Hey look! It's another episode of that serial blog in which Giant Bomb user dankempster plays through Final Fantasy VII and tries to objectively determine whether or not it's still good! I hope the timeliness of Episode Eighteen's arrival doesn't lure us into believing there will be regular updates from now on, only to go months without seeing Episode Nineteen!
Episode Eighteen - Story Exposition And... ...Snowboarding???
We pick up the action where we left off last time, at the very start of the game's second disc. After witnessing Aerith die at Sephiroth's hands, Cloud and the rest of the party vow to pursue Sephiroth and, if they can, stop him from using Meteor. Cloud is understandably scared of himself right now, and unable to fathom why Sephiroth seems to exert some kind of control over him. Nonetheless, he's determined to continue on his journey - for Aerith, and for the sake of the Planet. I regain control of the team back in one of the abandoned shell-houses of the City of the Ancients. For now, all they have to go on is that Sephiroth was planning to head north, past the snow fields.
The path out of the City of the Ancients and into the snow-capped northern regions of the world map is punctuated by a pretty interesting (although somewhat tedious) climbing puzzle. Presented with a cliff face covered with ledges and cracks, the game tasks you with finding the correct path to the top. This in itself isn't too challenging, but it's made more interesting by the presence of several treasure chests scattered around the screen, forcing treasure hunters to explore every possible path in order to pick up everything. Sadly, the navigational system is a bit sluggish - you have to climb out of a crack before you can change direction, and for some reason the option to jump right is placed before the option to jump left, which makes the system less intuitive than it could have been. Nonetheless, it's still a welcome distraction, and an example of how Final Fantasy VII keeps dungeon navigation interesting - specifically, by not just forcing you to walk through a cave. While navigating this map, I also find a Magic Plus Materia, which instantly gets equipped to my acting mage, Red XIII.
I emerge from the cavern onto a new region of the world map, and begin the long trek across the snow-covered plain. Along the way I accidentally nudge the analog nub on my PSP, and what happens next completely shocks me - the camera descends from an aerial bird's-eye view of the world map to sit within the world itself, directly behind Cloud. I'll admit, I knew this feature was in the game, but had completely forgotten about it until now. So far this playthrough, I've been playing with the aerial world map camera, which orients the world with north at the top and is pretty evocative of 2D JRPGs like Final Fantasy VI. While the shift in camera perspective doesn't carry much impact in today's 3D-oriented gaming world, it must have been a huge deal back when the game launched as the first truly 3D Japanese RPG in 1997. With just the touch of a button, you're actually in the gameworld. And it's not like the dodgy Mode-7 pseudo-3D that characterised FFVI's airship flying - everything has height, and substance. In this rugged terrain, what I notice most are the mountains. With the added benefit of a third dimension, they actually look huge and impassable - certainly leagues ahead of the mountain sprites that segmented the world maps of 2D Final Fantasies.
After some random encounters and a couple of level-ups, the team find themselves in a small village nestled in the mountains - a place known as Icicle Inn. The first ports of call are the Weapon Shop, to kit out the party for the trek ahead, and the inn, to rest and heal up. Once that's dealt with, it's time to explore the village properly. Talking to the locals, it seems like Icicle Inn is known as a tourist spot, mainly for its snowboarding scene. In one corner of the village, a ramshackle old house is barely standing. Inside, the team find all manner of scientific equipment, including recorded video logs. Watching these logs, recorded by Professor Gast of Shinra and Aerith's birth-mother, Ifalna, reveals a lot of story exposition:
Ifalna explains that 2000 years ago, something fell from the skies and wounded the Planet at the site of the North Crater. The Cetra gathered at this wound and attempted to heal it, but ultimately their efforts weren't enough - the Planet would only be able to heal itself, over many years. While the Cetra were gathered at the wound, the being that caused it appeared to them. Known as the 'crisis from the sky', it infected the Cetra with a virus, transforming them all into monsters and all but wiping them out. This being, Ifalna tells Gast, is Jenova - the being that he mistook for an Ancient, and the creature that Sephiroth calls his 'mother'. As long as Jenova exists, the Planet cannot heal itself completely. To combat Jenova, the Planet supposedly gave birth to its own defence force, known as Weapons. Ultimately, though, these Weapons were not needed - the few surviving Cetra were able to defeat Jenova themselves, and confine it. As a result, the Weapons lie dormant somewhere within the Planet, waiting for the call should Jenova ever re-awaken. In addition to all of this, some confidential logs exist which reveal Aerith's true lineage - her father, it turns out, was Professor Gast himself. Not long after Aerith was born, Gast and Ifalna were tracked down by Professor Hojo. In the final video log, he's seen breaking into their house, murdering Gast, and taking Ifalna and the newborn Aerith back to Midgar as 'samples' of the Cetra.
That is a hell of a lot of story exposition for the game to dump in one go, and it still blows my mind that watching any of these video logs is completely optional. Think about that - you could play through the entire game without knowing ANY of the stuff in the paragraph above. I've already covered in previous entries how incredible I think Final Fantasy VII is for not forcing exposition down the player's throat, but instead incorporates it as a reward for those who actively invest time in the world through exploration, so I won't dwell on that point too much here. What I'll say instead is how poignant it is to discover these video logs so soon after Aerith's death. While watching them unfold, I can't help but think, 'if only Aerith had been alive to see these'. She was so close to learning about her true heritage, finding out who her father was, and discovering all of this in her absence drives her death home even harder for me. It's a perfectly placed bit of exposition.
At the far end of town, a man stands guard at the exit. He warns Cloud that the slopes ahead are steep and treacherous, and advises him to turn back. Cloud's having none of it, and is just about to push on past the guard when Elena of the Turks arrives in the village, accompanied by two Shinra soldiers. Elena is also pretty determined to stop Cloud from heading any further north - it seems she's guarding one of Shinra's many secrets. She's also sore about the attack on Tseng at the Temple of the Ancients, and thinks that Cloud rather than Sephiroth was responsible. She swings a punch at Cloud, but misses and ends up rolling down the hill behind him. The remaining soldiers block the entrance to Icicle Inn, so it looks like the only way out of here is down the slippery slope to the north. The guard seems more willing to let Cloud through now, providing he's got a snowboard to get down the slope, and a map to navigate the Great Glacier below.
The next segment of the game takes on an adventure game attitude, tasking Cloud with exploring the village and picking up the items he needs before he can progress. The map of the Great Glacier is located on a wall in one of the town's houses, and the residents are more than happy to let you take it. The snowboard is found in another house, and belongs to a young boy. He recently had a snowboarding accident, and seems happy to get rid of the thing. With both items in hand, Cloud heads back to the slope. The guard offers some final snowboarding tips (tips that would probably have made more sense coming from the boy the snowboard belonged to, in retrospect) before letting you hit the slopes with your new toy.
And so we move on to the contentious issue of Final Fantasy VII's snowboarding mini-game. For the uninitiated, allow me to explain - the snowboarding mini-game is a theoretically more exciting way of moving the player and their band of adventurers from Icicle Inn to the Great Glacier. It takes place on a completely 3D slope and sees Cloud having to dodge various obstacles by means of evasive turning and jump ramps. There are multiple paths to take down the slope, with each one bringing you out in a different part of the Great Glacier at the end. This sequence has, to my knowledge, been hated by a lot of the Final Fantasy VII-playing community, mainly because it pumps up the wackiness levels so soon after Aerith's death.
For what it's worth, I don't have a problem with the snowboarding mini-game in itself. Sure, the controls are a little unresponsive, the collision detection is pretty shaky at times, and it's graphically sub-par in the same way that all the three-dimensional aspects of Final Fantasy VII are, but it's still pretty fun. My problem with the snowboarding is the irreverent, cheesy tone that the developers attached to it. Aerith just died, guys! Chances are, most of us players aren't in the mood to hit the piste and trick our way down a mountain like some wacky Final Fantasy spin-off version of Cool Boarders. And yet while we descend the mountain, we're expected to collect balloons and evade cute moogle- and chocobo-shaped snowmen? Cloud's grieving for Aerith and uncertain of himself at this point in the game's story - do you really think he's going to be doing backflips and board-grabs over those jump ramps? Do we really need to see a timer and speed gauge at the top of the screen? Personally, I'd much rather that Square had saved all the goofy stuff for the Gold Saucer snowboarding mini-games, and tried to keep this section of the game relatively neutral in tone - just natural obstacles, less of the acrobatic flair, more a sense of 'we need to get to the bottom of this mountain' urgency, as opposed to just 'WHEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE SNOWBOARDING!!!'.
When the snowboarding comes to an end, the team find themselves in the Great Glacier. A labyrinthine maze of ice and snow, this area would probably be better off dedicating to a new episode. For that reason, I manage to find my way out onto the world map and save my game. Episode Eighteen in the bank.
So at the close of Episode Eighteen, my current vital statistics are:
- Current Party - Cloud (Lv 46), Cid (Lv 41), Red XIII (Lv 45)
- Current Location - Icicle Area, World Map
- Time on the Clock - 27:19
The Story So Far...
Looking for the next episode? You can find Episode Nineteen - Come Rain, Sleet Or Snow here.
There you have it - another episode of Enduring Final Fantasy VII, done and dusted. While I may have joked about it at the start of this episode, I really hope that I can keep this going on a regular basis now. With nothing in the way of commitments eating up my time and not much else to focus my attention on in the foreseeable future, I'd say there's a good chance that you can expect updates to come more regularly from now on. Provisionally, I'm planning to pen the next episode a week from now, on December 27th. In the meantime, I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas. Thanks very much for reading guys, I'll see you around.
Currently playing - Final Fantasy VII (PSP)