Hey, and welcome once again to yet another episode of Enduring Final Fantasy VII, the serial blog in which I return to one of my favourite games of all time (Final Fantasy VII, in case that wasn't clear), and look at it through the objective eyes of a modern gamer to determine whether or not the game still holds up today. Not too much of a preamble this episode, let's just get stuck straight into the action. Cue title card!
Episode Nine - Face-Offs And Race-Offs
As I load up my save and reunite with Cloud and co. in Corel Prison, a realisation strikes me like a lightning bolt - the prison is actually built on the site of old Corel town. I'm not sure how this fact has escaped me in all my numerous other playthroughs of this game, and I feel incredibly stupid for not noticing sooner, but this moment of realisation within the first few seconds of resuming my game reminds me of one of the reasons I regard this game so highly myself - every time I come back to it, it never fails to surprise me by throwing up something that I either hadn't noticed before, or had bypassed completely. That in itself is a real testament to the depth of the gameworld that the developers created, when every subsequent playthrough adds even more substance to your understanding of their creation.
Shaking the nostalgic feelings out of my mind, I focus on the task at hand - locating Barret and finding out exactly what happened back at the Gold Saucer. Last time we saw him, he ran south, so that's where we're headed. In a run-down old house (that I now recognise as being the house of Corel's old Mayor - stupid me!), Cloud, Aerith and Cait Sith catch up with Barret, and are reunited with Tifa, Yuffie and Red XIII as well. With the whole team reassembled, Barret finally explains what he thinks is going on. He's adamant that he wasn't responsible for the shootout in the Gold Saucer, but he thinks he knows who might be responsible. Four years ago, Barret had returned to Corel with Dyne after an expedition to the town's new Mako Reactor, to find it aflame. Met by Scarlet and several Shinra soldiers, Barret and Dyne both escaped with their lives, but with gravely injured hands. When Barret had a gun grafted onto his arm, he was told that another man had the same operation. He's convinced it's Dyne that shot up the Battle Square, and is determined to find him to put his demons to rest. Not wanting to let him go alone, Cloud and Aerith decide to tag along, although they promise to let Barret deal with Dyne on his own. This delayed coda to Barret's story is a fitting addition that's definitely on par with the first part, and provides even further insight into his hatred of Shinra, a company that has seemingly robbed him of his home, his family, and his closest friend. With the next step of our journey established, it's time to head out into the desert and find Dyne.
Unfortunately, I'm soon brought crashing back down to earth as I open up the menu and try to move all of Red XIII's Materia over to Barret, in order to balance the newly-formed party. I'm greeted with an extremely unfriendly interface that proves fiddly for me to deal with even in spite of my previous experience with the system. Instead of quickly shifting all the Materia from Red XIII to Barret in one go, I have to move it one piece at a time. Being able to effectively equip Materia for the best bonuses is something that has to be earned and learned, and I'm fine with that, but if you want to encourage player experimentation, it shouldn't be so difficult to equip the stuff and swap it around. In comparison to the menus of modern games, Final Fantasy VII's Materia interface is hideously sluggish in this respect. An option to transfer all Materia from one character to another in one go really wouldn't have gone amiss here.
After some time wandering through the Corel Desert (and getting held up by a couple of rather nasty Land Worms in the process), the team happen upon an old scrapyard. Deep in amongst all the junk is Dyne, standing in front of two makeshift graves and mindlessly firing off shots from his gun-arm. Barret approaches to confront him, and the ensuing conversation is one of the game's strongest moments - Dyne, consumed by nihilistic thought, expresses his insatiable desire to destroy everything. Barret attempts to reason with him, but Dyne's not having any of it - he's looking for a fight, and he won't back down until he gets one. It's definitely one of the game's strongest moments from a scriptwriting perspective. Just from the words Dyne speaks, it's perfectly clear that he's consumed by thoughts that he doesn't want to have, and they're affecting his behaviour in ways that he isn't comfortable with, but is also unable to control. It's also quite clearly established that Marlene is Dyne's daughter, although it's never explicitly stated at any point in the conversation. When Barret finally manages to overpower Dyne, the defeated former friend leaves a pendant in Barret's possession and asks him to give it to Marlene before throwing himself into a chasm.
It's some really strong character interaction that culminates in a one-on-one showdown that feels appropriately futile and empty. In 1997, this must have been a big deal - at a time when Hyrule was being saved from Ganon by Link and Mario was stomping Bowser to rescue Princess Peach, Final Fantasy VII must have offered a radically new take on the balance of good and evil in the world of video game storytelling. These days, of course, it's nothing new for the medium - Max Payne, Arkham Asylum, and even Red Dead Redemption have offered the modern gamer excellent examples of troubled heroes and morality conflicts. However, I'm willing to argue that the incredibly bittersweet and futile way in which the reunion between Barret and Dyne is handled is a cut above John Marston's attempts to chase down his former gangmates. The amount of power that this simple scene has can't be understated. Even if it does end with Barret's hackneyed scream of "DY-----NE!"
Back at the Prison, the team set in motion their plan to escape. It transpires that prisoners can win their freedom by competing in the Chocobo races up in the Gold Saucer. The man in charge of arranging this, Mr. Coates, is initially reluctant to allow Cloud to compete, but Barret soon changes his tune when he unveils Dyne's pendant. It transpires that a lot of the prisoners looked up to Dyne, referring to him as 'Boss', and with his "permission", Mr. Coates is content to put Cloud in for the races. He introduces him to an eccentrically-dressed woman named Ester, who offers to act as his manager. With Ester's guidance, it's not long before Cloud is ready to compete in the Chocobo races!
The race itself takes the form of a simple mini-game, in which you have to effectively manage your Chocobo's stamina to win. One button speeds your Chocobo up, another slows it down, and a third acts as a Turbo Boost of sorts. Speeding up and boosting drains the Chocobo's Stamina bar faster, so the optimum tactic is to find a speed that's competitive, but doesn't drain the Stamina bar too quickly. At least, that's the theory, I think. The problem is that it's possible to regenerate Stamina by holding the R1 and R2 buttons, and that regeneration happens at roughly the same speed at which the bar drains when the Chocobo's moving on its highest speed setting. As a consequence, it's incredibly easy to exploit the system and emerge victorious. Glaring balance issues aside, though, the Chocobo race serves as a nice distraction from the more traditional aspects of JRPG gameplay. Much like the motorcycle sequence back in Midgar, it's a nice novelty to see the world from a three-dimensional perspective, even though the graphics don't hold up at all by modern standards. Stylistically, it's very much in the Gold Saucer spirit - colourful, crazy, and quintessentially Japanese. It's a noticeable contrast to the events that have transpired so far in this episode, and it's another example of Final Fantasy VII's tendency to suddenly yo-yo between oppressive bleakness and care-free craziness. Thankfully, it doesn't feel out of place like the Costa Del Sol and the initial gallivanting round the Gold Saucer did - racing in the colourful environs of the Gold Saucer is a necessary requirement to earn the party's freedom, and as such it feels more like a well-placed pick-me-up to balance out the scene between Barret and Dyne.
It doesn't take long for me to beat out all the opposition jockeys and push Cloud's Chocobo across the finish line. Cloud is congratulated by Ester, who provides him with a pardon letter from none other than Dio, proprietor of the Gold Saucer. He apologises for the mix-up with Dyne and grants Cloud's entire party their freedom. To sweeten the deal, he also throws in a dune buggy for the team's use and leaves a hint as to Sephiroth's location - the nearby village of Gongaga. With a new means of travel and a freshly laid trail to follow, the team find themselves back out on the World Map beneath the Gold Saucer. After all that's happened in the last hour, it seems like the perfect opportunity to save the game and bring this episode to a close.
So at the close of Episode Nine, my current vital statistics are:
- Current Party - Cloud (Lv 25), Aerith (Lv 24), Red XIII (Lv 24)
- Current Location - Gold Saucer Region, World Map
- Time on the Clock - 14:17
The Story So Far...
Looking for the next episode? You can find Episode Ten - Going Gongaga here.
Getting back into writing these regular updates is definitely bringing me a lot of enjoyment. I'm aware that I've once again focused a little too heavily on plot points, but I think that's primarily due to the nature of the Barret/Dyne focus of this portion of the game, and I'd like to assure you all that it's not a permanent shift in focus for the series as a whole. While I don't want to jinx the whole thing, I'd like to (very tentatively) suggest that the next episode will probably hit a week from now, with another episode in the middle of the following week - I'm visiting my family for a week, and I anticipate that I'll have very little to do during the days besides play Final Fantasy VII. As always, I'd love to hear your feedback, so please feel free to leave any comments or suggestions below. I promise that they are all read, appreciated and taken on board. Until next time, thanks very much for reading, and I'll see you around.
Currently playing - Final Fantasy VII (PSP)