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Episode Fourteen - The Great Materia Heist
After a run-in with Rufus at Rocket Town, I pick my game back up to find Cloud and co. sitting on the shores of the westernmost island on the world map. The events of the last episode mean that although I've now gained a new playable character (Cid) and a new means of transportation (the Tiny Bronco), the party have no idea where they're supposed to be headed. I spent a lot of time stuck at this point in my first playthrough of the game, and although it never became quite as frustrating as finding the White SeeD Ship in Final Fantasy VIII, I did experience quite a bit of 'exploration fatigue' at this point.
A few steps into exploring this newly-discovered island, the action cuts away from the world map and into a pre-rendered backdrop. The party is attacked by a pair ofShinra soldiers, who are no match for the triple-threat of Cloud, Aerith and Red XIII. Or at least, they wouldn't have been, were it not for the fact that all my Materia has been unequipped from my characters. Brute strength and a couple of Hi-Potions see me through the encounter, and I emerge on the other side of it to find all my accumulated Materia is not only unequipped - it's gone. Funnily enough, Yuffie is missing too, and Cloud suspects it isn't a coincidence. The team give chase, heading north towards the town of Wutai. I've always had very mixed feelings about this portion of the game, and a big part of that is down to this removal of Materia. For a start, it happens at the exact moment where the Materia system starts to really open up and allow for some truly interesting character 'builds'. It also severely harms the game's battle system, essentially reducing it to mashing on the attack button until all enemies are slain. A lot of games do something like this - clearing out your inventory, setting you back at square one and forcing you through some kind of ordeal to get all your gear back. I've never been a fan of it, and Final Fantasy VII's example is no exception.
When the party rolls into Wutai, the first thing I notice (and the first thing I've always noticed upon reaching this part of the game) is how unique Wutai feels compared to the rest of the game's towns and villages outside Midgar. The town has a distinct oriental vibe going on in both its visual style and its music theme, that really makes it stand out from the JRPG-standard villages like Kalm and Rocket Town. The town also has an incredibly rich backstory of conflict with Shinra in a struggle to retain its independence. It's a real shame that hardly any of this is touched on during the party's visit to Wutai, and simply tucked away in other parts of the game. Much likeGongaga in Episode Ten, it always astonishes me that Wutai is a completely optional part of the game, considering how much attention is given to its background and overall feel.
Locating Yuffie in Wutai feels less like a JRPG and more like a point-and-click adventure game - it's a case of exploring the town, talking to everybody and examining every examinable object to determine where each of her hiding places is. Thankfully, the game does a pretty good job of pointing you in the right direction, by way of visual clues and dialogue hints. While checking the Turtle's Paradise bar, Cloud happens upon Reno, Rude and Elena of the Turks. Thankfully, they're not on duty, so there's no risk of a fight breaking out here (probably just as well, given I don't have any Materia). When the party finally manages to corner Yuffie, she admits defeat and promises to return the stolen Materia. Somewhat predictably though, it's a trap - the wily ninja cages the team and escapes once again.
By the time the party catches up with Yuffie again, she's ended up in a little trap of her own - she's being carried away by a ninja in the employ of... Don Corneo! The infamous villain of Wall Market has brought his search for a bride to Wutai, and Yuffie is a prime candidate. Corneo stalls the team with a few soldiers to fight, and by the time Cloud and co. have mopped them up, the Don and Yuffie are long gone. It turns out Yuffie isn't the only abductee, though - outside Corneo's lair the party run into Reno and Rude, who reveal that Elena has also been kidnapped. The adventurers and the Turks agree to a temporary truce, putting aside their differences in order to track down their common enemy. Back in town, somebody mentions that an old man was spotted taking two young women up onto the mountain Da Chao. I guess we know where Don Corneo's gone, then.
Da Chao is part mountain path, part Wutai's own Mount Rushmore.
It's a striking environment to explore, even if the pathways around it are completely linear. Up on the hand of one of the rock statues, Don Corneo is trying to choose between Yuffie and Elena. His indecisiveness buys Cloud's party enough time to reach them, but the Don has a surprise up his sleeve - another monster for the guys to contend with, Rapps. This flying beast probably wouldn't have posed too much of a problem for me, were it not for the fact I had no Materia. As things stood, I was lucky to hit Red XIII's Limit Break and bust out Lunatic High. I get the feeling that the dev team potentially could have found some way of spicing up these Materia-less fights, and as a result of that, the fight with Rapps feels like a wasted opportunity. When the fight is over, Reno and Rude show up and take Corneo down once and for all. The cold, methodical dispatch of the Don, accompanied by the Turks' theme, really epitomises what the organisation represents in my mind. For a moment, all the memories of their roles as comic foils in Advent Children are forgotten - this is the real Reno and Rude.
A final quick word on the Wutai side-adventure's progression into the realm of the farcical - I think that this second encounter with Don Corneo is the game's funniest moment since Wall Market. It might even be the game's funniest moment full-stop. I just wish it didn't unfold in Wutai. Exploring Wutai is a great experience, because you really get the feel that it's a place with a long, turbulent and interesting history. While searching for Yuffie, you get to see a part of that. Later, when the side quest is complete and you're free to wrap up some of the town's other distractions, you get to see a little more. Chasing after a randy old man against that backdrop kinda ruins the majesty of that backdrop, especially when it's as impressive as Da Chao. I feel like Wutai is a criminally underdeveloped and undervalued location. It's almost as if the developers wanted to give it a much bigger role in the game, but then ran out of time, or changed their agenda, and left it somewhat half-baked as a result.
Once Yuffie's been freed, she reluctantly hands over the party's Materia (completely out of order, to boot). There's just enough time to head to the weapon shop and kit the crew out with some new implements of destruction, and then it's off to the world map to save my game and wrap up yet another episode of Enduring Final Fantasy VII.
So at the close of Episode Fourteen, my current vital statistics are:
- Current Party - Cloud (Lv 38), Aerith (Lv 38), Red XIII (Lv 38)
- Current Location - Wutai Region, World Map
- Time on the Clock - 21:17
The Story So Far...
Looking for the next episode? You can find Episode Fifteen - Conflict, Romance And Betrayal here.
Another week, another episode of Enduring Final Fantasy VII. Be sure to join me next Friday, when I'll be ascending a pagoda, going on a date, and identifying a spy! Thanks very much for reading, guys. I'll see you around.
Currently playing - Final Fantasy VII (PSP)