By dankempster 3 Comments
Hey guys, and welcome to another episode of Enduring Final Fantasy VII, the serial blog in which I attempt to play through fan-favourite Final Fantasy VII through the objective eyes of a modern gamer to determine whether or not it still has something to offer a contemporary audience. I've got a lot of ground to cover in this long-overdue blog, so I'm going to skip over most of the formalities and get straight to the heart of the matter. Let's go!
Episode Seven - Hitching A Ride
Loading up my save reintroduces me to my now-familiar party of Cloud, Aerith and Red XIII sitting patiently just outside the entrance to Junon Harbour. Upon entering, there isn't really anything interesting to note about the place. Much like the village of Kalm, it's little more than a standard JRPG town with nothing to do outside of story progression, save for rest and shop. I stock up on Potions and Phoenix Downs, and continue with my exploration. There's a lift leading up into the city of Junon proper, but it's guarded at present due to an important event going on up there. The one thing that really separates Junon Harbour from Kalm is its sandy beach, and I waste no time in checking it out. Down by the crystal clear waters is a young girl, Priscilla, who's playing with a dolphin. She instantly takes a dislike to Cloud and the gang, mistaking them for Shinra operatives and telling them to get lost. Unfortunately, a sea monster takes this opportunity to attack Priscilla and the imaginatively-name Mr. Dolphin, forcing the party to step in and save them.
The ensuing boss fight against Bottomswell reminds me quite vividly of the earlier battle against Reno atop the Sector Seven Pillar. Just like Reno, Bottomswell has an ability which encases a character and prevents them from acting, forcing an extra level of strategy into the fight. Thankfully the sea snake is weak to the Wind element, meaning my newly acquired Choco/Mog summon Materia comes in handy. It doesn't take long for Bottomswell to fall, leaving Cloud free to rescue Priscilla from drowning. What follows is - I kid you not - a CPR mini-game in which Cloud has to give Priscilla the kiss of life in order to save her. I think this is the first time that one of Final Fantasy VII's mini-games has been downright awful, because the CPR has no redeeming qualities. It literally consists of nothing but pressing the Square button periodically to fill up Cloud's lungs and breathe into Priscilla. Beyond the creepy factor instilled by Cloud locking lips with a dying little girl, it's a dull distraction from the gameplay accompanied by very bad breathing sound effects, that lasts way longer than it should. After about a minute of this, Priscilla splutters back to consciousness, just in time for the harbour's residents to arrive and carry her away to recover. Cloud and the gang are offered respite in the local inn overnight, which they accept.
Cloud's sleep is troubled by the disembodied voice that's been following him around for the whole game so far. It brings up the Nibelheim incident and points out some holes in Cloud's story, inviting him to cross-check his story with Tifa in order to fill them. Next morning, Cloud and Tifa have a heart-to-heart in which Tifa reveals that she can't remember what happened. As usual, this represents one of the game's best handling of character interaction. Or at least, it would, were it not for whoever was in charge of audio cues for this scene. The entire duration of this serious conversation, the background music is this jovial parade/march tune:
It makes the seriousness of the conversation that's going on feel really out of place. Would it really have been too much to ask for this music to kick in after the heart-to-heart? Anyway, this music drags Cloud and Tifa out into the village, where Priscilla is now back to health. As thanks, she offers Cloud a piece of Materia containing the Summon Shiva, which is sure to come in handy down the line. After learning that Cloud and the gang want to get up into Junon proper, Priscilla concocts a plan involving none other than Mr. Dolphin - if Cloud positions himself correctly, Mr. Dolphin will leap up out of the water with him and set him atop an electricity pylon, from which he'll be able to get into the city. It's yet another mini-game-type sequence that feels half-arsed. Maybe it's supposed to be funny, but it just strikes me as daft, and positioning Cloud correctly seems to be more a case of trial and error than actual logic. Anyway, after a few attempts Mr. Dolphin sets Cloud on top of the pylon, and the ascent into the city of Junon begins.
The path into Junon takes Cloud through an airship dock, a route which is conveyed through some pretty cinematic backdrops that serve to remind me Final Fantasy VII still has moments where it looks pretty impressive. Upon entering the city, Cloud runs into a group of Shinra employees who mistake him for one of their own and force him into a Shinra uniform. Before he can make a break for it, he's caught up in a procession which he soon learns is to welcome President Rufus to Junon. As luck would have it, though, they're late for the parade, which means that they're going to have to sneak into position. This means - yep, you guessed it - another poorly-implemented mini-game in which Cloud has to get in position without screwing up the TV ratings. After this thankfully short distraction, Cloud gets wind of what's going on here in Junon. Apparently, Sephiroth has been spotted, and that's the reason for Rufus' visit. After this, he's then taken to one side and taught the moves for Rufus' send-off in a scenario that takes the form of yet another mini-game!
If you haven't worked it out by now, Junon for me essentially feels like little more than a mini-game compendium, especially when directly compared to the rich mix of exploration, narrative and combat the game has shown off up to this point. It probably wouldn't bother me so much were they more evenly separated, or given a little more substance, but as it stands it feels like a rushed attempt to keep the player in control rather than implementing lengthy cutscenes. This is one of Junon's redeeming qualities, though - it never removes the player from the action and endeavours to keep them involved at all times. Its other redeeming quality, though, is its unique appearance. It's arguably the first location since Midgar that doesn't scream 'JRPG archetype' in its architecture. Instead of the quaint Elizabethan edifices seen in Kalm and the harbour below, the city of Junon is characterised by its tiers of straight roads, bordered by what seem to be high-rise apartment blocks. And then, of course, there's the magnificent military cannon taking pride of place in the centre of the city. Junon, like Midgar before it, illustrates the efforts of the environment designers to create a memorable, unique world.
Between the glorified dance recital and the glorified dance performance, I take the time on offer to explore Junon. Given the apparent urgency of the situation forced on the player by the game at this point, I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of players missed out on exploring Junon altogether until much later on in the game. Rooting around in the roadside buildings leads me to a few shops where I pick up some new weapons, as well as finding some stat-boosting Source items that are sure to come in handy later on. When I'm done rummaging through people's residences, I press on and head for the dock where Rufus' send-off is taking place. Rufus' subsequent exchange with Heidegger brings a fact to my attention that I'd previously overlooked - an advantage of not having voice acting and relying on dialogue boxes instead is that it allows the player to determine the attitudes of the characters on-screen (to an extent, at least). Rufus could quite easily be read as either a ruthless dictator, or a whiny power-hungry rich kid. Voice acting would take away this element of ambiguity and player choice, almost certainly to the game's detriment. Anyway, after a quick rhythm-style mini-game (far and away the strongest of all the mini-games seen in Junon, although that's not saying much), Rufus boards the ship and the rest of Cloud's company leave, giving him the perfect opportunity to sneak onto the boat that will take him across the ocean in search of Sephiroth.
As Rufus' boat departs from the dock, Final Fantasy VII offers another reminder that it really hasn't held up well from a technical standpoint. Not that I'd expect it to, being thirteen years old and a horrible reminder of the industry's initial forays into the third dimension, but even so, there simply isn't an excuse for entire mountain ranges suddenly vanishing due to an abysmal draw distance. At the very least, disguise the limitations of your graphics engine by fading them out of view Morrowind-style. Anyway, back on the ship, it soon becomes apparent that the whole crew has managed to sneak on board, and it doesn't take long for Cloud to reacquaint himself with all of them. These one-to-ones do a great job of highlighting some successful attempts at humour. Seeing Barret in a sailor suit is definitely chuckle-inducing, but it's Red XIII that takes the cake. Even though I know it's coming, I can't help but laugh every time I see this scene. It a simple joke, but it's done very well.
When Cloud's caught up with everybody, an alarm sounds, indicating that an intruder is on board the ship. Initially Cloud and the gang think they might have been spotted, but it soon becomes apparent that the alert is related to somebody else. Could it be Sephiroth? The team decide to investigate. As always, I opt for my physical-magic-healing combination of Cloud, Red XIII and Aerith, and head down into the ship's cargo hold. The trail of dead bodies is eerily reminiscent of my trip through the Shinra Headquarters earlier in the game, and serves to further highlight the fact that even though Sephiroth has been established as a threat, the team have always been one step behind and still haven't actually encountered him yet. That soon changes as the team enter the cargo hold and come face to face with their antagonist for the first time. Sephiroth rises out of the floor (because, you know, he wasn't scary or untouchable enough prior to this), and says very little before setting a form of Jenova upon the party.
As Meowayne has pointed out in the comments sections of previous episodes, it's moments like this that highlight the true villainous qualities of Sephiroth. A lot of people talk him up as being a badass motherfucker who snacks on kittens, but where Sephiroth truly shines as a villain is in his subtlety. Up until this first encounter, it's been the presence of Sephiroth that has cemented his status as villain - the sword in the back of President Shinra, the fable-like retelling of the Nibelheim incident, the impaled Midgar Zolom, the constant whisperings in every town of the presence of a man in a black cape. Without even appearing once in the chronology of the story before now, the very mention of Sephiroth has become associated with superhuman strength and villainous insanity. Even now, with his first true appearance, Sephiroth lets his reputation do the talking. He says very little, and rather than dismissing of the party himself, he leaves them a form of Jenova to fight. This means that the true strength of Sephiroth in relation to that of the party still remains untapped, allowing him to maintain the air of mystery that has served his villainous reputation so well thusfar. It's just a shame that the battle itself doesn't really live up to its set-up - the fight against Jenova BIRTH is pretty flat and devoid of any necessary strategy. This is also the first time I've noticed that eleven and a half hours into the game, I still don't have access to many debuffs (I think Sleep may be the only one), and I can't use any buffs at all. That's a long time to go without any of those kinds of tide-turning abilities.
After defeating Jenova BIRTH, there's no sign of Sephiroth at all. A voice over the ship's tannoy announces that's it's about to dock at Costa Del Sol. With the team no closer to any real answers, there's not much to do besides pick up the Ifrit Materia dropped by Jenova BIRTH and disembark the boat. Costa Del Sol may be a seaside resort, but Cloud warns the group that they're here on serious business, and that this isn't a vacation. That said, there isn't much to do here anyway. A quick trip to the beach results in a run-in with an old friend - Professor Hojo from Shinra. Apparently he's resigned from Shinra's Science Department and is now soaking up the rays in Costa Del Sol, surrounded by a bevy of bikini-clad beach beauties. Cloud and Aerith seem to desire a confrontation, but Hojo isn't in the mood and seems very reluctant to share any information with them despite no longer being affiliated with Shinra. All they manage to get out of him is that they should head west. The whole conversation comes off as incredibly awkward to be honest, and not in an "appropriate to the situation" kind of way. With Hojo not giving up any more information, all that remains to be done is stock up on healing items and rest at the Inn before leaving Costa Del Sol and saving my game on the world map. Another episode done and dusted!
So at the close of Episode Seven, my current vital statistics are:
- Current Party - Red XIII (Lv 21), Cloud (Lv 21), Aerith (Lv 21)
- Current Location - Corel Region, World Map
- Time on the Clock - 11:44
I won't be bullet-pointing my findings this episode, and may cease doing so for all future episodes. It's started to seem a little superfluous from where I'm sitting. That, and I'm running out of taglines for this section.
The Story So Far...
Looking for the next episode? You can find Episode Eight - Over The Mountain, Into The Saucer here.
Whoa, that was one hell of a long write-up. Four days long, in fact. I wrote the first sentence of this four days ago, shortly after finishing my previous blog post. With exams almost over (just one left!), I anticipate that the frequency of these episodes will pick up over the coming months. Regardless, I've already started taking notes for Episode Eight, so expect that soon (or at least, a little sooner than the last couple of episodes). Thanks very much for reading, guys. I'll see you around.
Currently playing - Final Fantasy VII (PSP)