I just moved past the game's second big plot development, so let's have an early report.
...It's no longer looking at Jenova. The planet, that is. That's supposed to be a Clock Tower reference, but it's neither recognizable nor relevant, so never mind.
I suppose since the not-North Pole, whatever special name they gave it, has story significance, that you'd have to have an ice village next, but, boy, is putting up with a huge white nothingness between the game's two major plot climaxes a big ask. The gameplay segments drag on, too including: a consequenceless snowboarding segment that lasts *five minutes*; several bits where you're climbing up cliffs and have to manage your body temperature or get an instafail; and wandering through a mostly-white maze. There are actually some neat ideas in here - you can start the white maze in one of several spots, so the first challenge is figuring out where you landed - you just can't follow guided directions; and a bit in the white maze where you're facing blizzard whiteout conditions and the camera pans around in perspective to represent you losing your bearings - you have to place markers by which to orient yourself to ensure you're continuing to make progress in the same direction. (I spoiled the method of coping for myself since I was using a guide for this entire stretch, but it is a neat dungeon navigation puzzle that takes advantage of the new 3D capabilities, albeit one that's potentially frustrating and time-expending in a frustrating, time-wasting part of the game.)
There are some pretty ice caves.
I don't think it was a good decision to have the plot setup for the next segment - recorded conversations on Cetra lore between the famed Professor Gast and Aerith's mom Ifalna - as an optional access in the background of a random house. It's like how the explanation for the rebuilt Nibelheim is given only through a document on Tifa's desk (which I learned about only through an FAQ, by the way). The game dips into its strain of apocalyptic environmentalism here, talking with a straight face about "planet-reading" and whatnot. The script also goes between "he" and "she" when talking about Cetra observations of Jenova, and while I can buy that what is essentially a viral organism might not present itself as a fixed sex, I cannot buy that neither Gast nor Ifalna would know if their child were a boy or girl by "10 days after the birth," when the recording has them talking about baby names. All the discussion of the weapon known as "Weapon" (actually multiple Weapons) reads as very stilted even for this script, and while Ifalna's limited, shaky knowledge of the concept is a possible factor, it really seems like the translator didn't know whether Weapon was singular or plural or what it was/they were and didn't get the chance to suss that out before turning the work in.
I found Barret's introspection here interesting, about coming face-to-face with the harshness and power of nature in the Arctic and about how if he were forced to live here, he'd be driven to overcome and master it...which leads him to understand, a little, about the mindset behind the creation of Midgar and maybe even Shinra. In a way, he'd make a better main character: he's the only one who consistently thinks about and is changed by what he sees, and yet the game is interested only in presenting him as comic relief.
The heroes arriving at their long-awaited, remote "special place" destination on foot, only to have the villains cruise up overhead in airborne transportation upon their discovery, was ripped straight from Seiken Densetsu 3. *Was* that the Promised Land? It seems, between Ifalna's (or was it Gast's?) comments and Scarlet's mistaking Sephiroth's Mako cocoon for a natural feature, like there was no Promised Land, but the initial reveal of Shinra's presence is sure set up like you're supposed to believe "oh, no! Shinra's found the Promised Land now!". I don't like that Shinra considers the remnants of Avalanche important enough to track, a rival rather than a bug to be crushed. It undoes a good portion of the impact of the events at Midgar, where you are NOT the equal of the big, bad corporation, you are NOT the heroic resistance that brings them down - they're worse, certainly, but you're just a bunch of penny-ante terrorists whom their resources can easily stop. (This part is kind of overlooked in FF7's modern political renaissance.)
And then Cloud taking the Black Materia. Seriously? We're letting him do this again? We're letting him do this again?!? SERIOUSLY?!?
Again, Barret with the best and truest lines.
Speaking of the damn crazy #*&^%: the Nibelheim illusion is the first time since - well, the last time in Nibelheim, the walking-through-the-flames shot - that Sephiroth has come off as a scary and intimidating individial, though the smash cuts are doing most of the work. (They do at last succeed a bit with body language, though, in Seph's off-to-the-side laugh with the rest of his body as a lifeless husk.) I'm not sure why the illusion worked, though; as Cloud initially insists, it's an illusion, so Sephiroth can just depict any events he goddamn pleases. I guess it triggered awareness in Cloud's own mind of the inconsistencies in his story? He was aware of those back in Kalm, though. What I completely don't understand is Tifa's perspective on all this. Was Zack her childhood boyfriend, then? If so, how did she meet Cloud, and why is she willing to encourage and share in his delusions? Is it really that believable that two of Zack's ex-girlfriends would project their past relationship onto Cloud and be willing to engage in a big game of Make Believe when the planet was at stake? That flashback scene seemed to think it was explaining everything, but - again, exacerbated by the nonsense script - it wasn't explaining anything at all.
Also weird: that every single person, with the possible exception of Vincent, downplays Hojo's actions. You tried to rape one of us, subjected another to medical torture, and are the driving force behind our sworn enemy's monstrous Mengele army? Oh, we don't want to interrupt your suntan. Executed a massive genetic experiment with the successful end goal of planetary annihilation? "Oh, you're just a second-rate scientist." They're not under the impression that Hojo didn't cause all this; they simply find it underwhelming and dismissable. Hojo has the best claim to being the true villain in all this; there was no way Sephiroth was not going to end up massively fucked in the head considering how he was created, and the game isn't entirely consistent on whether Jenova is even a sentient organism at this point.
I have to say the climax, with Cloud flying up to join the Sephiroth orb and trigger hell breaking loose, brought back memories of Inside more than anything. I know it'd be defeatist, but part of me would be very satisfied if that were just the end. Cloud won the victory over himself!
Barret opening the blind to reveal Dawn of the Final Day outside is a great visual. So is the giant, previously-invisible eye in the ice wall opening to announce the awakening of the Weapons. Hearkening back to the Calvin & Hobbes bit from last time, the planet creating kaiju to purge itself of environmental threats is a true "this is so cool!"/"this is so stupid" moment. Combined with Cloud's surrender, there's a great "everything going to hell" vibe, at least, though given the narrative's strengths & weaknesses, I'm not sure the game can summon enough of a justification for the inevitable turnaround - provide a dawn capable of outshining this darkness. Part of me thinks it would have been more effective and daring to have this just be the destination (though it would have been totally consumer-unfriendly and unfeasible).
Anyhow, I stopped just before the execution, so that's where I am now. I can't decide whether suggesting Rufus might be worth something before going "nah" is a waste of a potentially interesting plot development and previous foreshadowing or an accurate estimation of his character.
I keep returning to Phantasy Star II*, and I think that's a good point of comparison for the Final Fantasy VII experience. The idea that the "right" ending for a story could be the death of its heroes - that death could be the moral, noble option - blew my mind as a kid, and I can imagine that a few techniques used here were similarly mind-blowing for those who played FF7: the idea that a story told by the main character - *the* story, the backbone of his quest - could be unreliable, a delusion and product of his own mental issues. The idea that the the main character could be a tool of the enemy and be the one to bring about the apocalypse, willingly. Having the main character do a heel turn - out of a genuine change of heart, not a misunderstanding or ruse - and then actually continuing on with the game and story.
It's just not working for me here, though. When I started FF7, I was half-expecting not to like it but willing to give it as fair a shot as I could to experience finally what is considered a landmark game. And it did win me over, in parts - but then it lost me again. And as most of the game has revealed itself, I've discovered: I kinda don't like it.
I frequently don't like the very act of playing the game itself. As I've stated over and over, an inordinate amount of the gameplay is given over to minigame sequences that are poorly designed and unfun. The game repeatedly insists on interrupting atmospheric, plot-heavy sequences with distracting combat. Even if it's doing something well, the game mistakes "more" for "better" and never wants you to concentrate on one thing.
I don't think the story is good. There are parts that are good - in the case of the early Midgar sequence, very, very good - but the utterly inept script defeats many of the sporadic efforts at quality. There's also just not much of a story here. After Midgar, which is realistically a self-contained segment, most of the game is chasing after Sephiroth for no clear purpose; there are some developments in the Temple/City of the Ancients stretch with Aerith, but then you have the big revelation, and...that's it.
Hot take: I don't think a lot would be lost if humanity were obliterated from this world. You've got the hell of Midgar, and you've got a few scattered outposts in the rest of the world. Unlike Mota, which has an advanced if chronically dependent civilization, or FF4's Blue Planet, whose inhabitants adhere to RPG nation cliches (militaristic empire, kung-fu nation, amazons) but at least demonstrate nobility and charity, there aren't that many interesting or just generally worthwhile people in FF7's world. There's little to mourn here. I kinda don't care what happens to it.
I'm sorry about this; I didn't start this project with the expectation of sounding so negative or just to complain about this game. Let's see how it starts to wrap things up; maybe my opinion will change. After all, we've got the Hottest Game Plot Debate of the 32-Bit Era to address by the end.
(* - By the way, another PS2 parallel: one of the main heroes discovered to be a clone split from the evil mastermind. Eh? Eh?)