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It's hard to believe that it's been just over a month since I last put one of these blogs together. I had intended to push this episode out at the end of March, but a computer crash resulted in more or less the whole episode disappearing into the inter-abyss. Following my three-week hiatus from the blogosphere, I decided the best way to cement my return was with a long-awaited update to Enduring Final Fantasy VII. For those of you who may be new to this, allow me to explain. It's a serial blog that I keep alongside my regular blogs, in which I attempt to play through fan-favourite Final Fantasy VII through the objective eyes of a modern gamer to determine whether or not it still has something to offer a contemporary audience. The title is born from my desire to know whether Final Fantasy VII has endured the test of time, or whether the adventure is now simply something to be endured. Now that the new are initiated and the regulars are sitting comfortably, let's begin.
Episode Six - An Abundance Of Big Birds
Given the amount of time this blog has spent swirling around in the ether, I think it'd be fair to assume that most people have forgotten just how far we've made it to date. To recap, the last episode of Enduring Final Fantasy VII covered Cloud's retelling of the Nibelheim incident in Kalm Village, and ended with our band of intrepid adventurers sitting on the world map ready to start pursuing Sephiroth. Remembering that an NPC in Kalm recalled seeing a man in a black cape heading east, that's the direction I opt to travel in. A brisk walk through some grassland and a handful of random encounters later, I come to a stop outside a building resembling a barn, surrounded by a number of animal tracks. A quick explore of the peripheral area reveals that there's nothing else of interest nearby, save for a swamp guarded by a particularly nasty-looking snake, so I opt to pay the barn a visit. It turns out that this edifice is actually a stable for everybody's favourite giant yellow birds - chocobos.
Chatting to the owner of the establishment turns up some new information of the whereabouts of the party's mark - apparently he saw a man dressed in black heading towards the swamp. I catch myself sighing at the game's heavy reliance on the "he went that-a-way!" method of story progression, which feels like a bit of a step back after the wide variety of ways that the Midgar portion of the game utilised to encourage progress. He also warns that the swamp is impossible to cross on foot, stating that any attempts to do so will result in a confrontation with the swamp's guardian, the ferocious Midgar Zolom. All hope is not lost, though - just as it looks like the team has hit a dead end, he informs them that the swamp is passable if they ride through it upon a chocobo, and points them in the direction of his son who'll set them up with a mount. Unfortunately, the stable boy reveals that he doesn't have any chocobos to spare right now, but he makes up for it by selling Cloud the Chocobo Lure Materia and some greens. Feeling myself momentarily susceptible to some Final Fantasy nostalgia, I opt for the Gysahl Greens, equip Cloud with the newly-acquired Materia, and head back out onto the grasslands to catch me a chocobo.
It doesn't take long before I find my first big yellow bird, accompanied in battle by a couple of mole-like Mus. My initial excitement overwhelms my reason, as I end up attacking before baiting the chocobo with greens and scaring it away. My second attempt at capture fares much better, with Aerith keeping the target occupied with a barrage of Gysahl Greens while Cloud and Red XIII go to town on the accompanying ostrich-like monsters. One thing that I've always loved about this part of Final Fantasy VII is how it refuses to patronise the player. The developers could have quite easily gone down the Final Fantasy VI route of simply letting the player pay for a chocobo to ride, but instead they decided to make the player work for it. The result is a level of interactivity and a sense of effort-reaping-reward attached to the process that adds some depth to the experience, even if it doesn't bring anything radically new to the table. It also acts as a nice little preview to one of the side-quests the game offers up later on. But I'm getting ahead of myself... back to business!
In no time at all I've isolated the oblivious bird, and it proves fairly easy to negotiate the swamp while keeping my distance from the dreaded Midgar Zolom. On the other side of the swamp, Cloud and his friends come face to face with another enormous Midgar Zolom, but this one's a little less lively. In fact, it's dead - impaled on a broken tree like a piece of pineapple on a cocktail stick.
Even now, ten years after my first experience with the game, there's something about this moment that just sends chills down my spine. The fact that the game shows you this is what Sephiroth is capable of makes him seem even more menacing as an adversary, and I'd argue it leaves an even bigger mark than his similar attack on President Shinra back in Midgar. The bloody snake, the darkening sky, the ominous music and the dumbfounded reactions of Cloud and his companions all come together to create a striking and memorable moment.
Now well on the other side of the swamp, Cloud and co. have one more obstacle to clear - a mountain range. An opening in the mountain-side leads the party through an old mine, and as you might expect from an RPG it's full of nasty critters and loot. After exploring the mine and picking up some neat items including a particularly useful-looking piece of Long Range Materia, the party run into The Turks (minus Reno at this point, who's still off licking his wounds after his last fight with Cloud and the gang). In what comes off as a pretty cringe-worthy instance of forced humour from the usually smooth Turks, newbie Elena lets slip to the adventurers that The Turks are pursuing Sephiroth too, and that he was last sighted in the nearby coastal city of Junon. With Sephiroth their top priority, they don't have time to mess with Cloud and his buddies, and Tseng leads Rude and Elena out of the mine. The party follows suit, and ends up back out on the world map on the other side of the mountain range.
Just on the horizon I spy a tall structure with what appears to be a bird on top. Intrigued, I decide to move in and investigate. The structure in question is Fort Condor, an old Mako reactor that's been adopted by a condor as its nest. Speaking to the few inhabitants reveals that the reactor is constantly under attack from Shinra troops trying to dethrone the condor and reclaim their property. The rebel residents have formed an alliance against Shinra, and I quickly proceed to offer my assistance. I soon learn that my assistance takes the form of a real-time strategy mini-game where I have to purchase various different types of units and micro-manage them in order to prevent the Shinra troops from reaching the condor on top of the reactor. It's a fairly simple mini-game with a surprising amount of depth - every unit has a strength and a weakness, and it's possible to speed up and slow down proceedings on the fly so you can micro-manage without too much pressure from the clock, but also sit back while things are going your way. It's a very neat idea that seems well-executed, but ultimately the mini-game just wasn't much fun for me. It felt more like a well-designed distraction than something actually worth putting time into. Cloud, Aerith and Red XIII depart Fort Condor on good terms with the inhabitants having just halted the latest Shinra attack. "They'll be back", they proclaim. "The Shinra always come back." This contextual reference seems to be pointing to Fort Condor as being the game's first established side-quest. Not bad with nine-and-a-half hours on the clock.
I decide to bring this episode to a close with a brief bout of levelling while on my way to Junon from Fort Condor. While I'm wondering through the nearby forests in search of enemies to wipe out, I come across a young ninja girl armed with a shuriken. She's easily subdued, and after Cloud and the team have put her in her place the action shifts to a nondescript grassy field and a nearby save point. A bit of brain-racking and a few dialogue choices later, I've gained a new party member - Yuffie Kisaragi. Final Fantasy VII was the last game in the series to date to incorporate completely optional (and as a consequence, completely missable) party characters - a trend started by its predecessor, Final Fantasy VI. Yuffie is by far my least favourite of the two optional characters, largely because she's such a pain to actually obtain - make one mistake in the post-battle dialogue, open your menu, or try to save your game, and she'll vanish, along with a sizeable portion of your Gil. Going through all those dialogue options once again reminded me of my first try to win her over, and the countless mistakes I made in attempting to do so. After a brief stint with Yuffie in the party, I revert to my standard team of Cloud, Aerith and Red XIII, and save my game just outside the entrance to Junon Harbour.
So at the close of Episode Six, my current vital statistics are:
- Current Party - Cloud (Lv 21), Red XIII (Lv 20), Aerith (Lv 20)
- Current Location - Junon Region, World Map
- Time on the Clock - 10:06
And for those of you who've been waiting for too long to read all of that, here's a bullet-point summary:
- The game's main means of driving its plot right now seems to be a combination of "he went that-a-way" and "you just missed him" devices. Kind of a let-down after the promising build-up of Midgar and the Kalm flashback.
- I continue to love the fact that Final Fantasy VII makes you catch your first chocobo for yourself. It shows effort on the developers' part to mix things up and keep things interesting from a gameplay standpoint.
- Even in spite of the low graphical fidelity, the impaled Midgar Zolom is still a striking and memorable moment that really makes Sephiroth seem like a threatening antagonist.
- The Turks are cool. Except when they're trying to be funny.
- The Fort Condor mini-game is intriguing and worth checking out, but it's not very compelling and won't be distracting anybody from pressing on with the main storyline.
- For the uninitiated, obtaining Yuffie is a pain in the arse. Nonetheless, I still commend Final Fantasy VII for its inclusion of completely optional characters, as future episodes will undoubtedly further bring to light.
If you enjoyed this, be sure to check out SamStrife's serial blog in a similar vein (but with much better presentation values), 'Enduring Final Fantasy IX'. The latest episode is titled Wood You Believe It?. Maybe a few more reads and comments will encourage him to pick his project back up.
Thanks for reading. In an unusual twist, especially for a themed blog such as this, I'd like to take this opportunity to close with a musical recommendation for my readers. Just over a week ago, Paul Weller released his tenth studio album, Wake Up the Nation. As a huge fan of Paul's work already, I wasted no time in downloading my copy from iTunes, and I haven't been disappointed by a single track - in fact, it's acted as very enjoyable background listening for the writing of this very blog. Below are a couple of my favourite songs from the album, titled 'Wake Up the Nation' and 'Aim High'. Given that I don't know the musical tastes of my readership, I'm not promising that you'll enjoy them as much as I do, or even at all. What I am suggesting is that you take five minutes to check these songs out, and if you like what you hear, consider dropping the £7.99 (or whatever the American equivalent is) to download the album from the iTunes Store. It's the tightest, most energetic album I've heard so far this year, and is the perfect showcase for Paul's incredible songwriting talents.
Thanks for reading once again guys. Sorry about the wait. I promise the next episode won't be quite so long in the making. I also feel like I should apologise for the lack of screenshots in the last few episodes. I simply can't find appropriate ones in the Giant Bomb database that fit the relevant in-game moments, and Google Image Search is a lottery at the best of times. It really makes me wish the PSP had a screen-capture function, so I could take stills right out of my game and pop them in this blog. Anyway, I guess all that's left to be said is 'see you around'. So... see you around!
Currently playing - Final Fantasy VII (PSP)
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