FFVII is an institution. With numerous sequels, spin-offs and light novels, FFVII is a franchise within a franchise, and one of the biggest names in gaming, a reputation that’s hard to ignore and harder still to confront from a first-timer’s perspective. Nevertheless, in we go, me for the first time and Kyle for the second, as we getting started with the first game in the series from a chronological perspective, Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII.
While most Marathon Journals feature a first-timer’s perspective, the damage done by the Great Persona 1 Delay means that while I did play Crisis Core for the first time ever, the journal was only written after playing through the entire Compilation of Final Fantasy VII. Maybe that’s for the best, although without the intimate familiarity that accompanies my Retrospective posts, it’ll be harder for me to “feign” a first timer’s perspective. That might sound silly, but it’s true: since it’s been so long since I started playing, I don’t really remember when I first heard essential, in-universe terms like “mako,” “materia” and the like, and can’t fascinate over every lesser mystery like I might in the Retrospectives, and I can only be captivated a little by the larger mysteries, given that I’m writing after seeing the series from end-to-end. To be honest, there’s a part of me that wishes I could just steamroll the entire quartet (Crisis Core, FFVII, Advent Children and Dirge or Cerberus) not for any matter of quality, but just so the upcoming Final Fantasy Tactics Journal will be written on time! But I’m going to do my best, for whatever that’s worth. Let’s find out just how good that is, won’t we?
One reason Kyle and I wanted to cover games chronologically in the Marathon is to determine whether or not their stories actually hold up as a whole. Unfortunately, that’s hard to do with FFVII because Crisis Core isn’t necessarily the chronologically first game in the Compilation of FFVII, as it occurs concurrently with Japananese-only cell phone game Before Crisis. Unfortunately, this means that Before Crisis (BC) is plugged into the ass of all the other Compilation games despite most of the world never seeing it. As a further complication, bear in mind that Crisis Core itself, the game we’re about to cover, is from 2007/8, a severe jump forward from our previous game, FFVI, though not the Marathon’s largest jump – that would have been the jump from FFIV to TAY (or even longer: FFIV to the Interlude!) Unlike TAY, however, Crisis Core isn’t pretending to be an older game, so I will say this will be a bit of a stylistic lurch.
The game begins with an apparent recreation of the famous FFVII opening, except for a major change that leads the whole thing in a different direction. Well, a few things. Actually, looking back at it, I’m not sure I even like this opening!
The cinematic opens with a pan across the great technological city of Midgar, centrepiece of the FFVII world, where everything is modern or futuristic relative to the real world, a famous divergence from the fantasy or steampunk worlds of FFI-VI. There, a voiceover tells us that “Wutai” troops have hijacked a train owned by “Shinra” (sometimes “Shin-ra”) and that a “SOLDIER” operative (all caps) was going to deal with it. The man in question was the teenaged Zack Fair, our protagonist, voiced by Rick Gomez, who first got the role in FFVII’s film sequel, Advent Children. Gomez later appeared in Justified as David Vasquez, and was also in FFX-2 as Gippal, whoever that is. Zack is receiving his orders from his superior, Angeal, who is voiced by Josh Gilman, a relatively new voice actor at the time, who went on to a life of “Additional Voices” in Call of Duty and the like. It should be noted that since Zack and Angeal have proximate builds, proximate uniforms and identical hair colour, if you’re like me, it can take a little while to tell them apart early in the game. Eventually I learned to look at their hair, since Zack has a ferocious mane and Angeal, well, not so much.
Angeal and Zack air-drop onto the train, Angeal explaining that Zack is to retake the train. Funnily enough, Zack won’t do anything of the sort, but since everyone watching realizes that scene is all in an effort to recreate FFVII’s only-started-on-a-train opening, all is forgiven. Yes, even I knew that, despite being essentially new to the FFVII series – cultural osmosis is definitely a thing.
While Zack ignoring his orders to retake hte train is forgivable, less forgivable is the fact that, in an additional attempt to recreate FFVII’s opening, all the Wutai troops on the train are “disguised” as security guards, just like the actual security guards you fight in the opening of FFVII. So here comes Zack, a loyal Midgar citizen, mowing down people that look like the police! The game tries to double-underline the fact that these are supposed to be Wutai soldiers in disguise, but this is so dubiously done that if you had asked me at the time, I would have guessed that the plot of Crisis Core would be Zack dealing with a courtmarshal after being conned into a military coup by Angeal!
Zack separates from Angeal and shows off on top of the train for a while before getting off at the station just like the start of FFVII, where he’s ambushed by Definitely Not Shinra Security. Here, the game introduces its unusual combat system. Crisis Core is a real-time action game, but a deliberate and slow one. Once you tap the attack button, Zack becomes locked into that slow attack, and will continue with it even if he’s otherwise interrupted or if you need an emergency change-of-plans, which I feel was an attempt to simulate the ATB structure of FFVII itself. Zack has a whole array of special attacks (the predecessor of Kingdom Hearts’ Command Deck) which are equipped ahead of time, but all of the commands suffer from this same “fire-and-commit” rules as the main attack. Anyone trying to play this game (like me), as though it were one of its descendants, Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep, coded and Dream Drop Distance, is going to get clobbered within the first few levels. Also, Crisis Core doesn’t share BBS’s simple innovation that the commands and basic attack use different buttons. In Crisis Core, you can screw yourself over, KH1 and 2 style, by having your cursor pointing at something useless while you want to be attacking and you’ll definitely suffer for it. As a result, Kyle and I (especially me) rarely used special attacks and just learned to play the game as a close combat slog, at least until we remembered we had magic and blew all our MP in a massive storm on just one or two enemies, usually a boss or a pack of poor electric-weak robots. I can’t say it was the ideal way to play, but I do feel it came about as a consequence of the control scheme.
Zack starts with a number of “materia” equipped to his slots. The game goes into more details on this subject later on, but suffice to say, materia are magical orbs in the FFVII universe that grant their users magic powers. In Crisis Core, they also grant you special physical attacks, though magic and techniques draw from distinct pools: magic from MP and techniques from AP. Zack also uses up AP whenever he performs a dodge roll, which on top of that limitation are much stiffer than the dodge rolls in Kingdom Hearts, even KH games that were older than it, because it was a deliberate design decision. You get used to it, but if you’re like me, you never get particularly… happy… about it.
One thing you won’t get used to is the DMW, a central system that makes no sense out of confusion at the outset and makes no sense out of pragmatism by the finale. Which is just a fancy way of saying that at the start of the game you’ll be asking “What?” while at the end of the game you’ll be asking “Why?”
The DMW – “Digital Mind Wave,” but don’t think too hard about that – is a slot machine that runs in the corner, cycling three slots housing both a number and a silhouette of characters you haven’t met, plus a picture of Angeal and another character who will be introduced in a moment. As you go through the game (encouraging progression through the main story), the silhouettes clear up and become supporting characters, and the DMW becomes more powerful. The DMW also spins differently (generally faster) depending on the “SP” you have accumulated, which basically replace XP in this game as the reward for defeating foes, though the DMW is also adjusted by Zack’s mood at that point in the story, which fluctuates from “Low” to “Heavenly.”
Now I’m going to be incredibly terse, because even though I’ve read a few FAQs on the matter, I still don’t feel like I understand the DMW, not just in the way that it was complicated and you have no control over it, but in the way that I keep asking “Why?” as in “Why is this game governed by a complicated slot machine that you have no control over? Who thought that was a good idea?” As best I can summarize: if the character portraits match, Zack has a chance of triggering a special attack, called “Limit Breaks” after the special attacks from FFVII, despite having very little if anything in common with them. If the matching characters are currently silhouettes, this means a weak attack called Chain Slash, but if you match up completed portraits you get a more powerful Limit Break inspired by (and in one case, actually including) the character in question. Angeal’s attack is called Rush Assault, where Zack essentially rams through an enemy, while the other, yet-unrevealed character gives you Octaslash, a multiple blow attack.
Additionally, if the numbers match up on the DMW, Zack gets a special boost depending on how they match up. Most boosts are temporary, but the important ones aren’t: several level up your materia (this is essentially random and incredibly frustrating to grind for) while triple 7s level up Zack himself (this is random, but is also adjusted by a hidden EXP value – not that the game actually explains this – making it not quite as unreliable as levelling materia). In short, the DMW is all-but-entirely random, taking away from the tactical core of RPGs that you’d imagine fans of FFVII enjoy, but whatever you want, Crisis Core. According to the wiki, an interview revealed that the developers were trying to implement elements of Pachinko into the game, which, uh… I feel the developers and I have a certain, tangible gap between our gaming interests. Like, say, a canyon.
Zack starts the game equipped with high-level materia he obviously won’t be able to keep, like -ga level spells. He mows through the Wutai troops and proceeds up the stairs where he discovers a Behemoth just rampaging around. Well I suppose if we’re going to be equipped with overpowered equipment, it might as well be against an overpowered opponent! I spent most of the first battle throwing fireballs at its tail, because enemies also suffer from the slow combat speed and it wasn’t exactly able to turn around. This is a problem that inflicts many of the game’s large bosses to such a degree that they often appear exclusively at the borders of the arena to keep you from flanking them! Attacking from the rear increased the damaged I caused, so I imagine the designers wanted me to do something like this, but it was still too easy to stay perched on (next to) the Behemoth’s ass and never move away.
Ironically, after the battle Zack found himself at swordpoint from behind, and his attacker chastised him for “showing his back to the enemy.” This attacker turned out to be one of Zack’s fellow SOLDIERs, the famous Sephiroth. Of course I know Sephiroth, I haven’t been living under a rock for the past twenty years, and nevermind that I’m a Kingdom Hearts fan. Sephiroth is voiced by George Newbern, who has had the role since Advent Children and holds it to this day. Newbern is the most prominent voice of Superman in the past decade, and he was also in X-2 as someone named Meyvn Nooj, and I guess I’ll find out who that is later.
Zack seems surprised by Sephiroth being here, and for reasons as confusing to us as they are to Zack, Sephiroth starts duelling Zack and defeats him. Zack angrily proclaims: “You’re not the only hero!” Angeal hears all about this on his cell phone and rushes to the scene, remarking “Impossible!” When he arrives, he seemingly stops Sephiroth from murdering Zack. This is partially explained a moment later when Angeal aborts the mission and we discover this was all in a virtual reality training simulator. It’s never actually made clear why the digital Sephiroth attacked Zack or why Angeal thought this (or possibly Zack losing?) was “impossible.” Yeah, as far as I’m concerned, Crisis Core begins after this scene, because this scene… this scene doesn’t make much sense.
As Angeal is leaving the simulator room, he decides to set up one of the game’s major themes with a lecture as heavy as that sheet metal door with a handle he’s carrying on his back and calling a sword. Angeal tells Zack that he has to embrace his dreams, because he won’t be motivated without a dream, “and honour.” Even Zack seems to think this is coming out of nowhere, which – as a free piece of writing advice here on Marathon Recaps – is usually a sign that it is. Unfortunately, characters being aware of the writing problems is something of a running theme with FFVII’s follow-ups, so I guess it was a phase Square Enix was going through from 2006-8.