Enduring Final Fantasy VII - Episode Thirty-Two

Welcome, one and all, and especially you, to Episode Thirty-Two of Enduring Final Fantasy VII. That's right - much like the original PlayStation I first played this game on some twelve years ago, this blog now has 32 bits. This is the most recent instalment of a long-running, fairly ubiquitous serial blog in which I try to determine whether Final Fantasy VII (one of my all-time favourite video games) has weathered well as the years have passed. How do I determine that? Why, by playing it, of course! And that's what I'm about to do now. Roll title card!

Episode Thirty-Two - An End To Bad Science

At the end of the last episode, I left our crew of competent adventurers after they'd just parachuted back into Midgar to stop a crazed Professor Hojo from destroying the city by overheating the Sister Ray. They've landed just inside the perimeter of Sector 8, and are planning to use the underground to avoid SOLDIER troops and make it to Shinra Headquarters. Cait Sith has located a trap-door leading down into the myriad tunnels beneath Midgar, and as Cloud approaches he throws it open, ushering the party into the bowels of the city. As he does so, a familiar piece of music begins to play:

I closed the last episode with some brief thoughts about how the return to Midgar at the end of the second disc effectively brings the whole game full circle. The recycling of 'Bombing Mission' as the team begin their descent into the Midgar underground is a very welcome nod to this cyclic progression of the narrative. The last time we heard this music over forty hours ago, Cloud was bound for the Sector 1 Mako Reactor on a terrorist mission with AVALANCHE. This time it signifies a similar journey through the city's industrial workings, but with a view to saving the city from almost certain destruction. I really like the parallels between these two different points of the game's story, and the incorporation of 'Bombing Mission' into this second visit to Midgar only serves to increase that appreciation.

The Midgar underground only amounts to a few screens' worth of navigation, but its maze-like layout and a handful of scattered treasure chests serve to turn it into something of a mini-dungeon. I've rambled on at length in other episodes about how Final Fantasy VII uses unconventional settings to make traditional JRPG tropes feel fresh, so I'll just say that this is another fine example of this and leave it at that. I take my time moving through the underground, engaging in a few random encounters and picking up all the goodies along the way (among which is an awesome new weapon for Barret, making my primary fighter even more powerful). The enemies that litter the underground don't pose any real threat, with the exception of the irksome Crazy Saws - these robots have the ability to inflict Confuse on my party members, turning them on each other. Given the amount of damage I'm now causing, Confusion could be potentially disastrous, and in one battle my party very nearly wipes itself out. Without an appropriate accessory to remedy the situation, all I can do is prioritise my attacks towards them and hope for the best.

The party emerges from the underground into what seems to be a disused portion of Midgar's rail system. Here they encounter three familiar faces in the form of Turks Reno, Rude and Elena. Even with the Shinra Electric Power Company in turmoil and Midgar on the brink of disaster, they've been sent after Cloud and co. to stop them before they can reach the cannon. The party are given the option to talk their way out of this fight, an option that, given the progression of the relationship between the party and the Turks, might be a more fitting way to conclude their story arc. On the other hand, I find it very hard to say no to more EXP and Gil...

This incarnation of the Turks is without a doubt the strongest yet. Even with Cid casting a protective Wall spell on his first turn, the collective battering from Reno, Rude and Elena deals quite a bit of damage. While Cid continues to set up the party's defences with Regen and Haste, Barret launches his usual physical offensive (bolstered by the '2xCut' Materia, which allows him to attack twice per turn) and Cloud attacks with sweeping Summon spells like Alexander and the recently-acquired Bahamut ZERO. In this fashion, it doesn't take long for my party to turn the tide of battle and put paid to the Turks one last time. As is customary for them, they turn tail and run from the battle, leaving Cloud's party free passage into Midgar.

Before heading for the Sister Ray, I take advantage of the opportunity to pay a return visit to Shinra Headquarters. After Diamond Weapon's attack it's impossible to go any higher than the 65th floor, and there's nothing to do besides picking up a few items, but boy, do those items make the trip worth it. Cait Sith's ultimate weapon, the HP Shout, is tucked away in a locker on floor 64, and a powerful new weapon for Tifa, the Master Fist, sits in a treasure chest in the gift shop just off the lobby. There are also new weapons for Barret and Cid, albeit inferior to what I have now (especially after stumbling upon the Max Ray in the underground only recently.

Considering it's such a short detour I'm surprised I manage to get annoyed about two things during my time back in the Shinra building. The first is the handful of random battles I encounter while I'm exploring, which are against the same enemies I fought on my first visit. The problem here is, I'm a full fifty levels higher than I was then, and as a result these fights serve as nothing more than an annoyance. It would have been preferable if the developers had either thrown some tougher enemies at me, or simply switched off the fights altogether this time around. The second annoying thing I encounter is a pair of translation issues, directly tied to the aforementioned items I've picked up. When retrieving the new weapons for Barret and Cid in the field, they're named 'Pile Bunker' and 'Glow Lance' respectively. Opening the inventory, though, I discover they're now dubbed 'Pile Banger' and 'Grow Lance'. It's a small thing to get worked up about, and I can't really explain why it irritates me so much, but it does, and serves to reaffirm just how much I'd love to see this game get a new translation.

When I've finished taking care of business at Shinra HQ, it's time to double-back on myself and head for the Sister Ray. As the party emerges from the rail network, they're greeted by yet another unwanted welcoming committee - this time in the form of Heidegger and Scarlet, both riding in an anti-Weapon artillery unit called the Proud Clod. They're planning to finish what the Turks couldn't, and end Cloud's meddlesome crew once and for all. This cues the second boss battle of our return to Midgar, and one of the most difficult encounters I've faced in a long time. Proud Clod is every inch the tank he appears, boasting an enormous amount of HP. On top of this he can cast Reflect on the party, an inconvenience that can result in some very frustrating moments where healing spells bounce off weakened characters and restore some of the Proud Clod's plentiful HP reserves. DeBarrier proves to be my best friend here, although it does mean my usual defensive strategy of regularly casting Wall isn't quite as reliable as it usually is. It takes a lot of gradual whittling, but eventually the Proud Clod falls, destroyed in a brilliant explosion that presumably takes Heidegger and Scarlet with it. My reward is the Ragnarok, a slight improvement over Cloud's current sword which I equip immediately.

With every obstacle removed, all that remains now is to ascend the makeshift scaffold of the Sister Ray in pursuit of Hojo. Halfway up to the control platform I open a treasure chest containing the 'Missing Score' - Barret's ultimate weapon. I promptly do the only sensible thing I can do - tuck it away in my inventory and forget about it. Call me crazy, but I've never seen much point in Final Fantasy VII's ultimate weapons. Yes, they're incredibly powerful. Yes, they have eight Materia slots, all paired up to encourage experimentation with different combinations of Materia. The problem lies in their putting a total block on the growth of any attached Materia. I'm not a huge grinder in RPGs, but I do casually appreciate the pursuit of better stuff through levelling up, and having an ultimate weapon equipped in Final Fantasy VII effectively kills that chase. I guess eventually, when the player reaches a point where they've mastered all the Materia, the ultimate weapons can be used without any detrimental effect, but I've never played obsessively enough to be in that position, and if I did, I probably wouldn't need the ultimate weapons anyway. Final Fantasy X did something similar with its celestial weapons, but at least their full potential could be 'unlocked', removing their 'No AP' clause. As things stand in Final Fantasy VII, I've only ever switched to ultimate weapons for the final boss battles, when earning AP to grow Materia simply ceases to matter.

Still favouring the Max Ray, and having switched Cid over to the Glow/Grow Lance (I decide its additional Materia slots will make up for the lower attack power), I approach Hojo as he mashes violently at the Sister Ray's control panel. He's initially disinterested by the team's arrival, but soon begins expressing his frustration at having evaluated Cloud as a failure when he was, ultimately, the most successful attempt to recreate Sephiroth. It's at this point that Hojo spells out something only hinted at previously - that he is Sephiroth's biological father. Hojo volunteered his unborn son as a candidate for Professor Gast's Jenova Project, for which the infant Sephiroth was injected with Jenova cells while still in the womb. Seeing all this revealed once again draws my attention to the sheer complexity of the interpersonal relationships that serve to hold up Final Fantasy VII's story. The connections between characters, both playable and non-playable, are interwoven in such a way that the resulting web is nothing less than impressive. It lends the narrative the feeling that every character's fate is intrinsically linked to that of the others, and serves to make the gameworld feel more alive, more believable, and more interesting to spend time in.

With the Sister Ray almost ready to fire again, Hojo turns toward the party and tells them he has also injected himself with Jenova's cells. Cackling maniacally, the Professor begins to transform...

Hojo is an example of one of my least favourite JRPG tropes in action - namely, the multi-tiered boss. Hojo has three different incarnations in this battle, each one progressively more deformed and deadly than the last. Presumably the intended effect is to lend the conflict a sense of gravitas by making it lengthier and seemingly more epic, forcing the player to change their tactics on the fly to accommodate each new incarnation's attack patterns, and construct an air of uncertainty as to just how much fight the incredibly strong opponent has left in it. Personally, I've almost always come away from multi-phase boss fights feeling like they're an unnecessarily long and pretty cheap way of trying to make fights more interesting - I think things like facing multiple enemies who co-operate with each other, or a single enemy with the ability to change its strengths and weaknesses at will, fit the bill much more effectively. I remember the first time I played through Final Fantasy VII some twelve years ago, I'd never before encountered the phenomenon of the multi-tiered boss battle. I wasn't prepared to face more than one version of this deranged scientist, and dumped all of my most powerful abilities onto him right from the off. By the time the third, most deadly incarnation rolled around I'd exhausted all my summons and MP and ended up watching my severely debilitated party succumb to a barrage of status effects. That, too, may have gone some way towards shaping my opinion of this trope.

The first phase of this fight, simply dubbed 'Hojo', doesn't pose much of a threat. I get Cid to cast Haste on the whole party and lay into Hojo with a swift barrage of physical attacks. It only takes a few turns to cause the second form - 'Helletic Hojo' to emerge. Cid throws up a party-wide Barrier spell and heals as necessary while Cloud and Barret chip away at the monster's HP. This conservative approach to the first two phases ensures that when the third form - 'Lifeform Hojo' - arrives on the scene, I can launch an all-out offensive with my most powerful spells and summons. Cloud calls on Alexander, whose Holy-elemental Judgement, combined with an equipped Magic Plus Materia, encroaches on the range of the 9999 damage limit. Barret's 2xCut ability ensures a comfortable 4000 damage per round. Cid's role becomes a completely supportive one, healing any damage dealt and casting Esuna to counter the boss's constant infliction of negative status effects. The whole battle takes around eight minutes (longer than I'd expected it to), and when it reaches its conclusion, Hojo is no more.

I mentioned this briefly in the comments below the previous episode, but I feel the need to reiterate here that this whole 'return to Midgar' part of the game leaves me feeling a little underwhelmed. Given how much time the player spends in this city in the game's opening hours, it would have been great to see this return be a little more substantial. As things stand, it ends up being little more than a quick bombing run through a series of boss battles, and that's what underwhelms me about it. Midgar is a huge place, but over the course of the game we only see a handful of locations within it. The amount of untapped potential makes the brevity of the party's return even more disappointing. I realise it's possible to get back into Midgar on disc three, but it's a convoluted and completely optional process with (as far as I can recall) very limited pay-off story-wise. I guess there just seemed to be so much potential to do something more interesting with the team's return, but a lot of that potential was squandered.

With Shinra in tatters and Hojo defeated, the party return to the Highwind to re-assess their gameplan. Cloud instructs everybody to leave, return home, think about why they're fighting, and come back to the airship only if their reasons are good enough. That leaves just Cloud and Tifa behind - two former residents of Nibelheim who have no home to return to and nobody to fight for but themselves and each other. The pair spend the night together under the stars, in a scene which I've always considered to be one of Final Fantasy VII's most understated brilliant moments. Returning to the subject of the game's interpersonal relationships, I've long been fascinated by the 'love triangle' between Cloud, Tifa and Aerith. What follows is my own personal interpretation of that triangle, and an attempt to explain why it's captivated me through several playthroughs:

I've always thought it to be pretty clear that under different circumstances, Cloud and Tifa would have quite happily ended up together. Ultimately though, it's the trauma that Cloud goes through, and his subsequent assumption of several of Zack's traits and thoughts, that rob them of whatever happiness they might have had. I've long believed that it's Cloud confusing himself with Zack that brings him and Aerith so close - by thinking in the same way he comes to admire Aerith in much the same way as Zack did, while his assumed mannerisms and traits draw Aerith towards him. It's this (ultimately artificial) connection that prevents Cloud and Tifa from ever truly becoming an item - even with Cloud's thoughts now reconciled, he can't quite let go of Aerith. Thinking about things like that makes these closing scenes from the second disc much sadder to watch.

The next morning Cloud and Tifa return to the deck of the Highwind and are discussing their plans to assault the North Crater when the airship unexpectedly roars to life. The pair rush to the cockpit, where they find the entire party has returned. One by one they each reaffirm their commitment to the cause, encouraging Cloud to set a course for their final destination. As the fully-laden Highwind approaches Sephiroth's subterranean lair, Cid starts to lose control of the airship. Looks like the crew are in for a pretty bumpy landing...

It's here that disc two of Final Fantasy VII comes to an end. I take the opportunity to save my game and switch to the third and final disc before turning off my PSP.

So at the close of Episode Thirty-Two, my vital statistics are:

  • Current Party - Cloud (Lv 65), Cid (Lv 66), Barret (Lv 62)
  • Current Location - Highwind
  • Time on the Clock - 44:36

The Story So Far...

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

This is a very long blog. It's almost certainly the longest episode of Enduring Final Fantasy VII I've done to date. To tell the truth I did think about cutting it off before the Hojo fight, but it felt like it made sense to carry on right through to the end of the second disc. From here on out I have a choice to make - do I postpone the end-game in order to dick around some more with the game's myriad side-quests and distractions, or do I simply press on into the North Crater and bring this seemingly interminable series to its grand finale as soon as possible? The first is more in line with my original plan for this series, but after Giant Bomb moderator ZombiePie wagered that I couldn't possibly finish the game before the end of the year, the second has become very tempting indeed. Be sure to tune in to the next episode in a fortnight's time to find out what I'll have chosen to do. In the meantime, thanks for reading, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Final Fantasy VII (PSP)

9 Comments

Shifting Gears

Oh boy. I knew I'd be making my return to blogging at greater length about individual games at some point, but I never would have guessed this would be the game to make me do it. Around this time last year I was bemoaning how Forza Motorsport 3 had all but destroyed my enjoyment of the racing genre, proclaiming that it would be a very long time before I could invest myself in another driving game. And up until a couple of weeks ago I still believed that. Earlier this year I attempted stints with Gran Turismo 3 and ToCA Race Driver 3 on my PlayStation 2, neither of which I managed to stand for more than a few races before my racing game fatigue re-emerged and I was forced to retire them back to my gaming garage.

And yet here I am, dedicating an entire blog entry to a driving game whose career mode I raced through in the space of a week. What the hell happened?

DiRT. DiRT happened.

At this point I can't remember what inspired me to pick up Colin McRae: DiRT (to use the full title of its UK release) when I popped it into my Xbox 360 a couple of weeks ago. I'd just finished a tenth anniversary run-through of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and was on the look-out for something to replace it as my go-to console game, but I really don't know what possessed me to choose DiRT. As if my aforementioned 'racer fatigue' shouldn't have been enough to dissuade me, the game had also left a pretty negative first impression when I initially checked it out not long after purchasing it last summer. Trying to pick it up right off the back of several lengthy Forza sessions, I was put off by the comparatively loose handling, tier-based career structure and dearth of options. Why would I be interested in playing a game with less than fifty cars when Forza boasted a figure closer to five-hundred? In every respect, DiRT was a non-starter for me.

The Hill-Climb events were among my favourites

When I booted DiRT back up a fortnight ago, I was fully expecting to dislike it. And initially that same disappointment from last year began to surface. Chugging round Knockhill in a Renault Clio isn't fun, no matter how enthusiastic the game's announcer sounds about it. But once I broke through the tedium of the first few events, unlocked some cars that were actually enjoyable to drive, and started throwing my vehicles round the courses a little more assertively, I began to have a lot more fun with it. By the time I reached the top tier of DiRT's career mode, I was completely converted and reluctant to let the experience end. Even now I find myself switching the game back on at least once a day, eager to race the Suzuki Escudo to the top of Pike's Peak, or wrestle aggressively to the front of a pack of dune buggies in a CORR event. Right now my career completion percentage stands at 80%, but I wouldn't be surprised if that rounds out to the full 100% before the year is out.

So what exactly is it about DiRT that's seen it achieve what neither Forza nor Gran Turismo could? If I'm honest, I think it's a combination of its entire feature-set - the same feature-set that put me off the game just over a year ago. The smaller overall scope of the game makes it feel like a less daunting proposition to pursue that coveted 100%, but within that narrower focus there's a great deal of variety to the events themselves - traditional rally is far enough removed from, say, CORR, to keep the whole experience feeling fresh. The fast, loose driving model makes driving the zippier cars feel exciting and precarious, but it's also forgiving enough to encourage players to take risks without having to worry too much about potentially disastrous consequences. While it's got a wealth of tuning options for petrol-heads, more casual gamers like myself can ignore all that stuff and still do respectably well on the higher difficulties - I went through most of the game on Pro-Am without ever tweaking anything. Pretty much the only thing I dislike about DiRT are the Crossover events, which feel like they're governed by cheap rubber-banding AI. Take those out of the equation, and it's a game that I'd find incredibly hard to fault.

Will GRID be able to scratch the same itch that DiRT satisfied so effortlessly?

I've spent a lot of time thinking about why a game I'd previously had no interest in has managed to completely subvert my expectations of it, and the best I can come up with is this. A lot has changed since last summer, and I'm certainly not the same person I was then. I have a lot of commitments that demand huge chunks of my time - my job and the obscene amount of overtime it's thrust upon me recently, playing drums for a new band, and playing and practising darts, just to name a handful. I don't have the time or the energy to invest in a simulation racer with the size and scope of Forza or Gran Turismo any more. I have no desire to dip my toes into another car collect-a-thon, spending scores of hours earning credits and working my way through an interminable list of events. When I've finished doing everything that needs to be done, I just want to sit down, pick up a controller and throw a virtual car around a virtual track, with no additional commitments. DiRT satisfied that need perfectly.

So now that I've finished with DiRT, what's next? While I don't think I'll be playing any other racers for at least a few months, I've got a title waiting in the wings in the form of Race Driver: GRID. Also developed by Codemasters, GRID falls under the same umbrella as DiRT, so I'm hoping it will provide a similarly smooth, enjoyable racing experience. I'm also keeping a tentative eye on Forza Horizon, the new release under the Forza banner that seeks to marry the series' reputation with the open-world model pioneered by Burnout Paradise. Again, it's not something I'm planning to play immediately, but it's intrigued me enough to think about buying it once it drops below £20 or so. Right now, I'll be diverting my attention back to Final Fantasy Tactics Advance - I'm now around halfway through the core story missions, with thirty-five hours on the clock and sixty-or-so missions completed in total. I've also been craving a first-person shooter of late, and am in the process of narrowing down my options on that front before picking one to play. And of course, there'll still be the odd intermittent racing session with DiRT.

Will I manage 24 hours of non-stop gaming for charity?

Before I sign off this blog, I'd like to draw your attention to something I'll be doing in a few weeks' time. Regular readers of this site are no doubt aware of Extra Life, a charity event which encourages gamers to play for twenty-four hours non-stop to help raise money for childrens' hospitals. Unfortunately I didn't catch wind of the event until just a few days before, and so I wasn't able to take part. The idea has stuck with me, though, and I've spent the last couple of weeks putting together a little charity event of my own. On Friday November 23rd, I'll be running my own one-man twenty-four-hour gaming marathon to raise money in aid of Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research. Some of the finer details (like which games I'll be playing, and how I'll be broadcasting the event) are yet to be finalised, but you can read about the marathon (and if you're feeling really generous, slip me a small donation) on my JustGiving page. Wish me luck, Giant Bomb - I have a feeling I'm going to need it. As always, thanks very much for reading, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Final Fantasy Tactics Advance (GBA)

4 Comments

Enduring Final Fantasy VII - Episode Thirty-One

Welcome, lads and ladettes, to the thirty-first episode of Enduring Final Fantasy VII. If you're new to this series, then welcome. You're a little late, but I'll fill you in anyway. Enduring Final Fantasy VII is an episodic blog that chronicles my current playthrough of Final Fantasy VII, one of my most beloved games, through the critical eye of a more mature gamer in 2012. Nostalgic and cynical in equal measure, it's my aim to find out if my favourite JRPG has stood the test of time as a gaming experience, or if it would best be lost to the winds of time and forgotten about - has it endured, or is it something that must be endured? Hopefully each episode brings us one step closer towards answering that ultimate question. Speaking of which, let's get this one underway, shall we?

Episode Thirty-One - Weapon On Weapon

Loading up the save I made at the end of the last episode puts me just outside the City of the Ancients, next to my improbably-landed Highwind. As I try to re-board the airship, Cloud is halted by the tremors of a distant earthquake. The camera cuts away to the source of the commotion - a Weapon has risen out of the ocean, and has started to approach Midgar. Word of the slumbering creature's awakening reaches the crew of the Highwind by way of Cait Sith, who seems to have suddenly and inexplicably begun affecting a more colloquial accent (something I'm willing to forgive as yet another example of this game's lacklustre translation). Barret is concerned for Marlene's safety, but the now seemingly Cockney cat-puppet reassures him that his adoptive daughter is just fine. It doesn't take long for Cloud to decide that they need to intercept it before it can reach the city. Back in control of Cid's trusty airship, I head for the coastline just north of Midgar and await the approach of Diamond Weapon.

Diamond Weapon certainly isn't a slouch in the combat department, providing me with one of the game's greatest challenges since I made my ill-advised early trip to the crashed Gelnika back in Episode Twenty-Seven. It hits hard and fast, a dangerous combination even so late in the game. My tactical choice to overcome this is to have Cid, my resident buffer, cast Haste and Wall on the entire party with his first two turns. These two spells ensure I can keep up with Diamond Weapon's barrage of attacks, and that those attacks do significantly less damage. From there it's a fairly simple case of balancing attack and defence, launching a full-scale onslaught with my strongest spells and summons while ensuring that my health doesn't drop too low. This war of attrition eventually ends in my favour, with the weakened Weapon turning its back on me and continuing its march towards Midgar.

Back at Shinra Headquarters, President Rufus gives the order to fire the 'Sister Ray'. With the power of all the city's Mako reactors behind it, the super-cannon fires a hyper-charged beam, on a collision course with both the advancing Weapon and the barrier around the North Crater. The beam slices through Diamond Weapon like a hot knife through butter, but not before the creature unleashes a volley of its own impressive weaponry. As the Sister Ray's inaugural shot pierces Sephiroth's protective barrier at the Crater, Diamond Weapon's attack reaches Midgar, reducing Rufus Shinra's office to ashes.

After the dust settles, the team decide to head for the North Crater to see if the Sister Ray has done anything to Sephiroth. Even Barret, who's apparently ignorant of the fact that the city where Marlene is holed up has just been bombed by a natural defensive super-weapon, is willing to forgo confirmation of her safety in favour of gallivanting back to Sephiroth's hiding place. Honestly, I wish there was some consistency in Barret's concern for Marlene at this late stage in the game. Their relationship is handled pretty spectacularly from the game's opening right through to the confrontation with Dyne at Corel Prison, but after that the subplot seems to fade into irrelevance, and never gets treated with any sense of importance again. The fact he yo-yos so rapidly from concern to indifference in this short sequence just makes the whole thing feel sort of half-baked. Flying the Highwind to a position hovering over the now-exposed crater confirms what the group thought - Sephiroth's energy barrier has been destroyed. The crew are just about to touch down inside the crater and pay their long-term nemesis another visit when Cait Sith (who's returned to speaking the Queen's English) halts proceedings with some very bad news.

Once again the action cuts back to Shinra HQ, where a conversation unfolds between Reeve, Heidegger and Scarlett. Apparently the Sister Ray is still drawing power from Midgar's Mako reactors - a dangerous occurrence, given the weapon is supposed to go through a three-hour cooldown time. On top of that, control of the cannon has been locked to the mainframe, meaning that nobody can gain access to shut it down. Taking on a commanding role in Rufus' absence, Reeve discovers that the culprit is none other than Professor Hojo. The lunatic scientist seems hell-bent on feeding Sephiroth with an enormous dose of Mako energy from the Sister Ray, presumably in the belief that Sephiroth's aspirations to become a god will be realised.

Something worth noting is that this short sequence, without ever explicitly saying it outright, reveals to the player the true identity of Cait Sith's operator as Reeve. It's a strictly implicit reveal, cutting away from Cait Sith on the Highwind to a scene in which Reeve serves as the central character, and making the point through the transference of knowledge between the two characters. It's another perfect example of how Final Fantasy VII doesn't feel the need to constantly force its lore and backstories down the player's throat, instead leaving them to pick up on the clues and inferences hidden effortlessly within the primary plot-line's grand scope. Or at least, it would be if the whole scene wasn't then undermined by Barret clumsily letting the Mog-riding cat out of the bag back on board the Highwind. Honestly, Final Fantasy VII, you were so close to pulling that one off...

Anyway, Cait Sith tells Cloud and co. that any attempt to cut the power to the Sister Ray would result in a catastrophic explosion that would most likely destroy Midgar. Therefore, the only way to stop the threat is to eliminate Hojo himself. Getting to him isn't going to be easy, though - Heidegger and Scarlett don't take too kindly to what they see as a mutiny on Reeve's part, and have him held under arrest while they prepare a special surprise for our band of adventurers in the form of a 'new weapon'. The threat posed by Heidegger and Scarlett isn't enough to dissuade Cloud, though, who tells the Highwind's pilot to plot a course for Midgar immediately.

As the airship passes over Midgar, Cloud devises a novel way of getting into the city without having to get through the Shinra defences - by parachuting in from above. The party follows their leader up to the Highwind's deck, and as they cross the screen in a single-file line, it's brought to my attention for the first time that every single one of these characters has a unique running animation. Red XIII is understandably unique in being four-legged, but even the bipedal party members have noticeably different gaits - Cid leans slightly backwards, while Vincent Valentine runs hunched forward in a manner befitting his vampiric appearance and the muscular Barret is led by his enormous shoulders. That level of attention to detail, to animate every single playable character in a unique way, must have been unprecedented in 1997. Even now in 2012, I'm left rather stunned by this revelation.

The feeling of being impressed carries over into the ensuing cut-scene, in which all eight party members leap from the Highwind's deck and descend upon Midgar from above. Thematically it's a nice call-back to the game's opening cut-scene, providing a similar sense of Midgar's enormous scale and adding to the feel that the whole journey has come more or less full-circle. The fact that Cloud can be manipulated into doing flips on his descent is also a nice nod to the game's emphasis on interactivity over passive viewing, but I'm not sure it's tonally appropriate. To be fair, this entire episode has been responsible for some pretty great FMV moments - the CGI render of Diamond Weapon was spectacularly detailed, as was the powering up and firing of the Sister Ray. I've said it a lot through this series, but I maintain that character models aside, Final Fantasy VII doesn't look bad at all, and I think these scenes serve as perfect proof of that.

The party land deep in the heart of Midgar's Sector 8. With Shinra guards crawling all over the place, there's only one safe way to reach the central structure where Hojo is - through the underground network. Caith Sith leads the party to an entrance to the underground, which is conveniently placed right next to a save point. I decide that this is as good a time as any to wrap up proceedings, so I save my game and turn off my PSP, bringing this episode of Enduring Final Fantasy VII to an end.

So at the close of Episode Thirty-One, my vital statistics are:

  • Current Party - Cloud (Lv 62), Cid (Lv 63), Barret (Lv 59)
  • Current Location - Sector 8, Midgar
  • Time on the Clock - 42:50

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 Secret

Looking for the next episode? You can find Episode Thirty-Two - An End To Bad Science here.

Another entry done and dusted. For anybody who's been keeping count (probably just me), the posting of this episode means Enduring Final Fantasy VII has officially overtaken A Month in Skyrim as my longest-running serial blog. And we've still got quite a way to go before our time with Cloud and company comes to an end. The next episode should cover the remainder of the party's return to Midgar and see us through to the end of disc two, so keep your eyes peeled for that in a couple of weeks' time. Until then, thanks for reading, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Final Fantasy VII (PSP)

5 Comments

A Little, More Often #3

Crazy to think it's already been two weeks since I last penned one of these, but here I am sketching out a third edition of A Little, More Often - a series of brief blogs intended to get me back into the habit of writing at length. I'll keep this introductory segment short, so I can get on with talking about what really matters - them video games.

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City

80s Florida is still as inspired a setting now as it was ten years ago

This time last year I decided to revisit Grand Theft Auto III, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of its release. At the time I toyed with the idea of doing the same thing for Vice City and San Andreas in 2012 and 2014 respectively. Now, as the year draws to a close, I've been playing the second in Rockstar North's celebrated open-world triumvirate, and do you know what? It's still a damn awesome game, and one that's aged even better than its older brother.

I'm struggling to put my finger on exactly why that is. Vice City suffers from a lot of the same drawbacks as GTAIII - graphics that are functional rather than fancy, an infuriating lack of third person camera control, and pretty weak gunplay. There must be something else in the package, then, that makes those inconveniences seem trivial. Perhaps it's the inspired locale - a sun-drenched, pastel-shaded re-imagining of 1980s Florida with an astounding amount of attention to detail. Maybe it's the inclusion of a fleshed-out, interesting protagonist in Tommy Vercetti, bolstered by a memorable supporting cast of NPCs. It could be the variety and scope of the game's missions, no two of which ever feel too similar. Most likely it's a combination of all of these things, held together by the game's incredible sense of focus (something that was lacking in San Andreas, I feel). What I do know is that even now, ten years after its initial release, Vice City is still one of the greatest examples of how to do open-world games right. I've sunk sixteen hours into Vice City in just over a week, and I'm currently flitting around the city buying up real estate and completing missions. I anticipate I'll have finished it within the next few days, allowing me to free up some more time to devote to other games.

FIFA 12

My love/hate relationship with football games continues

Seeing all the hubbub around the recent release of FIFA 13 left me itching to play a football game, but unwilling to part with the £45 a brand new instalment of the EA Sports franchise demands every year. My solution to this was to pop into a local second-hand game store and buy a copy of last year's FIFA 12 for a much lower £6. Given that I don't follow real-world kicky-bally, playing with last year's rosters isn't something that I'm going to lose sleep over, so it seemed like a sensible course of action. Overall, I'm having a pretty good time with it. The game options are a little limited if, like me, you're coming into it as an offline single-player, but the gameplay itself is a lot of fun. Everything feels fluid, dynamic and natural, and on the Professional difficulty at least, the pace of play has a nice ebb and flow to it, with games feeling closely matched and poised on a knife-edge. It took me a while to adjust to the new tackling controls, but they're definitely an improvement and make defending just as involving as building an attack. I'm spending most of my time in the Player Career mode, where my Virtual Pro has signed for Exeter City, and I'm sure I'll be playing matches in-and-out until the end of the year.

The JRPG Progress Report

Final Fantasy Tactics Advance is proving to be a great distraction during my lunch breaks at work

Alongside the two games above, I now have three lengthy Japanese role-playing games on the go. Rather than give each its own header though, I figured it would be more economical to bring them all together under the premise of a progress report. My current main time-sink is Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, the mechanics of which continue to hold me captivated. I've clocked up around thirty hours since starting it about three weeks ago, and covered maybe a third of the game's dedicated story missions. I've started unlocking some of the more interesting jobs now, and while a lot of the coolest abilities are still out of my reach, it's enabling me to craft some pretty cool units already. Because of its handheld nature, the game is also proving to be a great time-filler when I'm on my lunch breaks at work. I anticipate being kept busy by FFTA right up until year's end, so I'll be sure to keep you posted with my progress.

My sister and I are continuing to push through Persona 4 as well, whenever we both have a spare evening to spend inside the TV. What with all my overtime at work and her returning to University this month, things have been a little quieter on that front than before, but we're still steadily pacing our way through the lengthy adventure. If memory serves me, we've just hit the month of July, and are trying to save Rise from inside the TV. The masterful blend of dungeon-crawling and Social-Linking continues to keep me captivated, and my sister seems to be enjoying it a lot too. Hopefully once both our schedules ease off a little, we can up the frequency of our visits to Inaba.

And of course, there's Final Fantasy VII. If you'd like to know how that's going, then why not check out the latest instalment of my Enduring Final Fantasy VII series of blogs? It's a good'un, promise.

That's Yer Lot

I guess that'll do for another edition of A Little, More Often. Before I wrap things up completely, I just want to give some praise to all of those who took part in the Extra Life fundraising yesterday. It's an incredibly worthy cause to support, and your dedication will make a big difference to kids in need. Well done to all of you. I was completely in the dark about the drive until this Wednesday, and by the time I'd learned anything about it, it was a little too late to get involved. The whole thing has inspired me, though, and I'm thinking of attempting something similar to raise money for charity in the near future. Should I decide on anything, I'll be sure to share the details here. In the meantime, thanks very much for reading, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (PS2)

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Enduring Final Fantasy VII - Episode Thirty

It's been a while, huh? Specifically, it's been just over three months since I last sat down with what is arguably my favourite game of all time, played a chunk of it, and then wrote down some semi-cynical, semi-nostalgic thoughts about it. I guess that makes this special thirtieth anniversary episode a little overdue, but better late than never, right? Ladies and gentlemen, it's once again time for me to resume Enduring Final Fantasy VII.

Episode Thirty - An Ancient Secret

Given the extended hiatus this series has just returned from, it would probably make sense for me to sketch out a brief recap of recent events, so readers (not to mention myself, as well) can get back up to speed without having to trawl through the last couple of entries. Last time we saw Cloud and the gang, they were hot on the heels of the Shinra Electric Power Company in search of Huge Materia - extra-powerful chunks of magical ore. Having retrieved three pieces of the stuff, their attention was drawn to a fourth piece being relocated to Rocket Town, where it would be place into the rusted Shinra No.26 rocket and launched straight into Meteor. The crew were able to stow away on the rocket, recover the Huge Materia, and escape before the collision, which failed to the asteroid's impending descent. At the point where we left off, the party were about to visit Bugenhagen at Cosmo Canyon to seek his advice on how to proceed. It's here that my chronicling of the game's events will resume.

The first thing that I'm reminded of when the game loads are the limitations put on the Highwind in terms of where it can and can't land. Basically, anything that isn't a lush grassy plain is a no-go. Given that Cosmo Canyon sits amidst rocky surfaces devoid of plant life, it means I have to land my airship quite a distance from my destination and cover the rest of the journey on foot. This means encountering some random battles, and while my character levels are high enough for them not to be a problem, that means they're instead reduced to the level of an annoyance. There's no logical reason why I shouldn't be able to land right outside Cosmo Canyon, so I'm not sure why the developers felt the need to make it a no-go area for the Highwind.

Bugenhagen has been hanging out in his Planetarium, and it's there that the group find him. When Cloud asks him for guidance, he advises the whole band of adventurers to come together and try to think about things they might have forgotten. The group consensus all seems to come back to Aerith, and her statements regarding her plan to stop Sephiroth. What did she know that the rest of them didn't? Everyone draws a blank on this question, but Bugenhagen suggests that the answer may lie somewhere within the City of the Ancients - it is, after all, the place where Aerith went after she left the party. Cloud agrees to return, and it sounds like Bugenhagen will be coming along for the ride too this time. Before everybody returns to the Highwind, Cloud asks Bugenhagen if the party can keep their stash of Huge Materia here in the Planetarium. Bugenhagen kindly obliges, and Cloud drops off the four retrieved pieces of Huge Materia for safe-keeping.

Before returning to the airship, it's possible to examine each of the four pieces of Huge Materia. Three of them (the green, red and yellow pieces) correspond to different schools of abilities (Magic, Summon and Command respectively), and right now they don't serve any function. Diligent players who master every piece of Materia in the game can receive rewards from the Huge Materia in the form of Master Materia, a feat I've never quite been obsessive enough to accomplish. The piece I'm interested in right now is the blue piece, which holds a special piece of Summon Materia in the form of Bahamut ZERO. The three instances of Bahamut in Final Fantasy VII is something I've only come to appreciate in recent playthroughs, as a more established fan of the franchise. Now I understand Bahamut's position within the franchise, the existence of three different Bahamuts, each more ludicrous than the last, seems like the game's tongue-in-cheek attempt to one-up its predecessors: "You thought Bahamut was badass in Final Fantasies IV through VI? Well check this out - Bahamut just got an upgrade!". I'm probably reading far too much into it, but that's how I interpret it, and thinking about it that way makes me smile. It doesn't hurt that all three versions are awesome summon spells, either.

Back on the Highwind, Bugenhagen retires to the deck and leaves Cloud to get back to running the ship. I fly to the northern continent, landing the airship on what appears to be A FIELD OF ICE AT THE BOTTOM OF A NARROW CANYON.

Seriously, Square? I can't land my airship on grassless plains, but I can land it here? How does that make any sense?

Anyway, complaint aside, this preposterous landing does at least mean I don't have to waste time trawling through Bone Village and the Sleeping Forest all over again. Our destination within the City of the Ancients is an open, forum-like room at the back of the abandoned city, with a mysterious machine at its centre. As soon as he enters the room, Bugenhagen attunes to the voices of the spirits of the Ancients, and is able to glean some of the information Cloud and co. are searching for. Apparently the only way to stop Meteor is to call upon the power of the ultimate White Magic, Holy. If a soul seeking it communes with the Planet, Holy will be released, cleansing the Planet of all that seeks to harm it. In order to speak with the Planet and cast Holy, the White Materia is needed. As far as Cloud is concerned, this piece of news might as well be the final nail in the coffin. He recalls Aerith being in possession of the White Materia, and seeing it fall from the altar when she was killed. Bugenhagen, meanwhile, notices some lettering upon the machine they're standing beside, which refers to a 'key' hidden in a place where 'not even light can reach'.

I remember this clue causing me an untold number of headaches in my youth. I spent several consecutive evenings scouring every inch of the world map, trying to find this elusive dark spot and the key it housed. Eventually I think I was told where to look by a schoolmate, who was discovering the game around the same time as me (and who, to be honest, was probably consulting a guide of some description himself). Playing it now as an older, wiser gamer who's less willing to put up with lazy design, the whole sequence smacks of artificial lengthening - the clue is so obtuse as to leave the player with very little idea of where to search, and because this 'key' serves any purpose beyond delaying the story's progression, there's no decent reason why the game's story couldn't have been altered to completely skip this step. Final Fantasy VII is guilty of leaving the player stranded like this at a few points in its lengthy story, but this is arguably the most infuriating example of it purely because it all feels so unnecessary.

Thankfully, I've memorised where the key is hidden, so the unnecessary globe-trotting is kept to a minimum on this occasion. The Key to the Ancients is sitting in a well-hidden cavern on the ocean floor, accessible only by submarine. A quick round trip puts the key in my possession - what once took me an uncountable number of hours to achieve is now dealt with in less than ten minutes. Seriously Square, why didn't you guys just give us a slightly more obvious clue, eh? Something that mentioned water, perhaps, if only tangentially? Anyway, moving on...

Upon Cloud's return with the key, Bugenhagen uses it to activate a music box within the room. The chimes bring water gushing down from above, enveloping the central machine with water. The machine projects an image of Aerith onto the cascading waterfall, clearly showing that when she dropped the White Materia, it was giving off a faint green glow - a sign that she was able to call upon Holy before her death. But something is preventing the spell from acting upon the Planet - or more accurately, someone. Sephiroth's presence at the North Crater is blocking Holy, and stopping it from dispelling Meteor. In order to release his hold on Holy and potentially save the Planet, Cloud and the crew are going to have to stop Sephiroth once and for all.

As the party step away from the machine, Cloud receives a call on the PHS from Cait Sith. Remember on our last visit to Junon, its famous cannon was nowhere to be seen? Apparently, President Rufus had it moved from Junon to a place where it could draw on the energy of Mako directly - the super-weapon has now been installed in the city of Midgar. A cut-away to Rufus's office reveals the plan in all its sinister glory - Shinra have aimed the cannon at the North Crater, and wired it up to every Mako Reactor in Midgar. A super-charged, Mako-powered shell is going to be launched from this new weapon (dubbed the 'Sister Ray') towards the crater, in an attempt to destroy the magical barrier encasing it. This looks bad. Very bad indeed. So bad, that there's only one possible course of action - to return to the world map, save the game, and bring this episode of Enduring Final Fantasy VII to an end.

So at the close of Episode Thirty, my vital statistics are:

  • Current Party - Cloud (Lv 61), Cid (Lv 62), Barret (Lv 58)
  • Current Location - Icicle Area, World Map
  • Time on the Clock - 42:10

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

Looking for the next episode? You can find Episode Thirty-One - Weapon On Weapon here.

Thirty episodes, eh? Who'd have thought that when I embarked on this crazy, oft-delayed journey two-and-a-half years ago, I would end up making it this far? Realistically, we've probably only got another ten or so episodes to go from this point, so from here on out the finish line is very much in sight. Join me again in a couple of weeks' time when I'll be making a (hopefully triumphant) return to Midgar. As always, thanks very much for reading, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Final Fantasy VII (PSP)

8 Comments

A Little, More Often #2

Welcome, one and all (and especially you) to this, the second instalment in my 'A Little, More Often' series of blogs. I had planned to write this last weekend, but instead opted to hold off for an additional week so as to drum up some more material to write about. The decision seems to have paid off, as I've not only completed two games since the last blog, but I've also made significant progress in two lengthy RPGs, giving me a little bit more to blog about. I'll begin where I left off last time, with:

Oddworld: Munch's Oddysee

It's fiddly and flawed at times, but Munch's Oddysee is still a fun, unique gaming experience

I finished Munch's Oddysee the morning after posting my last blog, powering through most of the game's final third in a single sitting. Pretty much everything I said about the game two weeks ago still stands - it was a joy to return to Oddworld and re-experience the series' unique approach to both gameplay and storytelling. The shift to three-dimensional graphics isn't the upgrade that it should have been, often proving to be quite the reverse in instances where precision control becomes an issue. Most of the fun I derived from the experience came from coming up with solutions to some of the puzzles, especially in situations where I was able to circumvent the designers' intentions with a little lateral thinking. I ended up wrapping up the game with very high quarma, failing to save only ten of the game's 300+ captive creatures and subsequently receiving the good ending. I'm not sure I'll ever return to this game in the Oddworld franchise, but playing through it has left me with a desire to return to Abe's Oddysee and see if I can earn myself the elusive good ending in that title, too. I also still have Stranger's Wrath left to play, so I'm sure one way or the other, I'll be revisiting Oddworld some time soon.

Dear Esther

Environment and atmosphere are what defined my time with Dear Esther

I actually played through this in one evening sitting, the same day that I beat Munch's Oddysee. Well, I say 'played'... Dear Esther isn't really a game, per se - it's more an interactive narrative, where exploration of the game's Hebridean island environment yields snippets of a fragmented letter to the eponymous Esther. I have to admit, I didn't find the story all that captivating - the language is poetic and impressive from a literary standpoint, but tends to give the impression that the game's writers were trying a little too hard. Similarly, the narrative is ambiguous and open to a degree of player interpretation, but its fragmented, piecemeal delivery prevented any of it from really sticking with me long after my playthrough was over. What really entranced me about Dear Esther was the gameworld itself. The rugged, mountainous terrain and spectacular underground caverns that played host to my journey were both impressive in their scope and striking in their detail. It's an environment that I won't soon forget, even if the game itself isn't destined to stay with me for long.

Final Fantasy Tactics Advance

For a humble GBA release, this game is huge

After seeing the end of two games in the space of less than twenty-four hours, I wasn't sure where to redirect my gaming attention. A few days' deliberation brought me back to this old favourite. Final Fantasy Tactics Advance was pretty much the defining game of my 2004 - a good friend bought the game at the same time as me, and we spent countless hours at weekends sitting on our doorsteps with our GBAs in hand, trading items and swapping strategies between our clans. But while he made it to the end of the game's story missions, I ended up distracted by other games and only got about halfway through. Eight years on, that's something I'm trying to put right. I've put an incredible twenty hours into the game in just under a week, taking Clan Gaslight (named after my current musical obsession) through forty missions and around a quarter of the way through the story. It's been a long time since I last played a strategy RPG, so FFTA's slightly simpler mechanics and lower difficulty threshold make it an ideal re-introduction to the genre for me. The handheld, pick-up-and-play nature of the game is also an advantage, so I've been taking my DS to work and powering through a few battles in my lunch breaks. Realistically, FFTA is going to keep me occupied for a good month or so, and I'm looking forward to stacking a lot more hours on top of those initial twenty.

That's Yer Lot

And so the second 'episode' of this little blog series draws to a close. Just so you know, I don't plan on making this format shift a permanent thing. It's just an attempt to rejuvenate my interest in writing at length about video games (and writing in general), and once I've rekindled that flame I plan to return to my old, one-game-in-depth-at-a-time approach. If I should write another one of these in a couple of weeks' time, expect it to contain more thoughts on Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, revisited impressions of Persona 4 from both myself and my sister, and most likely a recap of some shorter, more action-oriented game that I'll likely pick up soon. Ever-patient readers of 'Enduring Final Fantasy VII' will be pleased to know that the series will be making its thirtieth-episode comeback this month, so keep an eye out for that. In the meantime, thanks for reading and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Final Fantasy Tactics Advance (GBA)

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A Little, More Often

It's been far too long since I last wrote anything for this blog. Truth be told, it's been far too long since I last wrote anything at all. Work has kept me stupidly busy these last couple of months, but that's really only part of the problem. The biggest obstacle I'm trying to overcome is lack of motivation, a feeling that's caused more than just my writing to suffer this summer. To try and combat these high levels of disinterest, I'm going to commit myself to spending just a small amount of time to write shorter updates on a more regular basis. Hence the title of this blog post - 'A Little, More Often'.

Because it's been quite a while since my last Giant Bomb blog update, I've got quite a few things to talk about. I won't spend too long on any one subject, and my writer's mind is a little rusty, so I apologise if the thoughts below seem a little disjointed or undercooked. All I ask is that you bear with me, and hopefully it'll all come good in the end. The first item on my blogging agenda is:

Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood

Stabbin' dudes in the face and neck is still fun

I spent most of August playing the third instalment in the core Assassin's Creed canon, reaching the end of Ezio's adventure in Rome on the first of this month. I was seriously impressed by the ways in which Brotherhood built upon Assassin's Creed II, most notably in the form of the Assassins Guild content, which ended up dominating most of my time spent with the game. It was almost a given that I'd get drawn into that stuff, considering how much I enjoyed similar mechanics implemented in games like Final Fantasy Tactics Advance and Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker. While AC: Brotherhood is a strong enough adventure in its own right, it struggled to live up to my appreciation of its predecessor. I'm convinced this was mainly due to the approach Brotherhood took with its story, replacing the second game's focus on the development of Ezio's character with an isolated 'Assassins-versus-Templars' narrative centred on the Borgia. I appreciated the fleshing-out of Desmond and his companions outside the Animus, but felt like more could have been done to advance the overarching plot running through the whole series. The game certainly ends with a bang (or rather, an 'UH!'), but overall the story stuff in Brotherhood felt underdone and left me feeling a little dissatisfied. Even in spite of those shortcomings, though, the gameplay holds up, with further mechanical refinements ensuring Brotherhood is the best Assassin's Creed game I've played purely from the perspective of its gameplay. I'll no doubt be picking up AC: Revelations later this year (when the release of Assassin's Creed III drives its price through the floor), with a view to witnessing the conclusion to Ezio's tale some time in 2013.

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4

I already like the Midnight Channel a lot more than Tartarus

Ever since I finished Persona 3 back in February, my sister (who served as a spectator for most my run through) has been pestering me to pick up its sequel. I finally caved a couple of weeks ago, and since then we've been dedicating a little time every evening to finding our feet in Inaba. We're about nine hours in so far, so it's really too early for me to pass a definitive judgement about anything in the game, but so far it's felt like a logical evolution of the mechanics of its predecessor. Being able to control every party member is a huge improvement, removing the element of doubt that came with relying on the AI to make the right choices in P3. What I've seen of the story so far has been interesting enough, although the characters' need to state every single plot point several times is already wearing pretty thin. The cast of playable characters is shaping up to be just as memorable as that of P3, and I can't wait to really get stuck into the Social Link side of things to see how they compare to those of the previous game. Watch this space for further updates on our journeys into the TV.

Oddworld: Munch's Oddysee

Oddworld is still quirky, cool, and fun to explore

I've long been a fan of the Oddworld franchise, and have previously written at length about just how great the original pair of 2D puzzle-platformers are, but up until now I'd never played either of the 3D games released on the original Xbox. That changed this week when I booted up the Steam version of Munch's Oddysee. Now I'm around halfway through, I feel like I can comfortably say that it's very much a game cast from the same mould. Gameplay is still centred on platforming and the solution of puzzles through a mixture of GameSpeak and enemy possession. Probably my favourite thing about the game so far is the 'duo dynamic' that comes as a result of having two different playable characters. It's a lot of fun exploring each level, using both Abe's and Munch's strengths to find the solution to the puzzles standing between them and the exit. Unfortunately, the transition to three dimensions does rob the gameplay of some of its finer aspects - platforming is naturally more difficult - and the nature of the solutions to some of the puzzles can turn what should be fun and rewarding into an exercise in tedium and laboriousness. Thankfully, those moments aren't so frequent that they detract from the overall experience. Personally, it's just nice to be back in Oddworld.

That's Yer Lot

I think that's everything I've got to say on the subject of video games at this point in time. I'll probably try to push one of these out next week as well, when I'll hopefully have seen the end of Munch's Oddysee and moved on to something else. There will also no doubt be some more expanded thoughts on Persona 4. Until next time, thanks very much for reading, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Oddworld: Munch's Oddysee (PC)

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When Work And Play Collide

Doctor Dan Prescribes 50ccs Of Strategic Salubrious Silliness!

...now that I've fulfilled my contractual obligation to Mento by shoe-horning in that sentence, let's get down to business

Way back on the first day of this year, I wrote a blog here on Giant Bomb outlining some of the things (both gaming and non-gaming) that I wanted to achieve over the course of 2012. It's pretty embarrassing to look back on it at this late stage in the year, and to realise just how little of what I'd envisioned myself doing has actually come to fruition. Out of a list of fifteen games I intended to beat, for example, I've only played four so far. All of that stuff doesn't matter too much though, because arguably the most important item on the list was ticked off some time ago. Coming into 2012, what I wanted more than anything else was to find work. In March, after eight months of refused applications and failed interviews, I was at last given the chance I'd been craving - an opportunity to become a dispensary assistant at a local doctors' surgery. It was only a six-month contract, working part-time hours, but I seized the offer without hesitation and began working there at the start of April.

This is essentially my job

Four-and-a-half months on, things have just kept getting better. The cap has been removed from my contract, making me a permanent member of the dispensary team. I've been given occasional opportunities to work on reception, expanding my pool of experience in different ways. Perhaps the biggest development came last month, when my employers enrolled me in a correspondence course for dispensing. This time next year, I'll hopefully be a qualified dispenser. It's certainly not where I'd envisioned myself being at this point in my life, but I'm really happy to have ended up here. My job essentially consists of liaising with doctors, dispensing and ordering medications for patients, and basic admin tasks like prescription-tracking. Knowing that every prescription dispensed is helping someone to feel better equates to a lot of job satisfaction on my part - infinitely more so than the futility of my last job as a cleaner for my university's Students' Union.

I know what you're all thinking - this is all well and good, Dan, but what does any of it have to do with video games? I guess superficially, the answer is 'not a lot'. Working means I have a lot less time in which to play games than I did this time last year, and long work days often leave me too sapped of energy to be bothered to power up the 360 and concentrate on whatever I might be playing when I get home in the evenings. Given this enormous disconnect between my working life and my desire to play video games, the last thing I expected was for those two sides of me to collide in spectacular fashion, but when I played Theme Hospital, that's exactly what happened.

Theme Hospital's silliness masks some implicitly sinister satire

I won't go into huge amounts of detail about what Theme Hospital is, because I'm fairly sure most of you will already know. If you don't, check out the Giant Bomb Wiki page - some awesome users have really gone to town on it and filled it with great information. What I want to focus on is the tone of Theme Hospital's humour, which manages to be both patently ludicrous and profoundly satirical. The illnesses suffered by patients are invariably laughable - from the Elvis-obsessed King Complex, through Hairyitis, to Bloaty Head (arguably the game's trademark disease) - and each one has a daft cure to match. The nasal drawl of the tannoy announcer delivers dry one-liners that can still force a smile even towards the end of the game's twelve-scenario campaign. Visually, everything is highly stylised, cartoonish and exaggerated. It's quite clearly a game that's not meant to be taken seriously.

My problem was, I couldn't help but take certain aspects of it seriously.

The thing that bothered me most about Theme Hospital is how much importance is placed on monetary gain, to the point where patient welfare is a secondary concern. The game is built in such a way that patients are simply a vehicle for profit, and consequently their needs and moods can largely be ignored. Every level demands minimum hospital worth and earnings, yet not a single level requires a minimum level of patient satisfaction. You run the risk of losing a level if you kill too many patients, but the number of deaths you can get away with increases as your hospital's worth and profitability increase, and my campaign was certainly never under any real threat from it. It's a tycoon-style game, I get that, but surely the real challenge of running a hospital should come down to maintaining patient satisfaction, even if that means a slight dent in the profits - a real case of "balancing the books and the bedpans", as Theme Hospital's own box art puts it. The game's unadulterated focus on the financial side of things made for a fairly one-dimensional, near-uncomfortable playing experience.

This is where the parallels between my real-life job and the intended humour of Theme Hospital start to become a little uncomfortable for me. As a trainee dispenser, I'm fairly close to the front-line of the healthcare system, and I regularly see cases where we ignore maximum profit to put the needs of a patient first - the way things should be, in my view. Much higher up the chain, however, there are people who don't see things that way. People whose attitudes hold up a worrying mirror to the faceless board of directors who govern the player's fate in Theme Hospital. I'm not suggesting that healthcare services should be completely free - such a model would be unsustainable - but there is absolutely no need to seek to extract maximum profits from what is ostensibly a public service. What playing Theme Hospital alongside my new job has made me realise is that the line between the former's seemingly outrageous satire and the latter's potential vulnerability to corporate money-makers is much finer and more blurred than I initially thought. I don't ever foresee a time when the two are indistinguishable (at least, I hope we'd never stoop that low), but that doesn't change the fact they're a little too close for comfort for my taste.

Brotherhood is another great instalment in the Assassin's Creed franchise

I finished Theme Hospital a few weeks ago, and in spite of all the baggage the experience came with, I enjoyed it as a game. Right now I'm focusing pretty much all of my gaming time on Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood. I'm on the seventh DNA sequence from a total of nine, so I've made some pretty substantial in-roads into Ezio's adventures in Rome, and everything I've seen so far has been nothing short of excellent. It takes the already-near-flawless foundation laid by Assassin's Creed II and iterates on it in some meaningful ways. Most notably the Assassins' Guild stuff is keeping me very busy, evoking fond memories of the Dispatch Missions in Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. I'm not enjoying it as much as I did ACII, but I think that's simply down to a less involved appreciation of the story in Brotherhood. It's a competent enough tale of Assassins-versus-Templars, but it doesn't seem to be doing much to advance the overarching story of the franchise as a whole. Perhaps that will change as I near the end, though.

When I'm done with Brotherhood, I'm planning to get stuck into something even longer and more involved in the form of Persona 4. My sister, who really enjoyed watching me play Persona 3 over the winter, has twisted my arm and persuaded me to break into the next iteration in Atlus's revered JRPG series. Despite recent neglect, I'm still fully committed to my Enduring Final Fantasy VII blog series, and you can expect the thirtieth episode to arrive in the very near future. Beyond that, perhaps I should start thinking about clearing some of the many unfinished games on that list from the start of the year. Thanks for reading guys, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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

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A Choice Stealth Experience

The best Splinter Cell? Definitely, but it's by no means perfect...

Over the last couple of weeks, I've been playing through Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory. Having now finished Sam Fisher's third outing (and consequently completed UbiSoft's original trilogy of Splinter Cell games), I feel like a brief blogging recap is in order. In particular I want to talk about how the game's presentation of choice affected my playthrough, both for better and for worse.

My history with the Splinter Cell franchise goes back to 2007, when I bought the original trilogy of games - Splinter Cell, Pandora Tomorrow, and Chaos Theory - for the collective total of £9.00 from a second-hand game store. I'd previously ignored the series in spite of its positive critical reaction, partly out of a ridiculous teenage fanboy loyalty to the Metal Gear franchise, but also because I was on a limited gaming budget and didn't want to risk gambling what little cash I had on something I wasn't even sure I'd like. By the time I was seventeen, my childish bias had left me and my income was steady, and so I decided to find out what I'd been missing out on. The short answer - one of the best stealth series ever conceived.

I played the original Splinter Cell in the summer of 2008, around the same time that Giant Bomb made its transition from a blog into a full-on website. It was one of the first games I ever blogged about, and my feelings towards the game weren't overwhelmingly positive. In my summary, I praised the game for its mechanics and vision, but criticised the way it masked its rigidity beneath the illusion of choice. When I eventually moved on to Pandora Tomorrow in the winter of 2009, I was happy to see that my criticisms had at least been partly addressed - the game granted the player more flexibility and was a little more forgiving, inviting experimentation and making Sam Fisher's job feel a little less like glorified trial-and-error.

Sneaking and not being seen are still very much the cornerstones of Splinter Cell's gameplay

Chaos Theory builds further on those improvements, and the result is that it's without a doubt the best of the three Splinter Cell games I've played. A lot of the augmentations are minor (like the incorporation of an electronics disruptor into the pistol) or cosmetic (like the slew of new animations), but they make sense in terms of streamlining the techy, stealthy gameplay, and collectively they amount to a much more thrilling and rewarding sneaking experience. Arguably the biggest change from the first two games, though, is Chaos Theory's much more open-ended mission design. This is the deal-clincher - the design choice that addresses the issues of inflexibility that marred my enjoyment of the last two games. In some cases, there will be multiple paths through a level. In others, there will be multiple ways to achieve an objective. To cite an example, say there's a door locked with a keypad and guarded by two soldiers. In the original Splinter Cell, there would only be one way to get hold of that code and move through the door. In Chaos Theory, you have a multitude of options at your disposal. You could overhear a conversation between the two guards in which one accidentally lets the code slip. You could lure the guards into the shadows, take them hostage, and force them into divulging the code through interrogation. Or, if all else fails, you could use the super-spy equivalent of brute force and hack your way through the door after silencing the guards. Having these different means to the same end means that you're seldom forced into a situation where you can't progress, making Chaos Theory feel like a much more flexible (and much more forgiving) stealth-action game than its predecessors.

Having a choice as to how to move through each mission, and in turn shaping Fisher into the kind of super-spy you want him to be, is what I've wanted out of the Splinter Cell series ever since I played through the first game almost four years ago. What I didn't realise I wanted from a Splinter Cell game, but which Chaos Theory inadvertently provided me with, was a choice as to how to deal with my enemies. One feature that isn't included in either of its predecessors, as far as I can remember, is the way the game maps non-lethal takedowns to one shoulder button, and lethal ones to the opposite shoulder button. By juxtaposing the button-mapping in this way, every single hostage situation in Chaos Theory is turned into a very telling dichotomy - do I choke this guard unconscious, or do I deliver a fatal knee-strike to their lower back?

It's moments like this where the KO-versus-kill dichotomy plays out

There are gameplay ramifications to this decision, albeit very minor ones. Non-lethality is rewarded with a higher end-of-mission ranking, while killing enemies eliminates the danger of patrolling guards waking their fallen comrades. The impact of these choices on me didn't arise from their effect on the gameplay, though. Instead, I admired the game for presenting the dichotomy in such a clear, up-front and immediate way. Sure, that choice was nothing new to the stealth genre at this point. Metal Gear Solids 2 and 3 featured tranquilizing weaponry and CQC to assist players wanting to play the non-lethal way, and Fisher's own SC-20K is capable of either lethal or non-lethal takedowns thanks to its impressive array of attachable gadgets. My point is that the decision to put an enemy down temporarily or permanently had always been a pre-empted one. By moving that choice into the immediate moment and bringing it down to a single button press, Chaos Theory forced me to consider in every single instance whether I wanted Fisher to be compassionate or ruthless. That forced consideration left me feeling a lot more attached not just to Fisher himself, but also to his enemies, to the point where the moral implications of each choice were more important than the impact it might have on the gameplay. As a consequence, almost every guard I encountered in Chaos Theory's ten-mission campaign escaped with his life. I'd like to think those few that didn't, didn't deserve to.

In spite of the myriad improvements present in Chaos Theory, and its indisputable position as the best of the first three Splinter Cell games, it's still a way from being everything it could have been. Sometimes the more open nature of the missions can feel a bit too open, to the point where I lost track of objectives on occasion (thankfully there's a useful Map option in the OPSAT that helped to get me back on track). The environment design also seems to actively discourage the use of some of Fisher's moves, most notably his trademark split jump, which I didn't find an opportunity to use at all. The biggest issue I had with the game was its slightly disappointing lighting effects. Splinter Cell and Pandora Tomorrow both did great jobs of making environments look dark without sacrificing any of their detail, but large portions of Chaos Theory's environments are simply caked in an inky blackness. I spent most of the game with Fisher's night-vision goggles engaged, not to augment my view of the environments, but just so I could see anything at all. It's not harmful from a gameplay perspective, but it still detracts a little from the experience, especially considering how good the lit portions of the environments look. All in all though, it's a brilliant package, and one that's still well worth playing, in my view.

I'm not sure where I stand regarding future entries in the Splinter Cell series. Chaos Theory feels like a fitting end to the trilogy, and right now I don't feel any desire to pick up either Double Agent or Conviction. If any fans of the series would care to advise me how to proceed in that respect, I'd be grateful for your suggestions. In the meantime, I've got lots to keep me occupied. I'm currently playing Theme Hospital, an old childhood favourite that I recently downloaded to my PSP from the PlayStation Store. I don't typically play strategy games, but I'm having a lot of fun with this one. I'm just about to start the ninth scenario, and I'm loving the fairly simple mechanics and the dark sense of humour. I'm also playing Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic on PC. Well, I say I'm playing it - I haven't actually touched it in the last couple of weeks, due to splitting my time between Chaos Theory and Theme Hospital, but I plan to get back into it now that my time with Third Echelon has come to an end. I'm on Dantooine at the moment, having just completed my Jedi training. Expect lengthier accounts of my experiences with both games as and when I finish them. For now, thanks very much for reading, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Theme Hospital (PSP)

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Enduring Final Fantasy VII - Episode Twenty-Nine

It's July, and while the summer weather might still be eluding us, one thing that's here to stay is my fortnightly foray into my favourite Final Fantasy. Let's get Enduring!

Episode Twenty-Nine - Touching The Stars

After last episode's efforts to begin breeding a gold chocobo ended up being all work and no play, I've decided to return my attention back to story progression with this entry. It's been a little while since we've done any meaningful adventuring with Cloud and the gang, so allow me to quickly recap on recent story developments. Our band of intrepid adventurers are currently gallivanting all over the world map trying to find pieces of Huge Materia before the Shinra Electric Power Company do. Shinra want the power of the Huge Materia so they can use it to try and stop Meteor. Cloud and his crew managed to pick up one piece of Huge Materia after an intense submarine battle, but there's still another piece about to be flown out of Junon airport. That's our next destination.

The crew arrive back at Junon, and go through the rigmarole of paying another 10 Gil to use the elevator to reach the upper city. They reach the airport just in time to watch an FMV sequence of a Shinra plane taking off, presumably carrying the Huge Materia. It's kind of frustrating that after having literally just done this (in story terms, at least), you then have to do it once more just to move the story along. It would have been nice had Square streamlined the process and made the comms relay in the submarine just state that the next piece of Huge Materia was headed to Rocket Town, cutting out this extra ascension into Junon altogether. While I'm on the subject, I'm also not entirely sure how Cloud can be so certain of the Huge Materia's destination. It's evidently been a while since I've done anything story-related, so forgive me if there was a previous mention of Rocket Town that I've now forgotten. But the way Cloud seems psychically aware of where Shinra are sending the Huge Materia, to the point where he drives home the statement with an "of course", just strikes me as a nonsensical way to move the plot along. Anyway, rant over. Let's go intercept that last piece of Huge Materia!

Leaving Junon, the party re-boards the Highwind and flies due west, back to Cid's hometown. On their arrival, the locals reveal that President Rufus has sent mechanics to fix the ancient rusting rocket that looms over the town. Time for a little investigation, methinks. Approaching the rocket causes the Shinra guards stationed nearby to attack, but at this point in my characters' development, they're small fry and don't even hold up to a single attack. At the top of the rocket, the party encounters an old friend - Rude of the Turks. Unaccompanied by his partner-in-crime Reno, he poses little threat and goes down after Barret drops a Limit Break on him. With the last of Shinra's defences decimated, the party proceed into the rocket's cockpit.

Inside, the mechanics are beavering away and making final repairs to the rocket. They explain to Cid that Shinra have loaded the Huge Materia onto the rocket and plan to launch it, using it as a makeshift Materia bomb to blow up Meteor. The prospect of his old rocket finally making it out into space has a marked effect on Cid, and he tells the mechanics to clear off, offering to pilot it instead of waiting for Shera to fix the auto-pilot. Cloud tries to talk him out of it, but there's no convincing Cid, who seems obsessed with this second chance to fulfil his life-long dream. Before Cloud and Barret can get off the rocket, though, Shera finishes repairing the auto-pilot and Shinra employee Palmer initiates the launch sequence. The rocket shudders, then lifts clear of the ground, leaving a billowing trail of smoke as it shoots into the stratosphere. With both the party and the course locked in, it looks like our band of world-savers have just bought themselves a one-way ticket to their own premature doom.

Thankfully, Cid's got all the answers. The rocket has an escape pod built in, so the party can make good their escape before the rocket smashes into Meteor. Cloud's keen to make sure the Huge Materia gets out intact as well, and moves to release it from the capsule it's been locked into. The lock can only be overrided by guessing the correct passcode, which (of course) leads to another of Final Fantasy VII's cool little mini-game moments. The guessing game takes the form of a logic puzzle, in which Cid gives the player clues as to the composition of the passcode while the player inputs possibilities. Having only three minutes to decipher the puzzle, it's pretty imperative that you follow Cid's advice if you hope to recover this piece of Huge Materia. It's a mini-game I remember struggling with immensely on my first time through the game, but nailing the second time round without too much trouble. Since then, the code has become seared into my brain (beside the likes of the GTA: Vice City 'all weapons' cheat and everyone's favourite, the Konami code), rendering the whole section devoid of tension. In spite of that, though, I still think it's a pretty cool mini-game that ascribes to Final Fantasy VII's philosophy of constantly mixing things up to keep the player engaged in what's happening on-screen.

After recovering the Huge Materia, it's time to high-tail it down to the escape pod and get off the rocket before it crashes into Meteor. On their way down to the pod, one of the tanks below-deck explodes, throwing it into the path of the party. Cloud and Barret get away unscathed, but Cid ends up trapped beneath a piece of sheet metal. Cid tells his buddies to leave him behind, but they refuse and try to shift the debris. While Cid reflects on the fact that the tank which broke was the one Shera said was malfunctioning, Shera herself shows up to lend a helping hand. Together they free Cid and head for the escape pod, launching it just in time to watch the Shinra #26 rocket sail into Meteor.

The unspoken subtext of the interactions between Cid and Shera serve as a great example of how subtle inference can be a powerful storytelling agent. At no point in Final Fantasy VII are we explicitly told that these two characters feel anything for each other, but everything surrounding them seems to point the player subtly towards that conclusion. I'm a particular fan of the way these events bring the whole story round full-circle - after Cid aborted his take-off all those years ago to save Shera's life, so Shera's care and attention-to-detail manage to save Cid and his comrades now. It's these subtle touches that provide constant pleasure to me through replaying the game, in ways that familiarity with the overarching story can never quite manage.

The rocket's collision with Meteor fills the sky with a blinding flash of white light, and for a moment it genuinely seems like Shinra might have repelled the imminent threat. Then the light dissipates, revealing the grim truth - the collision has caused nothing more than surface damage to the incoming asteroid, and its path towards the Planet continues uninterrupted. Back on board the Highwind, Cloud and the rest of the crew begin to wonder if there's any chance at all of stopping Meteor. They find the answer in Cid's new sense of perspective - even if there isn't any chance, that doesn't mean they shouldn't stop trying, because the Planet needs protecting. The next port of call is a return to Cosmo Canyon, to discuss what to do next with Bugenhagen. After a little more fighting to boost my levels, I fly the Highwind to the Cosmo region of the world map, and save my game. Another episode, done and dusted.

So at the close of Episode Twenty-Nine, my vital statistics are:

  • Current Party - Cloud (Lv 61), Cid (Lv 62), Barret (Lv 58)
  • Current Location - Cosmo Area, World Map
  • Time on the Clock - 41:10

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 Chocobos

Looking for the next episode? You can find Episode Thirty - An Ancient Secret here.

I can't believe that there are now twenty-nine of these Enduring Final Fantasy VII blogs in the bank. It's been a long road, and there's still quite a way to go, but I'm starting to feel like the end of this epic blogging journey is finally on the horizon. I anticipate there might be roughly another ten episodes of this series still to come, and I'm also planning an end-of-series summary to answer the question I set out to answer in the first place - is Final Fantasy VII still worth playing? I hope you'll continue to join me on my journey, which is likely to resume with return trips to Cosmo Canyon and the City of the Ancients in two weeks' time. Until then, thanks very much for reading, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Final Fantasy VII (PSP)

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