Thank you for being my partners.
Before the last dance, though, I'd like to touch on a huge misstep that occurs before the party disembarks.
Cloud, taking command as we're told he does so irreplaceably despite dozens of hours of video evidence to the contrary, pauses the final assault, with a seven-day deadline looming for Meteor's impact, to tell everyone to go back to their respective homes and find a reason to fight. You'd think the immiment death of everything on the planet would be sufficient. Then, again, that's not Cloud's priority, as during this speech, he again, as he does after Aerith's death, casts their conflict with Sephiroth as a personal vendetta, a "score to settle" he has with the man:
The story asks us to believe that Cloud has grown and become a fully-realized adult over the course of the story when his big final speech claims that what really matters, instead of the incipient death of every living thing, is his dick-measuring contest with Sephiroth. He and the game cast himself as cool and glamorous when he's still the same self-impressed child under his skin, and the fact that this apocalypse would never have happened without his complicity - for which he is by all appearances completely unrepentant and unhumbled - is totally ignored. It's an amazingly tone-deaf moment at a crucial point in the narrative.
(Also, the airship is docked, so Cloud wants everyone to walk home, I guess, from the Northern Crater, within the seven-day deadline for Meteor falling.)
The Northern Crater is a gradual descent through a network of basaltic caves into the aurora-green depths of the Lifestream - more the former than the latter, at least until the end, which makes for a dreary dungeon at times. The game tries the odd trick of giving you an item that will generate the dungeon's only save point at a location of your choosing, but since you're moving forward screen-by-screen in a more-or-less straight shot and have no idea of the lay of the overall land or how far along you are, there's no real strategy in play; you just choose a location and hope for the best. You can also seriously mess up, as there's an (unmarked) point of no return in the Crater, and if you deploy and use your save point after that, you're locked in the dungeon. (Early deployment's a big problem, too, since the final boss can be tricky and a huge pain to get back to.) It's no Kefka's Tower, which, my FF6 antipathy aside, I'd pick as the best final Final Fantasy dungeon.
Despite a brief midpoint section where you meet up with your non-active party members, who have been descending automatically via another route, and have to reform your party (at which I just made my Cloud-Tifa-Barret squad again) and choose one of four mutually-exclusive paths to explore, there's nothing like FF6's tri-party dungeon exploration. There is multiple party management, but it's saved for the end boss, upon which I'll expound shortly. The dungeon to him is populated by a scarcely lesser threat: Tonberries from which you apparently can't run and which deliver relatively frequent instakills. As I was running low on Phoenix Downs and did not have the Phoenix materia equipped, these posed more of a threat than they normally would, so I eventually flipped to a guide from time to time to minimize unnecessary exploration. It actually didn't help much beyond giving expectations on how much of the dungeon was left.
Before you fight Cloud's strappy nemesis, you have a Jenova fight with which to deal. I remember doing OK. She inflicts status effects but doesn't pose much of a challenge - but when was Jenova ever a threat combatwise? I found the entrance to the fight, as you descend a path of floating rocks down into the depths of the Lifestream as it rushes upward to the intro of the Jenova battle theme, far more memorable than the fight itself.
As mentioned above, for Sephiroth's first, Bizarro form, you're divided into multiple parties (two for me, because I never picked up Yuffie; I didn't want to endure the pimping sequence with Don Corneo that was waiting for me at Wutai) and have to alternate in attacking separate sections during Seph's initial stages. This was far from welcome news: I hadn't been planning on fielding anyone but Cloud, Tifa, and Barret, and while Cid, Vincent, and Red XIII weren't slouches, they were in no position equipment- or stat-wise to handle final boss duties. (Cait Sith had not been an active party member since his early betrayal and was completely unequipped, but as the seventh wheel for two parties of three, he was mercifully able to sit this one out.)
This is a battle where it's difficult to understand what's going on. Sephiroth has an additional head on top (a Jenova, I thought, though image searches are suggesting that it's male) and two wings, all of which continually use powerful attacks but die fairly easily; they do, however, keep getting revived and are therefore are rather needful of attention. Sephiroth also has a "core," but it's not what you need to defeat to end the encounter; that's Sephiroth's torso. (Makes sense, I guess, given how much prominence his torso receives in promo media.) The problem is that the core keeps healing the torso every round for just about as much damage as I was capable of doing, creating a damage race I could not win. The core itself, however, was impervious to attacks. There was a continuing theme of me attacking but my progress in some way being instantly reset.
What you're supposed to do is to switch to the other party and use it to take out the head and wings. Once it - and not the first party - defeats the head & wings, you'll get a message saying that an invisible "shield" around the core has gone down. If Party #2 (and not #1) then attacks and defeats the core, this will enable the same scenario to be repeated on Party #1's side - where the core, which cannot regenerate, will be magically restored and not-defeated. In other words, you have to use identical tactics against an apparently-identical enemy with a different party to get different results. Now, I will admit that I initially kept ignoring prompts from the game that were hinting, albeit in a weirdly casual way, that I should switch parties: "Hey, are you worried about the other party members?" to which I kept answering "Not really", because I really, really didn't want to fight with them, instead of taking it as a hint to switch to your other party, dumbass. I'm not fond of combat puzzles, though, where progress is arbitrarily gated and the right solution won't work until an arbitrary, unrelated condition is met.
At length, however, I pulled out a clumsy but eventual victory here, which triggered the final fight! The one-winged angel himself! Estuans interius! Ira vehementi!
I in short order couldn't care less, though, that I was experiencing the most famous final boss theme perhaps in all of video gaming in its natural habitat, due to a wrinkle of which I was completely unaware, and about which - to my utter amazement - I have never heard anyone ever complain:
1) Sephiroth's trademark Final Boss Ultimate Attack is an unskippable two-minute cutscene.
2) He uses this attack about every 90 seconds.
Furthermore, the cutscene consists of him summoning a comet from beyond the far reaches of the galaxy that obliterates the outer planets one by one and strikes the sun to turn it nova, which then expands gradually expands to consume Mercury and Venus before it stops short of Earth to...sunburn the party a little. The sunburn does do significant damage, but I would expect more from an ELE. Surely, there must be a more efficient means of dealing 8,000 damage. Furthermore, the solar system apparently regenerates every turn so it can be obliterated again in the next turn. It's spectacle to the stupid level - it irritates in how it hobbles gameplay instead of impressing. So many times, I was furiously scrambling for a viable next move - for, reader, I was not doing well in this fight - but had to abandon my efforts, take myself out of the battle for the fate of the planet and the divine immanence of Gaia's incipient seraphim-deity and the Latin chanting, and resign myself to being inactive for two minutes as I waited for the game to GET ON WITH IT.
The other big obstacle in the fight is a move Seph has that basically gives every party member every status ailment, which he pulls quite often. Tifa had a Ribbon, but the fellas didn't, and the amount of time spent healing everyone back to combat effectiveness was substantial. Cloud spent most of his time either as a frog or dead. Between tending to everyone's status and health (as nearly all of Seph's attacks do 90% of a full bar), I could barely get any offense going, and the battle - particularly given the near-constant destruction and reformation of the cosmos - took far longer than it should have. I scraped out a win only because Barret and Tifa both got a lucky Limit Break at the end.
In conclusion, I'd like to say that in a world where suplexing trains has become a meme, Tifa doesn't get nearly enough credit for piledriving giant mechs, kaiju, and would-be gods.
Also, Zack's Buster Sword, which we carried for the entire game, never got its Princess Sara's lute moment.
(As for the epilogue "battle" of Cloud one-hitting Sephiroth: I would argue that this is not, as traditionally held, for Cloud's benefit, to extinguish Seph from his mind (the pompous "find what you're fighting for" speech definitively establishes that Cloud no longer suffers from any sort of inferiority complex or harbors esteem for any being but himself), but for Sephiroth's. I still find Cloud's munchkin kill a staggering act of Gary Stuism on behalf of the devs' pouty avatar, but it does work from the perspective that the great hero Sephiroth is felled by, effectively, a nobody, a nothing. Sephiroth rails that a great hero cannot be felled by a minor accident, a momentary distraction, a man of no consequence, but death comes for everyone; death cannot be denied; we are all equal in death, all powerless, and, as underlined by the lowly nature of the force that fells Seph, earthly power and accomplishments are no protection against that. For Sephiroth, Cloud is The Thing That Killed Him, the Representative of Death Itself; of course he seeks literally to control him, to make him his "puppet," as he seeks to control and transcend the concept and inevitability of death. The epilogue fight, which recreates the conflict that killed Seph in a lopsided battle completely in Cloud's favor, casts Cloud as a spokespiece for the planet, telling Sephiroth: he killed you; you're dead; you cannot transcend death; get to dying.)
...And that's it for the game. I should be summarizing my impressions here, but I think the summary from my midpoint evaluation stands. The popular take on FF7 seems to be that the groundbreaking technical aspects that once dazzled are now dated while the story has stood the test of time, but I found the opposite to be the case: the techniques FF7 utilized to show RPGs a way forward in a 3D landscape - leveraging scaling and camera angles to create tension and drama; capitalizing on the greater detail afforded by fully-rendered environments to add atmosphere and characterization; designing settings that used cutting-edge polygons and transparencies to the greatest effect - still impressed me, but the story out of Midgar is in many crucial ways - dialogue, villains other than Hojo, the development of the hero - a profound failure. (No one talks about FF7's gameplay, with good reason: save for the opening thrill of Limit Break experimentation, when they're coming fast and furious, combat never rises above "fine," and while debate still rages about the role of minigames in RPGs, FF7 sure didn't set any positive standard.)
Cloud is a fraud of a character, and I think copypasting my thoughts post-reveal stands as a summary: "this backstory is a nuanced, sensitive portrait of human frailty like humblebragging is an act of humility...[and is] significantly stronger wish fulfillment than the backstory Cloud made up expressly for wish fulfillment - it just has a stronger, more honest tinge of resentment and superiority to it." While Square would have been reluctant to put a character who was a) black and b) the anime equivalent of middle-aged in the driver's seat, Barret would have made a better protagonist.
...So let's talk about whether the world ended or not.
By which we mean: did humanity end? (Which is, actually, the real question in our own doomsday global warming scenarios. Earth has survived dramatic temperature swings just fine; it's our own ecological niches that are at stake.) In asking this question, I am, of course, alluding to the original intent of the game, not subsequent retcons made in the name of the Search for More Money.
Though Final Fantasy games tell standalone stories in discrete worlds, they're created by a continuous team, and you can identify a escalation of certain elements and themes from game to game. For example, FF4 gave you multiple maps; FF5 combined its maps; FF6 shattered its map. FF6 was about when bad things happen, revolving around a cast of characters who had all experienced personal losses dealing with the aftermath of a world that sees itself ravaged; FF7 is about when the WORST happens, when the end itself comes. The symbol of FF7, the image paired with its logo, is Meteor: the end itself, the symbol of the extinction of the dominant species. One could say there is a running theme of characters coming to terms with their ends: Bugenhagen tells Nanaki in his final moments that he must be mindful of all life; Aerith, of course, is an example unto herself; even Jesse finds a bit of peace in her death, casting it as atonement for the innocents who died in the Sector 1 reactor explosion.
The central event in the game is a death. At that time, the protagonist mourns how the victim is "gone" and "will no longer talk, no longer laugh"; the struggle of the game is learning that this is not the case, and that death is not to be feared, but the continuity of life protected and celebrated (as illustrated by a newly-illuminated Cloud seeking to "meet her there," in the Lifestream, in a place where she still laughs, or at least smiles). The antagonist is someone who will not accept death and seeks to preserve himself at the cost of literally all else.
Beyond individual deaths, there is an overt strain in the game of humanity itself passing. Several characters - the elder in Cosmo Canyon; Vincent in group chats - allude to the example of the Ancients and how their fate, of a sentient race passing into extinction, will parallel that of humanity. Bugenhagen tells Nanaki that he fights not for any single race but for life itself. The Ancients' own struggle against Jenova, after all, ensured their legacy through preserving a habitat for their successors but wiped their own race out. (It's significant, in fact, that Nanaki is mentored by the man cast as the effective elder of the human race, as Nanaki's mascot-like outward appearance disguises his true role: representative of the lifeform and race that will succeed humanity.)
Additionally, from a practical standpoint: the vast majority of human resources and population in FF7's world lies in Midgar, and the residents of outlying towns such as Kalm make it quite clear that they can't survive without Shinra's mako. The famous shot of Midgar overgrown and discarded at the end references the abandonment of a way of life, yes, but as a symbol, it is nearly indivisible from the passing of humanity as a whole.
There are elements that speak against this conclusion. The Midgar raid is clearly meant as atonement for the tragedies of Disc 1, and it's a test that humanity passes. As life finds a way, goodness, too, lingers; contrary to the conclusion of the game's first act, humanity is not evil, and the cancer of Shinra is eliminated. However: it might also be the case, particularly given the mass greeting and acceptance of the Lifestream in Kalm in the final cutscene, that humanity finds its larger redemption and grace through accepting death. (This is echoed in Cloud and Tifa's calm and quiet joy in being able imminently to "meet her there" - to meet Aerith in, it is suggested, the "Promised Land" of the Lifestream, to which everyone in FF7's world returns after death.) Cid's scramble to save the Highwind from crashing is an odd point of tension for the ending if everyone's going to die anyway, but this game has no shortage of odd or counterproductive dramatic decisions.
I wavered on this subject as I watched the final acts of FF7 unfold, but the preponderance of evidence does ultimately suggest, I think, that we are witnessing humanity's actual end. (Even if humanity survives that initial blast of Holy - which I think is unlikely - I think it's very probable that it dwindles to extinction or something near it by that "500 years later" epilogue, much like, again, the example of the Ancients and their gradual demise.) As for why a degree of vagueness persists in the ending, I'd attribute that to either:
- the larger theme that humanity's survival is not supposed to matter, as the triumph is in preventing Sephiroth from consuming all, in the protection of life itself;
- plain ol' incompetence;
- or a desire by the creators to hedge their bet, be it out of mercenary self-interest to keep the door open for sequels, fear of the economic poison of an "everyone dies" ending, or...well, even given the vast munificence of the Lifestream, it's tough to see the entire cast you nurtured for years and years actually meet its end.
But as with all of humanity's struggles, this analysis is now irrelevant, as it's time for this feature to return to the Lifestream itself. See you in your travels around the planet.