Following the acquisition of the Tiny Bronco (go ahead and laugh; it’s a really funny name for a short-range, single seat plane that we’re using as an ad hoc boat) the whole world map opens up considerably with a bunch of new places to explore.
That’s a standard RPG convention where you reach a milestone in your journey where suddenly you’ve exhausted all your land-based options and you need a way to get to those other shiny continents glimmering on the mini map, just tempting you with their hidden secrets. It comes with the feeling that, hey, you can explore a lot more now with the added bonus of deliberately invoking the sidequest trope.
You know sidequests, those nonessential missions in a game that reward you with extra swag or a bit more story for your trouble. Yeah, it’s time to do one of those (fortunately this one’s pretty cool because it gives us some insight into Yuffie, who I mentioned is essentially a comic relief character, and she remains unabashedly so, even after we learn her quite serious motivations for being a sneak-thief).
Just a little ways from the western continent is a beach on a long, thin island that runs along the western edge of the world map. This is an extremely mountainous bit of terrain that’s covered with dirt and rock and requires trekking through a rather convoluted path that involves going over several rope bridges. At the start of this path, we have a small moment where some Shinra grunts suddenly attack the party (the dialogue suggests that we’re not the rebels they’re looking for).
This is nothing to be concerned about, because they’re puny Shinra soldiers who can’t stand up to the force of our mighty party of superhumans with their awesome magical abilities.
Except the fight starts and you suddenly remember that, no, all those cool things your party can do are not innate abilities, but things granted by the materia you’ve equipped on them, because all they can do now is attack and use items. Also, if you’re like me and have been using Yuffie in your main party, she’s suddenly missing.
After finishing a fight that’s a little bit harder than it should be, the party’s then faced with the unenviable task of following Yuffie, who’s apparently run off with all their materia (technically only the first fifty materia in your inventory, but I’m running a pretty lean set up on this playthrough and didn’t have anything to spare), north through the winding mountains towards the isolated nation of Wutai.
This is the point when all those random offensive one-use items that have been gradually filling up my inventory could have become useful, except I’m not that sophisticated of a player, so I just beat everything to death on the way there and healed up my characters with the large stockpile of unused potions I had.
Once the party arrives in Wutai, they’re forced to play a rather annoying game of cat-and-mouse with Yuffie, chasing her to different locations in the town and doing something to force her out of hiding before having to find her again (the first time I encountered this quest, I got so frustrated with the fact I couldn’t leave the town but was unable to figure out where Yuffie was hiding next that I think I may have reset my game to before I landed on the island so I wouldn’t get stuck in that sidequest until I could look up how to finish it).
In the course of my comic misadventures in Wutai, it comes out that the town’s pretty much broke and its economy is entirely reliant on it being a tourist destination, and Yuffie thinks that stealing materia and bringing it back to her home will usher in a new age of glory.
Yes, because magical crystals that let you destroy things will totally turn your economy around.
However flawed the logic may be, it does put a nice spin on why Yuffie’s been running across the globe, ambushing unwary adventurers and trying to steal their gold and materia.
Character development aside, this sidequest does conclude with one of the game’s most cliche scenarios: the party and the Turks, who are vacationing in Wutai, have an encounter with Don Corneo, the slimy pimp from way back in Wall Market, who has kidnapped Yuffie and the sole female Turk, Elena, and has them suspended over a cliff, waiting to be rescued.
It doesn’t get much more “damsel in distress” than that.
Anywho, our visit to Wutai is a brief one (just long enough to retrieve the materia, which Yuffie ninjas back in place for me, though she screws up everyone’s configuration except her own) before it’s time to go seek out the Temple of the Ancients.