OK, I've reached the entire of Disc 1, so this update has a lot of ground to cover - a bunch of meandering sandwiched between two spates of actual things happening. From which I'm grateful, since as I started this stretch, I couldn't help but realize that I had played FIFTEEN HOURS of this game and there was STILL no plot.
Revisiting an inexplicably-rebuilt Nibelheim, where no one remembers the fire or Cloud or Tifa and a bunch of shadows wailing for Sephiroth are standing amidst the Stepford villagers going about their bread-baking and innkeeping unnoticed, is an effectively creepy setpiece, though it again leads to more "follow me to yet another location if you want to know the truth"/"your plot is in another castle" bait. Between this and Chrono Cross, Square really loved that nonstarter of a placeholder plot in the 32-bit era. (Another big crush: interminable battle intros.)
Sephiroth makes a cameo appearance slouched in a library chair, where he chucks a big hunk of materia at Cloud's gut and flies off like a Count Chocula spectre. Hilarious, but: not the behavior of a vaunted villain.
I *did* get Vincent from the mansion where Seph was hiding out. The clue hunt for the safe combination wasn't bad, though woe to you if you rely on the hints for the number in the third slot, since they rely on counting Cloud's footsteps, which are unreliably spaced, and use cardinal directions when that part of the house is set at old-school isometric-view angles. The game also has a problem with searching environments: you have to be right on target, and controls for Cloud are frustrating in that if you try to press Cloud against a wall to bring him face-to-face with it, the game will force you to travel along the wall instead. It is unreasonably difficult to get Cloud to perform the basic action of just facing something and looking at it.
As for Vincent himself, I like that he just shoots things with a gun. I appreciate any effort to be direct and save time in this game. However, to recruit him, Cloud blatantly lies that "we're after Hojo, too" - NO, YOU'RE NOT. YOU LEFT HIM SUNNING HIMSELF ON A BEACH CHAIR AT COSTA DEL SOL. (I did go back to Costa del Sol with Vincent in the party, but I found that Hojo had left.)
One puzzling statement from Vincent: "so Sephiroth knows he was created five years ago?" Well, actually, we didn't know that. Does this work, timewise? I understand that Vincent, being an optional character, is sidelined somewhat in the plot, and his non-participation so far certainly bears that out, but that seems unwise, considering his strong connections to most of our rogue's gallery (Hojo, the Turks, Seph).
I went to Mt. Nibel, home of the reactor, the Jenova human experimentation farm, and Cloud's defining flashback, and...nothing happened? There was nothing there? Even though I'm pretty sure Sephiroth said he was going there? Eh?
Anyhow, we went to see Cid and try to get his airplane, for reasons that were similarly inexplicable and unapparent.
I had an image of Cid as a likable cuss, and despite his famous line above, he really isn't. Cid's problems are mostly his own fault: he won't wait until the oxygen tanks are safe before launching (though Shera's approach to his obstinancy was also surely unwise), and he swears and insults the execs in charge of funding. I do appreciate that he has the traditional Highwind jump attack as his Limit Break, though.
(Also, re: this sequence: odd that Shinra would use Papyrus in its logos.)
After meeting Cid and obtaining a broken Tiny Bronco capable only of shallow sea travel, the world opened up, albeit in an inconvenient way. Of course, not all areas on the map are accessible via shoals, but those that are are linked via a single long, looping, meandering corridor of shallow ocean. You'll see an area on the world map to which you want to go directly to the north, and you'll think you can just go there, but no - you have to sail literally all around the world in order to get to a relatively nearby location. The music is pleasant and calming, and at least there are no random battles at sea, but it's yet another way in which the game is not shy about wasting your time.
Some differences are beginning to show in the characters combatwise, though they're not severe. Cloud and Barret give dependable damage, as always; Tifa is now lagging a little bit behind. Vincent and Nanaki, in particular, are beasts, since they got the Deathblow materia (which I was advised in a FAQ while looking up the Gold Saucer folderol below to put on Vincent immediately) and Nanaki's Cosmo Canyon weapon respectively. Cait Sith, I don't really care. Aerith does half of "standard" Cloud/Barret damage, but I notice she also heals for a bit more - but that's not really a big deal, given that healing magic is so ridiculously overpowered anyhow. I get the feeling that I'm overleveled, though I haven't been doing anything special except fighting most random encounters and exploring the available land mass before moving on to the next area. I haven't found anything but that weaponmaker who hasn't had anything to sell yet, but what if I miss something!? (I'm sure I've missed lots.)
Speaking of missing stuff: After a couple rounds of trying to negotiate her recruit event's dialogue tree that ended with me walking offscreen to no effect and Yuffie stealing 500 gil from Cait Sith, I'm actively trying to avoid getting Yuffie in the party now. What I've seen of her personality doesn't inspire me to expend the time figuring out whatever the game wants me to do in this circumstance. Maybe she's great, but I have enough party members as it is.
I did go back to the condor nest, which apparently had had three attacks while I was gone, despite it being physically impossible for me to revisit the site before this point. I tried the RTS minigame again, this time bunching multiple soldiers at chokepoints instead of relying solely on the rock-paper-scissors vulnerabilities the game stresses. This, unfortunately, didn't help at all, as soldiers, I discovered, won't gang up to attack; if a soldier has engaged an enemy, their comrades will sit like bumps on a log until one or the other is destroyed, not even lifting a finger to save the life of an ally being slain literally right in front of them. Naturally, despite hiring the maximum number of mercenaries to guard the post, this "wait your turn" strategy got them all killed, whereupon Cloud & co. had to step in for an easy victory.
I might as well take some time to talk about the music while we're in this disorganized running-around section. I was going to say the soundtrack's in the lower ranks of FF soundtracks I've heard, but upon review, I realize that means "significantly below 4 and 6, the ones to whose soundtracks I've listened (in original and arranged versions) hundreds of times on CD." I don't mean it's bad; it's going for something more ambient and exploratory given the new CD format, but there are fewer individual memorable tracks. The best so far is probably Aerith's standard theme, "Flowers Growing in the Church"; it's light and sweet but reflective and sad, with sci-fi instrumentation that catches your ear - not out of place in the Midgar-era score but, like its subject, bringing a welcome ray of warmth and love to it. I've talked previously about how core "Anxious Heart" is to the Midgar moral milieu, and I also like the minimalist version of Sephiroth's theme that plays in places where he isn't directly present but his presence is felt - just a few bars, barely a track, but it always commands your attention and raises a wall of tension and dread whenever it appears. (The dissonant music that plays when Cloud starts losing his mind, though taking a completely different approach, is also effectively creepy.) And though the overworld theme isn't a showstopper like 4's or 6's, I find it extraordinarily calming just to paddle around on the Tiny Bronco on the main screen listening to it.
Back to the plot: the characters suddenly began discussing how they needed to enter a temple to get the Black Materia, which I imagine was a plot thread introduced in Wutai, which I had skipped due to Yuffie aversion. They discovered a "keystone" was needed to enter the temple, and I was told by some guy in a house near Corel I revisited because it was conspicuously empty before that the owner of the Gold Saucer had it. I tried to find a way to the Gold Saucer, only to discover that the game had made my vehicle unparkable on its part of the landmass for time-wasting reasons, and so, remembering that the Saucer came right after Costa del Sol, I thought I had to trek through the Corel dungeon again to reach it. This was incorrect; I had forgotten that the entrance to the Gold Saucer is, unintuitively, a funicular that boards at the nowheresville slum of Corel, so I had to go back through the dungeon to reach the town. Once at the Gold Saucer, I searched around for the owner but couldn't find him in any of the 10,000 screens, despite using every single transporter in the presumably-complete array at the entrance, so I figured that he was, for some reason, in Yuffie's home of Wutai, near where the game first plonks the Tiny Bronco. I then turned off the game, as I couldn't even save at the Gold Saucer, because the save point costs Gold Saucer Fun Tokens I didn't have because I don't want to play its stupid minigames.
Upon looking the issue up to avoid any unnecessary Wutai entanglements, however, I discovered that the owner is at the Gold Saucer, in the "Battle Arena," site of Dyne's massacre, which I nevertheless did not find in my first revisit. This site is also home to a colosseum-type minigame when one character fights a gauntlet of battles for a series of allegedly ever-increasing rewards. Given how well I was faring in combat so far, I thought, foolishly, that I might as well give it a try. I discovered that going as far as you can in the battle game at this point, which is about halfway, will net you as a reward...of about half the currency needed to buy a single Phoenix Down. I reloaded and, after the required tangling with the system, didn't give this latest in a long line of wretched minigames another glance.
Cloud's date ended up being with Aerith. I chose to kiss the Demon King for comedy at the climax of the play, which resulted in him/her turning into a beautiful woman and dancing off with Cloud, leaving Aerith all alone on stage. Cruel, particularly considering what happens to Aerith very shortly, but I was so frustrated by minigame garbage (and completely unable to save in the Gold Saucer) that I had to roll with it.
This leaves the two big plot events at the end of Disc 1: the Temple of the Ancients and the City of the Ancients. I suppose the gambit of having a party member appear to die one dungeon before an actual big death is one method of misdirection, but given what I know of Cait Sith just ambiently - he's not actually alive, right, in either an organic or sentient-A.I. sense? He's a robot being controlled and serving as the mouthpiece for a flesh-and-blood person in a remote location, isn't he? He's like a walkie-talkie. It's not like anything died when his body was destroyed; it's just a shell - that is, as we see, easily replaced. (Which leads to another question: what do the other party members think Cait Sith is? A sentient monster? We don't see any other monsters that look like him, though - and there doesn't seem to be any artificial intelligence in this world, either.) Whatever the case, given that he revealed himself to be a Shinra spy, stole our MacGuffin, and took Elmyra and Marlene hostage and threatened their lives immediately previously, I didn't feel sorry for him at all. Even though the game and party completely forgot about that stunt, to the point where we still don't know if Aerith's mother or Barret's child are currently safe or even alive, I sold all his character-specific weapons immediately afterward, and I won't be using him again.
I find it odd that they chose to depict the vaunted Ancients in their trying-to-be-serious-anyway sci-fi Plot with a Message as cutesy Namingways. (It's even weirder that they'd go for a Lunarian reference for a signature plot point in a game that claims to be going for something more mature than FF4.)
I heard about the "Cloud physically beating up Aerith" scene, and I was prepared for another dose of the edginess regarding women that the game had mercifully forgotten since Midgar. The scene just happens in a rather blase way; there are no repercussions for what occurs, and it's immediately forgotten. It's not exploited for "look at us" points like I expected, but it falls into the cracks, part of an inexplicable pattern of the team excusing and overlooking some very unstable and untrustworthy behavior by Cloud.
...Which brings us to the big death. I saw Aerith's death hundreds of times in .avi during the 90s, and in isolation, it seemed a superbly-staged scene: Aerith's perfect calm; the note of tension in the air and on the soundtrack; the sudden, decisive brutality of the slaying; the complete helplessness of the player and Cloud as they witness the murder Sephiroth perpetrates from approach to strike to languorous extraction and smirk; the long moment of pause for sorrow as Aerith's crystal materia, loosed from her hair, plinks step by step down into the water and the unabashed grief of Aerith's theme unwinds upon the previously-silent scene; the simple grace and beauty with which her lifeless body descended into the blue depths (in my video, Cloud laying Aerith to rest immediately followed her murder).
Seen in its setting, however...like Sephiroth's madness, it's another big development that the game just kind of stumbles into. The events in the two cutscenes themselves are perfectly paced, but the events in the overworld surrounding them are not. The dialogue fails to build tension and has no sense of drama - or, paradoxically, it has too much at points: the purple prose of Cloud's reaction is too staged and not a raw enough expression of grief, and it makes zero sense that he wouldn't lash out and at least try to get revenge on Aerith's murderer, standing right beside him. Remapping Cloud's controls without notice or explanation when he initially finds Aerith to produce a series of weird gestures that in the "right" combination result in an attempt on Aerith's life was an interesting way to depict Cloud being manipulated against his will, but it fostered confusion when the game should have been building tension and dread. The game goes immediately from a situation that relies on the player not realizing what's going on to a situation that relies on the player indeed realizing what's going on (but being powerless to stop it, to drive home the horror). The latter needs time to develop, but there's no lead-up or lead-in here - no breathing room between elements that produce an incongruous emotional reaction.
And why, why, why did we need a toothless Jenova fight in the middle of all this? It's baffling. Have any of the Jenova fights been remotely dangerous or worthwhile?! How does a stakesless, irrelevant boss battle enhance the emotional impact of this scene? The tonal whiplash is incredible. As it stands, the small note of Tifa pausing to caress Aerith's hair as she left was the most moving part of the scene for me.
(I will note that one point where the game hasn't stumbled is with Aerith and Tifa's attitude toward each other. It would have been easy to make the dual starring heroines competing for the lead's affections stereotypically snipey toward each other, but they remain genuinely friendly and act like adults. When Aerith is kidnapped, for instance, Tifa is absolutely concerned about her welfare and urging the party to go after her. There's no typical "the first priority of girls is romance" RPG garbage or schadenfreude (outside, I understand, of the fortunetelling scene if both Aerith and Tifa are present). Both women have their heads on straight and have the right priorities.)
I was actually stymied for a good while on how to progress in the city. It's counterintuitive when Aerith and Sephiroth have a few days' head start on you (and are confirmed to be still ahead of you at the last populated checkpoint) that the right thing to do when you arrive is to realize that "oh, they're not here yet" and go kill time. There's a short cutscene where the party disassembles and notes they can take a nap, but this happens at other, plot-unimportant recharge areas, such as Fort Condor. It's also weird that the subsequent key to progression is "go look for the fun clown fish in the kiddie aquarium" considering the gravity of what lies immediately ahead. (The fish is also marked as an exit in the preceding "guess no one's arrived" segment when that exit can't be accessed, adding to the confusion.)
And then: "I set out on a journey with you, but I don't trust myself, so I can't go with you anymore. But I don't trust myself, so I want you guys to come with me to stop me in case I try to do something to you." WHAT?!?!?!?!?!?!?
So that's it for Disc 1.
DISC 1 OVERVIEW:
The environments: PS1-level polygon art is renowned for its sterility, but all the houses and lived-in spaces in FF7 are infused with warmth and care. They're the rare element that succeeds both as technical showcase and storytelling vehicle; they create character & atmosphere and are impressive visually.
Aerith: Cloud was recently voted Bestest Character Ever in a major Japanese FF fan poll, but it's Aerith who's the standout so far to me. She's full of life and grace but not delicate; both wise and bursting with cheer and optimism; she revels in her time on the planet but is perfectly content and unafraid to return to it. She's the perfect spokeswoman for the attitude to life she represents, and it must have taken a great deal of strength to do what she did.
Midgar: It looks new and unique for an RPG setting, presents a striking moral tone, and has a focus the rest of the game lacks. FF7 really exploits the advantages of placing the early game in a city, from the memorably jaded, street-smart attitude of the NPCs to unique dungeon designs like the junkyard and trainyard to setting the major, climactic dungeon in a gigantic office building.
The script: The script is atrocious and at points outright incoherent. It's at the level of FF4's original SNES release, which was done by a non-native speaker - worse, in fact, because there are basic plot incoherencies that cannot be explained away by translation issues. It also has no sense of pacing, throwing story beats that demand incongruous emotional reactions together with no room to breathe, and inserts battles into sequences that demand an absolute focus on atmosphere and plot (exploring Shinra HQ post-Seph rampage; Aerith's death).
The villains: Sephiroth has a strong look, but there's nothing else distinguishing him in the game from your typical "all will bow to me" evil overlord. Mulling it over, I realize that a lot of Pop Culture Seph's character is communicated through mannerisms - the psycho stares, the smug affect, the completely calm comportion as he exults in horrible threats - that can't be communicated through his overworld character, which frequently looks outright goofy in motion (see: any time he's flying). The script isn't doing him any favors - he has almost no memorable lines, a lot of stupidly-phrased, bratty ones, and hardly any interesting motivation. I can only conclude that he's skated by on outside-the-game sex appeal. Shinra consists of wholly uninteresting clowns about whom I cannot compel myself to care.
The minigames: I cannot think of a single minigame that I have enjoyed. Every single one plays dreadfully and stops the larger game right in its tracks.
Combat & related systems: The core is dependable ATB stuff, but it's surrounded by a lot of time-wasting flair. The materia system just serves to make the characters more interchangeable. As you level up, the fun Limit Breaks trigger far less frequently and therefore become less of an element in your tactics, which sucks.
Characters: Tifa, Aerith, and Barret serve their roles well and are likable and instrumental to the story. Cloud - well, I'll wait and see, but he's been significantly mishandled in spots so far. Vincent's insider knowledge should be a game-changer, but all signs indicate they're just gonna have him dead-end. Everyone else seems like a distraction.
Music: See above.
One more note: before reaching the City of the Ancients, you'll come across an archaeological dig site where you have to have the team excavate a key item before you can proceed. When you happen upon the camp, this is the first sight that greets your eyes:
THEY FOUND THEM! THEY FOUND THE TYRANNOSAURS IN F-14S!! Or the F-14s on the tyrannosaurs, anyhow. See ya on Disc 2!