Reaching the Northern Crater’s not a very difficult prospect (though it is time consuming). The party has to do a lot of climbing and trudging through arctic conditions (with no indication that they’re wearing extra warm clothes), but once they overcome those obstacles it’s mostly just a long walk.
Deep inside the crater, Cloud and company begin to encounter Sephiroth at frequent intervals. He appears to be using the black cloaked figures that we’ve been encountering to create images of himself. Remember last time when we found out that the Jenova cells in these poor souls drives them to try to reunite with Jenova? Well, it turns out that Sephiroth has actually been using his force of will to exert control over Jenova, so all the cloaked figures are under Sephiroth’s command (his influence gets stronger as they get closer to him). Also, because Jenova is a shapeshifter, Sephiroth has been forcing his minions (and the body of Jenova) to take his form.
Yep, up until this point, we have never actually encountered Sephiroth in person. Any time the party has seen him, it’s been Jenova’s body (the one we saw back in Shinra HQ) transformed into his image (this explains where all the bits of Jenova that turn into monsters have been coming from).
The purpose of all Sephiroth’s sudden appearances here in the crater is to screw around with Cloud’s head (some more) by showing him images from the Nibelheim incident, but with a black-haired man in Cloud’s place. Cloud starts out convinced that it’s just a ploy to try to confuse him and everything is just lies, except that at this point Tifa’s come along for moral support (I had forgotten she forces her way into the party at this point, because I decided to make her a regular party member on this playthrough), and she seems very uncomfortable with Cloud’s confidence that these are all just made up images.
Sephiroth taunts Cloud by saying that all his memories are just constructed, and he was created as a failed clone of Sephiroth five years ago after the Nibelheim incident. All his childhood memories are based on Tifa’s memories of the real Cloud while everything about his time in SOLDIER was based on the memories of the guy who really came to Nibelheim five years ago with Sephiroth. Tifa doesn’t do much to contradict Sephiroth’s claims (thanks, Tifa), so Cloud pretty much has a total mental meltdown.
The party get transported to the central chamber of the crater, where Rufus and the rest of the Shinra bigwigs have just arrived. Probably my favorite background detail of the entire game happens in this scene, where one of the WEAPONs (remember, if it’s in all caps it’s important!) opens its eye and stares at everyone (to give a sense of scale, the WEAPON’s eye is about three times bigger than any of the character models on screen). Cloud’s breakdown continues as he begs Hojo, who’s come along with the rest of Shinra, to give him a number so he can have some semblance of an identity besides just being a failed lab experiment. Hojo, who is ecstatic that his Jenova Reunion theory has been proven true, scoffs at Cloud, expressing regret that it was only a failure that made it all the way to Sephiroth.
Speaking of Sephiroth, we finally get to meet him in person here. It’s kind of underwhelming, because the real Sephiroth is only a shade of his former self–he’s encased in a giant piece of materia and his entire lower body is missing. Despite that, he still manages to make Cloud go utterly bonkers (our hero starts walking on the ceiling, because magic) and hand over the Black Materia. All I can say here is, why did the party think it would be a good idea to bring the Black Materia with them to the Northern Crater at all? They have enough sense not to let Cloud hold it, but that doesn’t matter because Barret (who was given the task of keeping it safe) gets tricked by Sephiroth into giving it back to Cloud anyway.
This whole scenario’s a headscratcher, because I’m pretty sure if they’d just left the Black Materia with someone they could trust (like Bugenhagen, maybe?) instead of bringing it with them, then the entire second half of the game might have been prevented (the more I write about this game, the more I realize that a lot of the plot elements require the characters to do some really stupid things that are easily avoided).
So, with Sephiroth firmly in possession of the Black Materia now, things get really bad. The WEAPONs break free and fly off to terrorize humanity (for the good of the planet, of course) and everyone has to evacuate the crater. Cloud disappears in the shuffle, and everyone else gets whisked away on the Highwind, the flagship of Shinra’s air force.
Things are about to get worse.