Another fortnight has passed, and that means it's time for another episode of Enduring Final Fantasy VII to grace the Giant Bomb blogosphere. If you don't know the drill by now then you probably never will, but allow me to entertain your curiosity with a quick explanation anyway. As a long-time Final Fantasy fan who's become somewhat disillusioned with JRPGs, I've been revisiting my favourite game in the franchise and analysing it from the perspective of a twenty-first century gamer. As cynical and critical as it is nostalgic, Enduring Final Fantasy VII is my attempt to determine once and for all whether Final Fantasy VII deserves to be revered as one of the greatest games ever - is it a game that's endured these past fifteen years? Or has the passage of time rendered it an experience that must be endured? I aim to find out, one interminably-delayed episode at a time.
Episode Twenty-Six - Under The Sea
Last episode saw the return of Cloud (in more ways than one), and I pick the action back up in the operations room of the Highwind airship. The first item on my agenda is to re-jig my placeholder party into something that more closely resembles a battle team. I opt to build that team using Cloud, Cid and Barret. Cloud, up until now my go-to guy for the 'tank' role, now becomes a dedicated mage - loaded up with spells and summons, the ability to Sense, and a couple of MP Plus Materia, it'll be Cloud's job to identify and exploit enemy weaknesses. Cid takes on the role of a support character - his Materia slots are filled with healing spells, buffs and debuffs, but he's also a pretty sturdy melee option. Finally, Barret takes over Cloud's usual role as the team damage-sponge - his augmented HP ensures he'll be able to withstand all the hits that my favourite Cover/Counter Attack Materia will bring his way, and a Deathblow/HP Absorb Materia pairing will hopefully go some way towards keeping his health topped up.
With my team now ready and raring to go, I leave the operations room and head for the airship's deck. A quick word with the pilot puts the Highwind in my control, letting me fly from Mideel over to Junon. Talking to the Highwind's crew, my attention is drawn to the fact the pilot apparently has a 'level'. This is one (admittedly very minor) aspect of Final Fantasy VII that has always confused me, and this latest playthrough is no different - I have absolutely no idea what the number beside the pilot's name actually means. Last time I checked, he was level 4. Now he's level 8, and I have no idea why. It doesn't have any impact on gameplay that I'm aware of - a higher level doesn't make the Highwind faster or easier to control. Nor have I been able to securely pin its improvement to anything happening in-game - it doesn't seem to be a reflection of the player's Highwind mileage, and I don't think it's directly tied to story progression either. I'm not entirely sure why, but the existence of this arbitrary number bothers me a little. Maybe it's because levels in games are typically tied to the concept of progress (especially in the case of an RPG like Final Fantasy VII), but in the case of this pilot, that progress is neither measurable nor rewarded. It's just... sort of... there.
Leaving my hang-ups about the pilot's level on the deck of the Highwind, I disembark the airship and head into Junon. I'm not sure if it's the different choice of music, but this visit to the coastal city feels much more sombre than my pass through on the first disc. The fact the place seems almost empty probably contributes to the foreboding atmosphere as well. At the far end of town, a Shinra guard blocks the entrance to the elevator, and refuses to let Cloud pass unless he forks over 10 Gil. This exchange is one of the best subtly effective examples of world-building I've encountered in a video game. At this point in the game, 10 Gil is inconsequential. Heck, 10 Gil is an inconsequential amount of cash right off the bat in Final Fantasy VII - a humble potion will set you back five times that. The fact this guard is willing to take that pittance as a bribe really emphasises just how awful it must be to work in the employ of the Shinra Electric Power Company. Juxtapose it with the estimate of 10 billion Gil to rebuild Midgar's Sector 7 (an expense the President believes is justified to wipe out AVALANCHE), and you get an idea of the level of financial disparity in the world of Final Fantasy VII. All that, inferred through a simple bribe request. That's pretty cool.
I pay the bribe and ride the elevator up to city level. The guards here reveal that the Shinra soldiers are already down at the Underwater Reactor, preparing to extract the Huge Materia. Passing through the city, Cloud notices that the Junon skyline seems a little emptier than usual - the recognisable cannon is nowhere to be seen. The journey from here to the Underwater Reactor is an unremarkable route through several similar grey corridors, punctuated by random encounters with Shinra grunts. It's not until you're actually underwater that things begin to take on a more interesting aesthetic - glass tunnels revealing the sea-life on Junon's coast, and the scale of the Reactor. Inside the complex itself, the visuals (and music) take on a grimy industrial feel that's more in keeping with the established vibe of Junon and Midgar.
The party reach the core of the Reactor just in time to see the Huge Materia carried out by a mechanical arm and loaded onto a nearby submarine. Reno of the Turks is waiting nearby, and he sets a Shinra robot known as the Carry Armor on the team to stall them. This encounter demands some strategic planning - the boss has a powerful laser attack which cuts my party's HP almost in half, and it also has the ability to pick up party members with its arms, rendering them unable to contribute to the fight. To get around this, I get Cid to throw up a party-wide Wall spell to negate some of the laser damage, followed by a party-wide Haste spell to ensure I deal with Carry Armor's arms as quickly as possible. Thankfully, Carry Armor is a robot, and therefore has an obvious flaw - a devastating weakness against electrical magic. This little fact makes Cloud invaluable throughout the battle, his Bolt 3 spells doing around 4000 damage a turn and quickly obliterating the boss's troublesome arms. After that, it's simply a case of chipping away at the body while occasionally topping up the Wall spell. It doesn't take long to reduce Carry Armor to nothing but shorted circuits and blown fuses.
By the time the battle's over Reno has vanished, and so has the submarine carrying the Huge Materia. Cid suggests hijacking the remaining sub and using it to chase down the escapees. I run over to the other docked sub, picking up some items along the way (including a set of Leviathan's Scales that are sure to come in handy some time in the future). The takeover is quick and painless (at least for my party), and within minutes the team have full control of a Shinra submarine.
The submarine pursuit pans out as yet another of Final Fantasy VII's infamous mini-games. Set in a fully-3D grid-based environment, the player must pilot their submarine through the ocean in order to locate, attack and sink the red submarine within a ten minute time limit. As you'd expect, it's not quite as straightforward as that - there are other subs in the ocean that won't hesitate to attack you, and the ocean floor is littered with mines that will damage your sub if you collide with them. If your sub's armour bar empties, or you fail to stop the red sub within the time limit, the mini-game is failed. It's a fairly simple game to get the hang of, and doesn't really pose much of a challenge (despite not playing this sequence for several years, and forgetting there was a sonar button, I was able to sink the red sub in just over two minutes). Much like the motorbiking and snowboarding mini-games that precede it, it looks pretty rough and suffers from some questionable collision detection, but that doesn't detract too much from the fact it's a nice distraction from the more traditional aspects of Final Fantasy VII's gameplay.
Beating the submarine mini-game grants the party free use of the Shinra sub from here on out. With that comes the ability to scour the ocean floor, allowing the player to explore the world map below sea level. Admittedly, it's not as spectacular as that sentence makes it sound. The only part of the ocean you can really explore is the central ocean between the eastern and western continents, and there's not a lot to see save for a couple of side-quests and a bit of story exposition (some of which I'll probably cover in the next episode). The submarine controls almost identically to the Highwind, but interestingly, differently to how it controls in the submarine mini-game. Not sure who decided that was a good idea. All in all, it's a neat way of adding a bit more depth (no pun intended) to world map exploration, but with the roster of vehicles already standing at a buggy, a decommissioned plane and an airship, I'm not sure it was entirely necessary.
As the party haul up the retrieved piece of Huge Materia, they receive a radio transmission telling them that another piece of Huge Materia is about to be flown out of Junon airport. Seeing a perfect opportunity to complete their set, Cloud and the gang surface their shiny new tin can and emerge just outside Junon on the world map. Thinking this a pretty good place to call time on our aquatic adventures for now, I open the menu, save the game, and turn off the PSP.
So at the close of Episode Twenty-Six, my vital statistics are:
- Current Party - Cloud (Lv 53), Cid (Lv 55), Barret (Lv 49)
- Current Location - Junon Area, World Map
- Time on the Clock - 36:54
The Story So Far...
So there you have it, another episode in the bank. I hope readers are still enjoying this fortnightly forays into Final Fantasy VII as much as I'm enjoying writing them. I think the next episode (due on Sunday May 13th) will probably just end up covering a couple of the game's side quests and optional story segments - I'll revisit Wutai to explore the rest of Da Chao, raid the sunken Gelnika airship, witness some pieces of story exposition involving Vincent and Cloud, and maybe even try my luck at some chocobo breeding. Until then, take it easy, thanks for reading, and I'll see you around.
Currently playing - Final Fantasy VII (PSP)