So I’ve been playing through Final Fantasy 9, and discovering oh so much about the wonderful Trance mechanic. An extension of the Desperation Attack and Limit Break System, I see its implementation in 9 as an absolute step backwards. However, as I see it, there’s no avoiding it.
The problem with Trance, as has been lamented many times, is the total lack of player control over when one Trances. One Trances when the gauge is full. That’s all there is to it. This leads to all sorts of problems one could think of immediately. Fighting a random encounter two steps before a boss? Trance, and it’s unusable for the boss. Against a weak enemy with a retaliatory attack? Trance as he dies, and you didn’t even get to use it. It’s immensely infuriating, and honestly completely removes Trance from the equation when making strategies and fighting the actually difficult fights, as well as equipping Trance abilities, like High Tide, unwise. After all, why speed up Trance when all you’re doing is speeding up an unreliable system? This means this whole mechanic is relegated to a random power up every now and again that you forget to notice.
But how do you fix this? This is the question going through my mind every time this mechanic messes up on me, because there is potential here, as demonstrated by other FF games. I would be tempted to say that X has the best solution, making a totally separate battle option that you can use whenever you want after your meter fills. The problem there is that Overdrives in X tend to be pretty forgettable and unsatisfying. They’re not as cool to use as Limit Breaks or Trance, and I feel the impact tends to be lost. However, another reason this wouldn’t work is another problem: Trance is an actual plot point in FF9’s story.
On its own this is nonsensical, but the questions have already been asked before. Why can’t enemies use it? Why is the soul needed for Trance only grown as a child, making it impossible for Kuja? Why is everyone becoming a Super Saiyan never addressed before endgame? But the bigger problem is that Trance is a big deal in story, and a big deal in story should feel like an equally big deal in gameplay, right? I feel like this is what led to the system’s biggest problems, as this meant it had to be powerful and satisfying, moreso than FF7’s gameplay-only Limit Break system in order to justify the crazy things done in Trance in the story. This means it has to be balanced, and I guess the solution chosen was to make it essentially random. But this is a callback game, so let’s use the gauges from 7.
I feel like this was the thought process that led to the mess we see before us, although correct me if you feel it’s wrong. This leads to a wider discussion on balance, but I’ll keep it to FF9. It has to be an extended state instead of one attack, both for the DBZ cool factor and because the story needs it. How does one make sure a prolonged state of power doesn’t completely bork the game? Most fighting games that use this will keep it temporary, as well as having more leeway due to the enemy probably being a human player. This doesn’t work in a turn-based RPG, where you’re always fighting AI and the battles tend to be really short unless it’s a boss, which are a tiny fraction of the battles you’ll fight in any given playthrough. Making it an optional battle command, usable whenever, would bork the game due to how Trance has to be as powerful as it is, as we’ve discussed. I like how FF7 did it, where you had the option of keeping Limit Break, but at the expense of your attack command, and I feel it’s the closest 9 would get to a semblance of balance, but that worked better in 7 because the characters with the best Limit Breaks were the physical attackers, or at least it turned out that way in my playthrough. This worked to further balance Limit Breaks as whilst characters like Cait Sith (who was my Enemy Skill Whore/Blue Mage) and Aerith could have a Limit Break stored up in the background while also using E. Skills and Healing, it didn’t really matter because they didn’t goddamn Meteorain. On the other hand, when I wanted to store a Limit Break with Cloud, I was limited exclusively to magic, which was always my secondary option with him and meant saving a Limit directly costed MP, which is a fair tradeoff. This is perfectly encapsulated in Vincent, with whom I barely ever touched the attack command, and yet had a fairly terrible Limit, all things considered. Yes, this mainly works at a casual level, and you can go to your own lengths to bork the game however you wish, and yes, I don’t know if this would have happened with other party setups, but I like to think the limits of the Materia system kept the Limit Break system in check, and overall balanced.
I just don’t know how one could manage Trance given the considerations of the story. I like the mechanic, and I like how satisfying the glowing lights and cool new designs are. And damn it, maybe I just enjoy the novelty of going SSJ in a Final Fantasy game. But I can’t see a form of Trance that manages to be enjoyable, useful, and not too broken, even though other games in the same series have managed similar mechanics before. Please give any input in the comments, I would love to see other proposed solutions to what I see as one of the biggest disappointments in an otherwise great game.