By dankempster 6 Comments
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Hey guys, and welcome once again to another episode of Enduring Final Fantasy VII, the serial blog detailing my return to Final Fantasy VII through the objective eyes of a modern gamer. First off, some apologies are due. In terms of my progress with the game itself, I've been in a position to write this episode for just over a week now, but I've had a lot of other commitments getting in the way and preventing me from getting this written up. The first of these is a series of University assignments, which are continuously draining me of any desire to write for pleasure. The second is my new part-time job as a cleaner for the University's Student Union, which is forcing me to keep incredibly unreasonable hours and resulting in me losing a lot of my free time in the evenings. Third, what little free time I do have right now seems to be spent on quality time with my girlfriend and, of course, video games. More on all of that later, though. For now, let's get this episode of Enduring Final Fantasy VII underway. Roll the title card!
Episode Five - All Kalm On The Eastern Continent
At the end of the last episode of Enduring Final Fantasy VII, Cloud and company had just conducted a dramatic escape from Shinra Headquarters and left Midgar with the intention of regrouping in the nearby village of Kalm. I reload my last save and find the party sat just outside Midgar on the game's world map. While I'm not one of those people who believes that Japanese RPGs need an overworld in order to be 'true' to the genre, I find Final Fantasy VII's world map to be particularly impressive for a few reasons. First off, it still manages to be aesthetically appealing thirteen years on. The character models may look like painted turds, but there's something about the fully 3D-rendered plains, mountains and oceans of the overworld that still looks nice, if a little simplistic. Perhaps the simplicity has something to do with it, in fact - it evokes the pixel-and-sprite world maps of the SNES Final Fantasies, but with all the benefits that come with the extra dimension of depth. On the other side of the audio-visual coin, the overworld music injects an epic feel into the journey and really evokes the feeling that a long adventure is underway, while still retaining a sense of foreboding about what lurks ahead.
Second, there's the feeling of comparative freedom. After spending the first seven hours running through the strictly-guided linearity of the Midgar section of the game, getting out onto this seemingly wide-open world map really does make the escape from the city all the more rewarding. It illustrates a great synchronisation of gameplay and narrative - the linear Midgar portion of the game reflects the oppression enforced by Shinra, and the limitations imposed on groups like AVALANCHE as a result. To emerge from this totalitarian state into a vast overworld is one of the most liberating feelings I've ever experienced in a video game, and that's definitely not the nostalgia talking. It may only be an illusion of freedom, but it's one that's offered at just the right point in the game's story to have a significant impact on the player. The final piece of praise I'd like to offer the world map (albeit a small one) is that the rate of random encounters seems balanced to perfection. I've played games where the encounter rate was either too frequent (Dragon Quest VIII) or not frequent enough (Lost Odyssey), and both can really ruin an otherwise great RPG experience. Final Fantasy VII hits just the right point on the scale where I'm not overwhelmed by one random encounter after another, but I'm also able to quickly find a battle if I'm looking to grind for a while. It seems like a small point, but it really does make a world of difference.
After exploring the world map for a bit, taking in the scenery and fighting a few battles, I head northeast in the direction of Kalm. Upon arriving in the village, Barret and Aerith opt out of the party and head for the Inn to wait for Cloud. I take the opportunity to wander through the town and check out what's on offer, specifically the shopping opportunities. The first thing that strikes me is that the village looks very much like a stereotypical SNES era JRPG town, with its tall, Tudor-style architecture and aimlessly wandering NPCs. Pretty much the only thing that sets it apart is the village's steampunk-ish centrepiece. After heading to the shops to pick up some new weapons and Materia, I direct Cloud to the Inn to meet up with the rest of the crew. Once everybody's sitting comfortably, Cloud does his best to make sense of the clusterfuck of incidents that have gone down in the game so far.
Cloud informs the others that he has a bit of unsettled business with Sephiroth, the super-soldier who broke into Shinra Headquarters, stole the JENOVA specimen and killed President Shinra. All this stems from five years ago, when the two members of SOLDIER were sent on a mission to investigate a monster problem and malfunctioning Mako Reactor in Cloud's hometown, Nibelheim. As Cloud relates the story to his friends, the story is relayed to the player by means of a playable flashback. Final Fantasy VII may not have been the first game to adopt the playable flashback as a storytelling device, but it was certainly one of the first games to do it well. Giving control to the player during this extended piece of storytelling enhances the immersion in the story, and immersion is definitely one of Final Fantasy VII's strong points. Like everything that's come before it, Cloud's account of the Nibelheim incident is compelling and illustrates the developers' profound love for the vast world they've created. Things superfluous to understanding the story, like the formation of Materia, is woven into the narrative, often awkwardly, but also in a way that shows pride on the part of the game's creators. In that respect, awkward scripting aside, I really have a lot of respect for the way the Kalm flashback is handled.
Another thing the Kalm flashback does is give us an insight into the character of Cloud Strife. What strikes me as odd is that with the exception of a couple of isolated moments with Tifa and Aerith, the first seven hours of the game give us practically no opportunities to delve into the mindset of our protagonist. The Kalm flashback is the first real chance we get to see what Cloud's like. On one level, it's quite interesting - the sixteen-year-old Cloud we see in the Nibelheim incident is clearly much younger and less experienced than the twenty-one-year-old Cloud of the main game. He's more naive and less world weary, that's for sure. On the other hand, though, it represents something of a paradox. The Cloud of the present is clearly not a man to get hung up on emotions, a fact illustrated by his reluctance to engage in any meaningful conversation with his fellow fighters. However, his recollection of the Nibelheim incident is laced with emotions throughout, and none of those emotions could be described as Cloud's characteristic indifference. The fact that Cloud would say anything more than the rest of the party needed to know seems odd, at least to me. In all honesty, it was probably the easiest way for the developers to set the story arc up while maintaining the interest of players, and given how well the Kalm flashback is handled, I think small discrepancies in personality are forgivable.
So, upon arriving at Nibelheim, Cloud and Sephiroth dispatch the monsters terrorising the town and head off to inspect the Mako Reactor on Mount Nibel, with a young Tifa acting as their guide (I'm not sure why she wears a cowboy hat for the duration of the flashback, beyond being an attempt to tap into the sexual fantasies of players). Entering the Reactor reveals a minor problem with a simple fix. It also reveals the cause of the monster problem - Professor Hojo of Shinra's Science Department is conducting biological experiments in the Reactor itself. While in the Reactor, Sephiroth notices a door labelled with the name of his mother - JENOVA. Instantly his mind puts the evidence before him together, reasoning that he must also be one of these monsters. He shuts himself away in the Shinra Mansion in Nibelheim, poring over old books and research documents to discover the truth - that he was the result of a biological experiment involving the lifeform JENOVA. After learning that JENOVA was thought to be an Ancient and reading about the Promised Land, Sephiroth hatches a plan - to meet his 'mother', and help her to take back the planet for the Ancients. He burns the town of Nibelheim to the ground and returns to the Reactor to remove the JENOVA specimen. Cloud, having seen the soldier he idolised destroy his hometown and slay its inhabitants, follows him to Mount Nibel and faces off against him. As for what happens after that, Cloud's mind is blank.
The Kalm flashback is the first time the player meets Sephiroth, or at least, the first time the player is able to attribute a face and personality to the horrific acts of violence committed in the Shinra Headquarters. As with the characterisation of Cloud, there are things that I like about the introduction of Sephiroth, but also things that don't quite sit right with me. To see the great, revered soldier shift from hero to villain over the course of the flashback is one of my favourite things about the character of Sephiroth, and to see his quest for truth and knowledge regarding the JENOVA project actually push him into the realm of insanity remains unsettling to this day. There's something about the truth making Sephiroth even more unhinged that makes him seem even more psychotic and unpredictable as a villain, which I think is great. On the flip side, though, I've always felt that Sephiroth puts two and two together far too quickly in the Reactor. The character turns on a dime, suddenly becoming paranoid about the prospect of being a scientific experiment where before he seemed so cool and in control. Maybe it's just me, but I always have difficulty accepting that moment in the Kalm flashback, and this playthrough was no exception.
At that point, the story ends. The general consensus is that the band of adventurers should press on in their search for Sephiroth. What with him breaking into Shinra Headquarters, stealing the JENOVA specimen and killing the President, the man in the black cape obviously has some kind of agenda, and the team want to know what that is. Cloud has a score to settle with Sephiroth on a personal level, wanting to know exactly what happened on that day in the Reactor five years ago. Aerith has questions she wants answered too, concerning the Ancients and the Promised Land. Barret agrees to come along on the premise that the planet may be in danger from Sephiroth, and Tifa comes along... well, because Cloud's going, I suppose. Finally, there's Red XIII, who simply wants an escort back to his home in Cosmo Canyon and seems to view the whole scenario as little more than a fascinating bedtime story. Before leaving Kalm in pursuit of Sephiroth I obtain the Personal Handset, an item enabling me to switch party members while at save points and on the world map. After re-jigging my party to include Cloud as an attacker, Red XIII as an offensive mage and Aerith as a healer, I assign all the new equipment and Materia I bought earlier and make my way out of Kalm. As I leave, a man outside the Inn tells me that a man in black with an enormous sword has been seen heading east. I guess now the hunt is on!
On that note, I save my game on the world map outside Kalm, and bring this episode of Enduring Final Fantasy VII to a close. Wow, and we didn't even have to endure any cringe-worthy translation this time around...
...Guess I spoke too soon.
So at the close of Episode Five, my current vital statistics are:
- Current Party - Cloud (Lv 18), Red XIII (Lv 17), Aerith (Lv 16)
- Current Location - Midgar Region, World Map
- Time on the Clock - 8:30
And if you've recently been diagnosed with an allergy to paragraphs, here's a bullet-point summary:
- The world map is great on three counts - graphically, it's aged a lot better than the character models; after the linearity of Midgar, the sense of freedom it provides is genuinely liberating; and the random encounter rate strikes a perfect balance between facilitating grinding and not becoming a nuisance.
- After the unique style of Midgar, the generic quaintness of Kalm doesn't seem to really fit the game's aesthetic. At least the shops had some cool new stuff, though.
- The playable flashback that re-tells the events of the Nibelheim incident is an inspired piece of storytelling and really does justice to the world built around the game.
- It's cool to finally get an insight into the characters of Cloud and Sephiroth, even if those insights aren't handled brilliantly and, in Cloud's case, is left way too late.
As always, thanks very much for reading the latest episode of Enduring Final Fantasy VII. Once again, I'm sorry for the delay in pushing out these episodes, but I do have other stuff to do. Thankfully, the Easter break is right around the corner, and while I still have a lot of essay-writing to do, hopefully being at home with my family and away from the pressure of University and part-time work will enable me to write up a few more of these blogs over the next month or so. As well as continuing my journey through the world of Final Fantasy VII, there are other subjects I'm desperate to publish my thoughts on. I have a concept for a blog on Borderlands that needs to be realised, I want to write up an entry regarding Xbox LIVE and why I refuse to pay for a Gold subscription, and I still haven't shared my views on why I think Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts might just be one of the most important games of this console generation. Hopefully I'll find the time to write about all of those things, as well as continuing this serial blog. Hell, I might even find enough time to actually play some video games instead of writing about them. We'll see.
As I mentioned in the introduction to this blog, I've been playing some video games in what little spare time I currently have, and I feel like I should close with a few thoughts related to those. You may or may not be aware that I finished the Secret Armory of General Knoxx DLC last Tuesday, bringing to an end my love affair with Borderlands (for now, at least). I won't bore you with details because, as I said above, I'd like to save that for a future blog. For now, let's just say I really enjoyed my time with the game. Second on the agenda is the original Banjo-Kazooie, which I downloaded on the Xbox LIVE Marketplace a little while back. After nine hours with the game I've amassed a total of 61 Jiggies, and I'm really liking the game. Returning to the old, collection-based style of 3D platformer has reminded me how much fun I used to have with games like Spyro the Dragon back in the day of the original PlayStation. I'll definitely be sticking with Banjo-Kazooie right up until the final showdown, which I suspect isn't too far away at this point. Finally there's Just Cause, which I'm playing on my Xbox 360. I decided to pick up a cheap second-hand copy after seeing the promotional material being put out for the impending sequel. It's certainly flawed, and veritably frustrating at times, but those flaws became incredibly easy to look past when I acquired the grappling hook gun and started really experimenting with the game's stunt positions. I'm having so much mindless fun with the game I'm not sure I can articulate it in this paragraph. Dammit, guess that's another blog I'll have to add to the 'To Write' list.
...Oh, I almost forgot. There is another game I've been playing for the last week or so, but I'm not going to say anything about it. For one thing, I'd like to save that for a blog when I actually reach the end of the game. And, on another note, I'd hate to spoil anything for certain individuals. Thanks very much for reading, guys. I'll see you around.
Currently playing - Final Fantasy VII (PSP)
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