So, Cloud’s psyche.
This is probably a highpoint in the game’s plot, especially in comparison to the Huge Materia episode. That sequence of missions is ultimately pointless from a narrative perspective, because whether or not we succeed in obtaining the Huge Materia, Shinra’s attempts to save the planet through the power of science always ultimately fail (though I doubt the designers would have ever implemented this, I think it would have been interesting to have an alternate ending where Shinra succeeds in destroying Meteor and saving the day if the party utterly fails to stop them from collecting all the Huge Materia–a costly prospect, since failure in the Huge Materia missions involves the desolation of two innocent communities.
That’s all a tangent though, because I was talking about Tifa’s visit to Cloud’s psyche.
After his identity crisis at the Northern Crater, Cloud disappears into the Lifestream when the WEAPONs break loose. He washes up in Mideel, an island village famous for its relaxing hot springs, but is in a catatonic state (fun facts: canonically, Cloud’s trip through the Lifestream before he washes up in Mideel is the point where he gets sucked into the world of Ivalice for his cameo in Final Fantasy Tactics, and if you talk with him while he’s catatonic, he’ll mumble something about “Zenogias,” a romanization of the katakana for Xenogears, another Square RPG that was developed concurrently with FFVII and released about a year later). Tifa chooses to stay with Cloud and wait for him to regain his sanity while the remaining crew (a group that can be as many as six or as few as four depending on whether or not you’ve recruited Vincent and Yuffie) carry on with the mission to recover the Huge Materia.
Eventually, Ultimate WEAPON (it’s actually the second weakest of the four WEAPONs that the player can fight in the North American version of the game, but the other three weren’t included as bosses in the original Japanese release, so it’s kind of an appropriate name) attacks Mideel and somehow causes an earthquake that forces the Lifestream to erupt to the surface. In the chaos of the town being swallowed by a giant sinkhole, Cloud and Tifa get tossed into the Lifestream, and Tifa gets to take a trip through Cloud’s memories.
And now, finally, we learn the truth about Cloud, and it is… a little underwhelming. He’s not a clone created in a lab, but the real Cloud from Tifa’s childhood. He just has amnesia about the past five years because it turns out he really was at Nibelheim when Sephiroth decided it was cool to be angsty and homicidal, but not as a member of SOLDIER. Cloud was actually the unfortunate grunt who accompanied Sephiroth and the real member of SOLDIER, Zack (we met his parents briefly in Gongaga a long time ago, but Cloud had no recollection of him at the time), on the trip and had to deal with motion sickness, the embarrassment of returning to his hometown a failure (the reason Tifa doesn’t remember Cloud being there, it turns out, is because he never took his mask off while he was in town), and the discomfort of being that annoying guy who kept everyone from seeing anything interesting inside the reactor.
It’s a pretty tidy explanation of all the inconsistencies in Cloud’s memory, though on this playthrough I was bugged by the fact that it could have been pieced together that Cloud wasn’t really in SOLDIER as early as the return visit to Nibelheim when I checked the specimen chambers in the basement lab, and saw that they were labeled for specimens “C” and “Z.” That by itself might not be a big giveaway, but the lab notes also say that the two subjects were captured following the Nibelheim incident, and that one of them was a SOLDIER while the other was just a standard Shinra MP (the SOLDIER was shot to death outside Midgar after they escaped from Nibelheim nearly five years later). An observant player could figure out pretty easily that if Cloud claims to be the other SOLDIER besides Sephiroth at the incident, and that SOLDIER was captured and later killed, then the only other person he could have been was the faceless grunt who witnessed everything that Cloud describes in his flashback.
And while I know that I’m nitpicking all these plot details now, I still have to give the developers credit for putting together a mystery that the player could have pieced together early on, but only if they were meticulous about looking at various environmental details throughout the first half of the game.
Anyway, with Cloud’s identity restored, he and Tifa escape from the Lifestream and rejoin everyone on the Highwind. This moment is when Cloud’s at his best, because he’s finally able to be totally honest with himself about his failures in the past, and he’s also regained his confidence as the group’s leader. It’s a shame that following this highpoint, he’ll spiral into depression and angst over the deaths of Zack and Aerith in the stories that chronologically follow Final Fantasy VII.
I don’t want to talk about those. They’re all disappointing.
Next time: Shinra’s last stand.