Welcome, one and all, and especially you, to Episode Thirty-Two of Enduring Final Fantasy VII. That's right - much like the original PlayStation I first played this game on some twelve years ago, this blog now has 32 bits. This is the most recent instalment of a long-running, fairly ubiquitous serial blog in which I try to determine whether Final Fantasy VII (one of my all-time favourite video games) has weathered well as the years have passed. How do I determine that? Why, by playing it, of course! And that's what I'm about to do now. Roll title card!
Episode Thirty-Two - An End To Bad Science
At the end of the last episode, I left our crew of competent adventurers after they'd just parachuted back into Midgar to stop a crazed Professor Hojo from destroying the city by overheating the Sister Ray. They've landed just inside the perimeter of Sector 8, and are planning to use the underground to avoid SOLDIER troops and make it to Shinra Headquarters. Cait Sith has located a trap-door leading down into the myriad tunnels beneath Midgar, and as Cloud approaches he throws it open, ushering the party into the bowels of the city. As he does so, a familiar piece of music begins to play:
I closed the last episode with some brief thoughts about how the return to Midgar at the end of the second disc effectively brings the whole game full circle. The recycling of 'Bombing Mission' as the team begin their descent into the Midgar underground is a very welcome nod to this cyclic progression of the narrative. The last time we heard this music over forty hours ago, Cloud was bound for the Sector 1 Mako Reactor on a terrorist mission with AVALANCHE. This time it signifies a similar journey through the city's industrial workings, but with a view to saving the city from almost certain destruction. I really like the parallels between these two different points of the game's story, and the incorporation of 'Bombing Mission' into this second visit to Midgar only serves to increase that appreciation.
The Midgar underground only amounts to a few screens' worth of navigation, but its maze-like layout and a handful of scattered treasure chests serve to turn it into something of a mini-dungeon. I've rambled on at length in other episodes about how Final Fantasy VII uses unconventional settings to make traditional JRPG tropes feel fresh, so I'll just say that this is another fine example of this and leave it at that. I take my time moving through the underground, engaging in a few random encounters and picking up all the goodies along the way (among which is an awesome new weapon for Barret, making my primary fighter even more powerful). The enemies that litter the underground don't pose any real threat, with the exception of the irksome Crazy Saws - these robots have the ability to inflict Confuse on my party members, turning them on each other. Given the amount of damage I'm now causing, Confusion could be potentially disastrous, and in one battle my party very nearly wipes itself out. Without an appropriate accessory to remedy the situation, all I can do is prioritise my attacks towards them and hope for the best.
The party emerges from the underground into what seems to be a disused portion of Midgar's rail system. Here they encounter three familiar faces in the form of Turks Reno, Rude and Elena. Even with the Shinra Electric Power Company in turmoil and Midgar on the brink of disaster, they've been sent after Cloud and co. to stop them before they can reach the cannon. The party are given the option to talk their way out of this fight, an option that, given the progression of the relationship between the party and the Turks, might be a more fitting way to conclude their story arc. On the other hand, I find it very hard to say no to more EXP and Gil...
This incarnation of the Turks is without a doubt the strongest yet. Even with Cid casting a protective Wall spell on his first turn, the collective battering from Reno, Rude and Elena deals quite a bit of damage. While Cid continues to set up the party's defences with Regen and Haste, Barret launches his usual physical offensive (bolstered by the '2xCut' Materia, which allows him to attack twice per turn) and Cloud attacks with sweeping Summon spells like Alexander and the recently-acquired Bahamut ZERO. In this fashion, it doesn't take long for my party to turn the tide of battle and put paid to the Turks one last time. As is customary for them, they turn tail and run from the battle, leaving Cloud's party free passage into Midgar.
Before heading for the Sister Ray, I take advantage of the opportunity to pay a return visit to Shinra Headquarters. After Diamond Weapon's attack it's impossible to go any higher than the 65th floor, and there's nothing to do besides picking up a few items, but boy, do those items make the trip worth it. Cait Sith's ultimate weapon, the HP Shout, is tucked away in a locker on floor 64, and a powerful new weapon for Tifa, the Master Fist, sits in a treasure chest in the gift shop just off the lobby. There are also new weapons for Barret and Cid, albeit inferior to what I have now (especially after stumbling upon the Max Ray in the underground only recently.
Considering it's such a short detour I'm surprised I manage to get annoyed about two things during my time back in the Shinra building. The first is the handful of random battles I encounter while I'm exploring, which are against the same enemies I fought on my first visit. The problem here is, I'm a full fifty levels higher than I was then, and as a result these fights serve as nothing more than an annoyance. It would have been preferable if the developers had either thrown some tougher enemies at me, or simply switched off the fights altogether this time around. The second annoying thing I encounter is a pair of translation issues, directly tied to the aforementioned items I've picked up. When retrieving the new weapons for Barret and Cid in the field, they're named 'Pile Bunker' and 'Glow Lance' respectively. Opening the inventory, though, I discover they're now dubbed 'Pile Banger' and 'Grow Lance'. It's a small thing to get worked up about, and I can't really explain why it irritates me so much, but it does, and serves to reaffirm just how much I'd love to see this game get a new translation.
When I've finished taking care of business at Shinra HQ, it's time to double-back on myself and head for the Sister Ray. As the party emerges from the rail network, they're greeted by yet another unwanted welcoming committee - this time in the form of Heidegger and Scarlet, both riding in an anti-Weapon artillery unit called the Proud Clod. They're planning to finish what the Turks couldn't, and end Cloud's meddlesome crew once and for all. This cues the second boss battle of our return to Midgar, and one of the most difficult encounters I've faced in a long time. Proud Clod is every inch the tank he appears, boasting an enormous amount of HP. On top of this he can cast Reflect on the party, an inconvenience that can result in some very frustrating moments where healing spells bounce off weakened characters and restore some of the Proud Clod's plentiful HP reserves. DeBarrier proves to be my best friend here, although it does mean my usual defensive strategy of regularly casting Wall isn't quite as reliable as it usually is. It takes a lot of gradual whittling, but eventually the Proud Clod falls, destroyed in a brilliant explosion that presumably takes Heidegger and Scarlet with it. My reward is the Ragnarok, a slight improvement over Cloud's current sword which I equip immediately.
With every obstacle removed, all that remains now is to ascend the makeshift scaffold of the Sister Ray in pursuit of Hojo. Halfway up to the control platform I open a treasure chest containing the 'Missing Score' - Barret's ultimate weapon. I promptly do the only sensible thing I can do - tuck it away in my inventory and forget about it. Call me crazy, but I've never seen much point in Final Fantasy VII's ultimate weapons. Yes, they're incredibly powerful. Yes, they have eight Materia slots, all paired up to encourage experimentation with different combinations of Materia. The problem lies in their putting a total block on the growth of any attached Materia. I'm not a huge grinder in RPGs, but I do casually appreciate the pursuit of better stuff through levelling up, and having an ultimate weapon equipped in Final Fantasy VII effectively kills that chase. I guess eventually, when the player reaches a point where they've mastered all the Materia, the ultimate weapons can be used without any detrimental effect, but I've never played obsessively enough to be in that position, and if I did, I probably wouldn't need the ultimate weapons anyway. Final Fantasy X did something similar with its celestial weapons, but at least their full potential could be 'unlocked', removing their 'No AP' clause. As things stand in Final Fantasy VII, I've only ever switched to ultimate weapons for the final boss battles, when earning AP to grow Materia simply ceases to matter.
Still favouring the Max Ray, and having switched Cid over to the Glow/Grow Lance (I decide its additional Materia slots will make up for the lower attack power), I approach Hojo as he mashes violently at the Sister Ray's control panel. He's initially disinterested by the team's arrival, but soon begins expressing his frustration at having evaluated Cloud as a failure when he was, ultimately, the most successful attempt to recreate Sephiroth. It's at this point that Hojo spells out something only hinted at previously - that he is Sephiroth's biological father. Hojo volunteered his unborn son as a candidate for Professor Gast's Jenova Project, for which the infant Sephiroth was injected with Jenova cells while still in the womb. Seeing all this revealed once again draws my attention to the sheer complexity of the interpersonal relationships that serve to hold up Final Fantasy VII's story. The connections between characters, both playable and non-playable, are interwoven in such a way that the resulting web is nothing less than impressive. It lends the narrative the feeling that every character's fate is intrinsically linked to that of the others, and serves to make the gameworld feel more alive, more believable, and more interesting to spend time in.
With the Sister Ray almost ready to fire again, Hojo turns toward the party and tells them he has also injected himself with Jenova's cells. Cackling maniacally, the Professor begins to transform...
Hojo is an example of one of my least favourite JRPG tropes in action - namely, the multi-tiered boss. Hojo has three different incarnations in this battle, each one progressively more deformed and deadly than the last. Presumably the intended effect is to lend the conflict a sense of gravitas by making it lengthier and seemingly more epic, forcing the player to change their tactics on the fly to accommodate each new incarnation's attack patterns, and construct an air of uncertainty as to just how much fight the incredibly strong opponent has left in it. Personally, I've almost always come away from multi-phase boss fights feeling like they're an unnecessarily long and pretty cheap way of trying to make fights more interesting - I think things like facing multiple enemies who co-operate with each other, or a single enemy with the ability to change its strengths and weaknesses at will, fit the bill much more effectively. I remember the first time I played through Final Fantasy VII some twelve years ago, I'd never before encountered the phenomenon of the multi-tiered boss battle. I wasn't prepared to face more than one version of this deranged scientist, and dumped all of my most powerful abilities onto him right from the off. By the time the third, most deadly incarnation rolled around I'd exhausted all my summons and MP and ended up watching my severely debilitated party succumb to a barrage of status effects. That, too, may have gone some way towards shaping my opinion of this trope.
The first phase of this fight, simply dubbed 'Hojo', doesn't pose much of a threat. I get Cid to cast Haste on the whole party and lay into Hojo with a swift barrage of physical attacks. It only takes a few turns to cause the second form - 'Helletic Hojo' to emerge. Cid throws up a party-wide Barrier spell and heals as necessary while Cloud and Barret chip away at the monster's HP. This conservative approach to the first two phases ensures that when the third form - 'Lifeform Hojo' - arrives on the scene, I can launch an all-out offensive with my most powerful spells and summons. Cloud calls on Alexander, whose Holy-elemental Judgement, combined with an equipped Magic Plus Materia, encroaches on the range of the 9999 damage limit. Barret's 2xCut ability ensures a comfortable 4000 damage per round. Cid's role becomes a completely supportive one, healing any damage dealt and casting Esuna to counter the boss's constant infliction of negative status effects. The whole battle takes around eight minutes (longer than I'd expected it to), and when it reaches its conclusion, Hojo is no more.
I mentioned this briefly in the comments below the previous episode, but I feel the need to reiterate here that this whole 'return to Midgar' part of the game leaves me feeling a little underwhelmed. Given how much time the player spends in this city in the game's opening hours, it would have been great to see this return be a little more substantial. As things stand, it ends up being little more than a quick bombing run through a series of boss battles, and that's what underwhelms me about it. Midgar is a huge place, but over the course of the game we only see a handful of locations within it. The amount of untapped potential makes the brevity of the party's return even more disappointing. I realise it's possible to get back into Midgar on disc three, but it's a convoluted and completely optional process with (as far as I can recall) very limited pay-off story-wise. I guess there just seemed to be so much potential to do something more interesting with the team's return, but a lot of that potential was squandered.
With Shinra in tatters and Hojo defeated, the party return to the Highwind to re-assess their gameplan. Cloud instructs everybody to leave, return home, think about why they're fighting, and come back to the airship only if their reasons are good enough. That leaves just Cloud and Tifa behind - two former residents of Nibelheim who have no home to return to and nobody to fight for but themselves and each other. The pair spend the night together under the stars, in a scene which I've always considered to be one of Final Fantasy VII's most understated brilliant moments. Returning to the subject of the game's interpersonal relationships, I've long been fascinated by the 'love triangle' between Cloud, Tifa and Aerith. What follows is my own personal interpretation of that triangle, and an attempt to explain why it's captivated me through several playthroughs:
The next morning Cloud and Tifa return to the deck of the Highwind and are discussing their plans to assault the North Crater when the airship unexpectedly roars to life. The pair rush to the cockpit, where they find the entire party has returned. One by one they each reaffirm their commitment to the cause, encouraging Cloud to set a course for their final destination. As the fully-laden Highwind approaches Sephiroth's subterranean lair, Cid starts to lose control of the airship. Looks like the crew are in for a pretty bumpy landing...
It's here that disc two of Final Fantasy VII comes to an end. I take the opportunity to save my game and switch to the third and final disc before turning off my PSP.
So at the close of Episode Thirty-Two, my vital statistics are:
- Current Party - Cloud (Lv 65), Cid (Lv 66), Barret (Lv 62)
- Current Location - Highwind
- Time on the Clock - 44:36
The Story So Far...
This is a very long blog. It's almost certainly the longest episode of Enduring Final Fantasy VII I've done to date. To tell the truth I did think about cutting it off before the Hojo fight, but it felt like it made sense to carry on right through to the end of the second disc. From here on out I have a choice to make - do I postpone the end-game in order to dick around some more with the game's myriad side-quests and distractions, or do I simply press on into the North Crater and bring this seemingly interminable series to its grand finale as soon as possible? The first is more in line with my original plan for this series, but after Giant Bomb moderator ZombiePie wagered that I couldn't possibly finish the game before the end of the year, the second has become very tempting indeed. Be sure to tune in to the next episode in a fortnight's time to find out what I'll have chosen to do. In the meantime, thanks for reading, and I'll see you around.
Currently playing - Final Fantasy VII (PSP)