So here we are. I apologize in advance to anyone who's recently replayed FF7 or knows it by heart: this installment isn't going to have much insightful commentary. Nor will I be trying to amuse you with snark about anime gravity, blood-absorbent katanas, 20-year-old Playstation graphics, fantasy clichés, four-foot-deep pools that fall away into the Marianas Trench, the worst gameplay/story segregation of all time (hint: Phoenix Down), or why Gandalf didn't just hop an eagle to chuck the Ring into the fire.
There's certain moments during which the images speak for themselves, and anything I could say would be intrusive.
First, however, we have to get there.
After the Temple of the Ancients fiasco, Cloud awakens in— Gongaga? with Tifa and Barret holding vigil over him. We're back to the remnants of AVALANCHE, old friends (more or less) who haven't had a scene together since the fall of Sector 7 and the rescue mission to find Aeris at Shinra HQ.
The rest of the party is off searching for Aeris, who has disappeared.
A subdued Cloud reveals that she's gone to the City of the Ancients, where "only Aeris can save us from Meteor." The implication is that he's leaving the task of saving the Planet in her capable hands. Gone is the cocky, arrogant ex-SOLDIER who would go charging off after Sephiroth, Rufus or Aeris (in the aforesaid rescue mission) on his own, leaving friends to catch up.
The others, of course, are not about to let her face the peril alone.
But Cloud's thoroughly shaken, fearing Sephiroth now as much as he hero-worshiped him when he was younger. "I might lose it again. If Sephiroth comes near me, I might...."
Barret, blunt as he is, makes no mention of Cloud's attack on Aeris, nor does Tifa bring it up. Cloud's fears suggest he knows that he hit her, but it's not clear. Cloud may only remember that he gave away the Black Materia.
Barret, of all people, dons a therapist hat and tells him to Just Deal With It.
Barret: "I know you got problems. Hell, we all do. [They certainly do.] But you don't even understand yourself. But you gotta understand that there ain't no gettin' offa this train we're on, till we get to the end of the line."
It makes a certain amount of sense that Barret is saying this, considering that he's dealt with his own grief, loss, and guilt by being aggressively proactive. He threw himself into AVALANCHE and damned the consequences. I find it interesting how Barret's relationship with Cloud has changed from mistrust and macho rivalry to tough-love empathy.
Tifa tag teams with Barret. She tries to recall Cloud to the person he's been, at least since he returned from his stint with Shinra.
"No," Cloud says again. "I'm afraid. If this keeps up, I may go crazy!"
Barret goes on another tirade.
"Just a damn jackass, that's what you are... Yo, jes' think about it... How many people in this world do ya think really understand themselves? People get depressed because they don't know what's up. But, they go on living. They don't run away...Isn't that how it is?"
Barret's friend Dyne did run away, actually, but Barret still tried to talk him back from the cliff even after he'd killed a lot of people. Once Barret's decided you're a worthy friend, he's got an amazing capacity for forgiveness, even while giving you hell for screw-ups.
It takes both guts and love for Tifa to say that. She knows better than anyone that he's not the person he once was, that there's something wrong with him, and that he may hurt friends, yet she still has faith in him. Blind faith, almost, as we've seen several times when she's suppressed her own doubts and failed to challenge him.
Left alone, Hamlet!Cloud grapples with his inner demons.
He doesn't really come to a decision, but player control lets you steer him outside after this.
Barret has a simple plan if seeing Sephiroth causes Cloud to "go nuts again":
Cloud really has very good friends.
"Cloud, it'll be all right," Tifa insists. "We're all with you."
Our destination is Bone Village on the southern coast of the northern continent. I have no idea how Aeris reached it without a boat.
Since we're not Ancients, we have to hire archaeologists to find and excavate a rare artifact, the Lunar Harp, that will open a magical path through the woods.
Then we can pass through the Sleeping Forest where Cloud saw Aeris in his vision. From this point forward, the scenery (and music) are magical, empty and eerie.
On the far side, we get our first glimpse of the ruined City of the Ancients, aka Forgotten City or Forgotten Capital.
No pyramids or Egyptian motifs here: it's 2-story drystone or organic architecture built upon an enormous exposed reef with many types of dried corals, sea squirts, and shells ranging from saucer-sized to house-sized.
Some random monsters are marine, never mind that they're hovering in midair.
Here's the awesome mood music.
Some of the houses are built right into enormous top shells.
The paths seem to be made out of giant shell or carapace segments as well.
I was utterly entranced by the shell houses when I reached this part of FF7 on my first playthrough. They make the Forgotten City one of my favorite settings in all of Final Fantasy.
The netting at right is filled with Japanese glass fishing floats, at the pot at upper left has a branching staghorn coral as some kind of rack, or perhaps as a pot plant.
Several homes contain polyp-shaped Mako ports that let the Cetra commune with those in the Lifestream, or at least with whatever thoughts and memories are collected in these FFX sphere-like devices.
However, Cloud can't understand them.
All of FF7 is a tremendous leap from the 2D town / cave / worldmap sprite graphics of previous FFs, but here's where the transition to PS1 graphics must've been positively magical: organic shapes and curves, passages ducking behind pillars, vaulted galleries opening out on multiple floors, overlooks and cutaway views. Even 20 years later, Forgotten Capital is still an amazing area to explore.
There's also simple animated water lapping far below.
The soundtrack for the Forgotten City reminds me of MYST, and I suspect that's no accident. The MYST craze was in full swing while FF7 was in development, and the environment feels very much like one of MYST's surrealist mini-worlds fusing natural and artificial structures.
We rest in one of the shell houses which has plank flooring laid across the natural foundation. Cloud awakens in the night.
Vincent asks good questions: how does Cloud know this? But Tifa rightly urges them to hurry. "We've got to get to Aeris!"
At this point the screen flashes red for a moment, and the music turns sinister. Then the player gets a first-hand experience of unwilling possession. You have control of Cloud, but he can only walk forward. If you hit cancel, he draws the Buster Sword — Zack's old sword, not that the game has revealed this yet — regardless of which weapon you've equipped.
If you try to make him leave, Cloud does a 180 and walks towards Aeris. This continues until he's planted in front of her. Once there, no matter how you try to move him, he just lurches from side to side as if his feet are stuck to the floor.
When you hit the Cancel button again, he raises his sword. This is where things get really distressing.
*rocks joystick trying to force Cloud to move away*
CANCEL, ALREADY! CANCEL! SHI— THIS IS NOT WHAT CANCEL MEANS.
One more press of "Cancel" has Cloud cock the sword back for an overhand swing. Aeris, facing him, has not moved a muscle through all this.
Gameplay doesn't care who's in the party here, but for my own comfort, I had to bring Vincent, the long-distance sharp shooter. The voices of Cloud's friends cut through his trance.
"Ugh, what are you making me do?" Cloud says, recoiling.
Ouch. Have Aerith's theme to set the mood; it plays for the rest of this scene.
This is the point when many people cried for the first time while playing a video game.
Not much to say, although this is the first time I've spotted Sephiroth's cat eyes in the original game graphics. (They feature dramatically in some of the spin-offs). Also, Aeris' hair ribbon comes loose and her braid unravels as the as-yet-unidentified materia falls away from her and plummets into water. Was she holding the materia, or did her sacrifice create it?
Sephiroth starts in on another tiresome speech about his plans.
("New being" is the hidden phrase. Sephiroth inadvertently lets slip a greater truth than he knows: "As will this girl...")
Cloud: "The cycle of nature and your stupid plan don't mean a thing. Aeris is gone. Aeris will no longer talk, no longer laugh, no longer cry... or get angry. What about us...what are WE supposed to do? What about my pain?!"
I think we can forgive the violation of "show, don't tell," as graphics limited the ability to "show," plus it was still relatively recent for video game characters to be expressing much emotion or character development.
One might assume that Sephiroth is just the most narcissistic, self-absorbed bastard in all of FF, and that could well be true, but there's another factor at work here. Namely:
"Ha ha ha," Sephiroth scoffs. "Stop acting as if you were sad. There's no need to act as if you're angry either."
...Sephiroth says, and because no one can EVER complete a sentence when it matters, he drops a boss on Cloud. Another Jenova chunk. Eerily, Aerith's theme keeps playing throughout the battle.
This whole cathedral area is a glassed-in vault underwater, I think: the sea level has fallen below the ancient reef, but is still visible in the lower levels. I'm sure there are parts of Japan's sea coast like this. Also, the staghorn coral shape of Jenova's boss-form makes slightly more sense here.
At the end of the battle, Jenova (ack!) completes Sephiroth's statement.
"I'm...a puppet?" Cloud says.
And this is where my mind was blown in the original game. At the time, I didn't register how much Sephiroth is Jenova's puppet. (In fact, who was controlling whom during this entire sequence?)
Back on the altar, Vincent and Tifa have joined Cloud. This is where I teared up: Tifa walks over and kneels, strokes Aeris' hair and touches her cheek.
Then Tifa covers her face and flees down the steps, crying. Taking her place, Vincent steps forward to stand at Aeris' feet, gazing down at her. He turns to face Cloud with another long look, then walks away.
Cloud picks her up and carries her to the pool outside, in front of the lovely Murex-shell house that concealed the staircase down to this place.
And another FMV.
If this were a later game, the party members would be standing around so that Cloud could talk to them one by one and hear their reactions. In some ways, this is better, letting the FMV carry the emotion instead of trying to cram it into text boxes.
However, that means the regrouping/strategy session that follows feels a little selfish and hollow, as if everyone's in too much shock to talk about their feelings for Aeris.
It doesn't help that there's only room on screen for the battle party, resulting in too many character combinations to code for complex conversation. Instead, Cloud tackles the other bombshell of the scene, Sephiroth/Jenova's claim that he is a puppet. He reasserts self-identity, after being told he has none.
"...I came to settle up with Sephiroth," he continues, quoting Tifa's words from earlier.
Nearly every third-character's response to this is some sort of "Huh?" or "What are you going on about?" line. Either they're puzzled at his stating the obvious, or they're wondering why he's talking about himself instead of Aeris' murder (although, to be fair, he just had his agonized monologue about Aeris in front of Sephiroth, and then there was the more understated but poignant funeral). Vincent, however, gives him the answer he's groping for: "You're right."
But Cloud knows better. "I came here by my own free will. Or so I thought.
...To tell the truth, I'm afraid of myself."
He owns up to the fact that he's under some kind of compulsion. "If you hadn't stopped me, Aeris might've been..." Of course, she's dead either way, but at least not by his hand.
Yep. Of course there's also a person buried inside him that is the real him, trying to fight the alien part.
Cloud says he ought to stop the journey here and now before he "do[es] something terrible." But, as Tifa and Barret urged him before they left Gongaga, he's not going to.
He asks them, as a favor, to come with him in order to "save me from doing something terrible." They don't actually answer, but they came to the Ancient City with that in mind already, so there's really not much more to say.
Except: they also came to fight Sephiroth, save the Planet, exact revenge against Shinra, or all sorts of other reasons, which are somewhat eclipsed by Cloud's mental issues and relationship with Sephiroth taking center stage. (Trivia note: Cloud's Sephiroth-obsession and mental instabilities were originally introduced way back at the beginning of the game, still present in dummied text; the tendency of this plot thread to overshadow the rest of the party may explain why it was toned down or hidden until later in the story).
Cloud adds that he doesn't know what Aeris was trying to do to stop Meteor, but there's still a chance to stop Sephiroth by getting the Black Materia back before he uses it.
And...that's the end of Disc One. I know Disc Two goes by much faster, as a lot of it is trek trek trek minigame minigame, and Disc 3 is basically the closing battle and FMV, but still. This story is huge compared to the games that came before.
Finally, here's a haunting fan montage. Advent Children included a few poignant FF7 flashbacks recreated in modern CGI, including gorgeous renders of the pool outside the shell-house.
It also includes a few moments in Advent Children when someone sees or senses Aeris' spirit still hanging about. She's often represented by water and rain, a reference to her "Great Gospel" healing limit break.
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