Finished, at last, after delay from real life and...well, a reluctance to continue after the culmination of Cloud's plot. But, at last, the full story can be told - in two parts!
Upon Cloud's ill-considered resumption of party leadership, my first order of business was to tidy up a loose plot end. I accidentally learned via one of my guide checks last time that there was an extra scene if you revisited the basement of the Shinra Mansion with Cloud back in your party. The scene actually turned out to be the final piece of Cloud's story: Cloud and Zack's escape from Shinra custody after the Sephiroth incident and Zack's subsequent murder at the hands of Shinra. This leads directly into the events of the game proper and is a pretty significant part of the plot; I don't understand making it an optional, permanently-missable scene hidden in an obscure, unflagposted spot you have no reason to revisit.
Zach & Cloud's truck escape is effectively poignant, as Zack is so hopeful and upbeat against the clear blue sky that's such a rarity in this world and so full of genuine, pally concern for Cloud. He's such a ray of can-do sunshine here, daring to envision a future in this world that is actually bright. He reminds me a bit of Dyne - Dyne from Lunar, I mean, and I can see why he got a game of his own. I had heard a lot about Zack's last stand, and though it's a true act of heroism that grew into a dramatic moral statement in this universe, it's treated as almost a non-event here, Cloud's dramatic fist-shaking against the Midgar skyline notwithstanding.
(I don't get why Zack & Cloud had a "feeding time," complete with a guard bringing in little cafeteria trays. They're suspended in vats; I don't think they're ingesting nutrition through pints of milk & Dixie cups. I also understand from supplemental material that Cloud & Zack's captivity lasted for five years, during which they were subject to Jenova experiments by Hojo that addled Cloud's mind and possibly account, at least partially, for his jumbled recollection of events; it is a ludicrous failure not to explain this in-game.)
As for gameplay: the next objective in the Huge Materia quest drove me nuts, partially due to misdirection. What the game means to convey is that Shinra is gathering all its Huge Materia in Rocket Town to load them into the rocket there and launch them at Meteor and that of the two Huge Materia left, one is already at Rocket Town and the other will be shipped there via submarine from Junon. It instead tells you only about the Junon Materia and its ultimate destination but has the quest for the Rocket Town Materia blend into that, giving the impression that you're chasing one single Huge Materia from Junon to Rocket Town on an inexcusably long quest, given that you can't save during the proceedings for fear of locking yourself into a failure state. (FF7 gives you three save slots, and I have two bound up with saves right before Aerith's death and Cloud's betrayal. I have my PSP saves backed up on my computer, so I don't really need to keep those saves on the card. So, really, the save shortage is wholly perceived and completely my fault, but still.)
The first part of this mega-quest, at an underwater reactor Shinra has at Junon, forces you to fight a gauntlet of very low-level Shinra grunts and a fairly sturdy boss in pursuit of a Shinra submarine housing a Large Materia. It's not difficult outside of the boss, which can be a problem if you're not careful, but it is long. The episode culminates in a minigame where you have ten minutes to shoot down the Shinra sub underwater in this weird half-wireframe environment that reminds me somewhat of a Virtual Boy game. Despite being barely able to understand the controls and spending most of my play time in unsuccessful attempts to move the submarine, I managed to down the enemy sub in two-and-a-half minutes. (I guess the controls for this typically-shoddy minigame were so obfuscatory that they were forced to make the nominal enemy no enemy at all.) I don't know if there's a time element here outside the submarine game, but I was playing as if there were.
The second half has you fight through more Shinra grunts (and a Turk, so: a Shinra grunt) to the rocket, which launches with the party on board, forcing you to jimmy the last Huge Materia out of its socket before you jump ship in an escape pod. To do this, you have to input the right combination of four face buttons within three minutes, before the security system locks up. Your only clues as to the correct combination are some Dell Pencil Puzzle logic-problem hints doled out gradually by a forgetful Cid ("I know that the second symbol isn't Triangle!", "I think you only press Circle once..."). Shortly before this point, I had gotten exasperated as to when this ridiculously long quest that demanded perfection was going to END (I am not accurately communicating how freaking LONG and ENDLESS this double quest is, and I hadn't saved once during it), so I checked a guide and wiki just to see when I was going to be able to take a breath. In doing so, I stumbled across the code. The guide's opinion was that it was nigh-impossible to figure out the combination from Cid's clues alone. If you make a logic-problem grid, you can winnow down the candidates and have a methodical plan of attack - which I followed, out of fairness, until it hit the correct combination with 43 seconds to spare - but I think it might indeed be physically impossible to input all the possible, non-eliminated combinations in the three-minute limit.
This bit is, however, accompanied by a solid Cid scene, albeit one rendered in unfortunately choppy English. Cid, having inadvertently realized his dream of seeing himself and his rocket launched into space, has his old passion for his vocation rekindled. He tries to stop the rest of the party from stripping the payload and undermining Shinra's plan: yes, they believe in the Power of Humanity (TM Lunar), but he believes in science, and isn't, he asks, that a power that comes from humans as well? He eventually relents, as FF7 is not a narrative that's going to be resolved by hard work and initiative as opposed to clapping our hands for
Tinkerbell the planet, but it's refreshing to hear this perspective in an RPG. Shortly afterward, a part of the rocket malfunctions - the exact same part, Cid realizes, that Shera claimed was faulty during the initial launch attempt, which led to the launch being aborted, Cid's dreams frustrated, and his long-term resentment of Shera. Shera, who also stowed away on this flight, steps forward to help extract Cid from the wreckage of the malfunction; Cid is too gobsmacked to say anything, and Shera is too gracious, but they come to an unspoken understanding of sorts. The sequence is relatively short and poorly-translated, but it has a focus that's absent from most of FF7's cutscenes (character experiences an event that sparks a revelation, leading him to reevaluate an important personal relationship and his own behavior and bringing a close to his personal arc) - even though lacks the eloquence and clarity of Barret's realizations.
The cutscene visuals for the space sequence are pretty impressive, both in graphics quality and cinematography. Shinra's rocket partially pulverizes the outer stratum of Meteor, but it simply pulls the shards back onto itself and reforms, being not a purely meteorological phenomenon but the product of a malevolent will. The Spirits Within featured the same plot point - evil/deluded corporatists insist on a grand-scale, space-based militaristic solution to a global threat in opposition to a peaceful yet nebulous plan based on spiritual hokum, only to see it blow up in their faces - at a similar juncture in its story, and I hadn't realized it had been appropriated from here. One could put together a list of recycled plot elements common to the various Final Fantasy stories. Brainwashed brothers in black who serve the main evil. Blond men with spears and an affinity for air transportation. Female pirate captains offering convenient sea conveyance.
With this, the frustrating Huge Materia quest comes to an end with...seemingly little benefit. You can get a special Bahamut materia if you succeed in all four mini-quests, but while it does respectable damage, it's not as powerful as a good Limit Break, and Summon materia not only bust down your stats significantly but can be used only once per battle: hardly a worthwhile reward. The party also doesn't *do* anything with the Huge Materia plotwise: they just hang out in Bugenhagen's observatory, inert. We should've let Shinra at least try smashing them into Meteor; it's not like we had a better idea at the time. (Failing the quests would have destroyed Corel, though, wouldn't it.) As it stands, the whole Huge Materia stretch of the game serves as nothing but padding.
It does give you access to a smallish underwater area, though, courtesy of the Shinra submarine you stole. You can use the sub to explore a wrecked Shinra airship, where something unexpected was waiting: my first party wipe! (Well, true to form, I reset right before the death blow, but still.) It was to a regular enemy, too, not a boss - some flower-type enemy with a skull for a pistil disc that hit harder than I was expecting. I adjusted my expectations from the game's typical softball difficulty and saved judiciously as I explored room-by-room, but I still had to reset a few times. (My adventures yielded a few strong supplies and an item that allegedly would give Cid his final Limit Break but evidently was not usable at this point in time. I ended up with a few of these - for Cid, Nanaki, and Barret - but was never able to use them. I imagine the character's Limit Break level (which grows with how many deathblows the character lands, I understand?) has to reach 4, but that never happened with anyone in my game - not even Barret, who's been in the active party most of the way.)
Exploring in the sub can also fetch you up in a lagoon on the surface; if you read a guide and learn that you have to attempt to park the sub near this inhospitable rocky ledge - and not in the special docking structures you are explicitly told the sub requires to dock, which are absent from this area - you can access a cave on the shore in which inexplicably sleeps...Vincent's lost love, the scientist Lucrecia. Another subject of Hojo's experiments (and, incidentally, his wife), she upon waking piteously asks after her son, Sephiroth, whom she last saw as an infant - "I never even got to hold him, not even once." Vincent stops Cloud from answering and tells Lucrecia that Sephiroth is dead. It's a genuinely sad scene, a concentrated, emotionally-affecting character portrait with an acutely poignant detail that tells the whole story. Lucrecia's half-mad but keeps it together to ask after the one thing from her mortal life she remembers and loves - holding her son in her memory despite being him completely snatched from her life. There's also the tragedy that Sephiroth, for his whole-hearted devotion to a false mother, did indeed have a real mother who adored him.
(Lucrecia's Jenova infusion, though, represents another plot breach re: the Reunion.)
Also: while in the sub, you can potentially run into an optional, at-this-point-likely-unbeatable superboss battle right in the middle of the third/fourth Huge Materia quest, allowing you to scuttle your progress if you make a clumsy move in this new & unfamiliar environment & method of transportation. Good going, game.
Resuming the plot proper aboard the airship will yield a scene of the planet...er, literally screaming, by some unknown method. I knew FF7's OST had a track called "You Can Hear the Cry of the Planet," but I never knew it referred to a literal event that achieves the impressive feat of being both disturbing and goofy. Nanaki suggests we hit up Bugenhagen for a clue on the way forward in the wake of Shinra's failure; Bugenhagen, in turn, insists he be taken to the City of the Ancients, where Aerith died, to check something out.
Arrival at Aerith's place of death launches Bugenhagen into an explanation of Holy, a great White Magic with the power to counter Meteor by - here we go - passing ultimate judgment over the planet and eliminating all that poses a threat to it, including, potentially and famously, humanity itself. (I'll reserve my most of my commentary on this famous plot point for the next post, but I'll say here that I like FF7's versions of the traditional Final Fantasy spells of legend, where they have a planet-wide scope and implications instead of being slightly more powerful methods of attack that are outclassed later on by Bahamut or whatever.) Bugenhagen explains that Holy is activated by the seemingly-inert White Materia; this leads Cloud to note that Aerith had the White Materia but that it fell into the water when Sephiroth killed her. Bugenhagen is elated at this news but typically fails to explain, withholding elucidation until we fulfill a fetch quest for him for some ancient artifact.
Let me say right now that Bugenhagen sucks. He inherits the role of spokesperson for the planet from Aerith, and he's completely wrong in all the ways Aerith is right: condescending, pompous, and abusive of his allies in comparison to Aerith's effortless love for life, clear will, and self-directed spirit of sacrifice. Aerith sets out by herself to face Sephiroth and lays down her life for the planet; Bugenhagen can't be assed to spit out a few paragraphs of exposition without being presented with an ancient artifact from beyond time and memory from half a globe over for his amusement.
In this latest Quest for More Padding, Bugenhagen requires you to find some arbitrary "key" for a device in the Ancients' city, guided only by the direction that it's "somewhere light cannot reach." Thinking the game was being sensible and had located our McGuffin within our current location, the home of its creators, I looked all over the city and found nothing. Bugenhagen said to come back to him if we got stumped, as he "might have unearthed more clues" to the artifact's wherabouts, but, typically, when I returned, he only unhelpfully said that if light's not hitting it, it can't be out in the open. Yeah, no shit.
I was not going to search every single cave and building we had entered over the preceding thirty hours, so I looked this up. Apparently, for this segment, a new structure you can enter with the submarine magically appears on the ocean floor - unfair, considering I'd exhaustively explored the undersea area before this segment. (If Nanaki is in your party, though, you're treated to the delightful image of him sitting in the sub's command center on his haunches with his paws up on the table yet with his usual serious mien, like a doggie attentively attending a Pentagon briefing on moving to DEFCON 1.) The artifact, a fishbone-like key structure, does provide the plectra for this keen music box-like projector device that conveniently replays Aerith's final moments, by which Bugenhagen confirms that Holy has been activated and should be saving...well, the planet, at least, from Meteor, if not its people. We can't have the game's central problem solved by a third party, though, so the game posits that Sephiroth is doing...something to prevent Holy from setting in motion. Therefore, the only way to save the planet is, of course, to defeat the main bad guy of the game. I understand this mechanically, but it's frustrating, as letting Seph negate Holy just because undermines Aerith's sacrifice.
Back on the airship, there's a confrontation with Cait Sith (or, rather, his operator, the conscience-stricken Shinra executive Reeve, who is outed in either this scene or the next) over the civilian casualties of Avalanche's bombing of Sector 7. I forget what triggers this - I think it's either the group lamenting the loss of Aerith or Barret worrying about Marlene's fate after the Holy revelation, with Cait Sith retorting that Avalanche slaughtered a great many Aeriths and Marlenes when it blew up the reactor. Yes, that's true, but this realization a) was communicated far more eloquently and effectively in the opening stretch in Midgar, b) is solely in service of casting Barret as an incompetent character, mistaking his introspection and reevaluation of his attitudes and values as character failings and weaknesses, and c) is delivered by a character who took a mother and a child hostage and has absolutely no moral standing to make it. (Speaking of which: you can learn through airship chit-chat during this period that it was Cait Sith who informed the still-missing Elmyra of her daughter's death, and I cannot think of a more ill-suited bearer for that news.)
All this is interrupted, however, by an attack on Midgar by Diamond Weapon. The party has to race to intercept it and drive it back. I used to sell Final Fantasy figurines on eBay, and the Final Fantasy Creatures line had a Diamond Weapon. I always liked the design of its shoulder pads, based on seed pods.
Unfortunately, despite Diamond Weapon being kaiju-sized on the map and in battle, it went down like a chump. When we went to Cosmo Canyon to pick up Bugenhagen, I visited the local materia shop and sunk nearly my entire reserve of gil into a bunch of HP Plus materia, which boosts a character's max HP. The game expects you to use your materia slots on Summons and magic, but these materia sap a character's strength & HP, and the benefits frankly for the most part aren't as strong as a decent weapon; I grew tired of watching minute-long Summon sequences that resulted only in damage that was about one-and-a-half times what a character would deliver with a standard attack. I therefore dumped most of my main crew's offensive magic & Summon materia and loaded them up with HP Pluses. I think this broke the game, as Diamond Weapon's best attacks, despite the beast's bulk, did only like 1/7 of a character's max HP. The battle itself was interesting in that the towering Weapon remained beyond the reach of melee attacks, with only ranged attacks and magic hitting, but numberswise, it was underwhelming.
The battle is interrupted by Diamond Weapon losing interest in our party and turning toward its original target of Midgar. Out of a desire to destroy? No:
By "murder," it means Rufus Shinra, who has fired up a gigantic cannon powered by all the mako of Midgar and has aimed it not only at Diamond Weapon but at the crater where Sephiroth's hanging out in the north. The cannon blasts through the winded weapon and conveniently destroys the barrier surrounding Seph's hideout but fails to scratch the man himself. It does, however, attract Seph's attention to fire a retaliatory blast...which subsequently obliterates Rufus's command center, taking Rufus down with it. Popular opinion casts this as a somewhat redemptive death for Rufus, as at least he died putting himself on the line to face down Sephiroth. I disagree: I don't think Rufus had an inkling that he might lose or would ever be in danger from this, and therefore no bravery was involved.
But the hair gel has barely dried on Rufus's corpse before another crisis triggers: the mako from Midgar that formerly powered Rufus's cannon is being redirected to supply Sephiroth himself. (I'm not sure what Sephiroth is going to do with it, as he's already tapped into the Lifestream and has executed his plan to become the only being on the planet; Meteor's coming, and he doesn't need to do anything else to win.) The heroes are puzzled, Shinra is stumped, but it turns out that - oh, NO. HOJO, Midgar's SWEETHEART, is behind the villainy. Who could have FORESEEN this SHOCKING turn of events.
(Hojo's rationale here is intriguing, by the way. Until now, his atrocities have been the product of his personal cruelty and desire for scientific experimentation & advancement at any cost. Here, though, he seems to admit that Sephiroth has surpassed the discipline to which he has devoted his life - "I hate it, but it's true" - and exhorts the fledgling god to "go beyond the powers of science," willing to sacrifice his life (and many others) for Sephiroth's ascendance. He seems to want to peer into the abyss in a Royce Bracket-ish way, for someone in humanity - anyone, even at the cost of the rest of the race; even if it proves Hojo inadequate and his life's work a lie - to transcend its limits and attain absolute mastery over nature and life. This makes him, of course, a suitable ultimate foe in a fable about living in harmony with the planet. For the game and its characters' inexplicable canonization of the completely unremarkable Gast - who was still a catspaw of Shinra - Hojo is clearly the more accomplished and interesting character, albeit a complete horror. This is the only time I've been intrigued by one of FF7's villains, and I wish the game spent a little more time on him.)
(I am, incidentally, amazed to see that the tendency to underestimate Hojo extends to real life as well. The release of the remake triggered many a comment of "Oh, mercy, ME! Hojo is a NIGHTMARE in this version!" HOJO WAS ALWAYS A NIGHTMARE.)
Left unchecked, Hojo's sabotage will cause Midgar to explode - somehow - so now, Avalanche has got to swoop in and save the city it once swore to destroy. (Which explains Cait Sith's rant - this raid is clearly set up as Avalanche's redemption for its previous crimes.) With entry into Midgar cut off by Shinra, the party's only option is a daring PARACHUTE RAID into the heart of Shinra itself, a sequence which is quite cool.
(Also quite cool: the guy above. He's one of the engineers who was inspired by Cid to defect from Shinra and hijack the Highwind. You have to speak to him to take direct control of the airship on the overworld from the deck, and as the story progresses, his experience level will gradually increase. At this juncture in the plot, he'll reach his Limit Break.)
(Absolutely NOT cool, however: the absolute failure of the script during this crisis point in the story. It serves up some god-awful translation where apparently-crucial lines are downright incoherent. There's stuff during the Shinra HQ conversations where I have absolutely no idea what's supposed to be conveyed.)
I chose Barret and Vincent as Cloud's support team for this mission, as I'd remembered from way back - I'm talking "fan translations of cutscenes using 'Claude'" way back - that Barret had a cool scene where he found his ultimate weapon if you brought him along. This actually turned out not to be the case, at least in English - he makes a single-screen "Oh, this is good" comment when you find the weapon, not the "Oh, yeah, HOJO - justice is COMIN'" etc. extended Die Hard posturing I remembered and wanted to hear out of Barret's mouth. Also bereft of cool scenes: Vincent, whose presence I expected to trigger additional dialogue, given that his entire backstory is building to a confrontation with the man who ruined his life and that of his beloved. But no: he has only a throwaway comment before the battle about how Hojo should've been the one condemned to sleep and a toothless fare-thee-well of "rest in peace" at its end. Let me add Vincent, along with Cloud's story, Sephiroth, and the Turks, to the Pile of Things I Thought I Might Like or Find Impressive Before Playing FF7 but Which Turned out to Be Completely Underwhelming. He fails to do a single cool thing in the entire game. His lines read like self-parody. I kept expecting him to go off on how his life was a bowl of pain. He's not cool; he's just a sadsack mope. What a waste.
Other footnotes. Before the Hojo showdown, you'll have a confrontation with the remnants of Shinra's executive board (save for Reeve, who's been arrested - no word on how Cait Sith remains functional). They'll announce their presence in FF7's typical terrific framing, towering over the heroes as they clomp into the foreground in a mecha they call Proud Clod.
This seems an obvious dig at our Clo(u)d, though this is never addressed. It's like that bit in Secret of Evermore where the ultimate enemy is the robot butler, yet, despite movie references being the hero's one "thing," no "the butler did it" joke is ever made.
On another enemy-related note, I did like FF7's Behemoths, which you encounter on the way to Hojo. They have a robustness to them that draws from the 3D engine - satisfyingly saturated in color and very muscular, leonine-smooth in their movements. This typically-blurry pic doesn't do them justice.
When you reach him, Hojo's dialogue packs more punch than his attacks, but I can live with that. (I will note, however, that in his first stage, he looks uncannily like a zombie from Clock Tower II: The Struggle Within.) There is a somewhat sad turn, as Hojo laments that he "had so little scientific sense"; the gaslighting finally got to him. His mention of being Sephiroth's father (or at least a candidate, alongside Vincent) is treated as a BIG REVEAL, but that seemed self-apparent once it was revealed that, y'know, his wife gave birth to Seph, so chalk that up to another of the many script failures in this section. Characters bemoan Hojo's "utter lack of scientific talent" as he's succeeded in hijacking Shinra HQ's most destructive technology to power the human superweapon he designed who's about to transcend creation itself. The man engineered the apocalypse and single-handedly disabled Shinra, and they still won't give him cred.
Incidentally, you can also fool around in practically the entire Shinra HQ section that you explore during Aerith's rescue - even pick up a couple other Ultimate Weapons that way - though the massiveness of the level makes it really unbalancing as a side trip.
After this, Shinra's goose will be cooked, and you'll be deposited at the now-unshielded Northern Crater to take on Sephiroth. Yes, you can relaunch the Highwind and explore the world, and there will be stuff waiting for you: Vincent's ultimate weapon and Limit Break at Lucrecia's cave; a fight with the Weapon that attacked Mideel for Cloud's strongest sword; Tifa's final Limit Break, which I'm sure I couldn't get, for the ridiculous reason that I opted not to have Cloud bang his fists on Tifa's piano during the Nibelheim flashback; a couple superbosses...but heading back didn't feel right. It was time to end this. And so we shall...next post.