By dankempster 5 Comments
Ladies and gentlemen, the time is finally upon us. After thirty-four episodes spanning almost four years, punctuated by several hiatuses and nearly being stopped completely at least twice, my Enduring Final Fantasy VII blog series, in which I take a semi-cynical, semi-nostalgic look back at Squaresoft's Final Fantasy VII to determine whether it's still worth playing in the twenty-first century, is at last reaching its conclusion. Today we take control of Cloud and company for the final time and steer them towards their ultimate fate - the final showdown with Sephiroth at the bottom of the North Crater. It's sure to be an emotional finale - in fact, I don't think it's unfair to call this the end of an era. Part of me doesn't actually want to press on, for reasons I can't quite articulate. It's a bit like reading a book but not wanting to read the final chapter, instead preferring to let the story and characters hang suspended in indefinite stasis. But I know I can't do that. An end to Enduring Final Fantasy VII is long overdue, and it is going to happen today. If everyone is sitting comfortably, then let's roll that Enduring Final Fantasy VII title card one last time...
Episode Thirty-Five - The Final Stand
Loading up my final save from yesterday puts me back in control of my party of Cloud, Red XIII and Yuffie, poised just above the very bottom of the North Crater, ready to descend into what is presumably Sephiroth's lair. A few steps beyond the save point, the whole gang is waiting to follow and face whatever lies beyond this threshold. Cloud makes the first move, about to start following the spiralled staircase of stepping stones into the core of the Planet below, when he turns round to face the party and delivers what is undoubtedly one of my favourite lines of video game dialogue of all time. A line so god-damn terrible, it comes right back out at the other end of the scale and ends up being brilliant:
I don't want to dwell too much on it, because I've spent a fair bit of time in previous episodes saying how much I take issue with Final Fantasy VII's pretty shoddy translation. All I'm going to say is that if this game IS ever remade with a tidied-up translation, then this line needs to stay in. It's iconic to me, it makes me smile every time I read it, and I genuinely can't imagine any re-imagining of this game not including it.
After Cid derides Cloud for his choice of words (I suspect the irony of which may have been lost on the translators), monsters begin pouring into the chamber. This isn't shown visually, but instead indicated by the game's audio - guttural roars and groans begin to echo throughout the chamber, indicating the creatures' arrival. The whole thing feels a bit B-movie, as if they didn't have the budget to make a monster so they kept it off-screen. My first thought was "I wonder why they didn't show that, maybe through a CGI sequence", but the more I thought about it, the more I realised it made more sense not to. One thing I'm pretty sure I haven't said about Final Fantasy VII in any previous episode is that although it flaunts its CGI sequences as a selling point, its use of them is pretty conservative, reserved only for the moments with real impact - like the opening sequence, or the death of Aerith, or the WEAPONs being unleashed. To use one for something so unremarkable as monsters appearing in a dungeon would probably have cheapened their overall impact, so I'm glad they didn't opt for CGI in this instance (although I do wish there was an alternative to the shoe-string budget, noises-in-the-background approach).
Once again I'm prompted to select a party (Cloud, Red XIII and Yuffie win out yet again), and then I begin my final descent. At the bottom lies the first of several end-game bosses - Jenova-SYNTHESIS. This final incarnation of Jenova hits pretty hard, but proves no match for what is by now a tried-and-tested strategy. Yuffie gets to work setting up my buffs of choice - Haste, Regen and Wall - to give the party a clear advantage. Red XIII, now equipped with the Mega-All Materia, finds his regular attack converted to Slash-All, giving him the ability to hit every part of Jenova-SYNTHESIS at once. Cloud sets about absorbing the damage dealt while he and Red XIII chip away at the boss's HP, until she finally falls. The battle takes a little while, but my party aren't really any worse for wear on the other side of it - a reassuring sign, given what's to come.
After this battle, the ground beneath the party gives way, dropping them deeper into the Planet's core. When Cloud comes to, he finds himself once again in the company of all his fellow adventurers, and sitting before an intensely bright white light - could this be Holy? As they all awaken, Sephiroth appears before them and restrains them in mid-air, toying with them as they struggle against his power. It's here that the game prompts me to split my roster of characters into two parties, in preparation for what is likely to be an arduous battle. I decide to stick with Cloud, Red XIII and Yuffie on one side, but I shed some of their Materia in order to share it with my second party - Cid, Barret and Vincent - in preparation for the battle that is about to begin.
The first stage of the game's final battle is against Bizzarro Sephiroth, an enormous, multi-part incarnation of the game's antagonist that demands not one, but two parties in order to put paid to it. One party assumes position on the left side of the enemy, the other on the right. Bizzarro Sephiroth has five parts - a head, a torso, a core in its abdomen, and two wings referred to as the Left Magic and Right Magic. This is where the strategy comes in - these parts need to be damaged in a specific order, and you need to switch between both teams in order to do so. First the Left and Right Magics need to go down. That weakens the core, which needs to be damaged first on one side, and then the other. Without the core to heal it, both teams are free to hack away at the torso, which brings the battle to a close. It's a lot of fun engaging in this tactical battle, and the two-team dynamic makes things a bit more challenging and interesting.
After this comes Sephiroth's second incarnation - Safer Sephiroth. The good news is that this one-winged angel isn't split up into multiple parts - there's just one entity for you to focus on. The bad news is that you're restricted to one party, with no chance to heal up beforehand, and this guy hits hard. Safer Sephiroth's signature move, Super Nova, is downright evil, and has a fucking crazy animation to boot - Sephiroth summons a star from the furthest reaches of space, which descends upon our galaxy, taking out half the solar system on its way to the Sun, which expands to the point where it reaches the Planet and engulfs the entire party, leaving them with around 5% of their total HP. Yuffie has her work cut out for her, constantly spamming buffs and making use of her equipped W-Item Materia to throw Phoenix Down and Megalixirs around when needed. Red XIII chips away at Safer Sephiroth's vast HP reserves, but it's Cloud that does the real damage here - equipped with the Ultima Weapon and Double Cut Materia, he dishes out around 12,000 damage per turn. There are some tense moments where the tide of battle almost turns to smother me completely, but at last, the boss goes down.
After defeating this second incarnation of Sephiroth, the team find themselves back on the precipice where we left our save point. With Sephiroth ostensibly defeated, Cloud ponders that now they've done all they can, the fate of the Planet is out of their hands - it's up to Holy, and the Planet itself, to take charge of its own fate. As the party prepare to move out, Cloud freezes in his tracks. It seems part of Sephiroth is still nearby. As Tifa tries to make sense of what he's saying, Cloud collapses and enters another one of his 'out-of-body' experiences. A CGI sequence illustrates Cloud descending once more into the darkness, for one last showdown against Sephiroth...
The game's true final battle, a one-on-one showdown between Cloud and Sephiroth, is something I could write a lot about, but I'll try to keep it fairly manageable here. Rather than Cloud's ATB meter filling, his Limit meter gradually fills instead. When it's full, Cloud unleashes all his strength upon Sephiroth, who collapses, finally defeated. The way I've always seen it, this isn't a literal battle taking place in the North Crater, but a much more abstract and intangible battle taking place in Cloud's own head. It's not a representation of forcing Sephiroth to relinquish his hold on Holy, but a representation of Cloud finally forcing Sephiroth and Jenova out of his own tortured mind. It's his own personal release, the culmination of his own story arc, confirmation that he not only equals but exceeds the SOLDIERs he looked up to as a younger man, and all this brilliantly illustrated not through any explicit narrative or dialogue typed out in a text box, but through this implicit, symbolic piece of gameplay. It's without a doubt one of my favourite moments in the game, the perfect end to Cloud's character arc, and perhaps one of the most cathartic moments in any video game ever.
Following this intense face-off, the game's closing cinematic starts to play. It's a pretty long sequence, so rather than describing every little detail, I've elected to embed it below for people to watch:
There are a couple of aspects of this ending that I want to discuss. The first is the immediate events it depicts - the release of Holy, its failure to stop Meteor, and the subsequent emergence of the Lifestream. Emotionally it's a roller-coaster ride to watch for the first time, yo-yo-ing back and forth between hope and disaster in a way that leaves you never quite sure of how the whole thing is ultimately going to end. The appearance of Aerith's face on-screen in the dying seconds of the cinematic, mirroring the game's opening shots, serves as a reminder that she is arguably the real hero in all this. Sure, Cloud's the one we've been in control of all this time, but it's Aerith's Holy spell, Aerith's insinuated rallying of the Lifestream, that really and truly save the Planet from the threat of Meteor.
The other thing I want to say is that I am a big fan of the 'five hundred years later' epilogue that runs after the credits. The staff roll has been cut out of the video above, and the epilogue starts at around 8:55. it depicts a much older and wiser Red XIII, with two of his cubs following him through a dusty valley. He leads them to the top of a cliff, where together they look out over the overgrown ruins of the city of Midgar. It's not the happily-ever-after ending that a lot of people were probably expecting, but it serves to communicate the most important message of all - that the Planet was saved by our heroes' efforts. And not just for the benefit of all the characters we met on the journey, either, but for the future, for generations yet to come. If you ask me, this ending drives that fact home more than any series of individual character epilogues ever could.
As the game's narrative comes to a close, the screen fills with stars shooting through the blackness of space while the series' famous prelude plays in the background. It's still playing now, as I type out the closing words of this last ever episode of Enduring Final Fantasy VII. Our journey through Squaresoft's most famous and divisive piece of work has reached its end. My heart feels undeniably heavy in my chest as I reach across to the power sensor on my PS3 and hold my thumb over it for a few seconds. Ladies and gentlemen, I have finished Enduring Final Fantasy VII.
The Story So Far...
...but hold on just one second.
Aren't we forgetting something here? Wasn't the entire point of this blog series to determine whether or not Final Fantasy VII was still worth playing around fifteen years after its release? To say definitively whether the game had endured the test of time, or had been reduced to something that needed to be endured? Where, in these vast swathes of text, is the answer to that one fundamental question we've been pursuing all this time?
Well folks, the paragraphs below are about as close to that answer as you, I, or anybody else is likely to get.
Final Fantasy VII as a game has not aged well. Visually it ranges from acceptable to downright hideous. Mechanically it's archaic, unwieldy, and not particularly intuitive. Its translation is below average, and even laughably bizarre at times. A lot of players of modern video games will find it incredibly difficult to look past a lot of these faults. And that, ultimately, is the game's biggest problem, because underneath all of those superficial flaws beats the stout heart of a truly great adventure - a breathtaking musical score, a cast of characters you'll grow inexplicably attached to, an open-ended approach to character development that makes for some really exciting battles and rewards experimentation, and a well-paced story that wraps you up so tightly in its myriad twists and turns that it becomes all too easy to forgive its inconsistencies. As a game played in 2013, it underwhelms. But as an adventure and an experience, for me at least, it still excels.
Now come the words I never thought I would utter - what Final Fantasy VII would benefit from is a remake. Not in the traditional sense of a remake, mind - more an upgrade, an overhaul to drag the existing foundations of the game into the twenty-first century. A remake that honours its heritage by retaining its pre-rendered backdrops and text-box dialogue, rather than scrapping them for full 3D and voice acting. A remake that provides a much-needed visual overhaul, with prettier polygonal models and high-resolution pre-rendered backdrops, and without throwing in unnecessary CGI all over the place. A remake with a vastly superior translation of the game's original script, which honours the story and better clarifies some of the game's more obtuse design decisions. Basically, a remake that fixes the original game's obvious faults, without compromising its strengths and original design ethic. Do I want a remake of Final Fantasy VII? The answer, perhaps ironically, remains no. Purely because any remake made by Square-Enix in its current state would most likely do the complete opposite of everything I've outlined above, and in the search for a better game, end up compromising what still makes the original great - the adventure, and the experience.
So should you play Final Fantasy VII in 2014? If you have any history with the game, but have been hesitant to go back to it, my answer to you is "yes". Chances are you'll be able to look past the shortcomings that age has bestowed upon it and rekindle that old passion, as I've been able to do. If you don't have any history with the game, but curiosity is drawing you towards it, my answer to you is "why not take the chance"? Between the digital releases on both PlayStation Network and Steam, the game has never been so readily available at such a reasonable price. If you're not able to look past the game's problems, or if the story and characters don't grab you in the same way, then that's fine - if there's one thing to be learned from the internet, it's that Final Fantasy VII will never please everyone - but in this blogger's humble opinion, it's still a chance worth taking for the sake of £8 or $10.
If any of what I've written above seems like a cop-out, then I apologise. I guess I was never really the "right" guy to write this series. I have an established history with Final Fantasy VII, and try as I might to shrug it off and view the game through new eyes and with complete objectivity, my love of the game was inevitably going to skew my viewpoint a little more favourably than it should have done. Personally I've gotten a huge amount out of writing these blogs, probably more than I've given to any of you readers in return. By far the most rewarding thing to come of it, though, is to be able to look at one of my favourite games and love it again, to enjoy playing it and writing about it without feeling a sense of shame, as if I'm being scrutinised by the rest of the internet like some video game equivalent of Nineteen Eighty-Four. When I was ten, I loved Final Fantasy VII. Now I'm twenty-three and able to recognise its problems, I still love Final Fantasy VII. It's not the greatest game ever. It's not even close. But it is incredibly special to me, and I'm glad to have regained sight of that fact.
Thank you so much to everybody who has read this series of blogs. If you started this journey with me and dropped out along the way, thank you. If you joined me late in the quest and saw it through to this end, thank you. If you only read one or two episodes, thank you. And if you're one of that small group of incredible people who've stuck with me over the whole of these last four years, I reserved the biggest thanks for you. Your comments have been a pleasure to read, and above all, your patience has been hugely appreciated. Take care, and I'll see you around.
Currently playing - Final Fantasy VII (PS3)