Revisiting Final Fantasy VII (Part 30)

The end of Final Fantasy VII is kind of weird.

Sephiroth’s defeated, and everyone’s escaping on the Highwind (which it turns out can transform into a super awesome highly aerobatic jet plane) and the Northern Crater is kind of imploding and stuff is happening all over the place like mad in full FMV goodness.

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Final Fantasy VII. (Image credit: finalfantasy.wikia.com)

It looks pretty quaint by today’s standards, but a ten-plus minute pre-rendered CG video was a really big deal back in 1997.  Even though the character models are laughably simple in comparison to the real-time models used just a generation later on the PS2 for Final Fantasy X, they actually still look quite beautiful in a way.  Taken as a product of its time, I’m still impressed with the visuals of this game over fifteen years later.  Of course visuals aren’t everything, and I’m a little disappointed that Square’s (now Square Enix) legacy since FFVII has been emphasizing flashy visuals to the point of being ridiculous (you can always count on a late generation Final Fantasy to be visually stunning, but the aesthetic sometimes strikes me as just awful).  Nonetheless, this is our ending.

With Sephiroth finally dead (I don’t care what the later entries in the canon may say about him coming back, Sephiroth is D-E-D dead now) there’s nothing blocking Holy from attacking Meteor, so it emerges from the planet around Midgar just as Meteor’s about to strike (I thought we had a week to go, but whatever).  Unfortunately, it’s too late and Holy doesn’t have enough power to stop Meteor, so the Lifestream lends a hand.  Midgar’s utterly demolished in the process, and everyone across the globe watches in terror as these two colossal forces battle it out in the sky (I’m not entirely sure how folks in Cosmo Canyon can see anything since that’s theoretically on the other side of the globe, but maybe that’s why we don’t get to see anyone from that locale during the final cutscene).  The final image we see is Aerith, watching from the Lifestream.

Cue credits.

Yes, that’s right.  The game ends without telling us what happened.  Of course, there is a post credits scene set 500 years later where we get to see Red XIII and his cubs surveying the overgrown ruins of Midgar, so we can at least infer that the planet was saved from Meteor.  As for humanity, well…

I just have to say, after seeing this ending again, I love it.  It feels like a great summation of the game’s central theme dealing with humanity’s need to balance natural resources with technological development.  While the majority of the story has revolved around chasing Sephiroth around because he’s trying to destroy the world and become a god, we have as our background a world that’s slowly being ravaged of its natural resources (in this universe, the very lifeblood of the planet) due to simple human greed.  It’s important to remember that Shinra is not an intrinsically evil entity; a case can be made that Shinra is actually very beneficial as its the major developer of new technologies that go a long way towards improving the quality of life for most of the inhabitants of the planet.  What makes the corporation an antagonist to the party is the fact that it’s run by jerks who are consumed with greed to the point of ignoring basic human decency (Cloud, Tifa, Barret, Aerith, Red XIII, Vincent, and Cid are all direct victims of people at the top of Shinra abusing their power in order to make more money or accomplish some other selfish goal).

What I’m trying to get at is that Shinra’s evil is incidental, which doesn’t necessarily diminish the way they ruin a lot of lives, but does suggest that we take into consideration the good they do as well.  They are ultimately just human, even if they are painted in rather broad, unsympathetic strokes because of the personal circumstances of our heroes.

Anyway, it should be noted here that for many years after Final Fantasy VII was released, there was a lot of debate in fan circles about the interpretation of the ending.  As a kid, I was really invested in reading the ending as humanity surviving, mostly because I hated the idea of having a save the world story where humanity didn’t survive (there’s an interesting deconstruction of “save the world” going on here where the player’s asked to consider just what they expect from that kind of story); it seemed pointless to me at the time.  Now that I’m older and have a slightly better appreciation of existentialism (the belief that it is only our actions that have the potential to create nobility in an otherwise meaningless existence) and Christianity (the belief that it is an essential part of love to oppose evil where it is found regardless of the personal cost in order to redeem the good), I’m actually really cool with this ending.  I think it’s pretty bold for a video game to suggest that the state of humanity is such that we’re just not that good for life on our planet, and the best option might be our disappearance.

I’m not suggesting that that’s what anyone who’s reasonable would actually want.  The amount of interim suffering while humanity dies out would be incredibly tragic.  A better choice would be, and I think this is the one that the game strongly advocates, is for humanity to recognize the effects it has on its home, and move towards a path of development that harmonizes with our environment.

Of course, all the wonderful ambiguity and sombre tone of this ending got ruined by Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, which shows us a post-Meteor world where humanity has survived and Cloud is an emotional wreck because of his survivor’s guilt in relation to Zack and Aerith’s deaths (which, keep in mind, he wasn’t even indirectly responsible for).  I’ve seen Advent Children only a couple times, and while it’s a visual feast, it just feels like a cash in.  The fan community was clamoring for more from this world, and what we got feels disappointing to me.  I like Cloud as a protagonist because in Final Fantasy VII we went through the journey of him being forced to deconstruct and rebuild his identity, which betrayed the myriad psychological problems he brought with him getting off that train in the game’s opening scene, and then after he came to grips with his real past, he was able to move on and regain some of that confidence that was part of his facade, except now it was genuine and tempered with humility.  Cloud ends Final Fantasy VII as a character who’s gone through a complete developmental arc and emerged emotionally and psychologically healthy.  Then Advent Children came along and made him angst over his friends’ deaths when we saw in the game that he came to terms with those events!

To sum it up, I think that Final Fantasy VII is a fantastic standalone game.  It’s very much a product of its time, and a lot of the design elements feel a little archaic now, but the core experience and story are still satisfying, even with all of their flaws.  I just wish Square Enix would just leave the blasted franchise alone instead of milking it for all the crossovers and such.  Sephiroth is dead and Cloud is emotionally whole at the game’s close.  I’m happy with that ending.  I don’t need anymore.

Revisiting Final Fantasy VII (Part 29)

So this is it.

Shinra’s a shambles, the WEAPONs have been neutralized (well, the ones that actually do stuff to threaten people; I’m content to let Ruby and Emerald just chill out in the wilderness because they don’t seem that interested in terrorizing the masses–also, I’ve never beaten them and I’m not going to start now), all the fancy chocobo materia is in my possession, Meteor’s a week away from landing, and the shield over the Northern Crater is broken.  It’s time to go face off with Sephiroth.

Before our heroes go to do that, Cloud tells them to take some time and go see their friends and family.  Confronting Sephiroth is most likely a suicide mission, and even if they succeed the human race may still be wiped out by Holy, so it’s best to take care of these things ahead of time.

Everyone disperses to get their heads straight, and Cloud and Tifa watch the Highwind since all the people they loved are dead (nice consolation prize).  If Tifa was the player’s date at the Gold Saucer earlier before visiting the Temple of the Ancients, then there will be some extra dialogue in this scene suggesting that the two spend the night together.  The following morning everyone shows up, even Yuffie (whom Barret was sure would skip town).

Cid pulls a lever that he’s been wondering about on the Highwind‘s dashboard, and all the propellers fall away to be replaced by jet engines (because where we’re going, we don’t need roads?) and our heroes race off to the Northern Crater.

The trek down to the center of the planet is largely uneventful (Final Fantasy‘s final dungeons are historically uneventful with virtually no story until the player reaches the final boss), though there are a couple of opportunities to split the party up, which operates as a way to get the loot that’s strewn about on the various branches of the path without having to backtrack (unfortunately, this isn’t explained in the game, so I totally went and did all the paths to get free stuff).  There are a lot of really strong enemies in the Northern Crater (obviously), but nothing that’s really that difficult to deal with.

The real fun comes when we reach the Center of the Planet (yeah, we’re apparently traveling several thousand miles down while on foot in the space of a few hours) where we encounter first Jenova (the whole thing) and then, finally, Sephiroth.

Now, I may have mentioned this a while back, but until this playthrough I’d never beaten the final boss without cheating.  This time, I did fine (although there was a very close call during the final fight when Sephiroth used his attack that reduces everyone’s HP to 1 and I nearly flipped out because I had forgotten he was going to do that).

The fight with Sephiroth is broken up into two stages.  The first is kind of a gimmick fight, because depending on the player’s performance in the final dungeon, this fight can be done with up to three separate parties attacking different parts of the boss (I can’t remember exactly what the conditions are for getting the three party formation, but I didn’t do it because I had to fight with two parties–no big loss because it meant I didn’t have to bother with equipping Cid and Cait Sith).  In this stage, Sephiroth’s in some weird kind of larval stage where he’s all purple and green and appears to be melded with Jenova’s body (the boss is called Bizarro-Sephiroth, which is a mistranslation based on the romaji of his Japanese name, Ribasu-Sefirosu–Rebirth-Sephiroth–the localization team thought it was supposed to be Reverse-Sephiroth, and went with Bizarro as a synonym; I’d just like to take a moment to acknowledge that FFVII has an accidental Superman reference, and it is way more awesome than anything about stubborn gorillas).  It’s not a difficult fight.

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As monster designs go, I like this one, even if it does introduce that @#@%!&%^#&^*& single black wing. (Image credit: finalfantasy.wikia.com)

The second part of the fight is with Sephiroth in what I think of as his Christ-pretender/Divine ascendant form.  If you’ve played Final Fantasy VI, then you’ll be familiar with the final boss of that game, Kefka, who has a similar pseudo-divine motif (presumptive gods are a common feature of the series overall).  Anyway, it’s this form of Sephiroth that was the start of the one black wing design feature that I think is so loathsome (in this version the wing’s actually replaced his right arm; though I’ve not noted it before, Sephiroth’s a southpaw).  The name of this version is called Safer-Sephiroth, which has a more complicated background than other weird translations in this game.  Safer may be a corruption of Savior (sticking with the false Messiah theme) or a mistranslation of Seraph (Sephiroth’s final form has six wings where his legs would be, echoing the description of Seraphim found in the Book of Ezekiel) or even a transliteration of the Hebrew word for book (because Sephiroth’s name is derived from the Sephirot, the 10 aspects of creation in Kabbalah, this suggests that the final boss’s name is intended to be understood as Hebrew for “Book of Numerations”).  No matter what you think the name is supposed to be, it’s clearly one that was chosen in order to have a ton of layers and echoes of the presumptive god motif.  He’s a moderately difficult boss (see above re: my freakout over the instant critical HP attack), but I beat him.

So with Sephiroth defeated, things can finally wrap up hap–

Oh right, there’s one more stage of the fight.

Beating Safer-Sephiroth wins you the game, but following that knockdown drag out, we have one more fight that’s more or less a glorified cut scene (this last duel between Cloud and Sephiroth even uses special, higher poly-count character models to emphasize the cinematic quality of it).  Cloud gets sucked back into the Lifestream one more time to confront Sephiroth, who’s ready to end this thing.  Except that Cloud’s limit gauge is full (it’s always full for this battle) and he knows his ultimate limit break Omnislash, regardless of whether you actually bothered to learn and set it.  Cloud lets loose with a flurry of impossible blows (or he just attacks regularly as an instant counter if you let Sephiroth go first) and somehow only manages to give Sephiroth a bloody face (limitations of the technology, I suppose), signalling his victory.

After this, Cloud gets ejected from the Lifestream, and it’s time for everyone to run for their lives.

We’ll wrap this up next time.

Revisiting Final Fantasy VII (Part 27)

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.

Clouds subconscious

Cloud’s subconscious. (Image credit: finalfantasy.wikia.com)

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.

Revisiting Final Fantasy VII (Part 13)

And now for a moment of truth.

We can’t call it the moment of truth, because Final Fantasy VII is really still getting under way, and this is just the first time we get some insight into what really happened in Nibelheim five years ago.

Nibelheim

Nibelheim in all its fake, restored, gloomy glory. (Image credit: finalfantasy.wikia.com)

After getting the buggy fixed and their mission to save the planet elaborated on, the party continues from Cosmo Canyon across the river to Cloud and Tifa’s hometown.

The first surprising thing about this is that when we enter Nibelheim, we find that it’s totally unchanged from how Cloud described it way back in Kalm.  That’s kind of a problem, because Cloud told us that Sephiroth burned the place to the ground when he found out that he had been a lab experiment.  Cloud’s highly confused about this turn of events, and he kind of flips out when the party asks him what’s going on, insisting that this isn’t right and he’s not a liar.

Sure you aren’t, Cloud.

If Tifa’s in the party, she’ll also comment that this is strange, since she remembers the town being burnt down as well.  She’s also disturbed to see her house standing pristine and untouched, right down to the last detail.  In fact, the entire town’s like that.  Every area that we saw in Cloud’s flashback is exactly as it was then.

Of course, there’s also all the guys in black cloaks wandering around town talking about ‘Reunion,’ Jenova, and Sephiroth.  They definitely weren’t here five years ago (neither were all the normal townspeople who insist they’ve lived in Nibelheim their whole lives).  It’s more than a little creepy to have all these black cloaked figures wandering slowly around talking about Sephiroth and mentioning the mansion on the hill.

Naturally, that’s where the party should go next to investigate (though if we wander around and look at all the stuff in the town proper, Cloud will have some choice words with all the townspeople who say nothing happened here five years ago).  Inside, we find that the mansion’s just like Cloud left it, except in the basement we run into Sephiroth who’s standing around literally just waiting for Cloud to show up before chucking a materia at him and flying away.

After Sephiroth leaves the party alone to explore the ruins of the mansion’s basement lab, we can find some more clues as to what happened here after Cloud’s confrontation with him in the reactor.  There are a couple of glass tubes labeled for specimens C and Z with scratches in them indicating the two former inhabitants came up with a plan to escape at some point.  In the back of the lab where all the notes are stored (the place is clearly a mess with papers and books strewn all over the place) is a series of records about the specimens (here labeled A and B).  Both specimens were captured after the Sephiroth incident and exposed to Mako energy and injected with Jenova cells.  The first, a SOLDIER, showed no reaction to the therapy while the second, a regular Shinra serviceman, did respond to the Jenova cells.  At some point they apparently escaped and made their way to Midgar, where they were finally caught.  The first specimen was shot, and the second, who was in a near catatonic state, was left for dead outside the city.

It’s a mystery for now what happened with these two guys, but their capture doesn’t jive with Cloud’s story.  He told us that he and Sephiroth were the only SOLDIER operatives who went to check out the Nibelheim reactor, but the reports say that the SOLDIER who was captured was shot dead.  Cloud’s still very much alive, so unless he’s lying about being in SOLDIER then he can’t be either of these poor unfortunates, which leaves us with another mystery to pile on with all the others about what happened five years ago.

See, only a moment of truth.

Anyway, Sephiroth said more answers await beyond Mt. Nibel.

Revisiting Final Fantasy VII (Part 9)

After catching my wild Mystery Ninja and saving the condors from extinction, it’s time to continue forward with the main story.  Our next stop is the port city Junon, which I mentioned previously is more or less just a smaller version of Midgar.

Ff7-junon

Yes, that’s a cannon. No, I don’t know what it’s aimed at. (Image credit: finalfantasy.wikia.com)

Junon has the same structure of Midgar with a poor fishing village (the original Junon) on the ground and a great hulking monstrosity floating above it with multi-tiered levels so that the wealthier inhabitants can all get a nice view of the ocean.  Unlike Midgar though, Junon has a more festive air about it, primarily because we arrive just as they’re ramping up inaugural festivities for Rufus Shinra, the new company president.

Of course, not just anyone is allowed into Junon, so Cloud has to sneak into the city via dolphin jump (just go with it).  Once he gets inside, he gets mistaken for a Shinra grunt, and is forced to don the ubiquitous Shinra uniform that has become synonymous with expendable crewmen in this game (seriously, if you see someone in blue with a helmet, he is probably going to die very shortly–if he isn’t dead already).  After putting on his disguise, we proceed through a series of minigames that revolve around Cloud trying to blend in with the crowd as he navigates the parades and ceremonies that are happening for Rufus.  Depending on how well Cloud does, the player earns some item rewards after each minigame, and also gets to explore Junon proper where a bunch of shops sell things that you probably can’t afford (if you’re like me and ended up giving all your money to save the condors).  Eventually Cloud reaches a ship in the port that’s leaving for the western continent, and somehow everyone else has already arrived and stowed away.  Ignoring this strange impossibility, Cloud hops aboard and everyone sets out on an overseas journey to keep chasing Sephiroth.

Throughout the Junon sequence, we get several callbacks to Cloud’s flashback story about Nibelheim.  The most apparent one comes after the party spends the night at the inn in Junon village, and Cloud’s odd inner voice suggests to him that he should ask Tifa about that trip to Nibelheim, since she was strangely quiet about the whole thing when they were all in Kalm.

Conveniently, Cloud awakes to find Tifa watching him sleep, so he asks her what she remembers about the Nibelheim incident.  Tifa fumbles around with an explanation that doesn’t really tell us anything, and is conveniently interrupted by a little girl being attacked by a sea serpent.

Yes, the game throws a boss fight at us out of nowhere just to keep from explaining what’s going on right now.

In all the excitement following, Cloud forgets to ask Tifa about Nibelheim, which I’m sure she’s grateful for because she seemed really uncomfortable with the pointed questions.

Besides that mysterious bit of Cloud’s past, we also get a throwaway line when Cloud’s putting on his disguise so he can wander around Junon that he hasn’t worn this uniform in a long time.  Naturally Cloud had to have started as a lowly grunt when he first joined Shinra, but considering he was 16 when he returned to Nibelheim as a SOLDIER First Class, it can’t have been too too far in the past for him.  At the same time, it makes you wonder just how Cloud managed to attain First Class by the time he was 16 when while wandering around Junon you come across another Shinra grunt who’s diligently studying for the SOLDIER aptitude tests.  Cloud must either be quite exceptional (not too far-fetched; he is the hero of the story) or something about his story must be off.

At any rate, those are thoughts for later; right now, we have a boat ride with Sephiroth.