the way from 3 up to 5! Yes! Gain of more than 50%! I tell you, Spoony was just sailing through this game. The Galura boss at the top was going to be a bit of an issue, however, since it relies on physical attacks and Hide would be useless. I had Spoony loot 2 Elixirs from Tycoon Castle, and then farmed 3 more in the Ship Graveyard, which took him up to level 22 in the process. Then it was time for the boss fight:
Galura has 1200 hit points. Spoony was doing right around the 24 damage you see pictured above with each attack, while Galura's attacks always did 40 or 44 damage. I've combined two screenshots to demonstrate. How long do you think it was going to take Spoony to wear down this boss? (Hint: a while.) Galura does not cast any spells, and he has one of the most basic AI scripts in the game: Fight. That's it. What I did was have Spoony attack for a while, then use Potions as he took damage. Each Galura attack would do ~40 damage, while each Potion would heal exactly 50 health. Most rounds of combat were thus a slow affair of rebuilding hit points, however the Elf Cape would cause Spoony to dodge 1/3 of the attacks entirely, and thus greatly speed up the healing process. This worked pretty well, and Spoony did 400 damage to Galura while going through about 20 Potions.
It wasn't going to be that easy, of course. Once Galura takes 400 damage, it begins counter-attacking every time it gets hit. In the AI script, Galura will respond with one normal attack, then a second move that has a 1/3 chance to attack normally, a 1/3 chance to do a "Rush" attack (which causes normal damage plus inflicts a HP Leak status that causes health to drain away slowly), and a 1/3 chance to do nothing. Galura also continues attacking as usual; the counter-attack is completely separate. So it was entirely possible for Galura to go Attack (counter 1)/Attack (counter 2) and then follow that up with a third Attack (normal move)! How was Spoony going to do this one without getting killed?
My solution was to use an even-move drawn out version of the original strategy. Since Galura's dangerous moves were tied to counter-attacking, I refused to have Spoony attack until he was near full hit points. That is, Spoony attacks ONCE, absorbs whatever beating he takes from the counters, then spends the next few rounds using Potions to heal up (like I was doing earlier), then finally attack a second time when health was back to full. The Elf Cape was ENORMOUSLY helpful in this process - like, the battle would not have been possible without a third of Galura's moves missing entirely. On a related note, have you ever tried drinking 99 Potions in a single fight? It's amazing how many 99 turn out to be when you use them one... at... a... time. Spoony was spending four or five turns drinking Potions for every one turn attacking, but it was working! Oh so slowly, Galura's health was dropping.
Spoony had done just over 1000 damage when the last Potion ran out. For the final 200 damage, I had him attack again and again, using my one and only Hi Potion (looted from Tycoon) to heal 500 health when Spoony got down in the critical range. The result was nothing less than a total success - victory on the first try without using even a single Elixir! It certainly wasn't a quick one though; when I saved the game immediately afterwards, a full 28 minutes had ticked past. Twenty-eight minutes! This is supposed to be one of the easier bosses in the game! Oh my. Spoony, you are quite a character!
Now Spoony could finally make his way to Karnak, where he was able to upgrade his Dagger to a Mythril version of the same, increasing base damage from 14 to 23. What a difference! Spoony could actually do over 100 damage on a consistent basis. Triple digits, woohoo! It was a sad realization to enter the Steamship - you know, the dungeon that is usually a piece of cake for my solo characters - and get pasted by even the normal random encounters. After getting wiped out three different times, I pulled Spoony outside the ship to fight some easier battles and gain some additional health. The Wild Nacks outside Karnak (above) were a great place to train, as they would each fall in a single blow and gave decent experience and gold. I took Spoony up to level 23, where he fared a bit better, although heavy Potion use was still necessary.
Spoony used one trip to clear all the treasure in the Steamship. After leaving and restocking potions, he returned and fled from all the enemies, so as to save his healing items for use against the boss and following escape sequence. Liquid Flame, as I've mentioned in my other character reports, can be beaten rather easily by following a pattern for her three forms. Spoony made the same moves, healing during her Tornado form and attacking quickly against the Human and Hand ones, and did this battle with relative ease, using one Hi Potion and one Elixir. "Relative" being the operative word, because chipping away at a 3000HP boss by doing ~150 damage per attack wasn't the easiest thing in the world! Spoony got it done though.
Since Spoony already had an Elf Cape, the only treasure that he absolutely had to get in Karnak Castle was the Guardian Dagger. To get this item, he had to kill the Gigas enemy that was guarding it, usually a trivial task. Well, poor Spoony died the first three times I tried the fight, and then had to use an Elixir to avoid dying on the try where I actually did win! Sheesh! With the Guardian in hand, however, Spoony's offensive greatly increased (base damage going from 23 -> 36) and he picked up the "weapon block" physical evade boost bestowed by the Guardian:
1/3 chance to dodge physical attacks with the Elf Cape added to 1/4 chance from the Guardian meant 50% protection overall. The higher damage output really made a difference too; Gigases now took 4 hits to kill instead of 6. I even had enough time to loot about five additional Elixirs before having to escape the castle. Those would surely come in handy later...
Next up: the dual bosses in the Ancient Library. Uh oh. Both Ifrit and Byblos were going to be tough, even with the ability to render their magical attacks null and void. Ifrit has three main attacks: a normal Fight command, a Flame attack (that always does 1/4 of max hit points in damage), and casting Fire 2. Out of those three, Hiding until all magic points were gone could eliminate Fire 2 from the equation - and a good thing, too! - but the other two attacks were still a major problem. Here's what Hiding looked like:
Rather boring, watching a steady stream of "Ineffective" messages pop across the screen, until finally Ifrit ran out of magic and the "Not Enough MP" scroll appeared. Then Spoony returned and the fight would begin. I kept him in the front row, since much of Ifrit's damage was coming from Flame, and that was independent of row. Besides, Spoony had a 50/50 chance to block Ifrit's physical attacks anyway. I kept on attacking with Spoony, slowing wearing down his health at ~164 damage per attack, until all of his 3000 HP were drained away. Ended up taking 19 successful attacks and requiring Spoony to drink 6 Elixirs, but he got it done eventually. Yay! Another roadblock cleared out of the way.
Spoony was now level 26, and I knew that Byblos was going to be an even tougher opponent. Almost all of my solo characters have had one problem or another with that darned book, just a very difficult customer. I decided to take Spoony up to level 32, where he would gain another attack multiplier, and hopefully restock some Elixirs in the process. I had him fight on the plains west of Karnak, where the giant birds called Zuu are common encounters; they give great experience and have a slight chance to drop Elixirs. As it turned out, Spoony gained four whole levels without getting a single Elixir drop, despite killing dozens of the birds on end. Then, right when I was ready to pull my hair out, three Zuus in a row yielded up Elixirs! Unbelievable. Lady Luck is a strange mistress, it seems. That kind of streaky chance gave me flashbacks to Civ3's flaky pseudo-random number generator, heh.
By Hiding at the start of the battle until all of Byblos' magic points were used up, Spoony could remove a number of dangerous spells from his arsenal. Charm, Magic Hammer, Armor, and Drain were all blocked by this method, making the boss at least possible to defeat. Byblos had two remaining moves that did not cost MP and posed serious difficulties: Thread (effectively the spell Slow), and Sonic Wave, my old level-halving nemesis from so many other solo runs. Thread was bad news because it dropped Spoony from roughly equal in speed with Byblos to vastly slower; this not only cut damage drastically, it meant less reaction time to use Elixirs when health dropped into the critical range. Sonic Wave halved Spoony's level, which meant a straight damage reduction. Spoony would start out around 200 damage per attack, as in the picture above, and then Sonic Wave would drop that to first ~110 damage, then ~80 damage, then ~50 damage. How long do you think it would take to kill a 3600 HP boss doing 50 damage per attack? Yeah, that's right - a while!
So the Byblos fights invariably turned into a contest where I prayed that Spoony would dodge Thread and Sonic Wave for as long as possible, followed by an agonizing grind afterwards as Spoony very slowly whittled away at the boss with greatly reduced damage. I managed to do over 3000 damage a couple of different times, only to get killed by a bad sequence of Byblos attacks. I even ran out of Elixirs once, despite having 11 in stock! Spoony had to stay in the front row, even though this allowed Byblos to do major damage (350) with each hit. The battle was going slow enough already. Eventually, I pulled Spoony out and added two more levels, up to 34, gaining an additional three Elixirs in the process. After another long series of attempts, that finally put the book back on the shelf:
Whew! Talk about a pain. Spoony still needed to gulp down 11 Elixirs to win. I'm glad that fight was over. Disclaimer: because it took a full 10 minutes of running the emulator on fast forward speed to run Byblos dry of magic points, I created a save state at that point and skipped the tedium for future attempts. Essentially this allowed me to skip the long minutes of waiting before each Byblos attempt. I randomized the seed by running the game on fast forward for another 10-15 seconds after restoring the save state, thus making each successive attempt a genuinely new battle. This was my one exception to the rule of never saving anywhere outside of the in-game spots, and I hope you can see why I was anxious to avoid waiting around for minutes on end at the start of every try against Byblos.
Anyway, now Spoony had a ship to sail around in. He had finally reached the point in the game where you gain access to the Bard class normally, which meant acquiring Bard-specific items for the first time. Jacole had the Bard Robe and Plumed Hat (yes... very masculine equippage for the Bard!), Crescent had the Silver Harp, and Istory provided Spoony's first Song Magic:
Talking to an NPC Bard in Istory taught Spoony the Love Song. This is classified as a spell with 0 MP cost that inflicts "Stop" status on all enemies, if successful. Although many bosses are immune to Stop, most random enemies are not, and I found that the Love Song had a high chance of working. The spell didn't last forever though - usually Spoony could attack twice before having to renew it with another casting. Still, what's not to like about beating on opponents while they stand frozen in fear, err, love?
Spoony then learned his second song from the NPC Bard in Crescent, the Vitality Song. This spell simply casts Regen on all party members; again, not the strongest effect in the world, but handy in a few places. I got good use out of it in the Sandworm battle:
Since Regen slowly heals back health over time, it operates best in long and drawn out battles. That certainly characterized the Sandworm fight, as Spoony slowly killed the Sandworm by doing about 150 damage per attack. Regen kicked in at least a dozen times, healing back hundreds of health over the course of the fight. Thanks to the Vitality Song, Spoony only had to use one Elixir here, instead of two or three. At least this boss was easy so long as Spoon took his time and made sure to avoid hitting the two empty holes!
Before going into the desert, I had taken Spoony for a ride on the black chocobo to the village of Lix, where yet another NPC Bard taught him the Charm Song. (Hmmm, lot of bards in this world, it seems!) The Charm Song did exactly what its name suggested, casting the spell Charm on all enemies with a high probability of succeeding. This song proved extremely useful against the following Crayclaw boss, who was vulnerable to both Stop and Charm. The Love Song seemed to fail too frequently to be useful, but the Charm Song worked about 90% of the time. Spoony did the whole battle charming Crayclaw, who would then attack himself! After many repetitions of this, the steel lobster finally did himself in. No Elixirs used at all, woot!
That brought Spoony to another roadblock boss fight: the Adamantium Turtle.
Adamantium is a boss that uses nothing but physical attacks, and thus Hiding was entirely useless. Spoony would have to fight this battle with his dagger alone. The boss has an AI script where it attacks once normally, then on the second round it attacks twice consecutively; rinse and repeat. Three attacks every two rounds, essentially. All that physical damage adds up in a hurry, even with the Elf Cape and Guardian blocking 50% of all direct attacks. Now, Adamantium's high damage output forced Spoony into the back row, in order to slow down the punishment he was taking. Add in the fact that Adamantium starts the battle in "Armor" status (cuts physical damage in half) and he was getting a paltry damage modifier of only 8/2 = 4/2 = 2.
But wait, it's even worse than that! Adamantium has very high Defense for this stage of the game at 25, so the Guardian dagger was only doing 36 - 25 = 11 damage per hit. Multiply that by 2, and you get... 22 damage per attack, as seen in the picture above. Ummm... Adamantium has 2000 hit points. Was Spoony really going to have to plink away 2000HP over the course of 90+ attacks? Yes, yes he was. Great. Just great.
What Spoony needed to win this fight was Elixirs. Lots and lots of Elixirs. In the course of grinding out more Elixirs, he also gained another four or five levels, up to lvl 39 in the process. (A non-variant game would be entering the Void and facing Neo Exdeath right about now!) Eventually, Spoony ended up with a baker's dozen of Elixirs, and - after several failed tries, including a loss with 1980 damage inflicted! - Spoony eventually did manage to kill that damned turtle. I had to use all of his Elixirs though... ALL 13 of them. I didn't even care though, just wanted to get the battle over with. What a pain in the behind!
In contrast, Sol Cannon was extraordinarily easy for once:
The key thing here is that the main cannon's Surge Beam is the only thing that can kill you. The Launchers simply do percentage-based damage; I let them cut Spoony down to the 88 health you see without worrying about it. And because the cannon lets you know when the Surge Beam is coming, I could have Spoony Hide and avoid taking any damage! Now, this was not a particularly speedy process... Spoony started by killing the two Launchers, then settled into a long and slow pattern with the main cannon. Attack ONE time, Hide from the Surge Beam, Return and then attack ONE time again, then Hide once more, etc. I read online that the Surge Beam soon becomes "much too fast to Hide from", but this simply is not true. What Spoony did have to do was sit out a whole cycle periodically; that is, wait to Return until just after the Surge Beam fired, rather than Return immediately when the command became available. Anyway, this worked perfectly, although the battle took about 40 minutes to play out with Spoony doing 250 damage per attack and spending most of his time in Hiding. Did not have to use a single healing item whatsoever!
I knew full well, of course, that ArchaeoAvis was going to require some more Elixirs - back to grinding out some more of them against Zuus. Upon reaching level 43, with 10 Elixirs now in stash, Spoony was ready to face the Lonka Ruins. I had him run from most of the random foes inside; difficult battles, little payout in gold and experience. Spoony reached the bottom very quickly, equipped his Guardian dagger and Elf Cape for maximum physical blocking, and settled in for another lengthy fight:
The weird thing about ArchaeoAvis is that while each incremental form learns more and more dangerous attacks, each form also has less and less Defense as well. This picture, taken against the first "wind" form, shows how paltry Spoony's initial damage output proved to be. His damage kept increasing with every form, however, until Spoony was doing about 280 damage per attack against the final undead one. I remember dreading this fight when Black had to do it without magic (against the final form only, I should add!), and I thought it was like the hardest thing ever. Now, with Spoony, it was practically routine. Use Elixirs when appropriate, rely on the physical Evade conveyed by the Guardian and Elf Cape, and keep plugging away until the job was finished. Spoony was victorious on the first try, using seven Elixirs in the process (insert pic).
The only thing remaining in the first world was the meteor trio of minibosses. As usual, I began with the Chimera Brain. Spoony equipped a Flame Ring and Hid until the monster ran out of magic points, which invalidated its Blaze and Aqua Rake attacks. Even with Spoony's paltry damage, he was able to kill the boss without having to use any healing items. I tried having Spoony Hide from Titan as well, thining I could get him to use up his magic points on Earth Shaker, only to find that Earth Shaker is classified as an ability and not a spell! Hmmpf. Fortunately Titan doesn't do this attack much, and Spoony was able to win without having to dip into his Elixir stash. Regen status from the Vitality Song helped out a lot.
As for the Puroboros, I had hoped that I could simply Hide off screen and watch them use Exploder, suiciding to no purpose. Unfortunately that didn't work; Exploder seems to need a valid target for the monsters to use it. That meant I had a potentially very difficult situation on my hands, until I looked in the code and saw that the Puroboros were vulnerable to Stop:
Yep, freeze 'em in place, lull them to sleep with the sweet strains of the Love Song, don't let them do anything! Spoony had to spend one round Singing for every two rounds attacking, but this worked out perfectly. The Puroboros would not revive their fallen comrades with Life2 if they were killed while in Stop status. The one weakness of this Song is that you can't tell which monsters have actually been successfully Stopped, until they attack you, and by then it's often too late! I did have one of the Puroboros use Exploder when it failed to be hit by the Love Song, doing exactly 1500 damage. But Spoony had just enough life to survive - hooray for excessively high levels! Spoony didn't have to use any healing items here either, getting through with a minimum of fuss.
Continued on the next page (I guess this report wasn't so quick after all!)