I'm up to Costa del Sol, and I wasn't planning on reporting back in so soon (ten hours in, about three hours past my previous report), but the story has taken a dive, and I have TRUTH that must be unleashed.
I hate to say this about Sephiroth, but: he kind of sucks. After the huge build-up, he makes his first physical appearance with his ass plopped down on a crate - like, "sup" - his first word is "Hey.", and most of his subsequent pre-heel dialogue consists of Officer Bookem "not authorized to do that, ma'am" code violation citations. He never convinces as a hero or anyone who would inspire aspiration or loyalty, much less as a person with humanity to mourn. His heel turn is abrupt and cartoonish - and the Duplo script has never been weaker, making Sephiroth sound like a petulant 12-year-old ("all you stupid people") and the explanation of his motivation nearly incoherent. The bit with Cloud waking up in the mansion to ominous music and seeing the entire town engulfed in flames is a powerful shock, and Sephiroth walking into the flames self-consumed remains a strong image, but the rest can't hold a candle to the turn in the first Lunar in any capacity. Perhaps I should sacrifice an ungulate to Victor Ireland.
(One part that sticks out as particularly poorly-done is Seph's reaction to his discovery at Hojo's human experimentation using energy from an entity known as "Jenova," a name he has been told is that of his mother. You can see for what the writers were going: Sephiroth laughing with reflexive derision at Hojo's efforts to advance the work of a scientist he clearly sees as a father figure, then lashing out upon reflection at what this could mean for his own existence - but these actions are performed one immediately after the other, without any sort of pause to indicate contemplation or a change in mood. What is meant to be the inciting incident for the character's break with reality instead comes off as a show of random and erratic behavior, as if the character were already unhinged before this revelation. Even his physical actions - waving his sword about in what is supposed to represent a rage-fueled rampage - are devoid of force behind the blows; they look like he's bugging out trying to swat a fly rather than destroy the truth in front of him. The backstory can't compensate for these in-the-moment weaknesses, as the writers didn't do the extra work required to establish Sephiroth as a hero in the eyes of the populace when he's presented as a mook in the employ of a power company and the "big mission" we see him on is checking drains on transformer equipment. This isn't a fallen paragon of humanity; this is a meter-reader with a God complex. There's no weight behind anything in the scene. It's not just the script; every aspect is botched.)
The game after Midgar is considerably weaker. The moral tension in the game is forgotten, and the oppressive atmosphere evaporates. The group doesn't really seem to have a goal; they decided (apparently...at some point...certainly not on screen) to follow Sephiroth, but he's no longer aligned with their enemy Shinra, and the game keeps hammering home that he is leagues beyond the party in terms of power, so I don't know what they hope to gain by following Sephiroth or what they plan to do when they find him. The game also tries to jump-start a rivalry with the Turks, but this is another failure: the "confrontation" following the party's explosive raid on Shinra HQ is a series of bumbling, consequenceless exchanges capped off with a laughably mild inquiry as to the whereabouts of the key to their company's grand plan: "Is Aerith with you?" "No, she's elsewhere." "Oh, well, say hi for me." It has all the tension and animosity of a church supper. Their big source of menace is: "oh, my God...they have SUITS."
(The famous image of the 10-story snake impaled by Sephiroth on a splintered tree in a grotesque, skyscraper-high modern-art tribute to his power is, amazingly, another botched scene. The snake's a local legend - in the Japanese version, it's named after the serpent that kills Thor at Ragnarok - and wandering into its territory will trigger an unbeatable boss fight where it'll hit you for about five times your current HP. Once you find the means to traverse its territory undetected, you'll arrive at your destination to find that Sephiroth has impaled it. In subsequent scenes, however, the snake has sprung right back to life - still slithering about its hunting grounds and depriving this big scene of its significance.)
After this, everyone hitches a ride aboard a Shinra ship carrying the new president of Shinra, and no one attempts to assassinate him because it would interfere with chasing after Sephiroth, which, as we have established, is a goal with no purpose or attainable end. Then we encounter Hojo - the brains behind Shinra; the mad scientist Cloud discovered was engaging in mass human experimentation; the man who tried to have one of our party members raped and subjected another to scientific torture - sunning himself at a nearby beach...whereupon we just ask him politely if Sephiroth is an Ancient and where he's going, to which he tosses off vague mumblings about heading west but refuses to cooperate further. We don't try to kill him, either. The story has taken a dive from Phantasy Star II rival to Idiot Plot.
The one story element I thought was successful was how Cloud gives his account of his fateful first & last encounter with Sephiroth as a playable flashback, and your audience of your party members engage with it as a narrative - Barret interrupting when you, the player, wander off to explore something that wouldn't sensibly have caught Cloud's attention at the time, or Aerith noting at the end of Cloud's story that there's a lot that just doesn't add up here. It was an engaging way of presenting an exposition dump but simultaneously emphasizing that it is an incomplete account from a self-admittedly unreliable narrator that the player should view with suspicion and actively question. I don't think the enigma of Cloud's past has been successfully related elsewhere, but this was a successful attempt at presenting and heightening a mystery.
I had my first Jenova fight. That was surprisingly easy. She didn't hit for more than a third of anyone's HP at any time. The bosses have largely been cake so far, I have to say. Cure being way overpowered (though there seem to be limitations on casting it on the group) goes a long way with that.
The one element that I find a continuous delight is the pre-rendered environments. I've gone to the "lovingly rendered" well before, but the artists really succeeded in bringing the dollhouse charm of RPG settlements into the 3D realm, and there's just such care in the little details they put in the environments to tell of the lives of those who live and work there. They even incorporated a spiral staircase in one house - not out of necessity, but just seemingly out of the sheer joy that they could do it in the third dimension.
(They also do sunny environments very well - the chocobo farm, Costa del Sol - but that clashes with the game's apparent-but-I-guess-no-longer oppressive mood. That's the advantage of your dystopia being covert instead of overt: you can have a bright neon palette, and it just enhances the theme.)
Minigames continue to suck. The worst example was this RTS strategy game where you have to hire & deploy soldiers to protect the nest of this giant condor that's decided to roost on a Shinra facility. Sounds simple, but the menu not only hands you, without exaggeration, about 30 screens of information on the various troops' and enemies' vulnerabilities and strengths but also botches the hiring process. See, in addition to hiring soldiers for the imminent attack, you can also donate to a fund to protect the nest while you're away - if you don't check back on the nest at a certain juncture and miss an attack (this is a game-long subplot spanning 18 attacks, apparently), troops will automatically be hired to protect the facility, and the attack will be repulsed. If this fund runs dry, however, the nest is destroyed. This fund is separate from the money you use to hire soldiers for a given RTS scenario - but after spending most of its time explaining the RTS stuff, the game will ask you to "donate" to the former - without specifying that your money's going to the larger fund, not troops for your upcoming encounter. This leads to the scenario I confronted, when I signaled I was ready to commence defensive preparations, only to be told, puzzled, that I needed to able to donate to hire the troops first...after I had just donated thousands of gil.
Furthermore, there's a floor of 4,000 gil for hiring troops of which the game will not inform you until you actually signal that you're ready to start the RTS battle. If your pockets are empty and you leave to raise more money, the game will count it as you giving up. (There apparently is a special reward for coming back to the fort to beat all 18 RTS scenarios, which I will certainly not be pursuing, but woe to the unprepared completionist.) Furthermore, there's a shop near the nest, before the RTS planning point, that sells strong materia that's a huge potential money sink, so you very likely aren't going to have that 4,000 gil even if you can figure out the exact prompt at which the game wants you to donate it.
And after all that, AND using the 30+ screens of information to prepare my formations, all of the soldiers folded like paper anyhow, regardless of strengths or weaknesses, leaving my party to beat back the invasion via good ol' ATB combat. Which they did, handily. BUT: even though we protected the nest, this counted as a failure, so we did not receive the prize we should have for completing this scenario. So this sidequest hit the triple crown of bad design: time-wasting, poorly-explained, and unrewarding. I will do what's needed to help the condor survive, but no more than that.
Anyhow: here's hoping the plot improves.