Reaching Kalm’s like a short, sudden burst of relief before you plunge further on into Final Fantasy VII‘s larger story. It’s your first stop after just finishing Midgar, which culminates with a really fun minigame that involves riding a motorcycle on a highway out of town. As a major milestone, this is also the first chance that you get to upgrade Cloud’s weapon (unless you remember to steal an even better weapon from a relatively rare enemy in the Shinra HQ; I forgot to do that this time). That’s a big deal just because Cloud’s starter weapon, the Buster Sword (I personally think this is a mistranslation of bastard sword, because it’s a big sword, and while Cloud uses it two handed for the most part, he does occasionally whip it around one handed like it’s no big deal), is a major icon of the game that features heavily in the promotional art and has a larger significance to his character arc later.
Of course, the way that FFVII decides to give you a breather from all this excitement is to have everyone hole up in the inn for a couple hours while Cloud gives us important background information.
Everyone gathers around for story time, including Red XIII, whom no one in town blinks twice at despite the fact that he’s a talking, flaming cat-wolf-thing (this may have something to do with the rules of the universe that dictate your party travels around inside Cloud, and they only appear when they have something to say; I have no explanation for if Red’s not in your party when you arrive and he apparently went into the inn by himself). Cloud’s story is probably one of the most bleak segments in the game up to this point, which is saying something.
I distinctly recall on my second playthrough of the game (on my first playthrough I muddled all the way to the end boss and got stuck because I never mastered the materia system; on my second playthrough, when I beat the game for the first time, I used a GameShark to make everyone level 99 and have their limit breaks always active–I felt justified after playing through the entire game legitimately once, even if I didn’t beat the final boss) that I found this section supremely boring, because it takes about an hour to get through, and the majority of it is just cut scenes. Part of the boredom came from the fact that this sequence takes place in Cloud’s hometown of Nibelheim (a variation on the Norse Niflheim, one of the nine worlds unified by the World Tree Yggdrasil, probably based on the German version Nebelheim, which literally means “fog world”) which is an extremely subdued place. Like many sequences in FFVII, the music that plays during this flashback creates a very specific mood, generally heightening a sense of unease about the whole episode. Though from a storytelling perspective Cloud’s flashback is essential (it’ll get heavily deconstructed later in the game), I typically don’t look forward to it following the end of the Midgar portion. This time it wasn’t so bad.
The point of this flashback is to explain how Cloud knows Sephiroth, and show how he went crazy and homicidal. It does a couple of interesting things from a mechanics perspective that helps emphasize Cloud’s relationship with Sephiroth in interesting ways. At any time during the flashback, if you go to the menu screen, you notice that Cloud’s portrait looks significantly younger (and he’s only level 1) to highlight his inexperience at this point, since it happened five years earlier (it also very subtly calls into question what Cloud’s been doing in that time, because he started the game at level 7, and by this point he’s probably around level 15; though it’s a reasonable break between story and gameplay, how is it that he’s progressed more as a fighter in the last 72 hours than he has in the five years before that?). In addition to that small narrative touch, any random encounters that occur during this sequence feature the only time in the game where Sephiroth is a member of your party. Unlike everyone else, he’s AI controlled, and is so powerful that even though Cloud typically gets one-shotted by the enemies around Nibelheim, Sephiroth guarantees that it’s impossible to lose a fight. The point is to demonstrate just how much of a contrast there is between Cloud and Sephiroth, who are both supposed to be ranked SOLDIER 1st Class at this point in time.
Aside from the small mechanical details, the Nibelheim flashback explains precisely why Sephiroth went crazy and how his sudden return is bad news for everyone. We learn through Cloud’s storytelling that Sephiroth was a pretty charismatic guy who didn’t know much about his own past besides the fact that his mother’s name was Jenova (this is significant because the party encountered the body of a creature in the Shinra building with this same name). Sephiroth and Cloud had been sent to Nibelheim to investigate the sudden rise in monster attacks following the completion of the local Mako reactor. While in town, Cloud revisits his old stomping grounds (in a fun narrative twist, any time the player tries to explore a part of town that’s not specifically related to Cloud’s story, the other party members will ask him what that has to do with anything). When it comes time to go to the check the reactor, Cloud finds that Tifa is their mountain guide, though in his story she doesn’t even acknowledge him.
At the reactor, Cloud and Sephiroth discover that Shinra has been conducting experiments on human test subjects, mutating them into horrific monsters. Also, they find a sealed door labeled ‘Jenova,’ and Sephiroth decides to go to the Shinra mansion (essentially the company’s local office) to do research on everything he’s seen in the records the company keeps there.
After all his research, Sephiroth finds out that Jenova is a creature Shinra excavated from somewhere; they believe it lived about two thousand years previously and that it’s a member of the race of Ancients (same as Aerith). Sephiroth kind of dives off the deep end at this revelation, and pieces together that if Jenova is his mother then he must be heir to the Ancients’ legacy: the Promised Land. I’m sure the stress of realizing that he’s apparently a lab experiment doesn’t help his sanity, which explains why he decides to murder everyone in town and go to the reactor to steal Jenova’s body (he only succeeds in taking her head).
In the altercation that takes place at the reactor, Tifa confronts Sephiroth for murdering her father, though he dispatches her easily (her injuries are probably the best explanation for why she doesn’t comment on anything that Cloud relays about the incident; she likely just doesn’t remember it well). Finally, we have a motivation for her joining up with Barret and AVALANCHE; she’s angry with Shinra for causing the incident that destroyed her entire life up to that point. Cloud then confronts Sephiroth, but for now we don’t get to see the outcome of the encounter, although clearly Cloud survived (despite being a level 1 noob against Sephiroth’s level 50 leetness).
The entire segment offers some much needed explanation for what’s going on and why everyone’s chasing after Sephiroth now that he’s reappeared, though Cloud’s retelling leaves some odd plot holes that will need to be filled in later.
Next time: Chocobo wrangling!