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Ladies and gentlemen, gather round, gather round! The event they said might never have happened is finally here! It's the return of Enduring Final Fantasy VII, the serial blog in which I attempt to play through fan favourite Final Fantasy VII to determine whether or not it still has something to offer to a modern audience. For those of you who haven't read any of this series before, I'll briefly illuminate - I'm periodically writing a blow-by-blow account of my current playthrough of Final Fantasy VII, both analysing it freshly as a modern gamer in 2010, but also recounting nostalgic tales of past playthroughs of one of my personal favourite games of all time. It's been over two months since the last instalment of this series, but that long hiatus has finally come to an end, and I'm back and ready to resume this illuminating look at one of gaming's most revered (and detested) milestones. Join me for the eighth episode of...
Episode Eight - Over The Mountain, Into The Saucer
Seeing as it's been a while since the last episode, allow me to briefly recap - Cloud and crew stowed away on a boat in pursuit of Sephiroth, who seems to be concocting a plan that may pose a bigger threat to the Planet than even the Shinra Electric Power Company. Unbeknownst to anybody, the boat, bound for Costa Del Sol from Junon, is also harbouring Sephiroth. The team locate him, whereupon he escapes, leaving them to battle a reincarnation of his "mother", JENOVA. Confused by this, Cloud and the party disembark at Costa Del Sol. There, they met Shinra's former scientist Hojo, who advised them to head west. It's at this point that our adventure resumes.
Heading west on Hojo's advice leads the party to the entrance to Mt. Corel, a mountain pass they must traverse in order to continue their journey. At the foot of the mountain rests a weary traveller, who mentions seeing a man in a black cape pass by not too long ago. Sounds like they're on the right trail. The ascent of Mt. Corel is a very straightforward, linear climb, but it's one that still looks pretty good. Maybe it's because of the reduced size of the PSP's screen, but the pre-rendered backgrounds that make up the Mt. Corel location look great. There's also a sun-glare effect at the top of each path, which looks incredibly primitive by today's standards, but still adds a degree of ambience to this harsh, rocky environment. Passing over the crest of the mountain, the team happen upon a Mako Reactor built into the rock. However, with no way of entering the Reactor, and with nothing else to do in the vicinity, my now-established team of Cloud, Aerith and Red XIII press on along a decrepit railway track, down the other side of the mountain.
Mt. Corel is a very linear area, but that doesn't mean it's simply a "run-fight-run" sequence. The tempo is broken up by the threat of weak sections of the railway track, which Cloud can fall down (picking up a few items in the process). There's also a single "puzzle". I say "puzzle", because it's more of a complication than something that actually needs to be solved - there's a bridge that Cloud must lower before he the rest of the party can emerge on the other side of the pass. Even so, it acts as a distraction from the linearity of the maps, making Mt. Corel a lot more than simply moving in a straight line - a lesson that Final Fantasy XIII could definitely learn something from. The enemies are also pretty nicely mixed up here - a welcome change from nothing but hordes of the Russian doll-like Grangalan that reside around Costa Del Sol. As I make my way through Mt. Corel, dispatching enemies as diverse as Cokatolis, Bloatfish, and Bombs, it becomes apparent to me just how rewarding Final Fantasy VII's battle system can be when you approach it with a strategic mind. Deciphering the weaknesses of enemies and using it to my advantage is a lot more rewarding than the power-levelling, X-mashing approach that so many people seem to criticise JRPGs for these days.
The last screen of Mt. Corel is perhaps the game's most impressive backdrop since its opening cinematic. The sheer sense of scale that it illustrates is breathtaking, even by modern standards.
The sight that waits on the other side of that bridge couldn't be more of a contrast. The town of North Corel that Cloud and the party step into could barely be called a town - it's more a mess of ramshackle huts and destroyed materials. Upon entering the town, it immediately becomes apparent that Barret is known here, but not at all welcome. The townspeople are quick to assault him, verbally and physically. Something went down here, that's for sure. A quick lap of the town reveals that there's nothing new or exciting to purchase from the shops, so I simply stock up on healing items and rest at the Inn. The townspeople don't seem very accepting of the party, purely through their association with Barret, but they're helpful enough to notify Cloud that a man in a black cape was seen boarding the ropeway on the far side of town. It is possible to get out onto the world map from here, but a quick scan of the environment reveals an unnavigable desert with a tall, golden structure at its centre, and an uncrossable river - in short, there's absolutely no way to progress westwards right now. With no other options open to me, it seems like the sensible thing to do would be to board the ropeway and stay on Sephiroth's trail.
Barret, Tifa and Yuffie are all waiting at the ropeway when Cloud shows up. After a little interrogation, Barret reveals the reason for his hostile reception at North Corel. Four years ago, the town had been his home. It was once a prosperous coal mining town, and incredibly prosperous for it. Upon learning that the area was rich in Mako as well as coal, Shinra proposed the construction of a Reactor in the mountains nearby. At the time Barret had been all for the idea, placing his trust in Shinra's plans and persuading the town's miners that it was the right choice to make. One of Barret's good friends, a man named Dyne, was dead set against the plan, believing it would ruin the town's thriving economy. Regardless, the construction went ahead. Some time after that, while Barret and Dyne were away, Shinra burned Corel to the ground, destroying their industry and killing most of the miners and townspeople. Ever since then, the few remaining residents of Corel have survived by collecting and selling scrap, and they hold Barret responsible for the events of that fateful day. Barret holds himself responsible, too - one of the reasons he formed AVALANCHE was as a personal means of seeking some kind of redemption.
It's really nice to see Barret's character finally getting some care and attention. Early events gave the impression that he was little more than a racist stereotype, with his gorilla-like chest-beating and dialogue ripped straight out of an episode of The A Team. This, on the other hand, shows a completely different side to Barret - one that used to be content with his lot in life, a far cry from the perpetually angry tough-guy image that he now maintains. The flashback that Barret recounts presents him as a much more well-rounded individual, with reasons behind his thoughts and actions. In fact, it pretty much justifies his gruff, anti-Shinra behaviour for most of the Midgar portion of the game.
...It still doesn't excuse the Mr. T speech patterns, though.
With Barret's story recounted, the team hop onto the ropeway and ride it into the golden structure we saw in the middle of the desert earlier - The Gold Saucer. The FMV cinematic that shows the cable car approaching the massive amusement park really raises the bar for scale. Don't believe me? Watch it for yourself...
Upon entering the Gold Saucer proper (and paying a whopping 3000 Gil for a day pass), Aerith suggests the group take some time out to relax and have fun. It seems a little bit out of place, to be honest - the group have pretty much just emerged from letting their hair down in Costa Del Sol, they have Sephiroth seemingly cornered in this building, and Aerith wants to play games at Wonder Square? Barret's not in the mood for fun, and runs off to be by himself, so it looks like Cloud is stuck with Aerith for this little excursion. Unfortunately, exploring the Gold Saucer is a bit of a let-down - it isn't quite as impressive on the inside as it is on the outside. The pre-rendered interiors all look great, but they really don't do a great job of capturing the scale of the place. On a realistic scale, the structure is probably a similar size to Midgar, but it feels much smaller. I'm not saying the Gold Saucer should have had eighty screens, by any means. But the screens that are used seem very constricted, and don't give any impression of the whole in relation to the isolated components. Better attempts to convey that sense of scale would have been welcome in this case. Square achieved it with Balamb Garden in Final Fantasy VIII, with Lindblum and Alexandria in Final Fantasy IX, and even with Midgar earlier in this very game, so why they couldn't manage it here is a mystery to me.
The first stop on our tour of the Gold Saucer is Speed Square. Here, Cloud and Aerith meet Dio, the self-absorbed proprietor of the whole establishment. In amongst all his self-promotion, he does mention that a guy in a black cape passed by. It's gotta be Sephiroth! Dio leaves suggesting I check out the Battle Square some time, but with Aerith keen to have some fun, Wonder Square seems like the logical next step on the journey. Upon arriving at this arcade-like venue, the pair are greeted by a fortune-telling toy. The toy introduces himself as Cait Sith, and offers to tell Cloud's fortune. The whole scenario is very weird, and a little forced, and while all this will make some sort of sense eventually, at this point it's difficult not to feel like Cait Sith's entrance is a crude attempt by the developers to shoehorn in a new playable character. After making an eerie prediction, Cait Sith forces his company upon Cloud and Aerith "to see if it comes true". With that absurd encounter out of the way, there's just enough time for a quick game of Mog's House before heading off to Battle Square.
As soon as the newly-formed party arrive at Battle Square, it becomes apparent that something's not right. The guard standing at the entrance collapses dead right in front of Cloud's eyes. These scenes carry on inside the Battle Square - it's a veritable massacre. After the scenes left behind at Shinra Headquarters, Sephiroth is the prime suspect, but it soon becomes apparent that he's not behind this one. The victims haven't been slain with a sword - they've all been shot to ribbons by gunfire. One person is still alive, and in their last breath they manage to tell Cloud that the perpetrator was somebody with a gun on their arm. Cloud and Aerith are dumbfounded. Barret was mad, but he definitely wasn't that mad. Before the trio can come to any kind of reasonable conclusion, Dio and his guards confront them and accuse them of being responsible for the atrocity. Cloud tries to explain, but Cait Sith makes a hasty retreat into the arena. Cloud and Aerith follow, but it's a bad move on their part - they're now surrounded, with no viable means of escape. Dio's sentry machines capture Cloud and co. and toss them through the "Gateway to Heaven" into the dark depths of Corel Prison.
Cloud is reunited with Aerith and Cait Sith at the bottom of the chute, in the middle of a desert prison beneath the Gold Saucer. It soon becomes apparent why this is an ideal location for a prison, and why this desert wasn't traversable before - its perimeter consists of inescapable quicksand. For the foreseeable future, Cloud and co. are trapped down here. A little further ahead, the team spot Barret standing over yet another corpse riddled with bullet holes. Before they can get any kind of explanation out of him, he runs southwards, away from Cloud and the others. The party gives chase, but Barret is nowhere to be seen. With no reasonable course of action to follow at this point, I guess it's time to save and bring this episode to a close.
So at the close of Episode Eight, my current vital statistics are:
- Current Party - Aerith (Lv 23), Cloud (Lv 24), Cait Sith (Lv 23)
- Current Location - Corel Prison
- Time on the Clock - 13:27
My God, that felt great to write. This episode of Enduring Final Fantasy VII has been a long time coming, and rediscovering the enjoyment I get out of writing these blogs has been an incredible experience for me. I just hope that reading it is as enjoyable for all of you as writing it was for me. I'm sorry this episode was left to gestate for so long, and I hope that there are at least enough redeeming features in this post to make it worth the unreasonably long wait. Thanks very much for reading, guys. I'll see you around.
Currently playing - Final Fantasy VII (PSP)
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