Another week, and another return for Enduring Final Fantasy VII - the serial blog chronicling my journey through Square's seminal work, as I attempt to play it with the objective eye of a twenty-first century gamer and determine whether or not it's genuinely deserving of its stellar reputation.
A pre-emptive warning - this is a long episode, much longer than these things usually weigh in at. That was kind of out of my hands, due to this covering a section of the game that features a lot of story development. There's still some commentary and cynicism in there, but you'll have to dig a little deeper than usual to find it. Consider yourselves warned. With that out of the way, let's begin!
Episode Twenty - The Illusion Broken
Loading my save puts me back near the top of the Gaea Cliffs, the mountainous rock face standing between Cloud and the place where Sephiroth is most likely to be found - the North Crater. Before the crew can ascend to the very peak of the Cliffs, though, there's one more obstacle to overcome - Schizo.
Schizo is a boss that follows a pretty standard JRPG trope - it's a two-headed monster, with each of its heads being aligned with a different element. Its left head has an Ice-elemental breath attack, and its right head has a Fire-elemental breath attack. This means that each head has a different weakness - the left to Fire, and the right to Ice. It also means that using an elemental spell that matches the element of a head will heal it. It turns an otherwise simple situation into a pretty tactical affair, but not one that poses too much a problem for me at this point. Cid's quick to get off an MBarrier spell on the whole party, seriously impeding most of the damage I'd otherwise take from its breath attacks. From there, it's just a simple case of casting the right elemental spells with Red XIII and pounding away with Cloud's physical attacks, while Cid offers healing support and keeps the MBarrier topped up.
Once Schizo's been dealt with, the team are free to move on into the crater. Passing over the crest of the cliff triggers an FMV sequence showing the crater itself - a gaping wound in the top of the Planet, with the Lifestream surging up and out of it, slowly healing it shut. It's a pretty awesome sequence in its sense of scope, even if the graphical fidelity leaves a lot to be desired these days. The party begin their descent into the crater, stopping before-hand to... recap and clarify some plot points. I don't know why, but this particular conversation feels really jarring and out of place. Maybe it's because Final Fantasy VII is usually so good at saving its plot clarification and exposition for appropriate moments (like the story recap at the Gold Saucer's hotel, for instance), or maybe it's just the questionable translation of these few sentences. Whatever it is, I know that this doesn't quite fit in with other, similar moments in the game.
Not long after starting to move down into the crater, the party is slowed by a call from behind them. Tifa runs after them, and demands to be switched into the party. Not having much choice in the matter, I decide to swap her in for Cid and make her the dedicated healer and support character. I've always admired Final Fantasy VII for the way it ties these forced adoptions of characters into your party so brilliantly into the story, and especially the way it ensures your unused characters remain fairly competent by awarding them a portion of any earned experience points even when they're not in the party. As a result of this, the forced introduction of Tifa is nowhere near the inconvenience it could have been. Even the dilemma of not keeping her equipment up-to-date is accounted for - the developers have left a Kaiser Knuckle in the crater for me to collect. All of these touches add up to make the process relatively painless, and considering how wrong this system could have gone, I think it's definitely a commendable aspect of Final Fantasy VII's design.
Heading deeper into the crater, it becomes apparent that something serious really is afoot. The black-cloaked 'clones' from Nibelheim all seem to have made their way here, and they continue to babble on about Sephiroth and 'Reunion'. To top it all off, the Shinra Electric Power Company has just arrived on the scene by way of airship. Witnessing the Lifestream surging up and out of the crater has convinced Rufus, Heidegger and Scarlet that Sephiroth has indeed brought them to the Promised Land (as a side-note, I've never understood why it took the Shinra so long to find this place, or even why they needed Sephiroth to guide them. Surely with an airship at their disposal, it should have been pretty easy for them to find a giant conspicuous column of Lifestream energy shooting out of the top of the Planet). Professor Hojo, meanwhile, seems more pre-occupied with thoughts of the imminent 'Reunion', and what effect it will have.
Halfway through the journey to the centre of the North Crater, the party encounters Sephiroth once again. He mutters something about his body reaching the end of its usefulness, then disappears in a puff of smoke. A disembodied voice kicks in, saying that the sole purpose of this visit to the crater is to present the Black Materia to 'the Master'. As the party gaze on bewildered, Sephiroth re-materialises above them and knocks them to the ground. He leaves behind another Jenova incarnation for them to tackle - Jenova DEATH. It's a pretty straight-forward battle, with no need to employ any specific strategies. Playing this through has caused an old query to flare up in me once again - specifically, I've always wondered why the Jenova LIFE and Jenova DEATH fights are so close together, especially when compared to the very long gap between the Jenova BIRTH and Jenova LIFE fights. I've never been able to come up with any theories as to why that might be (besides strange pacing issues), so if anybody has anything to contribute in that regard, I'd be really interested to hear your thoughts!
After the battle, Jenova DEATH drops the sought-after Black Materia, which Cloud quickly picks up. Threads of story finally seem to be reaching a head, and that's reflected in Cloud's beginning to piece together what's really happening here. Although the party have been pursuing Sephiroth all this time, it's starting to become apparent that he might not be the real villain here. If Jenova is Sephiroth's mother, and the black-cowled beings are Sephiroth's clones, then it stands to reason that their gathering here is a means of reuniting Jenova's cells - the 'Reunion' that keeps getting referenced. Unable to trust himself with the Black Materia, Cloud opts to leave it with Barret before moving on.
As the party draws ever-closer to the middle of this enormous crater, they begin to experience illusions - presumably a result of Sephiroth's proximity, an effort on his part to confuse and disorient Cloud. The illusion perfectly mirrors the details of the story related in Kalm, about the events in Nibelheim five years ago, but with one crucial difference - Cloud is nowhere to be seen. In his place is another man - eerily similar to Cloud, but noticeably different from him by way of his jet-black hair. Tifa tries to reassure Cloud that what he's seeing is simply an attempt by Sephiroth to break him, but even she seems strangely defensive when faced with the sights unfolding before them. Finally, Sephiroth appears before Cloud within this illusion. Cloud believes that what Sephiroth is showing them is a fabrication, lies intended to break his spirit and drive him to insanity, but Sephiroth says differently. He puts it to Cloud that the contents of this illusion reflects reality - Cloud was not the hero who faced him at Nibelheim five years ago. Instead, he is merely a puppet; a vessel without genuine emotion or feeling; a failed experiment.
Sephiroth claims that after the Nibelheim incident, Cloud was 'constructed' by Professor Hojo - a failed attempt to create a clone of Sephiroth through infusing his body with Jenova cells and Mako energy. Cloud turns to Tifa, relying on their childhood memories to disprove Sephiroth's claims, but she seems unable to give him the support he seeks. In one last attempt to drive his point home to Cloud, Sephiroth produces the photograph taken on that fateful day. Sure enough, it's not Cloud standing beside Sephiroth and Tifa, but the unidentified black-haired man. Desperately, Cloud begins to tug at the unravelling strands of his memory, searching for the truth, but every thought he holds in his mind turns to dust. So much of his past is shrouded in fog - he can't remember when he joined SOLDIER, or how. He can't remember when he was promoted to First Class. Eventually, he simply casts the confusion aside - right now, pressing on is the most important thing.
Meanwhile, the Shinra head honchos have handed at the centre of the North Crater and are examining their findings. Everything seems to point to this being the Promised Land - an abundance of Mako energy, and huge treasure troves of condensed Materia. Hojo dismisses Rufus's claims, though, stating that the Promised Land is nothing more than a myth. Before they can argue, the entire crater begins to quake. Something is stirring deep within the Planet, and Hojo knows precisely what it is - the Weapon mentioned in Professor Gast's lost report. Back at the team's camp, Barret finds himself swept up in an illusion of his own. 'Tifa' has come back, calling for him to come and help Cloud, who's in serious trouble. Ever the hero, Barret obliges and runs off, just as the false Tifa reveals himself to be Sephiroth. With Cloud's mind intensely fragile, and the Black Materia making its way to the centre of the crater, it looks like Sephiroth's plans (whether they're his own or not) are coming to fruition.
Without warning, the party suddenly materialises at the centre of the crater, alongside the Shinra crew. At the same moment, Barret shows up with the Black Materia. Cloud, seemingly possessed yet again by whatever force has been manipulating him thusfar, retrieves the Black Materia from Barret and apologises to everyone - in particular Tifa, saying he hopes that one day she can meet the 'real Cloud'. Hojo initially seems ecstatic that Cloud's presence has proven his theory of Reunion - the theory that even when dismembered, Jenova's body will find a way to make itself whole again - but that euphoria soon turns to shock as he learns that Cloud is one of his failed experiments. With Cloud acting erratically, Hojo confirms the claims Sephiroth made in his illusion - five years ago, he infused Cloud's body with Jenova's cells and Mako energy, in a bid to create a clone of Sephiroth. Hojo also reveals that Sephiroth himself died during the Nibelheim incident. It seems that this whole time, Cloud has been doing nothing more than following a spectre - a summons from Sephiroth with the intention of guiding him (and therefore Jenova's cells) back to the North Crater for the Reunion. Hojo explains that he's been anticipating the Reunion for some time now, and had been expecting it to happen in Midgar, where Jenova's body was kept. Instead, Sephiroth has been orchestrating the convergence of Jenova's cells towards the North Crater, where his own lifeless body rests, encased and preserved in a huge piece of Materia.
In his possessed state, Cloud gifts the Black Materia to Sephiroth. At the same moment, the crater erupts with the force of the Lifestream, and the long-dormant Weapons are unleashed upon the Planet. Our band of adventurers are swept away only just in time, ferried away by President Rufus on his airship. All of them that is, except for Cloud, who along with Sephiroth has plunged deep into the freshly-opened wound at the North Crater, swept away by the Lifestream...
I realise this episode has already gone on far too long, and for that I can only apologise, but I want to close with some general thoughts about how this whole section of the game is handled. Eleven years ago, this whole section of the game left me absolutely dumbfounded. I think part of that was because I was a ten-year-old kid and this was my first exposure to something that might be considered an epic work of fantasy, which made the scale of some of the concepts at work here a little difficult to wrap my head around. I think another part of that was the questionable translation, which also made it difficult to wrap my head around. But I like to think that a significant portion of that sense of awe and astonishment was on Final Fantasy VII's own merits, simply because this is such an incredible turning point in the game's plot. Playing it through for the first time, it's a shocking moment of revelation in and of itself - you're presented with these sudden truths regarding the character of Cloud, the plot of Sephiroth, and even the involvement of Jenova, to the point where everything you believed for the first twenty-five to thirty hours of this game is actually a lie. Playing it through for a second or third time, it's a moment that's masterfully built up to - returning to the story with that established knowledge reveals a wealth of clues leading up to this moment that are so subtle and seemingly irrelevant, you can forgive yourself for missing them the first time. Playing it through for the sixth time in eleven years, fourteen years after its initial release, and under an eye that seeks to be as objective as possible, I still think it's almost peerless in its execution. I've played a lot of great games in those eleven intervening years, and I've witnessed a lot of great plot twists and unexpected shocks. For me, this moment easily sits on par with the "Would you kindly?" revelation in BioShock, or the momumental mindfuck of Metal Gear Solid 2's ending. Hell, it might even top them. Whatever way you choose to spin it, I don't think there's any getting away from the fact that this moment is still one of the greatest examples of peripeteia in video game storytelling history.
Although I haven't reached a save point, I've decided to bring this episode to an end here. It's gone on long enough as it is, I think, and this seems like a very fitting point to take a break. Given that I can't access my menu to get the relevant information, I can't give you my usual series bullet points to wrap up proceedings. Don't worry though, they'll be back again next episode.
The Story So Far...
Looking for the next episode? You can find Episode Twenty-One - Breaking Out Of Junon here.
Whoa, really long episode this time. In spite of its length and story-heavy nature, though, I really enjoyed writing this episode up. This has always been one of my favourite sections of the game, and I'd like to think that comes through in the writing. I'm expecting Episode Twenty-One to come to fruition within the next few days, mainly because I can't really leave my PSP running for the next week or two, so keep an eye out for that. For now, thanks very much for reading, and I'll see you around.
Currently playing - Final Fantasy VII (PSP)