The next segment is one of my favorite in Final Fantasy VII‘s opening hours. Aerith has been kidnapped, Sector 7 destroyed, most of AVALANCHE killed unceremoniously (Not Biggs, Wedge, and Jessie!). Cloud, Tifa, and Barret are really hurting at this point. So what do they do?
They decide to climb a shiny golden wire of opportunity.
Barret feels indebted to Aerith for saving his daughter, Marlene, from the plate collapse, so he decides to take the fight to Shinra’s doorstep. Tifa, who is still inexplicably loyal to this angry man who likes to set off bombs that cause massive power outages and hurt innocent people, is in. Cloud comes along because he’s being paid to come along, which is the best reason anyone has for going through with this insanity.
This next section really serves as the climax of the exposition portion of the story. By this point we know that Shinra is a big evil company that’s killing the planet by siphoning off Mako energy for power, Barret’s ragtag group are trying to stop them, Aerith has some mystical connection to said planet (which gives the player a personal reason to care beyond just saying it’s bad for the environment), and Cloud has a troubled past which doesn’t seem connected with what’s going on, but will eventually be revealed as central to the plot. Having put all our players in place, it’s time for the grand setpiece: the assault on Shinra HQ.
The reason I say this next section is one of my favorites is because of the small narrative touches that go on here. In order to climb the Sector 7 debris to get on top of the plate, Cloud has to buy batteries from a junk dealer in Wall Market (the junk dealer inexplicably knows exactly how many batteries Cloud will need in order to create pathways through the hazardous terrain). Upon reaching HQ, the player gets the choice of attacking straight on, or sneaking in through the fire escape.
I always go for the fire escape.
It’s not because the fights in the lobby are particularly difficult. They can be quite fun, in fact. The fire escape option just results in one of the best scenes in the game, objectively speaking. Cloud, Barret, and Tifa hike up sixty flights of stairs (and the player gets to run Cloud up every one of them) and carry on a delightful conversation about how this is the worst idea they could possibly have had with Barret considering multiple times just turning around and going in through the front, even after he’s more than halfway up. Tifa also realizes around flight 40 that she’s been taking the lead because she’s the most fit, and then stammers that the guys should go ahead of her, not because she’s worn out, but because she’s wearing a miniskirt, and something has just occurred to her. She doesn’t say what, but it’s a great moment of humor.
Besides a good joke, this sequence also introduces the real threat of the story, Sephiroth. At this point we hardly know anything about him other than the fact that he’s an ex-SOLDIER (all caps means it’s important!) like Cloud, and he apparently went crazy a few years back and disappeared.
After getting caught while breaking into Shinra HQ, our heroes (and one of my favorite characters when I was a kid, the flaming, talking cat-wolf-thing, Red XIII, who has just joined the party) get captured and find themselves stuck in cells. Then the cells are inexplicably opened, and the group finds itself following an ominous trail of blood, slashes in the walls, and dead bodies up to the top floor. It’s suitably spooky, and the culmination of this trail, the body of President Shinra slumped over his desk with a six foot long sword sticking out of his back, invokes a good sense of horror. Whoever did this was really scary, and is not someone we want to mess with.
This is a really good introduction to our villain. I think what makes it so effective is that the player hasn’t seen Sephiroth yet at this point. The party won’t even get a glimpse of him until several hours of playtime from this moment, and the only view the player gets is in Cloud’s flashback in Kalm (which I’ll talk about more soon). For all the bizarre cult of personality that surrounds Sephiroth, his original introduction here is terrifying. We won’t get to see him in person for a while yet, so all we have to tell us he’s bad news is the fact that he murdered everyone who was on the top floors of Shinra HQ, smeared their blood all over the hallways, left his trademark sword sticking out of the back of the guy that we thought was the villain up to this point, and has inexplicably let the heroes out of their jail cells.
If you didn’t know that he’s long gone by the time you get to see his handiwork (which the first time I played through, I didn’t), you’d be wondering if this guy was still in the building, and if you’d be running into him soon (and if you’d be ready to fight him).
If anyone’s curious, Sephiroth isn’t my favorite villain in the Final Fantasy series, but he’s the most prominent, and as the driving force behind the central conflict, he deserves a more in-depth look. Fortunately, the game knows this is important, and following the escape from Midgar, our heroes rendezvous in the nearby town of Kalm to discuss what the heck’s going on.