You know what I haven't done in a while? Revive my seriously slow-moving and hiatus-prone episodic blog series in which I replay Final Fantasy VII and try to objectively determine whether or not it's still worth playing. Shall we do that today? Yes. Yes we shall.
Episode Seventeen - The Death Of An Ancient
So for the benefit of everyone (myself included) let's pick this back up with a brief recap of what's happened in the series so far. In the last twenty-five hours, we've followed Cloud and his band of fellow adventurers to almost every corner of the Planet in their pursuit of Sephiroth. In the most recent episode, they finally caught up with him at the Temple of the Ancients and learned his true intentions - to summon the ultimate destruction magic, Meteor, and use it to wound the Planet. Based on his thinking, the wound will encourage the Lifestream beneath the Planet's surface to concentrate in a single place, where Sephiroth believes he can draw on its power and become a god of sorts. To pull it off, Sephiroth needed the Black Materia - an ancient Materia which turned out to be the Temple itself. After managing to obtain the Materia, Cloud ended up having another one of his freak-outs and in doing so, gifted the Black Materia to his arch-nemesis before blacking out. While in his dream-state, Cloud was visited by Aerith. Being the last surviving Ancient, she believes she has the power to stop Sephiroth's plan, and leaves the party. Cloud wakes up in far-off Gongaga, knowing that in order to find Aerith and Sephiroth, they'll have to head to the City of the Ancients. That's where we'll pick the action back up.
It seems somewhat fitting that there's been a long pause between the last episode of 'Enduring...' and this one, because this was also a point where I took a fairly long break from the game in my first ever playthrough. Note to anybody reading this who might be considering doing the same - for the love of God, don't. For the most part, Final Fantasy VII does a great job of guiding the player from one story objective to the next, but every now and again it slips up. Next to when you first obtain the Tiny Bronco, this is quite possibly its biggest slip-up in this regard. You see, we know we're supposed to be heading to the City of the Ancients, but we don't know where that is. The game tells us it's to the north, but the disadvantage of this piece of information is that pretty much everything on the World Map is north of Gongaga. This is probably the most frustrating memory I have of Final Fantasy VII in the long term - taking the Tiny Bronco everywhere it could possibly go, revisiting every single town and village in the hope that someone, somewhere, could point me in the right direction, until I finally stumbled on the right location.
Thankfully, ten years of experience and several playthroughs' worth of knowledge are enough to guide me to the right spot with minimal hassle this time - Bone Village. Situated on the northernmost island on the world map (that would have been better direction than simply 'north', Square), Bone Village is home to an excavation crew who seem to know far too much about how things work in this neck of the woods. Out back of the village is the Sleeping Forest, the place where Aerith met Cloud in his unconscious period. But, taking a leaf out of The Legend of Zelda's book, the forest is unnavigable. Unnavigable, that is, unless you happen to know its secret. Strangely, these clued-up palaeontologists all seem to know that secret - you need a Lunar Harp! How do you get your hands on this mystical item? Simple - you just ask these omniscient guys to dig one up for you! I have to admit, the logic governing this part of the game's plot progression is far too flimsy, even for me. How the hell do these guys know all this stuff? That being said, the mini-game that it spawns is kind of interesting. In order to find the Lunar Harp, you'll have to employ some of the resident diggers to pinpoint the item for you, and then dig it up. You can place up to five scouts throughout Bone Village, and then trigger an explosion which will cause them all to look towards the location of the Harp. It's an interesting little distraction from the conventional gameplay, and surprisingly deep as well - you can also choose to dig for general items other than the Harp, to bolster your inventory.
While my memory may have been strong enough to guide me to Bone Village without incident, it isn't able to guide me straight back to the Lunar Harp's resting place, and so it takes me a few attempts to actually locate and dig up the Harp. Upon entering the forest, the Harp awakens it from its sleep and grants me free passage through what is otherwise an incredibly uneventful few screens. En route, I stumble upon some more Summon Materia - this particular piece lets me call on the tri-elemental Kjata. It's not long before I'm back out on the world map, sitting in a narrow canyon and standing before what looks like a huge floating glacier - the City of the Ancients.
Right now, I decide to take the opportunity to properly re-shuffle my party - now that Aerith has gone, there's a pretty big hole to fill in my battle line-up. After experimenting with some different line-ups and tactical options, I end up settling on a power-trio of Cloud, Cid, and Red XIII. Cloud is the designated 'tank', equipped with a pretty effective combination of HP Plus, Cover and Counter Attack Materia to ensure he's both protecting the party and dealing out heavy damage. Cid is acting as an offensive healer, capable of restoring HP and buffing the party, but also strong enough to contribute something in the way of attacking as well. His low HP forces me to keep him in the back row, but that's offset by the Long Range Materia he's holding. Red XIII is my offensive mage, loaded up with elemental spells and powerful Summon Materia. To counter balance his high MP consumption, I've equipped him with some MP Plus Materia and twinned one of his MP-guzzling spells with an MP Absorb Materia. Eager to see if these Materia combinations pay off, I rest up in a Tent and head into the City before me.
The City of the Ancients is definitely one of the game's most aesthetically striking and unique locales. Most of the buildings are constructed from huge hollowed-out shells, and many of them have fallen into states of washed-out disrepair. To top it off, everything seems to have been half-buried beneath layers of snow, or sand, or dust, or something. As you explore, you really get caught up in the feeling that this place marks the foundations of a long-lost civilization, and was once something truly grand. Hell, in a decadent kind of way, I guess it still is. The haunting musical score also does a really great job of maintaining this feel. Thematically, it's up there with Midgar as one of the game's most distinctive locations, and a million miles away from the more conventional JRPG trappings that define areas like Kalm and Nibelheim. Exploring the long-abandoned City yields a few items, but doesn't really turn up anything interesting (except some Comet Materia, which instantly finds its way into Red XIII's paws). It also turns up an opportunity to rest, which somewhat annoys me considering I've just wasted a tent. Grudgingly, I turn the party in.
During the night, Cloud senses the presence of Aerith somewhere in the city. Worryingly, he also senses the presence of Sephiroth. Eager to try and find her before anything terrible happens, the party rouse themselves and head deeper into the centre of City. In the huge shell-building there, a crystalline staircase has appeared, descending into the bowels of the City itself. This staircase leads Cloud and the rest of the party into a subterranean 'other city', a beautiful crystalline environment punctuated by towers and seemingly untouched by the centuries that have ravaged the landscape above. Descending down into this environment, I get the feeling that perhaps this is what things might have looked like above-ground, thousands of years ago. At the centre of this piece of living history, her head bowed in prayer, is Aerith.
As Cloud approaches, he once again seems to slip into one of his strange, manipulated states, almost identical to when the gave Sephiroth the Black Materia back at the Temple. This time, however, whoever's pulling the strings seems to want him to kill Aerith. The ensuing scene where Cloud draws his sword and almost brings it crashing down over Aerith is a pretty powerful example of how the interactive aspect of video games can really serve the narrative in unique and interesting ways. Throughout this sequence, the player still has control over Cloud, but at the same time that level of control is limited in a way that makes the player feel genuinely powerless. Try to walk away and Cloud will walk right back. Later on in the sequence, when Cloud is stood brandishing the Buster Sword, trying to move will force him to lean, but won't budge him from the spot he's standing on. Pressing the Cancel button will force him to shake his head, but still won't negate what's about to happen. The only real course of action for the player is simply to keep pressing Accept - to submit to the puppeteer's will, just as Cloud himself is doing. It's a pretty powerful way to put the player in Cloud's shoes and makes his actions even more shocking than if this were simply a cut-scene.
Of course, Cloud doesn't go through with it. Just as he's about to bring his blade down, his companions shout to him and snap him out of his crazed state. Unfortunately, that simply isn't enough to save Aerith's life. As Cloud's and Aerith's eyes meet, Sephiroth descends from above and drives his own sword into the praying girl's back, running her right through. As she slumps forward the Materia lodged in her hairband comes loose, and bounces off the platform into the waters below.
Even now, eleven years after I first saw it and fourteen years after the game's release, the incident still has the power to provoke strong emotions. My first time through the game, it was a complex mixture of feeling distraught, surprised, and shocked. For one thing, it's an event that you really don't see coming. For another, I'd invested a lot of time into Aerith, both in terms of the game's story and as a pivotal member of my battle party. For her to be robbed from me at this moment in the game was pretty heartbreaking. For a while I was pretty sure that the game would offer the ability to recover her through some form of resurrection - surely the developers wouldn't encourage me to invest so much into a character, only to lose them at the end of the first disc? The more I progressed through the game, though, I realised that wasn't going to happen, and I'm really glad it didn't. Aerith's death is an incredibly powerful motivational force in driving the second half of the game's narrative, and pretty much all of that motivation is derived from the interactions that take place with her, both in and out of battle. Put simply, making her a playable character was probably the most effective way for the developers to make her really matter to the player. For me at least, it worked.
These days, after several playthroughs of the game, the emotional impact has diminished somewhat due to the lack of the element of surprise. It's still sad to see such an innocent and pure life cut short in an instant, but it's difficult to feel the same way when you know it's coming. However, the shock factor still resonates with me, albeit for slightly different reasons. More than anything, it's the shock that Square actually had the balls to do this. Even now, killing off a meaningful playable character in any video game is ground that isn't trodden very often. Back in 1997, it must have been practically unheard of. And yet here they were, taking this incredible risk for the sake of their narrative. As far as risks of that nature go, I'd personally put it up there with Hideo Kojima's decision to make Raiden the main protagonist of Metal Gear Solid 2. It's a world away from where the company seem to be these days, comparatively playing it very very safe with their narratives. I'm sure there's a lot more I could say about this if I gave myself some more time, but we'll leave it at that - we have a game to play, after all.
Cloud catches Aerith's body as she falls to the ground, while Sephiroth reiterates his grand plan. The speech from Cloud may be a little ham-fisted, but I still feel like it captures grief in a very convincing way. In the absence of sophisticated animation system or voice acting, Square really succeed in capturing Cloud's intense feelings in his choice of words. You really feel his pain, not least because you're also feeling it to some extent due to the reasons outlined above. Sephiroth departs, leaving behind another incarnation of Jenova for the party to deal with - Jenova LIFE. Time to find out if all those tactical adjustments from earlier have paid off.
Jenova LIFE doesn't really pose much of a threat in the face of my party. Admittedly, some of my tactical decisions don't really have a chance to pay off - the boss's exclusively magic-based attacks render Cloud's combination of Cover and Counter Attack null and void, and I accidentally trigger Red XIII's self-berserking Limit Break at the start of the fight, which means I can't take advantage of his magical prowess. Even despite this, though, it doesn't take long for me to hack away at the boss and dismiss it.
Jenova's last words ring through the air as the team vanquish her - "Because you are... a puppet." This line, combined with Cloud's recent crazy episodes, continue to point to something incredibly sinister behind the scenes that ties our protagonist to both Jenova and Sephiroth. After the party say their goodbyes, Cloud lifts Aerith's lifeless body and carries it out to the lake in the centre of the city. There, he lowers her into the depths, granting her a dignified burial. Later, Cloud's once again shown to be struggling, wrestling with an internal conflict between what he believes to be true and what has been happening recently. It's this conflict, combined with an amplified hatred for Sephiroth following Aerith's death, that seem to be driving Cloud onward at this point. In my opinion, this is the perfect way to bring the first disc to a close - without going too much into future spoiler territory, it does a great job of setting up the scenarios we'll be encountering on disc two. It also leaves a clear goal in sight of the player at the end of disc one - to pursue Sephiroth even further north, and prevent him from using the Black Materia to summon Meteor.
On that note, the first disc comes to an end, and so does this episode of Enduring Final Fantasy VII. I save and switch to the second disc, ready to pick the adventure back up another day.
So at the close of Episode Seventeen, my current vital statistics are:
- Current Party - Cloud (Lv 43), Cid (Lv 39), Red XIII (Lv 43)
- Current Location - The Forgotten Capital
- Time on the Clock - 25:59
The Story So Far...
Looking for the next episode? You can find Episode Eighteen - Story Exposition And... ...Snowboarding??? here.
I wasn't anticipating this episode to be so long, because in gameplay terms it doesn't really cover any new ground, and while a lot happens story-wise, it doesn't take very long to unfold. I guess I just had a lot to say about it. Anyway, thanks very much for reading guys. I hope you'll join me for the next episode too (which hopefully won't take ten months to get around to). Until then, I'll see you around.
Currently playing - Final Fantasy VII (PSP)