The most recent "Sephiroth went thataway" npc told us to seek Gongaga. Or maybe Dio thought we'd "gone gaga" when he saw we'd let Caith Sith into the party. En route, we're pounced by a leggy girl with a ginormous throwing star. Because, up until FFVIII or so, Everything Is Better with Ninjas.
Bets on whether her fireball-chucking, spark-casting abilities will disappear once we recruit her?
(I was trying to pick HER pocket. Silly me. She's the thief.)
Yuffie is defiant in defeat. Or bratty, depending on what flavor of "cute, perky thief" you prefer. Personally, I prefer ones that tinker, lob explosives, and call people on their BS.
If you don't pick the right responses from a lengthy dialog tree, Yuffie scampers off. She'll occasionally leap out in random overworld map encounters so you can try again. As I am lazy, I grab a walkthrough to perform the proper recruitment ritual.
"Heh heh," she mutters, after the rest of the party jogs offscreen. (Where'd the forest go, by the way?) "Just as I planned."
"Nyuk nyuk"? That does it, you're going in the Bag of Holding until you stop quoting the Three Stooges. (Or at least until the rest of the party has reached her level, as she arrives nearly even with Cloud.)
So, we were headed for the ruins of Gongaga, a blast zone in the middle of a large forest south of the desert. At the heart of the cleared area is a badly-damaged reactor.
Near that handy overlook, we bump into the Turks. Reno is out of the infirmary and showing himself to be an incorrigible gossip.
We are treated to TMI: Elena has a crush on Tseng, Tseng has a crush on Aeris, while Rude harbors a secret yen for his fellow brawler, Tifa. FF7 fanficcers promptly cross these ships off their list and spew out Rude/Reno and Rufus/Tseng by the bucketload.
Elena walks into view and remarks that Tseng, at least, is above this kind of inanity. She belatedly notices Cloud. "They're here! They're really here!" she says, dashing off to report to Tseng while the other two engage us in a boss fight.
That's MISS CLOUD to you, weasel hair.
Cloud heals and provides Cover while Aeris and Tifa pummel so fast that Reno doesn't get a chance to demonstrate whatever special weapon he's devised for us. My party is a tad overleveled, but I'm not sorry.
... we'll be back so you can beat us up again."
I feel smug satisfaction that Aeris took out both of them at once with a multi-target Fira.
Afterwards, Tifa is suspicious. "Hey, something seems wrong. Like they knew we were coming." Aeris surmises there's a Shinra spy. Cloud says he doesn't want to think such a thing, and he insists that he trusts everybody. Um, Cloud? We've picked up a couple of strangers. If you're having trouble putting two and two together, I suggest you let Tifa and Aeris do the thinking for you.
We continue through the woods, fighting triceritops with tank treads (what) and annoying frogs. Just as we reach the ruined reactor, Tseng and Scarlet touch down in a Lego helicopter.
"You only get junky materia from junky reactors," she sniffs. She's on the lookout for "Big, large, huge materia." This sounds suggestive to me, or at least silly, because I am 12.
Scarlet mocks Tseng's boss to watch him squirm: "Even if we make the ultimate weapon, could stupid Heidegger even use it?" They adjourn with an exchange of stilted villain-dialog that makes me long for the translation skills of FFXII's Alexander Smith.
I sure hope the Huge Materia will fit in one of our weapons slots. It will be annoying if it's too big for the sockets, and we're forced to go buy an adapter.
Continuing up the path, we enter the outskirts of Gongaga village.
Here we go again. The locals share an all-too-familiar story: Shinra built a reactor to make their lives easier, but it blew up and killed many people, wrecking the town. They've voted to abandon Mako and live naturally.
In one house dwells an elderly couple who recognize the Mako glow in Cloud's eyes. They inquire about their son Zack, who tired of country life and left for SOLDIER almost 10 years ago. Cloud says he's never heard of the guy, but Aeris gives herself away by whispering "Zack" under her breath. Mrs. Fair notices.
"That can't..." Aeris says, because nobody in this entire game can speak in complete sentences when it matters. She turns and rushes outside. Surprisingly, Tifa says "Zack" and bolts after her. This guy gets around, or so we're meant to assume. Cloud turns, bewildered. "What happened to you two?"
Zack's Dad, being a dad, fails to notice and starts droning on about how you'd think their own son would contact them or at least write a letter once in a while, etc., etc. Cloud ducks outside to figure out what's going on.
First, he asks Tifa if she knows this Zack guy.
"Your face tells me differently," Cloud says. When Tifa repeatedly insists, he drops it.
Now that I know more, this scene is so sad. Tifa, just SAY IT. Except that Cloud would probably stonewall her, and then they'd wind up fighting and confused and unhappy.
There's an awkward silence before she starts fishing.
"There were a lot of guys like that back then," Cloud replies. Yes, Cloud, there were. Like, say, the guy who gave you the sword you're carrying?
Tifa tries again. "You must be really something, making it in SOLDIER out of a group like that." Fish, fish, fish.
She keeps prodding him to talk about his time in SOLDIER, but eventually gives up on his non-answers and just says, "Cloud, thanks for caring." Caring about what? That she's upset? Or is she thinking back to Nibelheim, which is all a muddle except for the end, when she thinks — she hopes – he showed up to help her, although she was nearly unconscious and can't be sure. If all the rest is a lie, she wants that part to be true: he cared.
Aeris, meanwhile, is quietly mourning, although she puts a brave face on it. "What a shock," she tells Cloud when he comes over. "I didn't know Zack was from this town." Cloud muses that it's odd he never met the guy, since there aren't that many people in SOLDIER. Oh, Cheesehead.
Aeris downplays her feelings, blithely insisting that her "first love" is all in the past. Zack went out on a mission about five years ago, she says, and never came back.
No, dear, he never did. Except maybe Cloud.
AUGH. I only just realized that this game has one of my favorite tropes: everybody in the party is a good person (mostly), but they're all hiding the truth. Except that in FF7, the twist is that they're deceiving themselves.
Cloud: Here's what happened at Nibelheim.
Tifa: I can see Cloud's not lying, so I must be misremembering.
Aeris: I'm sure Zack's alive out there somewhere. (Oh, and I'm just a flower girl from the slums, nobody special.)
Barret: It's all my fault that Corel was destroyed. But it's not in any way my fault that Sector 7 got squashed.
Nanaki: My dad's a coward.
Vincent: It's my fault.
Cid: It's Shera's fault.
And then there's the other two. *cough* But I think that even Cait is deceiving himself, for reasons that I will try to remember to explain when his secret comes out.
We quit Gongaga and press on. In the middle of what looks like southern Utah, our buggy suffers a sudden attack of plot device and breaks down. This saves Nanaki the trouble of telling us to pull over, as this is his stop!
I love this view, but I have to say: shouldn't a place called Cosmo Canyon be an innie and not an outie?
Cosmo Canyon is my second favorite location in the game. The overworld map in its vicinity is pretty funky, turning the sky from cloudless blue to perpetual sunset as you approach. Also, it's got some catchy drumbeat music that reminds me of the Ronso theme on Mt. Gagazet, which is basically Cosmo Canyon with snow on it.
My changing his default name from "Red XIII" to "Nanaki" back in Hojo's lab results in an unintentionally funny sequence with Cloud acting even more cheeseheaded than usual: "Who is Nanaki?"
This results in a Zen response:
We'll just pretend Cloud had another memory lapse and forgot.
Barret, who apparently had Cosmo Canyon on his bucket list, is as excited as I've ever seen him.
The gatekeeper tells us that Cosmo Canyon is where people from all over Gaia come to learn "The Study of Planet Life." Scholars, tourists, and the original founder of AVALANCHE (according to Barret) were all inspired by what they learned here. Barret says that he and his old gang had vowed to find Cosmo Canyon and celebrate here when they'd defeated Shinra.
I was surprised to find Cosmo Canyon inhabited entirely by humans. Since Nanaki calls Elder Bugenhagen "Grandpa," I originally thought that his race metamorphosed into a humanoid form when they're older, like reverse Moombas (I had played FFVIII right before FFVII). Instead, it seems that his tribe and the indigenous human population once lived together in harmony and mutual respect. I wish we'd gotten to see this community; the other FFs with human/nonhuman societies tend to treat the latter with a certain amount of condescension, mistrust, stereotyping and/or exploitation.
(Gratuitous screencap of the observatory on the topmost pinnacle of Cosmo Canyon.)
Unfortunately, there's a certain Hollywood Native American aura in Cosmo Canyon. I wasn't sure whether I was imagining it until I hit the "Tiger Lily" item shop. Sigh.
"Cowardly father?" says Cloud. "Yes," says Nanaki. "My father was a wastrel." I told you he had a liberal arts education.
Nanaki sends us to the observatory at the top to meet his Grandpa. Bugenhagen floats around on a green hippity hop which allows him to levitate or even bounce high in the air. What?
While exchanging courtesies, Cloud learns that Nanaki is a youngster in his tribe's reckoning: at 48, he's like a 15 or 16 year old human. Nanaki says he wants to be an adult, to be able to protect his grandpa and the village. Awww. But Bugenhagen says it's too soon. First, we need an Exposition Dump!
Gramps tells us with cheerful equanimity that the planet is dying.
As he exposits, we begin to hear the "scream of the Planet" that Aeris must have been hearing all along. It sounds like satellite recordings of Earth's radio waves, which is to say, unnerving. (Come to think of it, NASA released those eerie recordings of different planets' electromagnetic/radio signals converted into audio wavelengths in the early 90s, so it's possible they were the inspiration for this sound effect in FF7.)
Nanaki explains that Cloud has come here to save the planet, which causes Grandpa Bug to cackle. Great vote of confidence. "But I guess it wouldn't hurt to show him."
For our 3-person party, I choose Barret, who's eager to soak up all the ancestral wisdom of Cosmo Canyon, and Aeris, who wants to learn about the Ancients. We're carried up into Bugen's planetarium for a cutscene badly marred by clumsy graphics. I'm not surprised that FFX reprised a chunk of it years later (the first 20 seconds of this FMV):
In blocky PS1 graphics, it looks like this:
(No, Aeris, that was a comet.) I note that this orrery and Sephiroth's ridiculous Super Nova spell both imply that FF7's planet Gaia is really Earth.
Bugenhagen explains that not only do physical bodies "return to the Planet" when they decompose, but so do souls. This goes for plants, animals, and all living things. Quoth Bugen:
"They [the souls of the dead] roam, converge, and divide, becoming a swell, called the 'Lifestream.'
Lifestream...In other words, a path of energy of the souls roaming the Planet.
'Spirit energy is a word that you should never forget.
A new life...children are blessed with Spirit energy and are brought into the world."
Once again, it's a fantasy version of Shinto/Buddhist beliefs. The clumsy animation shows life forms emerging on the surface of the planet, dissolving into streams of colored light, moving like currents through the globe and emerging to coalesce into other organisms, a visual representation of transmigration of souls.
He drains away the VR Lifestream into his sleeve. The planet goes black, cracks like a bowling ball in liquid nitrogen and falls apart. This, he explains, is what is bound to happen as the Lifestream is "forcefully extracted and manufactured" by Mako refineries. Gosh, this game can be so obscure and subtle in its messaging that you have no idea what it's trying to say.
Of course, Barret told Cloud all this in abbreviated form back in the beginning of the game, but now we know where AVALANCHE lifted the idea.
Lesson complete, Grandpa Bug encourages us to seek the wisdom of the other village elders.
Elder Hargo tells us that the Promised Land is the burial place of the Ancients after their long journey. So, yes, it's either an afterlife or a necropolis, but either way, Pres. Shinra's idea of a land of cheap power was baloney. Hargo guesses that the Ancients' Supreme Happiness, alluded to in the Promised Land legend, was the moment that they were released from their long, harsh journey. In other words, Nirvana, stepping off the wheel of life's suffering.
That explains why flowers grew at Elmyra's house and in Aeris' church. Although I'm once again wondering whether or not Gast's theory about humans splitting off from the Cetra/Ancient race is correct.
Speaking of Gast, Elder Bugah has high praise for him as a scholar who studied the Ancients at Cosmo Canyon.
Elder Bugah drops a bombshell on us, if we hadn't already begun to suspect:
"Must've been about 30 years ago, when he found the corpse of an Ancient. He was elated! If I recall... he named it 'Jenova' and was doing a lot of research... One day, he showed up here, looking real distressed. He was mumbling about Jenova not being an Ancient and that he'd done a terrible thing. He's been missing since then. I heard that he never went back to Shinra."
So now Sephiroth's running around killing people and setting himself up as the heir of the Ancients, because Gast never went back to tell him, "Sorry, kid, you're just a genetic hybrid between a human and some weird alien organism I dug up. My bad." Although I'm not sure that would've helped.
That night, the party gathers around the Cosmo Canyon campfire, each lost in their own thoughts.
Aeris: "I learned a lot. The elders taught me many things. About the Cetra...and the Promised Land." She looks down. "I'm alone...I'm all alone now."
"But I'm...we're here for you, right?" Cloud says. (Aeris/Cloud shippers say, "See? See!?")
"Does that mean we can't help?" Cloud persists. She doesn't reply.
This is the moment when Aeris fully accepts who she is and shoulders the responsibility of being a Cetra. (She never seems to like the term "Ancient.") Sadly, her silence after Cloud's final question foreshadows her fate. At least now she knows that Sephiroth and Jenova don't "share her blood," something that was clearly troubling her when she interrogated Hojo back in Costa del Sol.
Barret's back to thinking in circles. "Cosmo Canyon...this's where AVALANCHE was born," he muses, wondering if it's all over. He's missing Biggs, Jessie and Wedge, agonizing over whether they died to save the planet, or merely out of his hate for Shinra. "Will they ever forgive me?" He's no longer sure whether he's fighting for justice or vengeance, but he's still committed to his quest. But now he wants to protect people, not just the planet.
Cait Sith and Yuffie have nothing interesting to say.
Tifa almost spills the beans. "You know, Cloud, 5 Years ago..." (yes, it's capitalized; it's that important!) But when he nods, she loses her nerve: "It's nothing. No, forget it. I'm afraid to ask."
"What is it?" he says.
"It feels like... it feels like you're going far away..." she says. (More foreshadowing!) And then she admits, at least obliquely, what's been bothering her all along:
This time, it's Cloud who doesn't answer. And this game is so convoluted that I still didn't know the answer when I first finished it.
(There's echoes of this exchange in the FFX endgame conversation between Yuna and Tidus, when she asks, "You won't... go away, will you?")
Nanaki finally opens up, too, recalling when he was a kitten sitting around this fire with his family. His memories of his mother are filled with "pride and joy," but he's still steamed at his father, like so many FF sons. Bugenhagen floats into view to ask if he really can't forgive his dad.
"Of course," Nanaki says. "He left mother for dead."
You can see where this is going, but the execution is quite moving.
Bugenhagen, Auron-like, says there's something Nanaki needs to see. No, it's not a sphere recording. He leads us down to a sealed cave beneath the village. We go down, down and down a series of ladders and ropes, descending into what looks like an old volcanic chimney, until we reach a cave where the walls glow softly with natural Mako.
I'm impressed that Nanaki's people were able to make it down all those ropes and ladders.
Bugenhagen gives us a guided tour, pausing along the way to retell the story of the Gi attack. We keep encountering their undead spirits. Some are humanoid, while others look like bulky,
Grandpa recounts how one brave warrior held them off, fighting them one by one.
The monsters in this cave are quite buff, and the boss is perhaps the nastiest we've faced so far, thanks to its regenerating unholy fire helpers. We are duly impressed with the warrior's prowess. Golly gee, I wonder who it'll turn out to be? Past the boss, we reach a craggy outcrop looming over the path.
Seto stopped the Gi from setting foot in Cosmo Canyon, Grandpa says, and he kept fighting even after their arrows turned him to stone. They finally ran away, terrified (are any still alive?). Seto guards the canyon still. Implausible, but it's a classic warrior myth.
Just to twist the Angst Dagger deeper, Nanaki scales the crag and emits a mournful howl. The petrified form of Seto weeps a few crystal tears. FF is corny, but damn it knows how to play in a minor key.
"I am Nanaki of Cosmo Canyon, the son of Seto!" our orange blocky friend declaims.
Bugenhagen asks him to go with Cloud and assist his quest to save the Planet. Nanaki vows to do so and return as a warrior true to his father's noble name. Hey, what about Mom?
Rite of Passage accomplished, we depart Cosmo Canyon and return to the default Final Fantasy topography of beaches, grassy plains, rocky outcrops and sleepy little hamlets nestled at the foot of mountains.
Looks a lot like Kalm, doesn't it? Must be a nice place to live.
When we set foot in the village square, Tifa pulls up short.
Tifa: "What ——!!"
Tifa: "This was all supposed to be burnt down, right?"
Cloud: "...I thought so."
Tifa: "Then why...? My house is still there too."
Aeris: "Something's strange?"
Cloud: "I remember...the intense heat of the flames."
Yes, it's Nibelheim, looking the same as it ever did, if a bit more deserted. (One stray dog scratches the cobbles for atmosphere). Cue the Twilight Zone theme.
There's an odd shadow on the ground by the water tower, but Cloud can't touch it. And this is where things get bizarre, as there are other odd shadowy figures all over town. The place is haunted!
"The Black Cape..." Cloud says, recalling several NPC sightings of Sephiroth. Were they referring to these things, instead? Each one has a numbered tattoo, like the "1" Dio mentioned seeing on the "boy" I assumed was Sephiroth, and the "2" tattoo on the vegetative man living in a pipe in the Midgar slums.
There are several normal people living in Nibelheim as well, but Cloud doesn't remember any of them. Here's the old Item Shop.
Cloud accuses the shopkeeper's wife of lying. She wants to know who he is and tells him, "It's not nice to lie!" when he says he lived here until he was 14.
She seems oblivious to the shadowy figure — this one tattooed with the number 12 — hunched in a ruddy, glowing alcove of her house that looks like it's still on fire. Eeeee.
Cloud confronts all the living people he can find. He barges into the inn: "This town was supposed to have been burnt down five years ago. What the hell's going on?" The reply:
Tifa backs Cloud up this time, although she seems more tentative. "You're lying..." she says.
"EXCUSE me," the innkeeper says. "That's so rude." He asks us to leave.
I go to the back room of the inn instead, where Cloud finds yet another shambling figure, tattoo #6. They don't stand still, you see. They...wobble. Creep along. Ooze. Like anything in a nightmare that's not moving quickly, but inexorably, and it's coming for you aaaaiiiee.
Nearly every one of these creepy characters gives Cloud a "Luck Source," an item to boost the "Luck" stat. Is that a hint?
Cloud finds a strange woman in his mother's house. Blunt as ever, he tells her, "I lived here until I was 14...but this town burned down..." She is nonplussed:
She tells him to get out.
There's another black-cloaked creep right inside Tifa's front door. This one says, "Must...get...it...and... bring...it...to...Sephiroth..."
Well, that may explain the "Reunion" that several of them are babbling about.
In earlier FFs, a similar cloaked shape was often used for bosses: they'd look like this until the battle screen, where their individual battle sprite would appear. I get the impression that we're not seeing quite what Cloud is seeing, since he keeps mentioning tattoos, which suggests there's something more substantial than just a shadowy cloaked form.
This entire sequence is far too much like some of my nightmares.
Oh bloody hell...
Inside, the mansion is still playing the Goth Bells of Doomy Doom.
It appears that Dr. Hojo stopped by to leave a taunt just for...Cloud? Sephiroth? Or maybe anyone that came to investigate. How nice.
It appears to be an excerpt from his diary with a postscript added later.
"I scientifically altered him, and put him to sleep in the basement. If you want to find him, search the area. But...this is merely a game I thought of. It is not necessary for you to participate if you don't want to."
Translation: "Optional side character which almost nobody can find without a walkthrough."
So we blunder all over this mansion picking up clues, fighting ghosts and a really nasty boss, and procuring a key to the basement.
I had totally forgotten this bit.
What the flippy froggy fuckbucket.
Cloud says he doesn't fricking know what a Reunion IS.
"Jenova, a calamity fron the skies? You mean she wasn't an Ancient!?" Cloud says, totally forgetting what the elders of Cosmo Canyon told us.
Sephiroth is as opaque as ever: "...I see. I don't think you have the right to participate."
I suppose Aeris and Tifa (or whoever's in your party) are just standing around somewhere offscreen through this entire conversation. I wish the game gave us a chance to ask them, through this entire sequence — and back in town — do you see him? Do you see THEM? Is this real?
Sephiroth tosses a materia that hits Cloud in the solar plexus, then flies into the air. WTF WTF WTF. He sails over Cloud like a crop duster and shoots out of the room.
Talk about being completely over Cloud's head.
Oh, dear. There's four "reports" hidden around the library which I don't think I've come across before.
Escapee Report 2:
"Description at time of capture.
A - Former member of SOLDIER/Number ( ) No effect could be detected from either Mako Radiation Therapy or Jenova on him.
B - Regular/Number ( ) Reaction to Jenova detected."
Dammit, I haven't even played Crisis Core and this makes me tear up. (Crisis Core is a PSP game that dramatizes all the events hinted at in FF7 flashbacks, like a teacher's edition with the answers filled in.)
The fourth and final report says, "B's whereabouts currently unknown. But, we submit that there is no need to pursue him, due to his diminishing consciousness. Awaiting further instructions."
Translation: "He's a cheesebrain. Probably harmless."
That's about it down here. I'm thoroughly traumatized. Oh wait a minute. There was that locked room I passed by earlier, which we can finally open with the %^#@% basement key we procured via Hojo's annoying scavenger hunt.
As soon as we enter, one of the coffins starts talking.
If it's a sparkly vampire, I'm turning the game off.
Oh, hi, Auron Jr, I mean, Vincent.
"Hmph," the not-really-a-vampire says. (See? It is Auron Junior.) "A nightmare...? My long sleep has given me time to atone."
Every few sentences, he tells us to go away and leave him alone. We keep poking at him to make him talk some more.
Vincent batmans, "This mansion is the beginning of your nightmare." He has no idea how true that is, as I'm pretty sure that Escapee A and B were imprisoned down here. (I think I recall finding that room in Dirge of Cerberus.)
"You can say that again." Cloud says, and begins to tell him about Sephiroth. Because of course a bloke who lives in a coffin would like to hear about his fellow Goth. "Like you said, this mansion is the beginning of a nightmare."
Final Fantasy does love to toy with the nature of dreams vs. truth vs. reality vs. lies, doesn't it?
Both Vincent and Cloud are shocked to find out the other knows about Mr. S. Vincent, who has been out of circulation for a long time, thinks Sephiroth was "created five years ago" by the Jenova project.
But Jenova wasn't Sephiroth's real mother.
Dun dun dun.
"Wasn't Jenova Sephiroth's mother?" Cloud says.
"That isn't completely wrong, but just a theory," Vincent obfuscates.
The woman who "gave birth" to Sephiroth was Lucrecia.
Oh, Vince. There's a bit of heart on your sleeve.
Like all good drama queens, he blames himself, even though it was her body and her choice to have a child and experiment on it. Which hints that Lucrecia was nearly as unethical as Hojo.
"That was my sin," he intones.
Yeah, yeah. And Auron couldn't stop his crush from choosing the Final Summoning and turning his best friend into a space whale. These things happen; you're in a Final Fantasy game.
Vincent pulls up his coffin lid and tries to go back to sleep, but finally follows us out to ask...
Cloud doesn't know, but says we're after Sephiroth and Hojo (we are?) so it's likely. I think he's lying through his teeth to get Vincent to come along. Maybe he'll frenzy on the cat puppet.
"Lucrecia," murmurs Mr. One-Track-Mind. "All right. I've decided to go with you."
Vincent joins us without saying anything more about himself than that he's an ex-Turk, but we know from the note Hojo left upstairs that he was "scientifically altered" somehow. His left arm ends at the elbow, capped by a prosthetic forearm and clawed metal hand. In battle, Vincent's limit breaks (overdrives) let him morph into one of several monstrous or demonic forms. I don't think FF7 ever explains them, but they're basically different aspects of Chaos, a powerful summons that was forcibly grafted into Vincent's body to revive him after Hojo shot him dead. So he isn't really a vampire; he's more like a half-demon. Who's a mean shot with a revolver, because why the heck not.
And he never admits that his surname is Valentine. Poor fellow.
Phew. Let's get out of Nibelheim; I'm about done with Gothic horror.
Next time, we meet this game's Cid, and learn about the most improbable rocket failure in the history of aerospace. If there's time, I'll deal with the Yuffie sidequest I've been putting off.
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