It's Friday! It's still number one! It's Top of the Pops!
...Wait. No it isn't. It's Enduring Final Fantasy VII, the serial blog in which Giant Bomb user and longtime Final Fantasy fan dankempster replays the seventh instalment of the popular JRPG franchise to determine whether or not it's still relevant in a modern gaming environment. Ah well, I guess that'll have to do.
Episode Fifteen - Conflict, Romance And Betrayal
I pick the game back up just outside Wutai, and almost sprint back towards the Tiny Bronco, but turn back when I remember we have unfinished business in Yuffie's hometown. After subbing the spunky ninja into my party and reconfiguring my Materia, I head towards the tall pagoda at the back of town. Known as 'The Pagoda of the Five Mighty Gods', it houses one of the game's combat side-quests - a sequence of five one-on-one fights, designed to test Yuffie to her limit. The first four fights come off without a hitch, but the fifth and final battle against Yuffie's father, Godo, poses something of a problem. After three failed attempts and a few different Materia configurations, Godo falls on the fourth try. Repeatedly falling foul of his Trine attack encouraged me to set up a Lightning-Elemental Materia pairing on my armour, halving the damage of the attack and giving me a chance to finally finish him off. It's another example of the Materia system's incredible versatility, but it's probably the first instance of it making a genuinely discernible difference in a fight for me. Completing the side-quest nets me 40,000 Gil, the Leviathan Summon Materia, and Yuffie's final Limit Break, All Creation. After a little bit more of Wutai's criminally neglected backstory, it's time to leave Wutai behind and continue our search for Sephiroth.
...Or at least, that's the loose plan. And when I say loose, I mean very loose. You see, after Rocket Town, the game pretty much dumps you in shallow water on the Tiny Bronco and expects you to pick it back up with next to no direction. The first time I played the game, I remember feeling completely flummoxed at this point. What am I supposed to be doing here? What's my next objective? Where's my next location? Racking my brains kept bringing me back to the same conclusion - we're pursuing Sephiroth, but we have no idea where he's headed at this point. With only this to go on, I was effectively stranded in the game world. I remember spending a good few hours simply traversing the world map, revisiting every location I'd been to and talking to everyone in an attempt to glean some kind of clue. It's made doubly frustrating by the fact that for the most part, Final Fantasy VII does a great job of keeping the player on the right path, and guiding them back onto it should they ever veer away.
Thankfully I've come into this playthrough ready-equipped with the benefit of hindsight, and it doesn't take me anywhere near as long to reorient myself as it did the first time. Just north of Gongaga, there's a single house occupied by a man who has the answers Cloud seeks. He mentions the existence of an item called the Keystone, which according to legend can open the Temple of the Ancients. As luck would have it, though, he recently sold the Keystone to Dio, the proprietor of the Gold Saucer theme park. Looks like that's our next destination, then! A short ride up the coast on the Tiny Bronco and Cloud and co. are once more riding on the tram to the Gold Saucer. I must admit I've never liked the plot's apparent loss of direction after Rocket Town. After knowing nothing about the Temple of the Ancients or the Keystone, both concepts are suddenly introduced and accepted by the band of adventurers as if they've been the main objective all along. There haven't been any hints that Sephiroth is heading for the Temple, either - all the group know at this point is that he's looking for the Promised Land. I guess the Ancients could be viewed as a common link, but even that is a pretty tenuous justification of the team's apparent change in direction at this point.
Upon arriving at the Gold Saucer my first stop is the Battle Square. Not only was this the last place the party saw Dio, but it's also home to his extensive trophy room. Sure enough, the Keystone is sitting pride-of-place in the central display case. While Cloud is admiring it, Dio himself walks in. He tells Cloud that he can take the Keystone, provided he fights in the Arena for his entertainment. Cloud agrees, and I'm whisked away to the second combat-centric side-quest to grace this episode - a stint in the Gold Saucer's Battle Arena. Reflecting on the huge variety of side-quests and mini-games that I've dipped my toe into over the last fifteen episodes, I realise for the first time just how diverse Final Fantasy VII's distractions are. Straight-up combat challenges like these, vehicular combat for the escape from Midgar, turn-based strategy at Fort Condor, rhythm mini-games in Junon... The list is endless, especially when you also consider what's still to come. I don't fare too well in the Arena, only lasting four of the eight potential battles (probably because I didn't take the time to reconfigure Cloud's Materia beforehand). Nonetheless, Dio appears satisfied, so he hands over the Keystone. Mission accomplished! Now all we have to do is leave the Gold Saucer and we can start hunting for the Temple.
...Or at least, that would be the plan. As luck would have it, the tram has broken down, meaning that Cloud and the gang are stuck at the Gold Saucer for the foreseeable future. Luckily, Cait Sith manages to get them a free night at the hotel in Horror Square, so that's where the team heads. After a quick recap of the events thusfar (which still does nothing to smooth the transition between "Let's get Sephiroth!" and "Let's find the Keystone!"), everyone heads off to bed. During the night, Cloud gets a surprise visit from... Well, that's the beauty of this part of the game - it could be from quite a few characters. Remember all the way back in Episode One, when I said that Final Fantasy VII's dialogue trees predate similar concepts in games like Mass Effect? Well, this is where that statement gets justified. As you play through the opening twenty-five or so hours of Final Fantasy VII, it keeps track of which characters you're nice to. Come this point in the game, it uses that information to determine who visits Cloud for the upcoming 'date' scenario. The two primary candidates are, of course, Aerith and Tifa, but it is possible to swing the system in a way that results in a date with Yuffie or even Barret. It's an incredibly sophisticated system. The only other game I can think of that rewards dialogue choices with romance in this way is Mass Effect, which didn't come out until 2007. Final Fantasy VII predates it by ten years, but the core concept is essentially the same. The fact that Final Fantasy VII was so forward-thinking with its social interactions in this way just blows my mind.
In the case of this playthrough, Cloud is visited by Aerith, who drags him out round the Gold Saucer on a date. The date itself is a simple, understated affair. The first stop is a visit to a play being performed on Event Square, which Cloud and Aerith are chosen to act in. The player's given a choice of two ways to play the hero - one sticking to the script, and the other going completely against it. After that, they go for a night-time ride on a cable car that circles the Gold Saucer. The 'date' scenario is one of my favourite moments in Final Fantasy VII, partly because of the humour that can be derived by playing against the script during the play, but mainly because it makes for a fantastic change of pace from the rest of the game. The vast majority of the game has been overshadowed by an almost tangible sense of urgency - blowing up the Mako Reactors, rescuing Aerith, escaping Midgar, and pursuing Sephiroth. On the rare occasions when the game has dropped that tone, it's always replaced it with a straight-up humorous one. The date at the Gold Saucer offers something completely different - a complete escape from the rest of the game, a chance to focus on the relationship developing between Cloud and Aerith, and an opportunity to share in their most intimate moment. The cable car ride, and the accompanying music (Interrupted by Fireworks), create something genuinely beautiful - something that I haven't seen in the game since the last time Cloud and Aerith were alone together all the way back in Midgar. Call me an old softy, but it's very moving.
On the way back from their date, Aerith spots Cait Sith sneaking around with the Keystone. Realising he's been spotted he makes a break for it, leading the pair on a chase across almost all of the Gold Saucer's squares. They finally catch up with him outside Chocobo Square, just in time to see him tossing the Keystone into the hands of Tseng, who then flies away on his chopper. So Cait Sith is the spy! He reveals that he's been reporting back to Shinra ever since he first teamed up with Cloud and co. on their first trip to the Gold Saucer. Cait Sith insists that it's best they pretend nothing has happened, and bribes Cloud and Aerith into complicity by telling them that Shinra have Barret's daughter, Marlene. It looks like there's no other way out of this than to keep Cait Sith around. For what it's worth, he claims he's had a change of heart, and offers to give the party directions to the Temple of the Ancients as compensation. Not really having any other choice, they agree.
Come morning, the team regroups and agrees to head to the Temple of the Ancients. Cait Sith chimes in that the Temple lies out to sea, to the east. Once again, I put together my standard party of Cloud, Aerith and Red XIII, and leave the hotel on Horror Square. With the tram now fixed, it's a short ride and a slightly longer walk to get back to the Tiny Bronco. After a spot of sailing round the edge of the western continent, the party lands on the edge of an island. In the distance is a large step-pyramid - the Temple of the Ancients. Seems like the perfect opportunity to save my progress and bring yet another episode of Enduring Final Fantasy VII to a close.
So at the close of Episode Fifteen, my current vital statistics are:
- Current Party - Cloud (Lv 39), Aerith (Lv 39), Red XIII (Lv 39)
- Current Location - Temple of the Ancients Region, World Map
- Time on the Clock - 22:35
The Story So Far...
Looking for the next episode? You can find Episode Sixteen - An Ancient Evil here.
Fifteen episodes in, eh? We sure have come a long way since this series began just over a year ago. Make no mistake, though - there's still a long way to go. To those of you who've followed this series since it began last February, a big thank you for your constant readership and support. Hopefully it won't take us another whole year to make it to Episode Thirty. I hope to see y'all next week when I tackle the Temple of the Ancients. In the meantime, thanks for reading and I'll see you around.
Currently playing - Final Fantasy VII (PSP)