After the training sequence, we join Zack talking to his (constantly masked, essentially faceless) best friend Kunsel, a SOLDIER 3rd class to Zack’s 2nd class. Zack was doing squats, his favourite hobby, and Kunsel informed him that there had been a mass desertion at SOLDIER. Zack somehow didn’t know about it, though I’m not sure how that’s possible. Kunsel explained that one of the 1st class SOLDIERs, the top brass, has gone AWOL with a whole chunk of the others. Just then, Angeal (who we learn is another 1st class SOLDIER) came in to inform Zack that he was being sent on a mission and to report to Director Lazard’s office on the double.
Director Lazard, civilian head of the SOLDIER program, is voiced here by Stefan Marks. Funnily enough, Marks is also known for Justified, though he’d been doing voices in Command and Conquer since Red Alert 2. Lazard explains to Zack that the defector, named Genesis, went AWOL during a mission in Wutai, which we learn is a foreign country that Midgar has been at war with for some time. Well, I suppose it’s not quite “Midgar” that’s at war. As anyone coming over from FFVII would know, Midgar is essentially owned an operated by the megacorporation, Shinra Electric Power Corp, who operate their own private army (including the SOLDIER program of combat specialists), and it’s Shinra that’s really at war with Wutai. Crisis Core doesn’t explain this up front, since it’s assumed you’re coming to it from FFVII, but it does come across eventually, and it’s probably best I get it out in the open myself.
While Genesis’ mass desertion is obviously a problem, Lazard has to be practical and assigns Zack and Angeal to mop up Genesis’ incomplete mission. Lazard implies that this mission might very well end the war with Wutai, and Angeal emphasizes how important this is by explaining that this mission might get Zack promoted to 1st class on Angeal’s recommendation. Zack is very excited about this. The mission is to take the Wutai fortress of Fort Tamblin, with details to be explained after you’re done learning how to enjoy the game’s other features.
Two things that are important to understand about Crisis Core is that it has an incredibly extensive hub, and that its main story doesn’t make up a fraction of its content. Most of Crisis Core’s content is actually confined to “Missions,” which, as Kunsel explains, could more accurately be defined as “errands.” Essentially, you can stand on any save point in the game (even mid-story mission!) and select Missions from your menu and be rocketed across the world to participate in some (often comically insipid) combat task that takes around five minutes. There are exactly 300 missions in the game, and they’re set in an small set of maps that you’ll see over and over again. Off the top of my head, I can remember the following maps: the training room from the intro with the holograms turned off (rarely used); a Shinra industrial basement; a desert; two caves, one an enclosed mine and one an open cave with pits; a canyon; and a coastal field. You’ll be seeing these maps a lot, assuming you keep coming back.
Thankfully, you hardly have to! RickyC, our longplayer, played only a few missions at the outset and beat the game in only ten hours. Kyle and I, on the other hand, spent hours and hours doing missions. It wasn’t in the “Marathon spirit,” perhaps (remember, the Marathon used to be about speed, once upon a time!), but we were distracted while grinding our way through two worthless playthroughs of Persona 1, and we needed something to distract us. Still, I can only say so much about the game’s 300 missions, and I expect this to be one of the shorter Journals as a consequence, certainly once we get to compare it to full-sized RPGs from the same period, like FFXIII.
As for the hub world, you can’t go far during the opening sequence, but I will say that it’s mostly empty and could probably have been condensed into a smaller space. Square must have agreed, because they compressed the hub world of this game’s spiritual successor, Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days, into a single room, which was just as bad in the opposite direction! One important feature in Crisis Core’s hub zone – probably the most important – is easy to overlook as it’s disguised as something that would be generic in any normal RPG. Namely: in the Shinra corporation lobby (down the elevator from SOLDIER headquarters), you can speak to a woman giving out free samples of a special potion to SOLDIER employees. This “free samples potion” is the closest thing Crisis Core has to an inn! I can’t imagine any other game taking a basic service like this and not only tie it to a generic NPC with no signage, but then act like the NPC was an employee in a grocery store, trying to sell artisanal cheese. This potion not only restores your stats, but also gives you the Auto-Life ability that restores you to full health the next time you die, something you can otherwise only get by consuming costly Phoenix Downs. As a result, you’ll probably spend most of your Mission time like Kyle and I did: parked in the Shinra lobby save point, just a few steps away from Miracle Potion Lady with No Name. But that’s for later.
On the way out to Wutai (there weren’t many Missions available yet), Lazard said that he was coming along with Zack and Angeal, and goodness knows why, because this causes nothing but problems and is happening for basically no reason. Lazard asked Zack about his “dream.” So is this just what passes for inter-office conversation in the FFVII universe? Zack said that his dream was “to become a hero,” and Lazard chuckled that “impossible dreams were best kind.” Zing.
Once across the planet and in Wutai territory, Angeal started to give Zack his briefing (which you should naturally deliver within enemy lines), though he barely got out that he and Zack were working with an unseen “Group B” before our duo were attacked by Wutai scouts. “Stealthy,” SOLDIER is not. As we’ll see, Shinra has other people when they need to be stealthy. Thankfully, the game was still in its intro arc and the scouts could barely hurt you – in fact, that was mostly true of all enemies in the entire mission. This had a lot to do with the fact that there were really only two enemy types in the entire mission: Wutai soldiers and Foulanders, a kind of monster dog that I assume is a minor enemy in FFVII itself. A few recolours showed up, as well as the boss, but honestly, that was it. This lack of enemies can probably be blamed on the fact that Crisis Core goes to other places than Wutai, but I think they would have been doing the game’s many Wutai-related missions a favour by including at least one more Wutai monster than they do!
At this point, Zack starts talking about making a good impression for Lazard, and Angeal brings up a fruit called a “dumbapple.” Before we go any further: some credit to the localizers for the name “dumbapple.” It straddled the line between fantasy name and real plant name so well that while I suspected it wasn’t a real fruit, I couldn’t shake my doubts that it just might be real and had to ask Kyle to clarify. Good for them. But back to the subject. Dumbapples, Angeal explained, grew in his hometown, and since he was poor he used to steal them. But he never stole them from his rich friend’s house. What did that have to do with Zack making a good impression on Lazard? Nothing. Angeal even makes a joke about being a non sequiter, which was sort of clever, in the sense that I could see how it might have been a joke in the hands of a better writer. As it stands, I’m just baffled, even looking back on the scene after the fact. Did an editor order this scene moved from some context where it actually made sense? Why is this game’s opening half hour full of such conspicuous writing mistakes that even the characters point out as faulty?
Zack and Angeal park themselves outside of Fort Tamblin, waiting for Team B to set off an explosion that doubled as a signal for the duo. Zack insisted that “the diversion will allow us to infiltrate,” though three seconds later, Angeal was ordering Zack to attack the front gate as noisily as possible so that Zack can serve as the diversion! I suppose there’s nothing wrong with two diversions, but why not say that up front? Before the explosion happened, the duo got to chatting about Angeal’s giant sword, which was obviously going to become Cloud Strife’s famous Buster Sword from FFVII proper. Speaking personally: eleven years of graphics development since FFVII have made the already mockable giant sword from the PSX era look even sillier than it was back in 1997, so Angeal talking about it like a beloved heirloom that he cares about more than life itself just doesn’t work for me. Kyle, meanwhile, finds it hilarious that the devs put so much emotional investment into an item that Cloud tosses over his shoulder for a better sword at the first available opportunity. FFVII is an RPG, after all.
At last, B-Team set up the signal bomb, and Zack charged out to attack the front gate. This fight was honestly pretty hectic and intense for the start of the game! The enemies must have been toned down for this sequence somehow, because there were more of them here than there were anywhere else in the chapter and that just plain wouldn’t make any sense if they were full strength, would it? The most obnoxious part of this fight was that several of the Wutai troops were perched atop the fortress walls and could only be hurt by magic attacks. Due to my inexperience, I wasted most of my MP for the entire mission during this one battle, and never figured out how to get it back! No, really: I may have gotten it back, but I never figured out how I got it back, short of visiting the Potion Lady, not from here to the end of the game! MP is actually restored randomly via the DMW, and I should have guessed. That should have been my default assumption in Crisis Core.
Once I had broken in, Zack got a call from Angeal indicating your first side mission. Story missions in Crisis Core are broken up by an unusual mix of side missions and minigames, all of which return free goodies but none of which are actually required to beat the game. Generously, I don’t believe they even reward you with any missable items, and complements to the dev team for doing so. This first side mission was to draw the Wutai troops to you as a distraction. In short, this meant to kill every enemy in the stage, many of which were hidden… though that doesn’t honestly make much narrative sense. If you’re drawing everyone to you, why is the stage so damned empty? This was one of the few sections in the entire game without wandering monsters, but it almost felt like the mission that most justified wandering monsters! Oh well. Since I happen to like games with limited encounters (Illusion of Gaia!), I honestly preferred this mission to much of the remaining game. I just can’t help but feel a little twigged that they got the gameplay and narrative backwards.
We pushed through, fighting enemies in the open, hidden behind rotating walls, up in towers, some of which we couldn’t resolve without the game letting us first, forcing us to backtrack. One relatively unique encounter included some gunners holding a hall, and we had to use their own rotating wall to get behind them. Gee, if only you had been equipped with something more practical than a sword, eh Zack? Lazard complimented us on “occupying” the fort after killing half the enemies, though… one person versus dozens isn’t really “occupying,” when you think about it.
After completing the side mission, we went towards the inner fortress, where we found a save point and a fountain shrine to the Wutai’s god, Leviathan. There, three white-clothed Wutai soldiers attacked us, announcing themselves as the guardians of the shrine. They asked Zack why he was attacking and torturing the people of Wutai, and they gave us a brief history lesson about the conflict, saying that Shinra had come to Wutai for “mako” and that the Wutai had resisted them. Zack’s take on things was that mako is simply an energy source that makes peoples’ lives better, so Shinra is doing the world a favour in his eyes. Furthermore, he says that the Wutai resistance fired the first shots, which appears to be factually correct. Not realizing that Zack was a company man through-and-through, the guardians offered to him to change sides, but he attacked them, though he left at least one of them alive. Which… you know… doesn’t really make Zack look all that much better after killing the first two? But I get the impression the writers think that it does, so we’ll let them have their little moment.
When we attempted to enter the inner fortress, we had one additional cutscene in this busy room, introducing none less than Kyle and my favourite FFVII character, Yuffie Kisaragi. Yuffie would one day become the youngest member of the main FFVII team, and during Crisis Core she’s… maybeeee… 9 years old? Hold on a second, let me check this…… Aha, yes! I finally guessed the age of a Final Fantasy child! Take that, Palom, Porrim, Rydia, Mid and Krile! And no doubt additional children in the future! Yuffie and her massively inflated sense of self-importance proclaimed herself the greatest warrior in all of Wutai, punched the air in Zack’s direction, and then ran off. Ah yes, it’s so adorable when children play their games with the unforgiving human monsters that murdered dozens of their adult friends and caregivers. It keeps the spark of joy warm in my heart.
Inside the fort, Zack was unceremoniously attacked by two “SOLDIER-killer” monsters we had been warned about at the outset. These were twin ogres: Vajradhara Wu and Vajradhara Tai. They had a team-up attack, making them one of those paired bosses that become weaker once one of them die instead of stronger. It wasn’t an easy fight – or at the very least, it was the first part of the game that wasn’t a wash – and we took a serious lesson in dodging before the fight was over, but we took out the two bosses at nearly the same time!
Angeal arrived after the fact and set the bomb for five minutes, only for a third Vajradhara to show up late to the party. Zack reacted first and went straight for the monster’s head, knocking the Vajradhara down, but then got cocky and was slugged when the monster recovered. Backed up against a pillar, it looked like Zack might very well end the game early when, of course, Angeal showed up and finally used his precious Buster Sword to defeat the monster, saying Zack was more important than the sword… a little. No, no, keep bantering, there isn’t a bomb about to go off. Maybe start debating the moral pros and cons of the Wutai War. Take a nap! I, at least, will still be here when you get back.