Revisiting Final Fantasy VII (Part 24)

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.

Sephiroth's Resting Place

The center of the Northern Crater. Sephiroth is encased in the materia hanging from the celiing. In the background, the Sapphire Weapon’s head is visible. (Image credit: finalfantasy.wikia.com)

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.

Revisiting Final Fantasy VII (Part 22)

So now that Aerith’s dead, it’s time for everyone to pick up the pieces and head north to catch up with Sephiroth again (most of this game’s plot revolves around chasing after Sephiroth, and after a while, it does tend to get a little old; at least, it would if the writers didn’t keep spooling out new reasons we should care about chasing Sephiroth down).

Fortunately, we now have some interesting questions to try to answer.  Perhaps most pressing is the statement that Jenova (her only attributed line in the game) makes just after the party defeats another part of her body, Jenova-LIFE.  As she dissolves into whatever alien parasites dissolve into when they die, Jenova tells Cloud that he’s a puppet.

Cloud Portrait

“No, I’m a real boy!” (Image credit: finalfantasy.wikia.com)

There are some interesting implications here, because whenever you call someone a puppet, it’s not a good thing.  Puppets are just facsimiles of living creatures who give the impression of being alive while their controllers manipulate them.  Cloud’s definitely done some weird stuff lately that might suggest he’s being controlled, what with the homicidal urges towards Aerith and handing over the Black Materia, which is definitely disconcerting, but it’s not as damaging as the suggestion that Cloud’s identity is just a facade.

Of course we know that Cloud’s a real person, because he has a hometown that we can visit and–

Oh, right.  No one there remembers him.

Well, there’s Tifa; she grew up with Cloud, and she can corroborate his story about–

Oh, yeah.  There was something about that story that she wasn’t quite comfortable with.

Okay, well maybe Cloud is just a puppet.

Now, I’m sure everyone can figure out that Cloud’s backstory doesn’t add up with the details that we’ve come across so far, but he is a real person, and it’s reasonable to assume that some parts of his story are legitimate, since Tifa really is a childhood friend.  Nonetheless, this one line from Jenova sets up the major psychological tension of the second half of the game.  Before, we were chasing down Sephiroth because he was killing people all over the place and the natural thing for a group of heroes is to try to stop a villain from being villainous.  Also, there was the whole thing with undermining Shinra, though I feel like the ecoterrorist plotline gets shoved aside pretty consistently once Sephiroth’s on the scene (this is to be expected, because while Shinra’s evil, it’s not seeking godhood).  Anyway, the motivation for the chase strikes me as pretty thin, and seems like a rather standard reason for adventure.

Pulling the narrative reverse here where we find out that the hero we’ve been playing as might not be who he says he is (a very novel concept, considering that the typical JRPG formula up to this point was to have a hero who acted as the player’s avatar within the game world; as the person playing the game, there wasn’t supposed to be any mystery surrounding your own player character) is pretty compelling stuff.  I’ll be honest that I find Sephiroth to be a rather lackluster villain in a lot of respects (much of it may have to do with Square’s overuse of him in their crossover properties), but the idea that he’s going to screw around with the hero’s head and make him doubt his own identity is really fun stuff to watch.  From here on out, as I’ve said before, Cloud’s just going to get more and more depressed and disconnected from who he thought he was.

Anyway, that’s enough babbling about characters, we have a snowboard to get!

Revisiting Final Fantasy VII (Part 21)

So Aerith’s just run off to try to stop Sephiroth from summoning Meteor, and we now know that Cloud’s a somewhat unreliable hero (I kind of wish the developers had done more with this concept in gameplay terms, like making Cloud just sporadically do something deliberately harmful to the party in the middle of battle even if it would have had the potential to be really frustrating if Cloud happens to do something really crazy powerful with the wrong target).

It’s time to follow Aerith to the Northern Continent (how did she get there if we still have the Tiny Bronco?) where she’s gone off to the Ancient City (ruins of the capital city of the Ancients) to stop Sephiroth from summoning Meteor somehow.

Getting there’s not terribly interesting, so we’ll rejoin the party when they catch up with Aerith.

Alright, everyone ready?

Good.

Cloud and company finally catch up to Aerith in the basement of the Ancient City’s central building, where she appears to be praying.  As Cloud approaches, he has another of his psychotic episodes and draws his sword in an attempt to slice Aerith in half.  The player can have some fun here trying to make Cloud resist what’s happening, but there’s no way to proceed without letting him make the attempt.  Of course, then Cloud comes back to his senses just before he goes through with it, and Aerith’s safe.  Everyone breathes a sigh of relief.

Then Sephiroth drops from the ceiling and runs her through with his sword.

*cheer*

I’m kidding, of course (about being happy that Aerith’s dead, not about Sephiroth killing her; everyone on the internet already knew that was going to happen).

File:Death of Aeris.jpg

Sephiroth kills Aerith. (Image credit: finalfantasy.wikia.com)

Now, this event has a long history in the gaming community, because when the first players encountered this development, they were rather shocked.  There’s very little buildup within the game’s narrative to suggest that Aerith is in any sort of danger of dying, or that her death will be necessary to prevent Sephiroth from achieving his goals.  The point of the scene, according to Final Fantasy VII‘s writers, is to reflect how death affects us in the real world, with it happening unexpectedly and without purpose.  A lot of work went into making sure this event had a realistic impact on the rest of the main characters, and I think that generally it’s successful.

Small touches like Cloud’s speech box overlapping and interrupting Sephiroth’s during his evil post-murder monologue to say that he doesn’t care about the bigger scheme going on help enhance the feeling of the moment; Aerith’s dead now, and that’s a fact that Cloud and everyone else has to deal with.  Right in the midst of everything going on, he doesn’t care what Sephiroth’s motivations are.

And for all my hating on Aerith (oh man, do I dislike her), I still get what the writers were going for here, and I feel it.  I’ve watched this scene several times, and I can honestly say that even though leading up to and following it I’m not that bummed about losing a party member that I don’t like using anyway, in the moment I empathize with these characters.  They all have a unique way of saying goodbye, which are beautiful bits of character animation, even though they use the low-res map models.  Yuffie nearly collapses into Cloud’s arms crying after she says her goodbye, and I remember that even though she’s a deadly ninja, she’s also just a kid who’s probably never experienced a loss like this one before.

Pulling back and looking forward to the remainder of the game (I may not be remembering exactly right, but I estimate that this is about the halfway point), this event sets up a new, much more personal motivation for Cloud and folks to mosey on toward their next confrontation with Sephiroth.  Before it was about high-minded ideals and saving the planet; now it’s about paying Sephiroth back for the murder of their friend.

Also, from a character standpoint, Aerith’s death marks the beginning of Cloud’s descent into the melancholy that so dominates his characterization in other entries in the Final Fantasy VII canon.  Before now, he’s been a more or less laid-back, confident guy who doesn’t have any trouble kidding around with his friends.  Now that he’s both attempted to kill Aerith himself twice and failed to prevent her actual murder, he has a lot of pent up feelings of guilt to work through, on top of all the other stuff that we (and he) will be learning about his past soon.  I really like happy Cloud (mostly because I think his angst is overplayed later in the series to the point that it becomes his defining character trait), but here I’m looking forward to seeing him develop and grow into a more nuanced and realistic understanding of himself.

Anyway, once the body’s safely interred at the bottom of a lake, it’s time for everyone to move on further north.  Sephiroth awaits past the Great Glacier in the Northern Crater–the location of the last great wound the planet received.

Revisiting Final Fantasy VII (Part 20)

So Cloud and company arrive at the Temple of the Ancients, and it becomes clear why Aerith has forced us to bring her along.  This place is crawling with the spirits of Cetra who’ve resisted returning to the Lifestream in order to provide guidance to future generations of Cetra who come to this place.  Since Aerith’s the only surviving Cetra, that means she’s necessary in order to decipher what the little old man spirits in the funny hats are trying to say.

Of course, what they’re saying is essentially, “Don’t come here!” and “Watch out for Sephiroth!” so maybe Aerith wasn’t really that necessary after all.  Still, she’s with us, so we’ll make the best of it.

Temple of The Ancients

It looks so cheerful! (Image credit: finalfantasy.wikia.com)

Deep inside the temple, the party reaches a room with a series of paintings that resemble Egyptian hieroglyphs depicting the Cetra worshiping what I’m guessing is the planet at their temple, then a bright star appearing in the sky which comes closer and turns out to be a meteor (or rather Meteor, because there’s only one in all of space, apparently).  The last panel shows the Cetra burning alive after the impact of Meteor.

So clearly, this Meteor thing is bad.  Also, apparently, it’s part of Sephiroth’s master plan to submerge himself in the Lifestream and become a god, because if the planet gets hit by a cataclysmic rock from space (with magical planet-seeking properties) then it’ll divert a bunch of Lifestream energy to the impact site in order to heal it.

Because, y’know, a planet fixes itself in the same way humans heal cuts and bruises.

From a scientific perspective, this is all really silly stuff, because a lot of what’s explained here is simply posited to be run on magic.  That’s not necessarily a problem, but Final Fantasy VII was notable at the time for having a more sci-fi flavor than previous incarnations, and all these revelations basically took the game’s phlebotinum of Lifestream energy and said it could do pretty much whatever the writers wanted it to do.  We just departed from a very loose science fiction setting a la Star Wars and went full on urban fantasy with these plot developments (keep in mind, of course, that this game has “Fantasy” in the title).

Of course, knowing Sephiroth’s plan doesn’t really help the party out a whole lot, since we discover at pretty much the same time that the key to summoning Meteor is something called the Black Materia (color coded for your convenience), which it turns out is actually the physical building that the party’s been traversing.

Cait Sith makes his noble sacrifice by activating the trigger that will cause the temple to shrink and turn into the Black Materia so that Cloud can get it for safekeeping, but then he promptly flips out and we also discover that Cloud’s a complete and utter lune.

Just before the party leaves the temple so they can claim the Black Materia, Cloud has something akin to a seizure, which freaks everyone out, including me because I’m supposed to be in control of this guy.  During what strikes me as a schizophrenic episode, he babbles to someone that no one else can see about getting the Black Materia and summoning Meteor while also reassuring himself that he is, in fact, Cloud.  After the madness stops, Cloud calmly turns to Aerith and asks what’s wrong, to which she responds that everything’s fine in the way that people who are accustomed to dealing with crazy usually do.

I’m sure it’s at this point that Aerith, if she were sensible, would be rethinking that crush she has on Cloud.

Anyway, once everyone gets outside and Cait Sith sacrifices his little broken body to shrink the temple, Cloud gets the Black Materia and then turns it over to Sephiroth.

Our hero, ladies and gentlemen.

This is another freaky scene because as Cloud hands the materia over, the player gets the opportunity to control a ghostly child version of Cloud who can only beg and plead with his adult self not to do what he’s doing.  It’s a pretty effective device to communicate that something very disturbing is going on with our protagonist, and even he isn’t sure what’s happening.

Following Cloud’s utter botching of safeguarding the Black Materia, he then goes crazy and attacks Aerith when she tries to snap him out of it.  Fortunately, the replacement Cait Sith shows up in time to help pull Cloud off of her, and then we black out.

Cloud dreams about Aerith going off to stop Sephiroth in a way that only she can because she’s a Cetra, which explains absolutely nothing about what she plans to do.  After this really trippy fever dream, Cloud wakes in Gongaga, a small rural village that we passed through a ways back; it’s only notable for its exploded Mako Reactor and an elderly couple who ask Cloud if he ever met their son Zack in SOLDIER.

Barret and Tifa are waiting by Cloud’s bedside to reassure him that his friends still love him despite his apparent insanity, and also to tell him that he needs to get with the program because they have to follow Aerith, who really has gone off on her own in order to stop Sephiroth from summoning Meteor, and Barret’s gonna bash Cloud’s skull in if he loses his mind again (for Cloud’s own good, naturally).

From a plot standpoint, this is where the stakes get raised considerably.  Where before we were chasing Sephiroth down just because we figured he must be up to something sinister, we now know exactly what his plan is, and we’ve just helped him complete the first step by getting him the Black Materia.  Also, it’s been revealed that our hero is mentally unstable (something that’s been vaguely hinted at before this point) and he really can’t be trusted when he’s in Sephiroth’s presence, although we still don’t know exactly why that is.  This is where things are going to get way more compelling (in my opinion), because the story’s opening itself up to some very interesting psychodrama revolving around Cloud and Sephiroth; we knew before that Cloud had a beef with this madman, but now there appears to be something deeper going on beyond the simple need for revenge.  Cloud’s starting to be revealed as severely damaged by his experiences with Sephiroth, and from here on out there’s going to be a lot more story exploring exactly what happened in his past that’s left him in this fragile state that we’re just now noticing.

Of course, instead of moving on with that, I could just go play some more mini games at the Gold Saucer.

Revisiting Final Fantasy VII (Part 6)

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.

Sephiroth’s character design gets progressively worse with each iteration in the Final Fantasy VII canon.  I much prefer the simple, anime-styled design that Nomura originally used. (Image credit: ign.com)

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!