First Blog Of 2014 - Agendas Everywhere!

2013 (and in particular the latter half of the year) was a year in which I seemed to go 'off the boil' in several aspects of my life, and one of the most telling of those was in witnessing my writing drop off from semi-regular to practically non-existent. As one of my myriad little New Year's Resolutions to try and get myself back to where I want to be, I've decided to aim for regular weekly blogs this year to ensure my writing muscles stay well-exercised. I should be dropping them every Saturday, or very occasionally on Sundays if my Saturday schedule won't allow it. I'm also going to try adding a little more structure and consistency by following a monthly cycle of different blog formats, which I'll outline below:

  • Week 1: The Gaming Agenda - The only feature with a bona-fide title at present, my first blog of every month will be something called The Gaming Agenda. It's basically a short list of around four or five games that I plan to play over the course of the coming month, along with my reasons for picking them and what I hope to get out of playing them.
  • Week 2: Letting Off Some Steam - Not sure if this is going to be a legitimate title for this feature yet, but it's directly inspired by the precedent of fellow Giant Bomb blogger @Mento, who's done this with his own unwieldy digital distribution collections in the past. In the second week of every month in 2014 I'll be downloading a handful of games from my Steam library and playing the first hour or so of each, to try and determine which ones I'm most keen to play through. The most appealing game (or games) will most likely find their way onto the following month's Gaming Agenda. Hopefully this way I can kick-start myself into finally clearing out some of my enormous Steam backlog.
  • Week 3: Opinions! - Don't worry, this isn't a title for a feature. It's just a way to illustrate that the third week of every month is reserved for more opinion-based pieces of writing. I used to try and do quite a lot of this, and produced some of my best (and most controversial) blog-work as a result. In all likelihood the opinions will stem from a game I've played (or am playing) within the given month, but if nothing specific has grabbed me I may cast my net a bit further and write about the industry in general.
  • Week 4: Retrospective Recaps - A companion piece to The Gaming Agenda, the fourth week of every month will be when I write up some post-gameplay thoughts on all of the games I managed to play within the month. Collecting everything in a single blog should mean the thoughts don't get too rambling, and it'll also provide me with some handy reference points for when I start putting together awards at the end of the year. Oh, and don't worry - that probably won't be the title of this feature.
  • Week 5: And Now For Something Completely Different... - I'm well aware that, due to the variable definition of what constitutes a month and the awkwardness of dividing anything by seven, some months in 2014 will have five Saturdays in them. In those months, I'll use my free blogging credit to talk about... Well, anything, really. I could end up writing a second opinion piece that particular month, or divert my writer's mind onto a different track and talk about something other than video games. Even I can't be sure what I'll be writing about until I start writing, so if nothing else, the results will hopefully at least be different enough to be interesting.

Finally, there's a possibility that a new serial blog may be forthcoming in the near future (don't worry, it won't be Enduring Final Fantasy VIII). I'm still in the planning stage of the project at the moment, but it does happen, I'll be posting updates on a completely different day of the week so it doesn't interfere with the regular weekly blogging schedule. Probably Tuesdays or Wednesdays.

So, with all that clarified, let's crack on properly with what this blog is really all about...

The Gaming Agenda - January

In a slightly bizarre turn of events for me, I haven't actually brought through any half-finished titles into 2014 - partly because I managed to wrap up games like A Link Between Worlds and Pokémon White in the dying days of the year, but I'd wager that my continuing obsession with the already-beaten Pokémon Y also had something to do with that. I started playing Assassin's Creed: Revelations last month but wasn't really feeling it, and have since stopped playing it altogether with a view to trying it again later this year. Consequently, my decision as to what to play to kick off the year has been pulled off a blank slate. I've picked out five games from my Pile of Shame that I'll be aiming to make it through in January, and I think I should be able to comfortably beat at least four of them before the end of the month. Here they are:

The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening DX

One of my own personal goals for this year is to try and beat all the Legend of Zelda games that I own but haven't yet seen the end of - Link's Awakening, Oracle of Ages, Oracle of Seasons, Majora's Mask and Skyward Sword. I decided to start with Link's Awakening, specifically the DX version which I downloaded from the 3DS eShop back in October of last year. I started playing on New Year's Day, and have already made it through the game's first three dungeons. I'm digging the slightly surreal vibe, and looking forward to seeing through the remainder of Link's first handheld adventure.

The Walking Dead: 400 Days

Putting together my 'Top Ten' list for My End Of 2013 Awards last month made me realise just how eager I am to play more of Telltale's The Walking Dead. I've bought the pass for Season Two, but before I get started with that I'd like to go back to the original game and play through its DLC add-on, 400 Days. Once this chapter (which supposedly bridges the gap between the two seasons) is complete, I'm sure it won't be long before I'm reunited with Clementine at the start of Season Two.

God of War HD Collection

After picking up a PlayStation 3 early last year, I went on a bit of a spending spree trying to snap up some of the exclusives that I'd originally missed out on. Originally only God of War III and Ascension were on my 'to-buy' list, but I decided to pick up both HD collections as well so that I could experience Kratos's whole story arc. I plan to start with the first HD Collection, consisting of God of War and God of War II, then move on to Kratos's other adventures later in the year.

Final Fantasy VIII

Now that I've finally put Enduring Final Fantasy VII to rest, it's time to take the next step in tying up all the loose ends I've left with Final Fantasy, a series I probably have more history with than any other. That next step is to beat the two main series games I've never seen the end of - specifically Final Fantasy VIII and Final Fantasy XII. FFVIII is first on the agenda, and I plan to get started with it this month. I probably won't be able to see Squall's adventure to completion in January, but seeing as I won't be Enduring it, it definitely shouldn't take me almost four years.

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So there we are - both The Gaming Agenda for January, and the blogging agenda for 2014 as a whole, laid out in this first blog of the year. I'll be back in the blogosphere next week, with the inaugural instalment of Letting Off Some Steam (still not entirely sure that name is going to stick). Thanks for reading guys. Happy New Year to you all, take care, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening DX (3DS)

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My End Of 2013 Awards

Yesterday I spent hours working on a lengthy blog to mark this transition from 2013 into 2014. There were beautiful pictures, informative hyperlinks, and reams of text long enough to make even Leo Tolstoy consider asking me to steady on a bit. It was a glorious celebration of the year that was, and a contemplative look forward to the year that will be.

Then my laptop crashed, and all of it disappeared in an instant.

People (mainly Video_Game_King) will tell me I'm a reckless moron for not writing and regularly saving these blogs in a word processor, and then copying them over when they're finished. I know that makes sense, but I can't bring myself to do it. I love the Giant Bomb text editor too much. I like being able to format my work as I go, throwing in links and images and whatnot during the writing process rather than laboriously trudging back through my prose to add them afterwards. This is the price I occasionally have to pay for that ignorant preference, I guess.

So, in the absence of fancy aesthetics and detailed analysis, I'm just going to throw the list up here with minimal effort this year. It sucks not to be able to put my usual amount of care and thought into this, but I'll be damned if I'm spending literally hours re-creating what I lost. You can have this list and like it or lump it.

Follow this paragraph will be a list. This is my hand-picked list of the top ten games that I played in 2013. The usual pre-requisites for these personal awards stand - the games don't have to be ones released in 2013, I just have to have played them in the last twelve months for them to be eligible. Also, this list is not in ranked order, because I hate arbitrarily assigning rankings to these things when, to my mind at least, there's practically nothing in it. For the sake of simplicity, they're in alphabetical order instead. Let's go, shall we?

The Top 10 Games I Played In 2013

  • BioShock Infinite - A beautiful game world, well-written characters and an intensely thrilling story are all reasons why I couldn't leave this off the list. I even loved the combat once the sky-lines and Tears started making things interesting.
  • Borderlands 2 - I loved the first game for its shoot-and-loot premise, and this sequel delivers more of the same in a much more refined package. The ton of little gameplay tweaks and the more prominent story were welcome changes.
  • Final Fantasy VII - 2013 will go down in personal history as the year that I finished Enduring Final Fantasy VII. For that reason alone, Squaresoft's most famous/infamous game goes on the list as one that defined this year for me.
  • Grand Theft Auto V - A lot of the game's attempts at satirical humour fell flat for me this time around, but there's no denying I had a huge amount of fun roaming and wrecking Los Santos with Michael, Franklin and Trevor. Nobody does open-world better than Rockstar.
  • The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds - This latest top-down Zelda doesn't just ride on the nostalgic coat-tails of A Link to the Past - it also manages to be a great game in its own right. The mechanics are solid, the lack of hand-holding is very welcome, and its gorgeous visuals had my 3DS's 3D effect set permanently on throughout.
  • Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater - Revisiting this game within the context of the entire series confirmed for me that it's far and away my favourite Metal Gear game. It still looks great, the story stands out as my favourite from the franchise, and the advancements to the series' trademark stealth mechanics are just some of the reasons why.
  • Pokémon Y - In a year full of Pokémon, the latest game in the series stands head and shoulders above the rest. The leap to full 3D, the robust online capabilities, and the efforts to make the previously invisible mini-game a little more transparent just pushed it above SoulSilver to make this list.
  • Sleeping Dogs - What Sleeping Dogs lacks in scope, it makes up for in its mechanics. Between the combat, the driving, the mission structure and the various odd-jobs around Hong Kong, I don't think there was a single moment where I wasn't having fun playing Sleeping Dogs.
  • Tomb Raider - This franchise reboot borrows just as much from the likes of Batman: Arkham Asylum as it does from the Uncharted series. Lara is more believable, as is the more cohesive story she gets tied up in. I can't wait to see where Crystal Dynamics take this series on the new hardware.
  • The Walking Dead - Telltale's adventure series got under my skin in a way I never expected it to. The gameplay may be minimal, but the narrative that holds it all together is perhaps the best I've ever seen in a game. The 400 Days expansion is definitely an early 2014 priority before I get stuck into Season Two.

There ya go - My End Of 2013 Awards. The bells and whistles may be missing, but at least the games themselves are intact. Thanks for reading guys. However you're choosing to send off this year and bring in 2014, I hope you have a great time, and wish you all the best for the upcoming year. Take care, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Pokémon Y (3DS)

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Compilation Of Enduring Final Fantasy VII

Welcome to Compilation of Enduring Final Fantasy VII. For those who may not be aware of what this is all about, allow me to explain. Between February 2010 and December 2013, I wrote a series of blogs documenting a playthrough of Final Fantasy VII. As someone with a lot of love for the game, I wanted to determine whether or not it was still worth playing in this age of high-definition graphics and refined gameplay mechanics. I tried to keep my eye as objective as possible, aiming to judge it from the perspective of a video game enthusiast in the twenty-first century and not let nostalgia affect my writings too much. The core tenet of the series was to find out if the game had stood the test of time or not - if it had endured the last fifteen-or-so years, or if it was now something to be endured itself. Hence the series' title, Enduring Final Fantasy VII.

Given the series was written in fits and starts over a four-year period, the episodes are pretty spread out through Giant Bomb's history. As a result, navigating from one episode to the next isn't the most streamlined process. Speaking as the writer, I found re-visiting the older episodes for reference to be quite a chore at times. That's why I've decided to put this blog together. It's basically a glorified table of contents, a handy-dandy episode guide that provides links and descriptions for every one of the series' thirty-six entries in one smart, tidy, easy-to-navigate location. Just click on any of the titles below, and you'll be taken to the relevant episode. My hope is that it will make reading and navigating the series much simpler for any future readers.

Episode Zero - The Obligatory Back Story

This unofficial inaugural episode lays out my own personal history with Final Fantasy VII, as well as the foundations for all future episodes in the series.

Episode One - Initial Reactors... I Mean, Reactions

Our journey begins in the city of Midgar, with ex-SOLDIER Cloud Strife joining forces with Barret Wallace, the leader of the militant activist group AVALANCHE, and childhood friend Tifa Lockheart, as they take part in a series of terrorist attacks against the oppressive Shinra Electric Power Company.

Episode Two - Flower Girls And Honey Bees

After a botched terrorist attack on the Sector 5 Reactor, Cloud finds himself in the city's slums and in the company of flower girl and last surviving Ancient Aerith Gainsborough. His attempts to get back to his friends take him to Wall Market, and into the mansion of local dilettante Don Corneo.

Episode Three - The Valiant Rescue Effort

Cloud is reunited with Barret and Tifa, but at a terrible cost - Aerith is abducted by Shinra's Turks operatives, and the Sector 7 slums are wiped out when Shinra destroy the pillar supporting the plate above. Keen to avenge the deaths of their comrades and free Aerith from imprisonment, the trio infiltrate Shinra Headquarters in a bid to rescue her and shut down Shinra once and for all.

Episode Four - Escape From Midgar

After meeting and befriending the mysterious beast Red XIII, Cloud and company are caught and imprisoned by the Turks and Shinra. They manage to escape, but only with the help of a mystery assailant who has also broken into the Shinra HQ. Seizing the opportunity, the gang escape from the building in vehicles and follow the highway to the edge of Midgar, leaving the city far behind.

Episode Five - All Kalm On The Eastern Continent

Having safely retreated to the nearby village of Kalm, Cloud and his friends re-group at the inn and try to make sense of what happened back at Shinra HQ. Cloud opens up about his past, explaining the events that unfolded at his hometown of Nibelheim five years ago, and how they could be tied to what happened back in Midgar.

Episode Six - An Abundance Of Big Birds

After Cloud finishes his story the group resolves to pursue Sephiroth, the mysterious man in black, across the continent. En route they stumble upon the Chocobo Ranch, and end up catching a chocobo of their own to out-run the Midgar Zolom that lives in the nearby swamp. On the other side of the Mythril Mines they arrive at Fort Condor, where they offer to help its residents protect a nesting Condor from attacks co-ordinated by Shinra.

Episode Seven - Hitching A Ride

With new character Yuffie Kisaragi joining their ranks, the party finally arrive in Junon, still in pursuit of Sephiroth. Their arrival coincides with the inauguration of the new Shinra president, Rufus, also happening in the city at the time. Hearing their quarry is crossing the sea to the west, the gang manage to stow away on Rufus' ship, bound for Costa Del Sol and the Western Continent.

Episode Eight - Over The Mountain, Into The Saucer

From the seaside resort of Costa Del Sol, the party head west into the mountains. Passing through Barret's hometown of Corel, they arrive at the Gold Saucer, a huge theme park built in the middle of a desert. In their hunt for Sephiroth they meet Cait Sith, a fortune-telling stuffed toy who joins the party, and an unfortunate series of events lead to the whole gang being incarcerated below the Gold Saucer in Corel Prison.

Episode Nine - Face-Offs And Race-Offs

Barret's forced to face a familiar friend from his past in the vast deserts surrounding Corel Prison. When he and old acquaintance Dyne have made their peace, the prison guards offer Cloud and the gang their best chance of escape - winning one of the Gold Saucer's Chocobo races...

Episode Ten - Going Gongaga

Free from the confines of Corel Prison and equipped with a fancy new buggy for crossing the desert, the party continue their search for Sephiroth. Their journey takes them south through the town of Gongaga, where several threads of the game's labyrinthine plot finally begin to converge.

Episode Eleven - Canyons And Caverns

When the buggy breaks down, Cloud and the team seek refuge in the nearby Cosmo Canyon, a village cut into the cliff face that also happens to be Red XIII's hometown. There they meet the wise old man Bugenhagen, who explains the inner workings of the Planet and teaches us a little more about Cloud's canine companion.

Episode Twelve - Just A Little Nibel

With the buggy fixed the party press on north to Nibelheim, Cloud and Tifa's hometown. Contrary to the stories Cloud told back in Kalm, nobody in the town can recall the horrific events of five years ago. After encountering Sephiroth once again and recruiting the enigmatic Vincent Valentine in the abandoned Shinra Mansion, the strengthened party press on across the twisting mountain pass that cuts through Mount Nibel.

Episode Thirteen - The Rocket Man

On the other side of the mountain pass lies Rocket Town, a small village built up around the base of a Shinra rocket that failed to launch. Here the gang meet the final addition to their party, pilot Cid Highwind. When the Shinra show up trying to borrow Cid's plane, the team makes a pretty dramatic exit, at the cost of Cid's beloved Tiny Bronco.

Episode Fourteen - The Great Materia Heist

With Cid's plane now useful for nothing but a boat, Yuffie suggests the party head west to her hometown of Wutai. On the way there she steals everyone's Materia and turns tail, forcing Cloud and co. into an elaborate game of cat-and-mouse through the streets of Wutai.

Episode Fifteen - Conflict, Romance And Betrayal

In search of the elusive Keystone, the gang wind up once again at the Gold Saucer. Their overnight stay prompts a touching date between Cloud and Aerith, and the revelation that for some time, a Shinra spy has been in their midst...

Episode Sixteen - An Ancient Evil

Hot on the heels of the Turks and their stolen Keystone, the party arrives at the Temple of the Ancients. It's here that Sephiroth plans to acquire the Black Materia, which he can use to summon the powerful destructive magic Meteor. Ready to face their adversaries, the team must first navigate the dark chambers of the Temple.

Episode Seventeen - The Death Of An Ancient

After the Black Materia falls into Sephiroth's hands, Aerith leaves the party believing she knows a way to counter Meteor. The party pursue her far north to the Forgotten City of the Ancients, but Aerith is not the only one waiting to greet them within its abandoned walls.

Episode Eighteen - Story Exposition And... ...Snowboarding?!

Following the death of Aerith, the grieving party members move further north in pursuit of Sephiroth, arriving at Icicle Inn. The route ahead is a snowy slope, so in order to continue their journey toward the Great Glacier, Cloud and the gang are going have a little creative with their method of transportation...

Episode Nineteen - Come Rain, Sleet Or Snow

Having reached the Great Glacier, the crew face two final obstacles before they reach the North Crater - they must cross the snow fields, and then climb the frozen Cliffs of Gaea. With the temperature falling fast, it's going to be a lot easier said than done.

Episode Twenty - The Illusion Broken

The party finally catch up to Sephiroth at the North Crater, and they're not the only ones - his black-cloaked followers from Nibelheim and the Shinra have made it here too. As all three groups converge at this enormous wound in the surface of the Planet, some long-hidden truths are about to be revealed.

Episode Twenty-One - Breaking Out Of Junon

Tifa and Barret awaken in Junon to find themselves imprisoned by Shinra and Sephiroth's Meteor hanging ominously over the Planet. To top it all off, Cloud is nowhere to be seen, and they're about to be publicly executed to appease the frightened masses. It's going to take a minor miracle to get out of this jam.

Episode Twenty-Two - Mideel Or No Deal

Tifa's frantic searching for Cloud, with the new airship Highwind at her disposal, eventually brings the party to the small town of Mideel. Reports of a man being washed up nearby lead her and the rest of the party to the town's infirmary. Sure enough, Cloud is there, but the trauma he's been through has left him in a shocking state.

Episode Twenty-Three - Catching The Train

When Tifa decides to stay behind in Mideel, Cid agrees to take the party by the reins while Cloud is out of commission. The first order of the day is to track down the Huge Materia, incredibly powerful Materia that the Shinra are planning to use to create a super-weapon to use against Sephiroth. One piece of this Huge Materia is bound for Corel on a train, and that means a train robbery will very soon be underway.

Episode Twenty-Four - Fort Condor's Final Stand

The continued search for Huge Materia brings the party back to Fort Condor, where Shinra's attacking forces are mounting a final assault. One last battle will decide the fate of this old abandoned Mako Reactor, as well as the bird that nests upon it.

Episode Twenty-Five - Revealing A Clouded Truth

With two pieces of Huge Materia in their position, the party decides to return to Mideel and check on Cloud and Tifa. During their visit, Ultimate WEAPON attacks the town, causing a violent earthquake that tears the town apart. Cloud and Tifa fall deep into the Lifestream, and Cloud is finally forced to confront his contradictory memories.

Episode Twenty-Six - Under The Sea

With Cloud back in command and better than ever, the crew head back to Junon in search of a third piece of Huge Materia. Housed in an underwater Mako Reactor, Shinra are preparing to move it by submarine, but they haven't counted on our heroes coming to crash the party.

Episode Twenty-Seven - Tying Up Some Loose Ends

With three pieces of Huge Materia safely in the bag, the gang take a little time out from adventuring to explore the world in the Highwind. The Shinra Mansion at Nibelheim, the crashed Gelnika airship, and Lucrecia's hidden grotto are all covered in this globe-trotting episode.

Episode Twenty-Eight - Choc-A-Block With Chocobos

The gang try their hand at breeding an elusive Gold Chocobo. Then they decide it's largely a waste of time and not at all fun, and decide to pack it in.

Episode Twenty-Nine - Touching The Stars

Back on track, the party have learned that a fourth and final piece of Huge Materia has arrived in Rocket Town and is due to be sent into space in an attempt to destroy Meteor. With Cid in tow, Cloud stows away on the rocket before launch and sets about recovering the Huge Materia before it is lost forever.

Episode Thirty - An Ancient Secret

The Huge Materia may be safely in their possession, but the party are at a loss as to how to proceed from here. At Cosmo Canyon, Bugenhagen suggests visiting the City of the Ancients for a second time, to see if they can discover what Aerith was planning before Sephiroth put a stop to it.

Episode Thirty-One - Weapon On Weapon

Back in Midgar, Shinra are putting the finishing touches to their Sister Ray - a souped-up cannon intended to break through Sephiroth's barrier at the North Crater. With Diamond WEAPON marching on the city, Cloud and co. race back in the Highwind to try and put an end to any disaster before it can unfold.

Episode Thirty-Two - An End To Bad Science

Professor Hojo has locked down control of the Sister Ray and is preparing to fire it into the North Crater again before its cooldown period is over - a move that could potentially destroy the whole of Midgar. The party make their return to the city from above, and head straight for the Sister Ray's platform to put an end to the crazed scientist's dastardly plan.

Episode Thirty-Three - Globe-Trottin', Time-Wastin', Side-Questin'

The barrier on the North Crater has dropped, and Sephiroth lies in wait within. This seems like the perfect time to go gallivanting all over the Planet in search of Ultimate Weapons, Final Limit Breaks and other completely optional gubbins!

Episode Thirty-Four - Journey To The Centre Of The Planet

Our band of heroes finally make their way back to the North Crater and prepare to descend into its dark depths. A long, complex path lies between them and the villain they seek.

Episode Thirty-Five - The Final Stand

At the very bottom of the North Crater, Sephiroth lies in wait for the party, smothering Holy and preventing it from reaching the Meteor which now hangs perilously above Midgar. Steeling themselves, Cloud and the others engage their twisted nemesis in battle to determine the fate of not just their own lives, but that of the Planet itself.

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I've had a lot of fun putting this series together, and I'm more than a little emotional about the fact it's finally over. Hopefully this compilation blog will make it easier for the series to survive for posterity (or at the very least, a bit easier to link to). Thanks once again to everybody who's supported the series these last four years, and to everyone who may yet read it in the future. Take care, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Final Fantasy VII (PS3)

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Enduring Final Fantasy VII - Episode Thirty-Five

Ladies and gentlemen, the time is finally upon us. After thirty-four episodes spanning almost four years, punctuated by several hiatuses and nearly being stopped completely at least twice, my Enduring Final Fantasy VII blog series, in which I take a semi-cynical, semi-nostalgic look back at Squaresoft's Final Fantasy VII to determine whether it's still worth playing in the twenty-first century, is at last reaching its conclusion. Today we take control of Cloud and company for the final time and steer them towards their ultimate fate - the final showdown with Sephiroth at the bottom of the North Crater. It's sure to be an emotional finale - in fact, I don't think it's unfair to call this the end of an era. Part of me doesn't actually want to press on, for reasons I can't quite articulate. It's a bit like reading a book but not wanting to read the final chapter, instead preferring to let the story and characters hang suspended in indefinite stasis. But I know I can't do that. An end to Enduring Final Fantasy VII is long overdue, and it is going to happen today. If everyone is sitting comfortably, then let's roll that Enduring Final Fantasy VII title card one last time...

Episode Thirty-Five - The Final Stand

Loading up my final save from yesterday puts me back in control of my party of Cloud, Red XIII and Yuffie, poised just above the very bottom of the North Crater, ready to descend into what is presumably Sephiroth's lair. A few steps beyond the save point, the whole gang is waiting to follow and face whatever lies beyond this threshold. Cloud makes the first move, about to start following the spiralled staircase of stepping stones into the core of the Planet below, when he turns round to face the party and delivers what is undoubtedly one of my favourite lines of video game dialogue of all time. A line so god-damn terrible, it comes right back out at the other end of the scale and ends up being brilliant:

Right up there with "You spoony bard!", "You're Winner!" and "All your base are belong to us", if you ask me

I don't want to dwell too much on it, because I've spent a fair bit of time in previous episodes saying how much I take issue with Final Fantasy VII's pretty shoddy translation. All I'm going to say is that if this game IS ever remade with a tidied-up translation, then this line needs to stay in. It's iconic to me, it makes me smile every time I read it, and I genuinely can't imagine any re-imagining of this game not including it.

After Cid derides Cloud for his choice of words (I suspect the irony of which may have been lost on the translators), monsters begin pouring into the chamber. This isn't shown visually, but instead indicated by the game's audio - guttural roars and groans begin to echo throughout the chamber, indicating the creatures' arrival. The whole thing feels a bit B-movie, as if they didn't have the budget to make a monster so they kept it off-screen. My first thought was "I wonder why they didn't show that, maybe through a CGI sequence", but the more I thought about it, the more I realised it made more sense not to. One thing I'm pretty sure I haven't said about Final Fantasy VII in any previous episode is that although it flaunts its CGI sequences as a selling point, its use of them is pretty conservative, reserved only for the moments with real impact - like the opening sequence, or the death of Aerith, or the WEAPONs being unleashed. To use one for something so unremarkable as monsters appearing in a dungeon would probably have cheapened their overall impact, so I'm glad they didn't opt for CGI in this instance (although I do wish there was an alternative to the shoe-string budget, noises-in-the-background approach).

Once again I'm prompted to select a party (Cloud, Red XIII and Yuffie win out yet again), and then I begin my final descent. At the bottom lies the first of several end-game bosses - Jenova-SYNTHESIS. This final incarnation of Jenova hits pretty hard, but proves no match for what is by now a tried-and-tested strategy. Yuffie gets to work setting up my buffs of choice - Haste, Regen and Wall - to give the party a clear advantage. Red XIII, now equipped with the Mega-All Materia, finds his regular attack converted to Slash-All, giving him the ability to hit every part of Jenova-SYNTHESIS at once. Cloud sets about absorbing the damage dealt while he and Red XIII chip away at the boss's HP, until she finally falls. The battle takes a little while, but my party aren't really any worse for wear on the other side of it - a reassuring sign, given what's to come.

After this battle, the ground beneath the party gives way, dropping them deeper into the Planet's core. When Cloud comes to, he finds himself once again in the company of all his fellow adventurers, and sitting before an intensely bright white light - could this be Holy? As they all awaken, Sephiroth appears before them and restrains them in mid-air, toying with them as they struggle against his power. It's here that the game prompts me to split my roster of characters into two parties, in preparation for what is likely to be an arduous battle. I decide to stick with Cloud, Red XIII and Yuffie on one side, but I shed some of their Materia in order to share it with my second party - Cid, Barret and Vincent - in preparation for the battle that is about to begin.

The first stage of the game's final battle is against Bizzarro Sephiroth, an enormous, multi-part incarnation of the game's antagonist that demands not one, but two parties in order to put paid to it. One party assumes position on the left side of the enemy, the other on the right. Bizzarro Sephiroth has five parts - a head, a torso, a core in its abdomen, and two wings referred to as the Left Magic and Right Magic. This is where the strategy comes in - these parts need to be damaged in a specific order, and you need to switch between both teams in order to do so. First the Left and Right Magics need to go down. That weakens the core, which needs to be damaged first on one side, and then the other. Without the core to heal it, both teams are free to hack away at the torso, which brings the battle to a close. It's a lot of fun engaging in this tactical battle, and the two-team dynamic makes things a bit more challenging and interesting.

After this comes Sephiroth's second incarnation - Safer Sephiroth. The good news is that this one-winged angel isn't split up into multiple parts - there's just one entity for you to focus on. The bad news is that you're restricted to one party, with no chance to heal up beforehand, and this guy hits hard. Safer Sephiroth's signature move, Super Nova, is downright evil, and has a fucking crazy animation to boot - Sephiroth summons a star from the furthest reaches of space, which descends upon our galaxy, taking out half the solar system on its way to the Sun, which expands to the point where it reaches the Planet and engulfs the entire party, leaving them with around 5% of their total HP. Yuffie has her work cut out for her, constantly spamming buffs and making use of her equipped W-Item Materia to throw Phoenix Down and Megalixirs around when needed. Red XIII chips away at Safer Sephiroth's vast HP reserves, but it's Cloud that does the real damage here - equipped with the Ultima Weapon and Double Cut Materia, he dishes out around 12,000 damage per turn. There are some tense moments where the tide of battle almost turns to smother me completely, but at last, the boss goes down.

After defeating this second incarnation of Sephiroth, the team find themselves back on the precipice where we left our save point. With Sephiroth ostensibly defeated, Cloud ponders that now they've done all they can, the fate of the Planet is out of their hands - it's up to Holy, and the Planet itself, to take charge of its own fate. As the party prepare to move out, Cloud freezes in his tracks. It seems part of Sephiroth is still nearby. As Tifa tries to make sense of what he's saying, Cloud collapses and enters another one of his 'out-of-body' experiences. A CGI sequence illustrates Cloud descending once more into the darkness, for one last showdown against Sephiroth...

The game's true final battle, a one-on-one showdown between Cloud and Sephiroth, is something I could write a lot about, but I'll try to keep it fairly manageable here. Rather than Cloud's ATB meter filling, his Limit meter gradually fills instead. When it's full, Cloud unleashes all his strength upon Sephiroth, who collapses, finally defeated. The way I've always seen it, this isn't a literal battle taking place in the North Crater, but a much more abstract and intangible battle taking place in Cloud's own head. It's not a representation of forcing Sephiroth to relinquish his hold on Holy, but a representation of Cloud finally forcing Sephiroth and Jenova out of his own tortured mind. It's his own personal release, the culmination of his own story arc, confirmation that he not only equals but exceeds the SOLDIERs he looked up to as a younger man, and all this brilliantly illustrated not through any explicit narrative or dialogue typed out in a text box, but through this implicit, symbolic piece of gameplay. It's without a doubt one of my favourite moments in the game, the perfect end to Cloud's character arc, and perhaps one of the most cathartic moments in any video game ever.

Following this intense face-off, the game's closing cinematic starts to play. It's a pretty long sequence, so rather than describing every little detail, I've elected to embed it below for people to watch:

There are a couple of aspects of this ending that I want to discuss. The first is the immediate events it depicts - the release of Holy, its failure to stop Meteor, and the subsequent emergence of the Lifestream. Emotionally it's a roller-coaster ride to watch for the first time, yo-yo-ing back and forth between hope and disaster in a way that leaves you never quite sure of how the whole thing is ultimately going to end. The appearance of Aerith's face on-screen in the dying seconds of the cinematic, mirroring the game's opening shots, serves as a reminder that she is arguably the real hero in all this. Sure, Cloud's the one we've been in control of all this time, but it's Aerith's Holy spell, Aerith's insinuated rallying of the Lifestream, that really and truly save the Planet from the threat of Meteor.

The other thing I want to say is that I am a big fan of the 'five hundred years later' epilogue that runs after the credits. The staff roll has been cut out of the video above, and the epilogue starts at around 8:55. it depicts a much older and wiser Red XIII, with two of his cubs following him through a dusty valley. He leads them to the top of a cliff, where together they look out over the overgrown ruins of the city of Midgar. It's not the happily-ever-after ending that a lot of people were probably expecting, but it serves to communicate the most important message of all - that the Planet was saved by our heroes' efforts. And not just for the benefit of all the characters we met on the journey, either, but for the future, for generations yet to come. If you ask me, this ending drives that fact home more than any series of individual character epilogues ever could.

As the game's narrative comes to a close, the screen fills with stars shooting through the blackness of space while the series' famous prelude plays in the background. It's still playing now, as I type out the closing words of this last ever episode of Enduring Final Fantasy VII. Our journey through Squaresoft's most famous and divisive piece of work has reached its end. My heart feels undeniably heavy in my chest as I reach across to the power sensor on my PS3 and hold my thumb over it for a few seconds. Ladies and gentlemen, I have finished Enduring Final Fantasy VII.

The Story So Far...

Table of Episodes
Episode Zero - The Obligatory Back StoryEpisode One - Initial Reactors... I Mean, Reactions
Episode Two - Flower Girls And Honey BeesEpisode Three - The Valiant Rescue Effort
Episode Four - Escape From MidgarEpisode Five - All Kalm On The Eastern Continent
Episode Six - An Abundance Of Big BirdsEpisode Seven - Hitching A Ride
Episode Eight - Over The Mountain, Into The SaucerEpisode Nine - Face-Offs And Race-Offs
Episode Ten - Going GongagaEpisode Eleven - Canyons And Caverns
Episode Twelve - Just A Little NibelEpisode Thirteen - The Rocket Man
Episode Fourteen - The Great Materia HeistEpisode Fifteen - Conflict, Romance And Betrayal
Episode Sixteen - An Ancient EvilEpisode Seventeen - The Death Of An Ancient
Episode Eighteen - Story Exposition And... ...Snowboarding???Episode Nineteen - Come Rain, Sleet Or Snow
Episode Twenty - The Illusion BrokenEpisode Twenty-One - Breaking Out Of Junon
Episode Twenty-Two - Mideel Or No DealEpisode Twenty-Three - Catching The Train
Episode Twenty-Four - Fort Condor's Final StandEpisode Twenty-Five - Revealing A Clouded Truth
Episode Twenty-Six - Under The SeaEpisode Twenty-Seven - Tying Up Some Loose Ends
Episode Twenty-Eight - Choc-A-Block With ChocobosEpisode Twenty-Nine - Touching The Stars
Episode Thirty - An Ancient SecretEpisode Thirty-One - Weapon On Weapon
Episode Thirty-Two - An End To Bad ScienceEpisode Thirty-Three - Globe-Trottin', Time-Wastin', Side-Questin'
Episode Thirty-Four - Journey To The Centre Of The Planet

...but hold on just one second.

Aren't we forgetting something here? Wasn't the entire point of this blog series to determine whether or not Final Fantasy VII was still worth playing around fifteen years after its release? To say definitively whether the game had endured the test of time, or had been reduced to something that needed to be endured? Where, in these vast swathes of text, is the answer to that one fundamental question we've been pursuing all this time?

Well folks, the paragraphs below are about as close to that answer as you, I, or anybody else is likely to get.

Final Fantasy VII as a game has not aged well. Visually it ranges from acceptable to downright hideous. Mechanically it's archaic, unwieldy, and not particularly intuitive. Its translation is below average, and even laughably bizarre at times. A lot of players of modern video games will find it incredibly difficult to look past a lot of these faults. And that, ultimately, is the game's biggest problem, because underneath all of those superficial flaws beats the stout heart of a truly great adventure - a breathtaking musical score, a cast of characters you'll grow inexplicably attached to, an open-ended approach to character development that makes for some really exciting battles and rewards experimentation, and a well-paced story that wraps you up so tightly in its myriad twists and turns that it becomes all too easy to forgive its inconsistencies. As a game played in 2013, it underwhelms. But as an adventure and an experience, for me at least, it still excels.

Now come the words I never thought I would utter - what Final Fantasy VII would benefit from is a remake. Not in the traditional sense of a remake, mind - more an upgrade, an overhaul to drag the existing foundations of the game into the twenty-first century. A remake that honours its heritage by retaining its pre-rendered backdrops and text-box dialogue, rather than scrapping them for full 3D and voice acting. A remake that provides a much-needed visual overhaul, with prettier polygonal models and high-resolution pre-rendered backdrops, and without throwing in unnecessary CGI all over the place. A remake with a vastly superior translation of the game's original script, which honours the story and better clarifies some of the game's more obtuse design decisions. Basically, a remake that fixes the original game's obvious faults, without compromising its strengths and original design ethic. Do I want a remake of Final Fantasy VII? The answer, perhaps ironically, remains no. Purely because any remake made by Square-Enix in its current state would most likely do the complete opposite of everything I've outlined above, and in the search for a better game, end up compromising what still makes the original great - the adventure, and the experience.

So should you play Final Fantasy VII in 2014? If you have any history with the game, but have been hesitant to go back to it, my answer to you is "yes". Chances are you'll be able to look past the shortcomings that age has bestowed upon it and rekindle that old passion, as I've been able to do. If you don't have any history with the game, but curiosity is drawing you towards it, my answer to you is "why not take the chance"? Between the digital releases on both PlayStation Network and Steam, the game has never been so readily available at such a reasonable price. If you're not able to look past the game's problems, or if the story and characters don't grab you in the same way, then that's fine - if there's one thing to be learned from the internet, it's that Final Fantasy VII will never please everyone - but in this blogger's humble opinion, it's still a chance worth taking for the sake of £8 or $10.

If any of what I've written above seems like a cop-out, then I apologise. I guess I was never really the "right" guy to write this series. I have an established history with Final Fantasy VII, and try as I might to shrug it off and view the game through new eyes and with complete objectivity, my love of the game was inevitably going to skew my viewpoint a little more favourably than it should have done. Personally I've gotten a huge amount out of writing these blogs, probably more than I've given to any of you readers in return. By far the most rewarding thing to come of it, though, is to be able to look at one of my favourite games and love it again, to enjoy playing it and writing about it without feeling a sense of shame, as if I'm being scrutinised by the rest of the internet like some video game equivalent of Nineteen Eighty-Four. When I was ten, I loved Final Fantasy VII. Now I'm twenty-three and able to recognise its problems, I still love Final Fantasy VII. It's not the greatest game ever. It's not even close. But it is incredibly special to me, and I'm glad to have regained sight of that fact.

Thank you so much to everybody who has read this series of blogs. If you started this journey with me and dropped out along the way, thank you. If you joined me late in the quest and saw it through to this end, thank you. If you only read one or two episodes, thank you. And if you're one of that small group of incredible people who've stuck with me over the whole of these last four years, I reserved the biggest thanks for you. Your comments have been a pleasure to read, and above all, your patience has been hugely appreciated. Take care, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Final Fantasy VII (PS3)

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Enduring Final Fantasy VII - Episode Thirty-Four

My oh my, just look at the time - it's Enduring Final Fantasy VII o'clock! Why not pull up a seat, take a load off and enjoy some semi-nostalgic, semi-cynical commentary on one of the gaming industries most divisive exports, all courtesy of your host with the most, Giant Bomb user dankempster? You're just in time to see the title card roll:

Episode Thirty-Four - Journey To The Centre Of The Planet

After yesterday's episode of Enduring Final Fantasy VII mimicked the side-quests it detailed by doing something a little bit different, it's time for us to get back to the main grind that is the game's story. A long time has passed since I last wrote a proper one of these, so I'll do my best to recap - Cloud and co. wrapped up Disc 2 having just prevented Shinra and Professor Hojo from wrecking the Planet with the Sister Ray, and at present are poised to enter the North Crater to try and put a stop to Sephiroth, which they hope will in turn stop Meteor from crashing into the Planet and wiping out all life. Pretty heavy stuff, I know. So be sure to take a deep breath while I get this save loaded up and prepped to pick up where we left off thirteen months ago.

The first thing that's apparent upon returning to Final Fantasy VII after a year out is that it does not look good on a big screen. Since the previous 'proper' episode, I've migrated my save from my PSP onto my PS3 so I could resume the series in greater comfort. On the PSP's smaller, lower resolution screen, the game's pre-rendered cinematics and backdrops don't look too bad, but on a 17" screen through an HDMI cable, it's easy to see why they call this the ugliest of the PlayStation Final Fantasy games. Even the pre-rendered environments, which I've heaped praise on up until now, are much more noticeably 'low-res', with less-defined, jagged edges on my TV screen. Bottom line - if you're one of those people who wants to revisit Final Fantasy VII (or play it for the first time) but poorly-aged graphics bother you, then I'd advise you to play it on PSP if you can, as that's easily where its visuals are most tolerable.

After taking some time to adjust to the larger screen, I rejoin Cloud and co. on the outskirts of what was once Mideel (where I must have been grinding AP to level up my Materia before putting the game down), hop into the Highwind and book it to our final destination - the North Crater. Cid's airship lands on the lip of the crater, leaving the party to descend into the abyss on foot. My party presently consists of Cloud, Red XIII and Yuffie, each with a distinct role to play in combat - Cloud is the physical damage dealer and damage wall, Red XIII is the black mage equipped with an array of attacking magic, and Yuffie rounds out the group as a white mage/time mage hybrid, intended to keep the party hastened and in good health while Cloud and Red XIII chip away at whatever opponents lie in wait in this dark, mysterious place.

The first thing that sets the North Crater apart from any other dungeon in the game lies within the first treasure chest you stumble upon - a Save Crystal. This one-time-use item, unique to the North Crater, allows the player to set a save point anywhere within the dungeon. Effectively, it lets the player gauge where they want to put their 'rest stop' as they progress through the Crater. It's an interesting exercise in player agency, forcing the player to carefully consider when would be the best time to use it, and by extension letting them decide how difficult to make the dungeon for themselves. In my first run through the North Crater, I'm pretty sure I dropped it in the area where the party splits into two, but in subsequent playthroughs I've tried to save it as late as possible, to minimise the amount of re-playing I'd have to do if the final bosses get the better of me.

Aesthetically and structurally, the initial screens of the North Crater aren't that far removed from previous subterranean dungeons like the Mythril Mine and Mount Nibel - they're dominated by weirdly-shaped rock formations, stalagmites and stalactites, sheer drops from cliff faces, and twisty-turny cave paths punctuated by treasure chests and the occasional dead end. There's no denying that the North Crater is a little more difficult to navigate than previous dungeons, but to be honest, as a final dungeon it's a little bit of a visual disappointment. Maybe I've been spoiled in the years since I first fell in love with this game, but I've seen a lot of other much more interesting final dungeons in JRPGs - the ones that immediately spring to mind are Final Fantasy IX's Pandemonium and Memoria, both of which have unique, crazy visual styles that set them distinctly apart from the rest of the game. Which would you rather do in the closing hours of an epic fantasy adventure - explore a Dali painting, or go spelunking?

Another thing that surprises me is that it doesn't take me very long to cut through these initial areas of the North Crater. I remember this thing seeming to take me forever to navigate back in the day, but I reach the split in the pathway in no time at all. Maybe it's that old adage taking effect, a case of everything seeming bigger when you're smaller. Anyway, it's here that the party splits into two different groups - one to take the left path, and one to take the right path. Not wanting to mess with a winning formula, I keep Cloud, Red XIII and Yuffie together and send the other five potential party members off in the other direction. Falling back on my latent knowledge of the game, I opt for the right path, because I remember it's much shorter and less dangerous than the left. A quick jog across a few more nondescript underground passageways brings my party back out at the North Crater's bottom-most point - the last area before the point of no return. It's here that I opt to use my Save Crystal, creating a save point which I promptly use to rest up and log my progress.

Now that my trek through the Crater up to this point has been saved, it's safe for me to try and tackle the left hand path. It's the longer and more dangerous of the two paths, but it's also the one with much better loot, so I'm not going to pass up the opportunity. Of particular interest are the various pieces of unique, highly useful Materia on offer, including the 'W-Magic' Materia (which lets you cast two spells in a single turn), the 'Mega All' Materia (which applies the 'All' effect to any compatible Materia equipped to a given character), and 'Shield' Materia (which, after earning some prerequisite AP, gives access to Shield, a spell which negates most damaging attacks). On my journey back down this left path, I encounter the North Crater's sole visually unique environment - an underground lake of sorts, its organic appearance a striking juxtaposition to the cold grey stone that has dominated this area thus far.

When I've picked up everything I want on this other branch of the path, I make my way back to the bottom of the crater and use my created save point to save the game once again. Satisfied with my progress through this final environmental ordeal, I power down the PS3 and bring this penultimate episode of Enduring Final Fantasy VII to its natural conclusion.

So at the close of Episode Thirty-Four, braced for the final battles, my vital statistics are:

  • Current Party - Cloud (Lv 70), Red XIII (Lv 67), Yuffie (Lv 60)
  • Current Location - Bottom of the North Crater
  • Time on the Clock - 50:40

The Story So Far...

Table of Episodes
Episode Zero - The Obligatory Back StoryEpisode One - Initial Reactors... I Mean, Reactions
Episode Two - Flower Girls And Honey BeesEpisode Three - The Valiant Rescue Effort
Episode Four - Escape From MidgarEpisode Five - All Kalm On The Eastern Continent
Episode Six - An Abundance Of Big BirdsEpisode Seven - Hitching A Ride
Episode Eight - Over The Mountain, Into The SaucerEpisode Nine - Face-Offs And Race-Offs
Episode Ten - Going GongagaEpisode Eleven - Canyons And Caverns
Episode Twelve - Just A Little NibelEpisode Thirteen - The Rocket Man
Episode Fourteen - The Great Materia HeistEpisode Fifteen - Conflict, Romance And Betrayal
Episode Sixteen - An Ancient EvilEpisode Seventeen - The Death Of An Ancient
Episode Eighteen - Story Exposition And... ...Snowboarding???Episode Nineteen - Come Rain, Sleet Or Snow
Episode Twenty - The Illusion BrokenEpisode Twenty-One - Breaking Out Of Junon
Episode Twenty-Two - Mideel Or No DealEpisode Twenty-Three - Catching The Train
Episode Twenty-Four - Fort Condor's Final StandEpisode Twenty-Five - Revealing A Clouded Truth
Episode Twenty-Six - Under The SeaEpisode Twenty-Seven - Tying Up Some Loose Ends
Episode Twenty-Eight - Choc-A-Block With ChocobosEpisode Twenty-Nine - Touching The Stars
Episode Thirty - An Ancient SecretEpisode Thirty-One - Weapon On Weapon
Episode Thirty-Two - An End To Bad ScienceEpisode Thirty-Three - Globe-Trottin', Time-Wastin', Side-Questin'

As promised, that's two episodes of Enduring Final Fantasy VII in as many days. Providing I don't get called into work tomorrow, I should be able to push through those final boss battles and bring you the last planned episode in this series of blogs. Thanks for reading guys, take care, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Final Fantasy VII (PS3)

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Enduring Final Fantasy VII - Episode Thirty-Three

In December of 2000, almost thirteen years ago to this very day, a fresh-faced ten-year-old boy wandered into his local video game store, intent on parting with some of his Christmas money in exchange for something new to play on the PSone he'd been lucky enough to receive for Christmas a few days before. After browsing the shelves for a while to no avail, the young lad happened upon a second-hand copy of Final Fantasy VII, almost entirely obscured from view at the bottom of the bargain bin by other, less reputable titles. Aware the game had received a 10/10 score from the Official UK PlayStation Magazine, but not entirely sure quite what he was letting himself in for, the boy picked up the game, took it to the counter and paid the £10 asking price. On the bus ride home he hungrily absorbed the details about the game's story and characters from the instruction manual, growing more excited about starting this journey with every word he read. When he got home, that young lad pounced on his unexpecting console, popped the first of the game's three discs into it, and began a journey that would ultimately change his life forever...

Such was my first encounter with Final Fantasy VII. Another time, another place, and I might never have had the chance to fall in love with the game, and by extension the vast majority of Squaresoft's output. I grew up loving the Final Fantasy series - I moved from VII to VIII, from VIII to IX, and then backwards through the series' older instalments as they were ported and re-released on Sony's original little grey box. But Final Fantasy VII in particular has stayed with me more than any other game in this long-running series. Whether it's something about its specific story, characters and setting, its incredibly flexible mechanics, or simply because it was my first Final Fantasy, I honestly can't say - I just love the game.

Being a Final Fantasy VII fan on the internet ultimately exposes you to two very distinct subdivisions of the online gaming community - those who love Final Fantasy VII, and those who don't. Actually, putting it in these relatively rational terms doesn't do these groups justice - it would be more fitting to call them those who adore Final Fantasy VII and hold it up as the best game ever made, and those whose seething rage towards the game leads them to think Hironobu Sakaguchi deserves his own reserved space in the seventh circle of Hell for ever inflicting it upon us. I've never really considered myself in either group. I always just thought it was a great game with interesting characters and an exciting story. Over the years though, being in the company of these two intensely opposed internet forces started to leave me questioning my own stance on Final Fantasy VII - was it really as good as I'd been making it out to be?

Thus, Enduring Final Fantasy VII was born. I'd been planning to replay the game for some time, but the decision to chronicle that playthrough in a serial blog format came to me at more or less the last minute. The thought process behind it was a simple one - what if, at the same time as confirming for myself whether or not this is a game still worth playing, I can share my experience and maybe provide an answer for other people asking themselves the same question? There have been ups and downs, delays and hiatuses, but thirty-two lengthy episodes and almost four years later, here we are. This series, which has in many ways become the most recognisable aspect of my presence here on Giant Bomb, is about to complete its last lap of the track.

I realise this is a painfully long introduction to the latest episode (the antepenultimate episode, would you believe?) of Enduring Final Fantasy VII. Forgive me the indulgence, but it feels almost necessary to recap what led us up to this point in the first place. It's also been over a year since I last put together one of these blogs, so it's equally an opportunity for me to get back into the swing of things before starting the episode proper. Now that we're all ready, let's dust off that ol' title card, shall we?

Episode Thirty-Three - Globe-Trottin', Time-Wastin', Side-Questin'

This is going to be quite an unconventional episode structure-wise, because it's less a re-telling of in-game events, and more a broad look at Final Fantasy VII's end-game distractions. Once the player hits Disc 3, the whole game world opens up, providing the player with an invitation to explore areas both old and new for all sorts of goodies not readily available on the game's regular beaten path. I'm going to look at each of these side-quests in turn under its own broadly-headed section, offer an explanation of what they entail, the potential rewards for pursuing them, and whether or not they're actually any fun to play. Oh, and a quick disclaimer - because I've already covered the secret characters Yuffie and Vincent in previous episodes, I won't be dedicating a section to them here. Are y'all ready? Then let's go!

The Gold Saucer

  • What is it? - Serving as a hub for a lot of Final Fantasy VII's extra-curricular activities, the Gold Saucer is a theme park/hotel/casino situated in the Corel Desert. The Gold Saucer serves three primary side-questing functions in Final Fantasy VII's end-game, the first of which is its Battle Square. As its name suggests, you can take part in arena battles here, success in which earns you Battle Points (BP) which you can spend on various items, Materia, and other goodies. The Wonder Square is home to arcade-style games, some of which are re-hashes of mini-games from elsewhere in the game's storyline, others of which are unique to the Gold Saucer. Doing well in these earns you GP, the Gold Saucer's unique currency, which can again be redeemed for all manner of trinkets. Finally, there's the Chocobo Square, where you can bet on the outcome of Chocobo races, or even race your own (more on that later, though). Again, there are plenty of cool prizes to be had from winning bets.
  • What can I get from it? - Battle Square is by far the best option as far as potential prizes go. It's the only way to obtain Cloud's final Limit Break Omnislash, among other awesome items and unique Materia including the powerful W-Summon. The GP earned in Wonder Square can also be put towards some rare Materia like EXP Plus. Chocobo race betting has never turned up anything amazingly awesome for me, but I'm not particularly great at betting, so I'm by no means an authority on whether it's worth pursuing or not.
  • Is it any fun? - Again, it's the Battle Square that wins out here hands-down. It plays with Final Fantasy VII's flexible character development mechanics by piling on handicaps with every passing round. Personally I found it to be a lot of fun trying to adapt to new battle situations on the fly. The games in Wonder Square are a cool distraction, but not enjoyable for prolonged periods of time. Things like the motorbike and snowboarding mini-games work great when they're used to break up the regular gameplay, but unfortunately their mechanics aren't robust enough for them to stand on their own merits. As for the Chocobo stuff... Well, let's get to that next, shall we?

Chocobos

  • What is it? - It wouldn't be a PS1 Final Fantasy game without some elaborate Chocobo-based side quest to tear the player away from world-saving for a while, would it? Final Fantasy VII's bird-brained Choco-rama is split into two distinct halves - Chocobo breeding, and Chocobo racing. The former involves catching wild Chocobos and rearing them on your own ranch, feeding them greens to boost their stats and breeding them with each other using special nuts, all in pursuit of specially-coloured Chocobos with the ability to navigate otherwise unreachable sections of the world map. Racing involves taking your own Chocobos to the Gold Saucer and pitting them against other Chocobos on the race track, in an attempt to further raise their stats and rank and increase your chances of breeding those elusive special Chocobos.
  • What can I get from it? - Getting a Gold Chocobo is an arduous, obtuse process, but it's the only way to reach a hidden cave containing the game's most powerful Summon Materia - Knights of the Round. Other coloured chocobos give you access to other secret Materia caves, so there's a definite benefit to putting the time in to breed these birds. Being the owner of a Gold Chocobo also afforded a kid some pretty prestigious bragging rights back in the day, from what I can recall.
  • Is it any fun? - This is where the whole side quest falls apart for me - it just isn't any fun, mainly because there's only one very specific way to breed a Gold Chocobo. If you don't know what you're doing, then you're probably not going to get anywhere near breeding a special Chocobo, and that's no fun. If you do know what you're doing, then you're monotonously following a series of steps with no element of surprise, and that's no fun either. It's a real shame, because there are traces of real potential there. Were the criteria for breeding special Chocobos a little less rigid, and the mechanics a little more intuitive, it could have actually been a fun distraction. As for the racing side of things, what I said about Wonder Square also applies here - it's a cool temporary sidestep from the regular gameplay, but it's not really deep enough to stand as its own thing.

Ultimate Weapons/Final Limit Breaks

  • What is it? - Every character in Final Fantasy VII has their own unique weapon class and distinct set of Limit Breaks. This means that each character has their own Ultimate Weapon and Final Limit Break, the absolute peaks of their potential power that exist as items in the game world, waiting to be found. Some are tucked away in secret corners, while others are rewards for beating certain bosses or making progress in other side quests.
  • What can I get from it? - Ultimate Weapons in Final Fantasy VII are something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they're without a doubt the most powerful weapons available in the game, maximising each character's potential to do huge amounts of damage in battle. On the other hand, though, having them equipped will prevent any attached Materia from growing. While this isn't really a problem for players who've already been playing long enough to have Mastered most of their Materia, it does present less prepared players with a decision to make. Final Limit Breaks are invariably powerful, dishing out insane amounts of damage, but there is a catch - in order to learn these ultimate attacks, characters must first have access to all of their other Limit Breaks. This means that if you want to make use of these special moves, you'd better be prepared to put some grindin' hours in first.
  • Is it any fun? - Speaking as a player who loves exploring game worlds, I had a lot of fun hunting down the various Ultimate Weapons and Final Limit Breaks scattered throughout Final Fantasy VII. A big part of that is probably down to the sheer variety of ways to get hold of them, as well as the plethora of different locations you visit on the way, both of which ensure that dedicating your time to finding them never feels like a slog or a grind. Getting every character to the point where they can utilise their Final Limit Break is slightly more tedious, but oh so worth it for that extra damage-dealing potential.

Hidden and Optional Areas

  • What is it? - No RPG would be complete without at least a handful of optional places to visit. Final Fantasy VII doesn't boast too many optional areas because of the way its story takes Cloud and co. across pretty much the entire globe, but the ones that are present in the game are pretty cool. I won't go into detail about Wutai, since I already covered it in a previous episode, so that leaves two major optional locations - the sunken Gelnika airship at the bottom of the ocean, and the Ancient Forest that becomes accessible after beating Ultimate WEAPON.
  • What can I get from it? - As you'd expect, these optional areas are home to some pretty awesome unique items - items which you'd never find if you refused to stray from the core storyline. Among other treasures, the Gelnika is home to the Conformer (Yuffie's Ultimate Weapon), Cid's Final Limit Break Highwind, and the Summon Materia Hades. The Ancient Forest boasts some similarly useful exclusive items and Materia.
  • Is it any fun? - These two optional locations are arguably two of Final Fantasy VII's most fascinating locales. The Ancient Forest presents some cool navigational puzzles that serve to set it apart and elevate it above being simply a straight-forward trawl through a forest. It's the Gelnika, though, that really captivated me. It may not seem like an interesting place at first, but when you start to put the pieces together, its apparent story reveals itself: this crashed airship is full of powerful mutated experiments, indicating that they were being flown across the ocean when something went wrong (the monsters escaping, perhaps, and attacking the crew), forcing the Gelnika out of the skies and into the sea. The Gelnika is one of my favourite parts of Final Fantasy VII, purely because of how it seems to insinuate all of this without ever explicitly coming out and saying it.

Secret Bosses

  • What is it? - Final Fantasy VII has three optional bosses, in the form of three distinct WEAPONs - Ultimate WEAPON, Emerald WEAPON, and Ruby WEAPON. To date, across six playthroughs of the game, I've only ever beaten one of these guys (specifically Ultimate WEAPON, who's very much in a different league to the other two), so I'm far from an authority on this aspect of Final Fantasy VII. As with most secret bosses, the primary purpose of Emerald and Ruby is to provide the player with an extreme level of challenge that they otherwise wouldn't find in the main game itself. Outrageously powerful and relentless in their onslaught, these two monsters demand high levels, powerful equipment and spells, and carefully prepared strategies from those masochistic enough to face off against them.
  • What can I get from it? - Maybe it's because these two rewards remain unattainable to me, but they seem like hands-down the coolest rewards for any side quests in Final Fantasy VII. For defeating Ruby WEAPON, you'll receive a Desert Rose, which you can exchange with an NPC in Kalm Village for a Gold Chocobo. That's right - an instant Gold Chocobo, with none of the fuss and faffing around that breeding entails. Even that pales in comparison to the reward for beating Emerald WEAPON, though - take the Earth Harp it drops to the same NPC in Kalm and he'll give you the Master Magic, Master Summon, and Master Command Materias. These three incredible stones bestow their wielders with EVERY SINGLE ABILITY governed by their respective Materia class, and all at the expense of just a single Materia slot. Now that is something I wish I could wield.
  • Is it any fun? - This is likely to seem self-contradictory, given my previous praise for the Golden Saucer's Battle Square, but my personal response to this question would be "no, it isn't". Over the years I've attempted to fight both Emerald and Ruby WEAPON several times each, and every time I've had my arse handed back to me on a silver platter. There is no doubt in my mind that successfully beating these two monoliths is an intensely rewarding feeling, one that likely outweighs every single second of preceding frustration, but I suspect that's a feeling I will never be privy to. I'm sure there are hardened Final Fantasy VII veterans out there who will tell you differently, but for me, repeatedly seeing the Game Over screen is not my idea of fun.

I think that's pretty comprehensive coverage of the main distractions available to the player at the start of Disc 3 in Final Fantasy VII. In terms of this playthrough, I've limited my involvement with the side stuff to just exploring the optional areas and tracking down as many Ultimate Weapons and Final Limit Breaks as possible. Hopefully it will at least leave me in a better position to tackle the trials of the North Crater in the next episode.

No end-of-episode statistics this time - given we haven't covered any meaningful ground, I think an update in that respect would be a little pointless. It'll be back for the next episode, though.

The Story So Far...

Table of Episodes
Episode Zero - The Obligatory Back StoryEpisode One - Initial Reactors... I Mean, Reactions
Episode Two - Flower Girls And Honey BeesEpisode Three - The Valiant Rescue Effort
Episode Four - Escape From MidgarEpisode Five - All Kalm On The Eastern Continent
Episode Six - An Abundance Of Big BirdsEpisode Seven - Hitching A Ride
Episode Eight - Over The Mountain, Into The SaucerEpisode Nine - Face-Offs And Race-Offs
Episode Ten - Going GongagaEpisode Eleven - Canyons And Caverns
Episode Twelve - Just A Little NibelEpisode Thirteen - The Rocket Man
Episode Fourteen - The Great Materia HeistEpisode Fifteen - Conflict, Romance And Betrayal
Episode Sixteen - An Ancient EvilEpisode Seventeen - The Death Of An Ancient
Episode Eighteen - Story Exposition And... ...Snowboarding???Episode Nineteen - Come Rain, Sleet Or Snow
Episode Twenty - The Illusion BrokenEpisode Twenty-One - Breaking Out Of Junon
Episode Twenty-Two - Mideel Or No DealEpisode Twenty-Three - Catching The Train
Episode Twenty-Four - Fort Condor's Final StandEpisode Twenty-Five - Revealing A Clouded Truth
Episode Twenty-Six - Under The SeaEpisode Twenty-Seven - Tying Up Some Loose Ends
Episode Twenty-Eight - Choc-A-Block With ChocobosEpisode Twenty-Nine - Touching The Stars
Episode Thirty - An Ancient SecretEpisode Thirty-One - Weapon On Weapon
Episode Thirty-Two - An End To Bad Science

It feels good to finally be back writing this series. It's been over a year since Episode Thirty-Two. A whole year. Seems pretty crazy when you think about it like that. Anyway, thank you as always for reading. Episode Thirty-Four should be out tomorrow, and it should cover the party's descent into the North Crater as they prepare for their final face-off against Sephiroth. Until then, take care, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Final Fantasy VII (PS3)

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Dan's Blogmas Breakdown

First things first - apologies for falling off the Blogvent wagon this week. It's been an absolutely horrendous week at work, one that left me wanting to just come home and get straight to bed rather than put any effort into writing something (or even play any video games to give myself something to write about). Being as I've broken the chain, I don't see a lot of point in continuing with the Blogvent thing, so I'll be retiring it early. Instead, this brief entry is intended to give a little insight into my planned blogging activity over the festive period. Roll bullet points!

Cloud is ready and raring to go. Me, not so much...
  • I'm going to try and get Enduring Final Fantasy VII finished between now and Christmas Day. That may sound crazy, but I have three more episodes planned, three full days between now and then, and hopefully no work on any of those days. Tomorrow should see the release of Episode Thirty-Three, which will cover the time I spent with the game's myriad side quests. Monday's thirty-fourth episode will chronicle my journey through the North Crater, the game's final dungeon, and Tuesday will bring an early Christmas present in the form of Episode Thirty-Five, including the final boss battles and ending sequence. There, now I've laid that all out, there's no way I can possibly live with the embarrassment of failing to deliver, so those three final episodes WILL be coming!

New Festive Avatar is relieved not to be taking part in any Mega-Bloggery this year
  • One of my staple blogging traditions since the launch of Giant Bomb back in 2008 has been my Christmas Mega-Blog, a ginormous blog posted in three parts on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day, and which is invariably likened to a three-course Christmas dinner. This year, however, I won't be writing a Christmas Mega-Blog. This is primarily a selfish decision on my part, because I want to focus more on spending time with my family this Christmas. I have a beautiful niece, a new addition to the family back in October, and I don't want to miss any of her first Christmas because my head is glued to a computer screen for hours trying to assign star ratings to all the Metal Gear games. Similarly, this could possibly be the last Christmas I ever spend with my grandfather, whose health has taken a turn for the worse in recent months. Don't worry though, because there should be plenty of blogging after Christmas...

You're all sick of this, right? Right.
  • At the end of the last few years, I've done an End Of Year Awards series of blogs to pay homage to the games I've played throughout the year. This typically involves me inventing ridiculously named and themed awards, then awarding one to every game I've played that year, before narrowing the honours down on New Year's Eve to a final list of ten games that shone brighter than all the others. For this year only, I'm going to shake up the format a little bit. The reason for this is that there hasn't been a huge amount of variety in my gaming habits this year - with eight Metal Gear games and five (soon to be six) Pokémon games featuring on my list of Games I've Played In 2013, following the existing format would make for a pretty dull and repetitive blog series. So instead, what with the end of 2013 officially marking the beginning of a new console generation, I thought I'd take some time to look back at twenty-five games that defined the previous generation of consoles for me. I'll do five games a day starting from December 27th, meaning my final five will be revealed in timely fashion on New Year's Eve.

So that's what you can expect over the next week or so. Be sure to come back tomorrow, when I'll be heaping a favourable helping of scorn and disinterest on Final Fantasy VII's mini-games and side-quests. Until then, thanks for reading guys. Take care and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (3DS)

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Dan's Blogvent Calendar - December 17th

It's been a little while since I wrote anything for Blogvent that was actually about video games. Today I'm going to make amends for that, with a little list. Not one of those fancy-schmancy Game of the Year lists that everybody else seems to be trotting out right now, though. This is a list of games with no end, that I wish I'd played more of in 2013, and intend to play more of in 2014.

1. Viva Pinata: Trouble in Paradise

I love the Viva Pinata franchise. The cute collectable Pinatas, the vibrant aesthetics, the addictive gardening gameplay that belies a surprisingly complex set of mechanics... all of it just appeals to my inner gamer in a way that few other games can. I've been meaning to revisit Trouble in Paradise for some time now, to re-experience the joys of tending to a Pinata garden. I'm also really keen to tackle more of the game's challenges, which serve to provide some sense of progression in what is essentially a wide-open game. I didn't get round to it this year, but I fully intend to next year.

2. Forza Motorsport 4

It's been quite a while since I last got well and truly lost in a racing sim. The last time was probably when I played through Forza Motorsport 2 to the point where I completed all of its myriad Career mode events. I only scratched the surface of Forza 3 by comparison, moving through its structured Season mode, but stopping short of getting any deeper. After a bit of a break from simulation racing, though, I feel like I'm ready to once again launch myself into a deep and demanding career mode. Forza 4, which I own but am yet to spend any decent amount of time with, is the prime candidate.

3. Pro Evolution Soccer 2013

A birthday gift from my friend Duncan way back in February, I am yet to spend any significant amount of time with this instalment in Konami's long-running soccer sim franchise. I've played plenty of matches, but the real draw here is the Master League, and I still haven't taken the plunge into this edition's incarnation of the life-eating managerial mode. My hope is that in the new year I'll be able to start putting some more time into PES2013, and finally begin my journey from the bottom of the Championship all the way up to the UEFA Champions League winners' podium.

4. Animal Crossing: New Leaf

Three months ago, Animal Crossing: New Leaf was my go-to game to unwind after a long, busy day at work. The relaxed pace of town life and the huge array of customisable options available to the player were major factors, letting me escape reality for about half an hour every day in favour of this laid-back approximation. Then Pokémon Y happened, and I am ashamed to say I haven't touched New Leaf since. My town is probably a mess, my friends have probably all moved away, and my mortgage won't have been paying itself. Hopefully I can pluck up the courage to return to it in 2014, tidy up the town, and resume my duties as mayor.

5. Pokémon Y

I know what you're thinking - "Dan, you've gotta be kidding, right? You've put hundreds of hours into the Pokémon franchise this year, over 150 of which have gone into Pokémon Y alone." I guess this doesn't technically qualify under the criteria outlined above, because I have played plenty of Pokémon Y this year. But in spite of that, I am still very keen to play more of it in 2014. There's one main reason for that - Pokémon Bank. Let's not forget that this year's Poké-blitz has all been in service of one key goal - to try and catch as many of the 718 known species of Pokemon as possible, and have them all in one single game cartridge. On December 27th, Nintendo launch the Pokémon Bank service, which will enable me to transfer everything I've caught in LeafGreen, SoulSilver, Emerald, Platinum and White into my Pokémon Y game and move one huge step closer to fulfilling that dream.

Dan

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Currently playing - Assassin's Creed: Revelations (X360)

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Dan's Blogvent Calendar - December 16th

Behind today's door on the Blogvent Calendar, I've hidden something pretty special. You may remember that on Day 12 I shared a bit of information about some songs I've been working on, under the umbrella of a concept album called Project 17. Well, today I bit the bullet and released them. Yep, the album I've spent all this time working on is now finally a thing that you can listen to, download, and even pay for, if you're one of those crazy people who pays for music on the internet.

Project 17 is the culmination of almost two years of work on my part. I started writing the lyrics to the project in early 2012, and when it became apparent I wouldn't be able to bring my old band back together to set it to music, I started composing my own at the start of 2013. For the ideas and concepts that I've spent the last couple of years honing and crafting to finally be available as fifty minutes of actual music is still pretty mind-blowing to me. Considering I am self-taught on every instrument I play and know next to nothing about music theory, the fact that it is fairly listenable is even more mind-blowing. I am intensely proud of this accomplishment, and I'm very excited to finally be sharing it with the rest of the world.

I've included a link to my Bandcamp page in this blog post, where you can pick up a copy of Project 17, if you wish. It's available on a 'pay-what-you-want' basis, with no minimum spend. I don't expect people to pay for it - in fact, I fully encourage you to download it for free, so there's no chance of anyone feeling like they've paid over the odds for a dozen tracks recorded ad-hoc in a British dude's bedroom. To be honest, I just want as many people as possible to hear what I've been working on and recognise how proud I am of it. If you want to throw some comments my way I'll happily receive them. If any of this has piqued your interest, you can find Project 17 available to stream and download here.

Thanks very much for reading (and hopefully listening) guys. Take care, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Assassin's Creed: Revelations (X360)

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Dan's Blogvent Calendar - December 15th

Once again, I've left it ridiculously late to throw anything up here for Blogvent. I've spent the evening with a group of good friends, doing our pre-Christmas gift exchange. For lack of anything else to write about tonight, I thought I'd just share some of the awesome presents that I got from them. Maybe tomorrow I'll be able to get some photos of the gifts to put up here as well.

  • My friend Jon got me what appeared on first glance to be a Game Boy cartridge, an out-dated handheld version of Earthworm Jim. On closer inspection, though, it wasn't a game cartridge at all, but a bar of hand soap shaped to look like one. A really awesome little novelty gift.
  • Another friend, Dean, gifted me a book full of extraordinary facts about cricket. I'm a player of the sport, and casual follower of the national team (although not so much right now - all that stuff going on in Australia at the moment is a little bit embarrassing), so it was a nice thoughtful gift on his part. There's no sport better suited to weird and wonderful happenings than cricket, so I'm sure it will be a very interesting read as well.
  • A third friend, Tom, presented me with a Simpsons DVD containing an episode featuring The Who. They're my favourite band by a huge margin, and I've never seen the episode before, so I'll definitely be putting that on some time soon. He also got me a T-shirt modelled after the 'Keep Calm & Carry On' slogan, but with a highly appropriate twist - it's Pokémon-themed. The shirt reads 'Keep Calm &', and underneath has a picture of a sleeping Snorlax. I'll definitely be wearing that to darts tomorrow night.
  • A fourth friend, Duncan, hit me with a double-whammy of games to add to my collection. He bought me copies of Batman Arkham Origins: Blackgate for the 3DS, and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance on Xbox 360. I hope to tackle both in 2014, although given my Metal Gear Madness run earlier this year, Metal Gear Rising is probably the highest priority of the two.

We had an awesome evening, as we always do at our gatherings. Lots of Mario Kart Wii was played, and plenty of discussions about Pokémon X and Y were had (Tom recently got a 3DS and a copy of Y, so we're on hand to answer any questions he might have). I already can't wait for next year.

Dan

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Currently playing - Assassin's Creed: Revelations (X360)

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