The opening FMV is still a lot of fun, with retro CGI graphics transitioning smoothly into live gameplay.
While I've been enjoying my 8 month sojourn in 16bit/retroland, it feels luxurious to come back to a PS1 game with backgrounds detailed enough for storefronts. (I briefly misread "Goblins Bar" as "Goblins Ban[k]" and was thinking, "Gringotts" even though this game predates HP.) And yep, there's Loveless, a play that's referenced in most of the FF7 spinoffs. Someday I need to get my hands on Crisis Core.
Aeris' etherial appearance contrasted with urban grunge is a startling juxtaposition, reminding me of my own experience moving from green countryside to the big city (which I've since fled). She walks the old-school players out of the shadows and into the Brave New World of FF7, where the visual setting is now a major (if not the dominant) character in the story, as it will be for all future FFs.
The camera zooms in on the train. Some thugs— whoops, they're the good guys, right? — hop out to beat up random unlucky station guards. (Signs we've left pure fantasy: we worry about the underlings whom the "good guys" mow down).
Cloud, too cool to ride inside the train, shows off his gymnastics prowess and hilarious PopEye physique, which is all the rage in Midgar.
Mr. T, less than impressed, orders him to get a move on.
Everyone charges into the nearest building, but Our Hero (for now, identified as "Ex-SOLDIER"), stops to loot the bodies of the unconscious guards and fight a couple more. Let's have a moment of silence for all the npcs sacrificed to the First Battle Tutorial.
I will never fail to be tickled by the illogic of BigAss Sword vs. machine guns. Especially because I think "Buster Sword" looks as silly as it sounds.
(What do the Japanese characters say? I am endlessly curious about inscriptions. [Update: Commenter stealth_noodle says: "state of emergency."])
On the other hand, I will never fail to be annoyed that the X and O buttons were switched for this one game. I remapped them at the first opportunity.
Catching up with the others, it quickly becomes clear that Our Hero is a mercenary hired by a rebel faction called AVALANCHE. Cloud starts out just as standoffish as Celes in FFVI, and just as nonchalantly confident in his abilities. There's certainly no sign of the broken-bird, self-doubting, youthful Cloud of the Compilation. (In fact, I assumed Cloud was older than 21, the first time I played.)
I wonder if Cloud's tough-guy act is another case of "doth protest too much." I can't remember how much Cloud is aware that he's putting on an act, and how much he's fooled himself in order to block out things he doesn't want to or simply can't remember.
Aww. Poor Biggs, Jessie and Wedge get no love from Main Party Character guy. (Or from the rest of the Compilation.)
The rebels don't trust Cloud at first (Well, Wedge does, but Jessie's first reaction is "SOLDIER? Aren't they the enemy?") I'd forgotten quite how much Barret berates Cloud for being a cocky bastard and former stooge of Shinra Power Company, the megacorp that runs everything around here (including the military):
It's an interesting change from the older games, in which the party will accept anyone from princesses to pirates to wandering rogues without any kind of background check.
We head deeper into the industrial complex, mowing down more unlucky guards.
ARGH! I wish I could read Japanese! What does it say? [stealth_noodle says: formal Japanese 1. OH. I forgot; I thought this was reactor 7, but it's reactor 1.]
I keep noticing both English and Japanese signage. It's such a big change from the fairy tale fantasy worlds of the earlier games. To me, FFVII feels like the first FF that's a fictionalized Japanese world, instead of just a fantasy mishmash that includes a few random Japanese mythological figures (Kirin), towns (Fabul), weapons (masamune, murasame) or character classes (samurai, ninja).
So hey, Barret, what're we doing here, anyway? (We'll pretend that I don't know the opening theme song of this game is called "Bombing Mission.")
Reactor? Is this yet another metaphor for Japan's nuclear nightmare, or am I imagining it? Ever since Hiroshima and the Bikini nuclear tests, Japan has been wrestling with a devil's bargain: the need for nuclear power to fuel its technology boom in a country with limited natural fuel sources. I think FFVII is following the pattern of a lot of Japanese anime/horror, dramatizing a culture's nuclear anxiety in the same way that traditional myths use metaphor to help people process inexplicable horrors of life such as death, old age and sickness.
Except that this time, Mako isn't a desperately dangerous form of contamination, just an energy source that thinking folks would rather not use for environmental reasons:
Barret launches into an impassioned environmentalist rant about how Shinra's power reactors are "draining the life-blood of the planet."
See my "Final Fantasy VII: More of Same" post on how this plot is the latest variation on a theme that had appeared in every single Final Fantasy except II.
At the same time, I'm getting irked at complaints that FFVII or other recent installments are just ripping off previous FFs. Yeah? So?
Final Fantasy is mythology, the art of retelling old, familiar stories in new, engaging ways.
Ahem. *kicks soapbox aside, resumes playthrough*
Seeing Jessie in the early part of FFVII makes me sad. Despite the fact that Barret and Tifa keep on fighting later in memory of their fellow AVALANCHE members, it seems like Jessie, Biggs and Wedge have been forgotten in all the later spin-offs (a.k.a. the Compilation).
(Why does an elevator display have a π floor? Oddly, it switches to µ - 7 as they descend.)
Wow. Playing this game after eight months of FFI-VI, the animated 3D backgrounds (steaming, glowing, changing) and soundtrack really strike me the way they must've done for players coming to this game back in the day. It feels so good to be able to move around in 3D! Even the silly polygon people can't detract from the environments.
We reach the door to the reactor, where Barret orders Cloud to set the bomb so he can keep an eye on him. While Cloud's doing this, there's a funny whine, the screen goes red, and disembodied words say, "Watch out!"
Wait...what? Is the voice trying to warn us that destroying the reactor will also destroy the Lifestream (Mako energies) bottled inside? There are still bits of FFVII that I haven't deciphered.
More importantly: what are the voices in Cloud's head? (I don't think I even realized he was hearing voices until much later). Is it Sephiroth? Or Tifa, who does a deep dive into Cloud's memories later on? Or Cloud, the "old" Cloud, since he's got a multiple personality? Or (probably a crazy idea): Maybe it's the ghost of his old friend Zack? Not likely, as Zack wasn't built up into a major character until the Compilation, but still... does it work? Let's see how that plays out in game.
Ah, blessed MP. Now where I can SEE it.
Cloud: Barret, attack while its tail's up! It's going to attack with its laser!
Boss: *attacks with tail laser for umpty ump damage*
Barret: #%@!@!! Why the %#@@^ did you tell me to attack! It counterattacked!
Cloud: That's what I said it would do.
Barret: *BIG SHOT* @ Cloud
*Cloud is dead*
.oO(Man, that game was shorter than I remembered...)
Ahem. It's been a while since I last played, and I'd forgotten about that little translation glitch.
After that pleasant diversion, we have a timed "get out of the reactor before it blows" sequence. Cloud is a gentleman and helps Jessie, who got hit with the Damsel in Distress stick and has her foot inexplicably stuck.
Does she die here if you don't stop to help? There are so many options in this game.
Aaaand we bug our way out of there. First Boom! Nice to feel at least somewhat successful, eh?
Fooey. It's hard to escape the realization that we probably just killed some people, plus, having a power reactor knocked out means problems for somebody. Again, we're no longer in old-school fantasy, where one could save a village guilt-free by slaying a dragon.
We're now saving the world from itself — or rather, saving people from themselves. Maybe. We hope. (Tip o' the hat to VI for establishing the "dirty gray area" in Final Fantasy, although I feel like it's more overt and acknowledged in FFVII).
On the way back, Cloud bumps into a Flower Girl.
Whom I like to imagine talking in the voice of Eliza Doolittle. Just because.
It's such a cinematic way of encountering a significant character: a chance meeting on a city street. Then they part ways, with so little fanfare that one could almost miss the fact that This Might Be Important Later. Cliché-ridden as it is, I like watching how FFVII is laying the groundwork for a complicated story. FFIV, V and VI did too, but they just didn't have the 4-disc leisure time to devote to so many plot threads and individual scenes.
Graffiti helps set tone and flesh out the story:
—signed "AVALANCHE: Protectors of the Planet!"
(English idiom are sick: I tend to interpret the end is in sight as positive, the end is near as negative.)
The NPC reading this graffiti aloud deconstructs it for us. He doesn't buy Shinra's propaganda, but he doesn't necessarily buy AVALANCHE's, either. There are so many hints early in this game that Everyone Lies, Everyone Has an Agenda, yet Cloud's later reveal still caught me offguard.
Oops, I'm admiring the scenery so much that a Shinra squad caught up with me.
Cloud once again pulls his macho act and leaps off the bridge onto the moving train below.
Meanwhile, on the train, AVALANCHE thinks Cloud has bugged out on them or gotten killed. Wedge introduces what is actually a major theme of Cloud's character:
Itt's a repeating trope that carries right into Advent Children, although that movie seems to forget that cheesebrain had some character development later. However, as we will see in a moment, it's not that Cloud "never comes," he just keeps being late.
In spite of all his bluff and bluster, Barret is actually worried about Cloud. (As is Jessie, who exhibits signs of a crush. I'd forgotten what a lady's man Cloud was.)
Barret cares about those under his command. Of course, that doesn't stop him from throwing a conniption at Cloud when he saunters in.
I can almost hear Square's scriptwriters cackling with glee that they no longer have to worry about kid-friendly censorship:
Barret: "You damn right, you're late!! Come waltzin' in here, makin' a big scene!"
Cloud: "No big deal. It's what I always do."
Barret: "Shi't! Havin' everyone worried like that [...] you don't give a damn 'bout no one but yourself!"
I was startled to see the swearing; later Barret will say "Shit" without filter-duping punctuation.
The rest of AVALANCHE is very impressed with Cloud now, despite (or because of) Barret's irritation with him. None more than Jessie, who cleans Cloud's face, then shows off her technical knowledge of Midgar's maps and train system to impress him, imitating his "no big deal" style.
She promises to make him his own custom fake security ID, a token of affection in this urban dystopia. Yeah, I dig a geek girl who flirts by demonstrating technical expertise.
We head back to Sector 7 and AVALANCHE's home base in Tifa's bar, 7th Heaven (called a "shop" in the first scene, which confuses me). Random NPCs now provide Maechen-length, multi-screen essays on this fictional world's history.
When Cloud enters 7th Heaven, there's a nice moment where a little girl waiting for "Papa!" starts to greet Cloud and then retreats. Marlene undercuts player assumptions (she's white) when she runs to greet Barret instead. Cloud can choose to give the flower he's bought to her or to Tifa. (I picked Tifa.) Tifa draws Cloud aside prior to the AVALANCHE meeting downstairs and makes a drink for him, saying that she's relieved he's back safely.
"Cloud, are you feeling all right?" she presses. But when he asks her why, she quickly brushes it off with, "No reason. You look a little tired, I guess." This script is fairly good at dropping clues that are so subtle that they're easy to overlook unless you know what's going on.
Then they head down to the bar's hidden basement. Besides npcs and graffiti, we also get TV broadcasts to paint a mood and deliver different perspectives from the main party's. Here's part of speech from President Shinra decrying AVALANCHE's terrorism and using it as an excuse to exert military control:
Barret and Cloud resume beating their chests at one another. Barret tells him not to put on airs just because he was in SOLDIER. "Don't forget that your skinny ass's working for AVALANCHE now!"
Cloud retorts that he doesn't care about Shinra, SOLDIER — what is with the all-caps fetish in FF? — or anything else. Okay, yes, I can believe he's 21.
Dot matrix printer, 1990s computer monitor and mouse, pinball machine — I love Midgar. (Marlene is the girl in purple next to Barret.)
Cloud storms back upstairs, and Tifa follows. She gives him another passionate speech about how "the planet is dying." Cloud says, "Sorry, Tifa," and turns to go.
Translation: "Sorry, Tifa. Gotta refuse the call. Says it right here in step 3 on the Hero's Journey flowchart."
Tifa accuses him of forgetting his promise to a childhood friend. This triggers a flashback, narrated by Cloud, in which he hastens to reassure her that he remembers what she's talking about.
In the flashback, Tifa eventually arrives with a "Sorry I'm late." Isn't that Cloud's line?
Cloud tells her he's leaving for Midgar, but he's going to be different from the "other boys." No ordinary job for him; he's going to join SOLDIER, become a hero, get in the newspaper. (An interesting definition of hero.) This flashback paints a picture of a cocky, confident kid even before he left home.
And here's our first mention of that famous name.
So much of this game has to be deconstructed in light of later events.
This next bit frustrates me. Tifa says "we" should make a promise, but then asks Cloud to make a promise to her.
"...You come save me, all right?"
Cloud's response to this is a bald, "What?" Mine, as usual, is a certain amount of teeth-gnashing.
Tifa explains that "I want to experience that, at least once." Whether or not she can protect herself, she wants to enjoy the fantasy of the knight in shining armor swooping in to save her. Sigh.
In the flashback, Cloud finally gives in and promises. Back in the present, however...
This is the closest he's come to telling the truth, and it's to Tifa. (In fact, while he can't remember it, I think he's already kept that promise, hasn't he? Except, once again, he was late.)
Speaking of promises, Barret storms upstairs to pay him.
Cloud scoffs at the meager pay and takes on the next mission for another 3000 gil (saving face, so he can give in to Tifa without appearing to do so). Barret haggles him down a bit, agonizing to Tifa that he's dipping into Marlene's schooling money to pay Cloud. Ouch. Again with the real world problems.
This time, Tifa joins the bombing mission. The local slumfolk are gossiping about her and Cloud.
I think...? this is a minor npc named Johnny, who says he's leaving, and he's going to come back a better man. He seems to be jealous of Cloud.
In one of the houses, an elderly couple asks Cloud where he's from. Choosing "Nibelheim" nets a backstory tidbit:
Major accident. Does that mean there were minor ones, too?
All right, on with the second Mako reactor bombing mission.
It's odd how I keep having flashbacks to Dirge of Cerberus. It did a really good job of taking the PS1 backgrounds of Midgar and re-rendering them as 3D interactive spaces, somewhat more damaged. I remember playing a sort of laser-tag cat-and-mouse in this area. (Or, probably, another reactor, since AVALANCHE destroyed this one.)
Down near the reactor core, Cloud blacks out again and has another flashback. Unlike previous flashbacks, this one doesn't make a lick of sense until you've played the game at least once, a convention that will become the norm for a lot of FFs from now on!
In the flashback, Tifa finds her "Papa" lying wounded in what looks like yet another Mako reactor:
Only in retrospect do we know that this is the Mako "accident" at Nibelheim that those npcs in the slums mentioned earlier.
Tifa cries out, "Sephiroth — Mako — Shinra — SOLDIER — I hate them all!" picks up the sword and runs off. At this point in the game, we've been told that Cloud is ex-SOLDIER, so that makes this scene even more puzzling. Whatever happened, does she blame Cloud for it?
Back in the present, Barret tells him to get a hold of himself. When Tifa asks if he's all right, Cloud starts to say — something — "Tifa...?" and then gets back to business.
"Forget." All these little hints about forgetting, back at the beginning, and this is the second time Tifa's asked if he's okay.
This time, when Cloud sets the bomb, there's no timer, thank goodness; evidently he knew we were going to hit some extra cutscenes on the way out. We get cornered by more Shinra infantry, plus President Shinra. Cloud plays it cool, as usual:
Hey, Cloud, if you said you never became famous, why would the President recognize you?
To my surprise, Shinra does recognize him, in the most condescending way possible: "Long time no see? Oh...you."
I'm curious: how does President Shinra know that Cloud "quit SOLDIER"? Something doesn't quite add up here.
Shinra says he can't remember Cloud's name, however, because he doesn't remember people unless they're as "brilliant" as Sephiroth. "Too brilliant," he adds, waggling the foreshadowing plot hammer. Sephiroth gets built up in this game by frequent name-drops the way Laguna does in FFVIII. Er. Sort of.
Barret gets tired of the President and Cloud taking turns being underwhelmed at one another. There's a lot of jostling for control of narrative in this game, between Cloud trying to act cool, Barret trying to act like a leader, Pres. Shinra feigning disinterest, and Tifa trying to mediate arguments or demand promises. Now Barret tries to ASSERT HIS AUTHORITEH.
However, Shinra grabs the "too cool for thou" ball from Cloud and says he can't chat anymore, because he's got a dinner engagement. He leaves them a "playmate," i.e. a boss.
Future experiments, eh? Gee THAT ISN'T A HINT OR ANYTHING.
I love all the clunky LEGO helicopters in this game. I'll concentrate on that and not the fact that Barret could've killed the president fifty times over during this sequence, since he has a gun. Of course, the soldiers standing by would've killed him and his friends in retaliation, but isn't that likely to happen anyway?
This also reminds me of Livvyplaysfinalfantasy's current FFXII playthrough, when Doctor Cid hops on a mini-copter and flies away. Balthier complains, "I hate it when he does that." Livvy's remark: "The implication that Doctor Cid has a habit of dramatically speeding off in an airship mid-conversation is both sad and hilarious."
After the boss battle, Airbuster explodes (of course), breaking the bridge and causing Cloud to fly away.
I think I'm going to make a collection of "flying up in the air" screenshots.
Barret tries to drag Tifa away, saying there's nothing they can do. Okay, I'm sorry, this entire sequence is utterly clichéd writing, every last line, but I still enjoy it like cheap Hershey's chocolate.
"I know...Tifa," Cloud says, when he bally well does NOT know what she's talking about.
Barret blithely asks if he's gonna be okay. YEAH RIGHT. Oh, were you giving Cloud one more chance to showcase his macho act before he bites it?
Okay, enough with the "take care of Tifa" bit already; it's starting to grate.
Barret drags Tifa away as Cloud's bomb on the reactor finally gets around to exploding. Such amazing timing.
(Polygon people rendered more hilarious by a cinematic CGI sequence).
Cloud imitates the MYST falling man (and Sora, and Roxas, and Noel, and every other danged video game hero who executes a base jumping sequence without a parachute):
All right, that's a good cliffhanger, and it lets me save the next Big Important Scene for another playthrough.
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