Would you look at that? I've gone and pulled a Radiohead this week, and brought you the latest episode of Enduring Final Fantasy VII a day earlier than planned. The reason behind this is pretty simple - it will be my twenty-first birthday on Monday. Because of this, I'll be spending a long weekend back at my parents' place, so tomorrow is going to be very hectic. To avoid disappointing you, I've moved this week's episode forward to Thursday. Next week I'll be going back to business-as-usual Friday releases, so don't get too excited. With that out of the way, let's get on with the latest part of this episodic retrospective.
Episode Sixteen - An Ancient Evil
I pick up the game where I left off last time - with Cloud, Aerith and Red XIII braced to enter the Temple of the Ancients. Just outside the Temple entrance, the party encounter a man in a black cape, identical to the ones in Nibelheim. He mutters something about Black Materia, before vanishing into thin air. Already this doesn't look great. At the top of the pyramid is another surprise waiting for the party - Tseng, the leader of the Turks. Badly wounded, he struggles to his feet and tells Cloud and co. that it's not the Promised Land Sephiroth is looking for. He hands back the stolen Keystone, allowing the party access to the Temple's inner sanctum. All this preamble really helps to set the tone in preparation for what's about to unfold inside the Temple - it gives the impression that something big is happening here, and it really doesn't look like it's something good.
As the party descend into the Temple proper, I'm reminded how much I love this dungeon. In terms of its style and its structure, there really isn't anything else like it in the whole of Final Fantasy VII. The first screen, a mishmash of staircases and archways, looks like something pulled straight out of a logic-defying piece of art. It's an incredibly daunting sight to be faced with, even as a player who's experienced the game multiple times. The path through this initial section of the Temple is actually pretty linear and easy to follow, but the illusion of an unnavigable labyrinth is upheld from the entrance to the exit. Navigating the screen also illustrates a phenomenon unique to the PlayStation-era Final Fantasy titles - the ability to play with multiple different height levels on the same pre-rendered backdrop. In today's world of "complete 3D" graphics, it's easy to convey a sense of size from the exterior, but very difficult to do so from the interior where you can only see one height level at a time. Pre-rendered backdrops don't have this problem, and this screen is a prime example of that - I can see every single staircase, every single archway, every single change in height level from a single position, and I think that conveys a maze-like quality much better than a behind-the-protagonist 3D camera ever could. Pretty much the only thing that ruins this screen for me is the way it looks. Most of Final Fantasy VII's pre-rendered environments are colourful and meticulously detailed, but this one looks like a rough pencil-sketch and feels really out of place as a result.
At the end of this maze lies the next obstacle - a corridor with C-shaped boulders rolling down it at regular intervals. It's up to the player to run from boulder to boulder, getting under the hollowed-out segment and avoiding being squished. As with most situations in Final Fantasy VII when 3D objects come into contact with other 3D objects, there's some questionable collision detection going on here, but for the most part it's simply a question of finding the right rhythm and timing. As the team reach the other end of the corridor and disable the trap, Aerith is drawn back to a pool of water in the middle of the corridor. Seemingly speaking with the spirits of the Ancients, they show her what transpired before the party reached the Temple - the Turks were attacked by Sephiroth, who also mentioned "becoming one with the Planet". If Sephiroth is inside the Temple, things are definitely not looking good.
The next room of the Temple is laid out in the shape of a clock face. The numbers are represented by twelve doorways leading to different rooms, while the hands act as pathways between the doors. Some rooms house treasures, while others are home to random encounters, and only one door leads out of the room completely and into the next section of the dungeon. The player can manipulate the 'hands' of the clock to access the different numbered doors. It's an interesting concept, with a couple of flaws. The main issue is that the movement of the hands is painfully slow, to the point where thorough exploration of the rooms is less of a pleasure and more of a chore. After picking up a couple of neat items (including Aerith's best weapon), I hit the right number and head through to the next room of the dungeon. In there is... yet another puzzle! The Temple of the Ancients doesn't feel like a dungeon most of the time to me. It's more like a series of puzzles, each of which has to be solved in order to progress to the next - radically different from the dead-end paths and random encounters of archetypal JRPG dungeons.
With all the puzzles solved, the team move into the heart of the Temple - the mural room. Here, the team encounter Sephiroth once again, and for the first time the confrontation lasts for more than a few seconds. The twisted antagonist finally unveils the true nature of his plan, shattering the party's preconceptions. Sephiroth hasn't looking for the Promised Land. Instead, he's been hunting down the Black Materia. With it in his possession, he plans to cast the ultimate destructive magic, Meteor. Striking the Planet with Meteor will open a wound in its surface, encouraging the Lifestream to surge to it and "heal" the Planet. Sephiroth plans to be right at the centre of this, with the hope that the energy of the Lifestream will allow him to become one with the Planet and turn into a god. At this point I'm really not sure what to make of Sephiroth's plan. The part of me that's capable of suspension of disbelief thinks the whole thing sounds incredibly grand and terrifying, while the cynical part of me is trying in vain to work out what's brought Sephiroth to the conclusion that exposure to the Lifestream will make him a god. Then again, he has read a lot of books, so who am I to question his logic?
With Sephiroth's plan finally out in the open, he vanishes, leaving Cloud jibbering mindlessly about the Black Materia and Meteor. There's something much deeper going on here, something that we don't even seem to have scratched the surface of yet. Aerith manages to snap him out of it, and just in time, because Sephiroth's left a Red Dragon for the party to play with. While the battle uses the game's boss theme, it feels more like a mini-boss than a full-fledged boss monster - it hits hard, but not especially fast, and it doesn't take long at all to whittle down its HP. In spite of the battle's easy nature, it results in some very nice loot - a Dragon Armlet, which cuts elemental damage in half, and the powerful Bahamut Materia. With the dragon slain, the party returns to exploring the mural room. At the far end of the room is a replica model of the Temple. Aerith (after consultation with the spirits of the Ancients) reveals that the Temple actually is the Black Materia. The trick to recovering it is to solve the puzzles contained within the model. Each puzzle solved will shrink the Temple, until it becomes small enough to carry. There is a catch, though - the puzzles have to be solved inside the Temple, meaning that whoever tries to retrieve the Black Materia will be crushed. Cait Sith volunteers to stay behind and sacrifice his stuffed body for the good of the Planet. With that settled, it looks like it's time to head for the exit.
As luck would have it, though, the exit is blocked - by what looks like the dungeon's real boss. This new enemy, named Demon's Gate, is a huge wall that gradually advances towards the party. If the player doesn't defeat it before it reaches their fighters, it's game over, bringing a timed aspect to this particular challenge. Demon's Gate is a great boss, and one I remember well from my first playthrough of the game. Having sold my Time Materia, I had access to neither Haste nor Slow, and was faced with the Game Over screen several times before I finally managed to pile enough damage on it to take it out. Thankfully I run into no such problems this time around. Aerith is quick to get off a Slow spell on the gate, followed by party-wide Haste and Barrier spells. The new Bahamut Materia also comes in handy, and it really doesn't take too long to stop the Demon's Gate in its tracks. As Cloud and the rest of the party flee the Temple, Cait Sith heads for the mural room. The team get out just in time to witness the Temple of the Ancients disappear right in front of them.
Cloud descends into the pit left behind and picks up the Black Materia. Now in the hands of the party, it should be safe, right? Wrong. As soon as Cloud pockets the Materia, Sephiroth reappears and manipulates Cloud into handing it over. With the Black Materia in his possession, Sephiroth departs, leaving Cloud unconscious and the party back at square one. Something I'd never paid much attention to before is the fact that throughout this whole sequence, the player is able to control Cloud's "inner child". As the real Cloud approaches Sephiroth, it's even possible to have this ghostly young Cloud plead with him not to listen. It's yet another example of the game hinting at a distinct division within Cloud's character - a theme that's been prevalent in this episode and, without wanting to spoil too much, is sure to occupy large portions of future episodes too.
The action fades out, replaced by Cloud's own dreams. In his unconscious state, he's visited by Aerith. She tells him that she's leaving the party, to try and stop Sephiroth by herself - as the only surviving Ancient, she's convinced that she's the only person capable of bringing his plan to an end at this point. Sephiroth also comes to Cloud in his dream-state, saying that Aerith could be a threat and he'll have to "deal with her". When Cloud wakes up, he finds himself in a bed back in Gongaga. Barret and Tifa tell him that Aerith has left the party. Cloud knows where she's gone, and fears for her safety, but is worried about what pursuing her could mean. It's clear that Sephiroth has some kind of control over him, and he's petrified of a repeat of the situation with the Black Materia back at the Temple. After a few rousing words from his fellow adventurers, though, Cloud decides to put his own worries on the backburner - Aerith's safety is the biggest priority right now. Cloud tells the rest of the party that she's likely to be at the City of the Ancients, to the north. On that note, I decide to wrap things up and bring this episode to an end.
So at the close of Episode Sixteen, my current vital statistics are:
- Current Party - Cloud (Lv 42), Tifa (Lv 34), Red XIII (Lv 41)
- Current Location - Gongaga Region, World Map
- Time on the Clock - 23:58
The Story So Far...
Looking for the next episode? You can find Episode Seventeen - The Death Of An Ancient here.
As always, thanks very much for reading. I'd like to end this episode with a warning regarding Episode Seventeen. Right now, it's planned to arrive next Friday (March 4th). However, I have two pretty big essays to work on, both of which are due for submission a week on Wednesday (March 9th). If progress on the essays isn't satisfactory come Friday, then I won't have time to write Episode Seventeen for a March 4th release. Apologies in advance if that is the case, but I really hope it isn't. I love writing this series, and getting back into the swing of it over the last few episodes has been great fun. Whatever transpires, I look forward to bringing you more of this series. In the meantime, thanks for reading, and I'll see you around.
Currently playing - Final Fantasy VII (PSP)