By dankempster 6 Comments
In December of 2000, almost thirteen years ago to this very day, a fresh-faced ten-year-old boy wandered into his local video game store, intent on parting with some of his Christmas money in exchange for something new to play on the PSone he'd been lucky enough to receive for Christmas a few days before. After browsing the shelves for a while to no avail, the young lad happened upon a second-hand copy of Final Fantasy VII, almost entirely obscured from view at the bottom of the bargain bin by other, less reputable titles. Aware the game had received a 10/10 score from the Official UK PlayStation Magazine, but not entirely sure quite what he was letting himself in for, the boy picked up the game, took it to the counter and paid the £10 asking price. On the bus ride home he hungrily absorbed the details about the game's story and characters from the instruction manual, growing more excited about starting this journey with every word he read. When he got home, that young lad pounced on his unexpecting console, popped the first of the game's three discs into it, and began a journey that would ultimately change his life forever...
Such was my first encounter with Final Fantasy VII. Another time, another place, and I might never have had the chance to fall in love with the game, and by extension the vast majority of Squaresoft's output. I grew up loving the Final Fantasy series - I moved from VII to VIII, from VIII to IX, and then backwards through the series' older instalments as they were ported and re-released on Sony's original little grey box. But Final Fantasy VII in particular has stayed with me more than any other game in this long-running series. Whether it's something about its specific story, characters and setting, its incredibly flexible mechanics, or simply because it was my first Final Fantasy, I honestly can't say - I just love the game.
Being a Final Fantasy VII fan on the internet ultimately exposes you to two very distinct subdivisions of the online gaming community - those who love Final Fantasy VII, and those who don't. Actually, putting it in these relatively rational terms doesn't do these groups justice - it would be more fitting to call them those who adore Final Fantasy VII and hold it up as the best game ever made, and those whose seething rage towards the game leads them to think Hironobu Sakaguchi deserves his own reserved space in the seventh circle of Hell for ever inflicting it upon us. I've never really considered myself in either group. I always just thought it was a great game with interesting characters and an exciting story. Over the years though, being in the company of these two intensely opposed internet forces started to leave me questioning my own stance on Final Fantasy VII - was it really as good as I'd been making it out to be?
Thus, Enduring Final Fantasy VII was born. I'd been planning to replay the game for some time, but the decision to chronicle that playthrough in a serial blog format came to me at more or less the last minute. The thought process behind it was a simple one - what if, at the same time as confirming for myself whether or not this is a game still worth playing, I can share my experience and maybe provide an answer for other people asking themselves the same question? There have been ups and downs, delays and hiatuses, but thirty-two lengthy episodes and almost four years later, here we are. This series, which has in many ways become the most recognisable aspect of my presence here on Giant Bomb, is about to complete its last lap of the track.
I realise this is a painfully long introduction to the latest episode (the antepenultimate episode, would you believe?) of Enduring Final Fantasy VII. Forgive me the indulgence, but it feels almost necessary to recap what led us up to this point in the first place. It's also been over a year since I last put together one of these blogs, so it's equally an opportunity for me to get back into the swing of things before starting the episode proper. Now that we're all ready, let's dust off that ol' title card, shall we?
Episode Thirty-Three - Globe-Trottin', Time-Wastin', Side-Questin'
This is going to be quite an unconventional episode structure-wise, because it's less a re-telling of in-game events, and more a broad look at Final Fantasy VII's end-game distractions. Once the player hits Disc 3, the whole game world opens up, providing the player with an invitation to explore areas both old and new for all sorts of goodies not readily available on the game's regular beaten path. I'm going to look at each of these side-quests in turn under its own broadly-headed section, offer an explanation of what they entail, the potential rewards for pursuing them, and whether or not they're actually any fun to play. Oh, and a quick disclaimer - because I've already covered the secret characters Yuffie and Vincent in previous episodes, I won't be dedicating a section to them here. Are y'all ready? Then let's go!
The Gold Saucer
- What is it? - Serving as a hub for a lot of Final Fantasy VII's extra-curricular activities, the Gold Saucer is a theme park/hotel/casino situated in the Corel Desert. The Gold Saucer serves three primary side-questing functions in Final Fantasy VII's end-game, the first of which is its Battle Square. As its name suggests, you can take part in arena battles here, success in which earns you Battle Points (BP) which you can spend on various items, Materia, and other goodies. The Wonder Square is home to arcade-style games, some of which are re-hashes of mini-games from elsewhere in the game's storyline, others of which are unique to the Gold Saucer. Doing well in these earns you GP, the Gold Saucer's unique currency, which can again be redeemed for all manner of trinkets. Finally, there's the Chocobo Square, where you can bet on the outcome of Chocobo races, or even race your own (more on that later, though). Again, there are plenty of cool prizes to be had from winning bets.
- What can I get from it? - Battle Square is by far the best option as far as potential prizes go. It's the only way to obtain Cloud's final Limit Break Omnislash, among other awesome items and unique Materia including the powerful W-Summon. The GP earned in Wonder Square can also be put towards some rare Materia like EXP Plus. Chocobo race betting has never turned up anything amazingly awesome for me, but I'm not particularly great at betting, so I'm by no means an authority on whether it's worth pursuing or not.
- Is it any fun? - Again, it's the Battle Square that wins out here hands-down. It plays with Final Fantasy VII's flexible character development mechanics by piling on handicaps with every passing round. Personally I found it to be a lot of fun trying to adapt to new battle situations on the fly. The games in Wonder Square are a cool distraction, but not enjoyable for prolonged periods of time. Things like the motorbike and snowboarding mini-games work great when they're used to break up the regular gameplay, but unfortunately their mechanics aren't robust enough for them to stand on their own merits. As for the Chocobo stuff... Well, let's get to that next, shall we?
- What is it? - It wouldn't be a PS1 Final Fantasy game without some elaborate Chocobo-based side quest to tear the player away from world-saving for a while, would it? Final Fantasy VII's bird-brained Choco-rama is split into two distinct halves - Chocobo breeding, and Chocobo racing. The former involves catching wild Chocobos and rearing them on your own ranch, feeding them greens to boost their stats and breeding them with each other using special nuts, all in pursuit of specially-coloured Chocobos with the ability to navigate otherwise unreachable sections of the world map. Racing involves taking your own Chocobos to the Gold Saucer and pitting them against other Chocobos on the race track, in an attempt to further raise their stats and rank and increase your chances of breeding those elusive special Chocobos.
- What can I get from it? - Getting a Gold Chocobo is an arduous, obtuse process, but it's the only way to reach a hidden cave containing the game's most powerful Summon Materia - Knights of the Round. Other coloured chocobos give you access to other secret Materia caves, so there's a definite benefit to putting the time in to breed these birds. Being the owner of a Gold Chocobo also afforded a kid some pretty prestigious bragging rights back in the day, from what I can recall.
- Is it any fun? - This is where the whole side quest falls apart for me - it just isn't any fun, mainly because there's only one very specific way to breed a Gold Chocobo. If you don't know what you're doing, then you're probably not going to get anywhere near breeding a special Chocobo, and that's no fun. If you do know what you're doing, then you're monotonously following a series of steps with no element of surprise, and that's no fun either. It's a real shame, because there are traces of real potential there. Were the criteria for breeding special Chocobos a little less rigid, and the mechanics a little more intuitive, it could have actually been a fun distraction. As for the racing side of things, what I said about Wonder Square also applies here - it's a cool temporary sidestep from the regular gameplay, but it's not really deep enough to stand as its own thing.
Ultimate Weapons/Final Limit Breaks
- What is it? - Every character in Final Fantasy VII has their own unique weapon class and distinct set of Limit Breaks. This means that each character has their own Ultimate Weapon and Final Limit Break, the absolute peaks of their potential power that exist as items in the game world, waiting to be found. Some are tucked away in secret corners, while others are rewards for beating certain bosses or making progress in other side quests.
- What can I get from it? - Ultimate Weapons in Final Fantasy VII are something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they're without a doubt the most powerful weapons available in the game, maximising each character's potential to do huge amounts of damage in battle. On the other hand, though, having them equipped will prevent any attached Materia from growing. While this isn't really a problem for players who've already been playing long enough to have Mastered most of their Materia, it does present less prepared players with a decision to make. Final Limit Breaks are invariably powerful, dishing out insane amounts of damage, but there is a catch - in order to learn these ultimate attacks, characters must first have access to all of their other Limit Breaks. This means that if you want to make use of these special moves, you'd better be prepared to put some grindin' hours in first.
- Is it any fun? - Speaking as a player who loves exploring game worlds, I had a lot of fun hunting down the various Ultimate Weapons and Final Limit Breaks scattered throughout Final Fantasy VII. A big part of that is probably down to the sheer variety of ways to get hold of them, as well as the plethora of different locations you visit on the way, both of which ensure that dedicating your time to finding them never feels like a slog or a grind. Getting every character to the point where they can utilise their Final Limit Break is slightly more tedious, but oh so worth it for that extra damage-dealing potential.
Hidden and Optional Areas
- What is it? - No RPG would be complete without at least a handful of optional places to visit. Final Fantasy VII doesn't boast too many optional areas because of the way its story takes Cloud and co. across pretty much the entire globe, but the ones that are present in the game are pretty cool. I won't go into detail about Wutai, since I already covered it in a previous episode, so that leaves two major optional locations - the sunken Gelnika airship at the bottom of the ocean, and the Ancient Forest that becomes accessible after beating Ultimate WEAPON.
- What can I get from it? - As you'd expect, these optional areas are home to some pretty awesome unique items - items which you'd never find if you refused to stray from the core storyline. Among other treasures, the Gelnika is home to the Conformer (Yuffie's Ultimate Weapon), Cid's Final Limit Break Highwind, and the Summon Materia Hades. The Ancient Forest boasts some similarly useful exclusive items and Materia.
- Is it any fun? - These two optional locations are arguably two of Final Fantasy VII's most fascinating locales. The Ancient Forest presents some cool navigational puzzles that serve to set it apart and elevate it above being simply a straight-forward trawl through a forest. It's the Gelnika, though, that really captivated me. It may not seem like an interesting place at first, but when you start to put the pieces together, its apparent story reveals itself: this crashed airship is full of powerful mutated experiments, indicating that they were being flown across the ocean when something went wrong (the monsters escaping, perhaps, and attacking the crew), forcing the Gelnika out of the skies and into the sea. The Gelnika is one of my favourite parts of Final Fantasy VII, purely because of how it seems to insinuate all of this without ever explicitly coming out and saying it.
- What is it? - Final Fantasy VII has three optional bosses, in the form of three distinct WEAPONs - Ultimate WEAPON, Emerald WEAPON, and Ruby WEAPON. To date, across six playthroughs of the game, I've only ever beaten one of these guys (specifically Ultimate WEAPON, who's very much in a different league to the other two), so I'm far from an authority on this aspect of Final Fantasy VII. As with most secret bosses, the primary purpose of Emerald and Ruby is to provide the player with an extreme level of challenge that they otherwise wouldn't find in the main game itself. Outrageously powerful and relentless in their onslaught, these two monsters demand high levels, powerful equipment and spells, and carefully prepared strategies from those masochistic enough to face off against them.
- What can I get from it? - Maybe it's because these two rewards remain unattainable to me, but they seem like hands-down the coolest rewards for any side quests in Final Fantasy VII. For defeating Ruby WEAPON, you'll receive a Desert Rose, which you can exchange with an NPC in Kalm Village for a Gold Chocobo. That's right - an instant Gold Chocobo, with none of the fuss and faffing around that breeding entails. Even that pales in comparison to the reward for beating Emerald WEAPON, though - take the Earth Harp it drops to the same NPC in Kalm and he'll give you the Master Magic, Master Summon, and Master Command Materias. These three incredible stones bestow their wielders with EVERY SINGLE ABILITY governed by their respective Materia class, and all at the expense of just a single Materia slot. Now that is something I wish I could wield.
- Is it any fun? - This is likely to seem self-contradictory, given my previous praise for the Golden Saucer's Battle Square, but my personal response to this question would be "no, it isn't". Over the years I've attempted to fight both Emerald and Ruby WEAPON several times each, and every time I've had my arse handed back to me on a silver platter. There is no doubt in my mind that successfully beating these two monoliths is an intensely rewarding feeling, one that likely outweighs every single second of preceding frustration, but I suspect that's a feeling I will never be privy to. I'm sure there are hardened Final Fantasy VII veterans out there who will tell you differently, but for me, repeatedly seeing the Game Over screen is not my idea of fun.
I think that's pretty comprehensive coverage of the main distractions available to the player at the start of Disc 3 in Final Fantasy VII. In terms of this playthrough, I've limited my involvement with the side stuff to just exploring the optional areas and tracking down as many Ultimate Weapons and Final Limit Breaks as possible. Hopefully it will at least leave me in a better position to tackle the trials of the North Crater in the next episode.
No end-of-episode statistics this time - given we haven't covered any meaningful ground, I think an update in that respect would be a little pointless. It'll be back for the next episode, though.
The Story So Far...
It feels good to finally be back writing this series. It's been over a year since Episode Thirty-Two. A whole year. Seems pretty crazy when you think about it like that. Anyway, thank you as always for reading. Episode Thirty-Four should be out tomorrow, and it should cover the party's descent into the North Crater as they prepare for their final face-off against Sephiroth. Until then, take care, and I'll see you around.
Currently playing - Final Fantasy VII (PS3)