With Crisis Core behind us, it’s on to the main event. While Kyle initially proposed we play FFVII in its original form (either via his PSX disc or on the PSN release), you’ll be glad to know that we had a long and involved discussion of the various versions and their virtues and ultimately concluded that we should play the one I already had because fuck it. That meant the Steam PC version. For what it’s worth, it is the only readily available version to fix the game’s magic defence display glitch (which is harmless, as it’s purely cosmetic, but is still an improvement over the other versions), and it has very small load times. Also, it would get me a few achievements. Don’t look at me like that.
FFVII’s famous opening begins with what appears to be a starry sky, before revealing that these stars are somehow in the point-of-view of a young woman looking into a strange green light that doesn’t appear to have any stars in it at all, speaking literally. This is Aerith, whom we met in Crisis Core. Well, I suppose we’re only going to call her “Aerith” for a short little while, but bear with me. Whatever you call her, she’s looking at one of the mako-powered utility systems of central Midgar. Zooming away from Aerith, we soon see the entire place: the circular city of Midgar, held high above the ground on numerous pillars, a huge reveal in a series previously founded in fantasy worlds. Oddly, the game is reluctant to name “Midgar” for most of the opening arc, and it is equally reluctant to show you the world beyond Midgar. Both seem to be techniques designed to make you think of Midgar as the entire world, which to its occupants must seem like it’s the case.
Following a train, we arrive at a point on the edge of Midgar’s plate, specifically at one of the brightly lit spokes that appear at the borders. As the train arrives at the station, a group of men and women jump off and ambush the guards, presumably killing them. These characters are named by the headers on top of their text prompts: a young woman named Jessie, the newest resurrections of our old friends Biggs and Wedge, and their commander, who happens to be Square Enix’s first black character, and who goes temporarily unnamed. This unnamed gentleman appears to have some sort of chain gun outright replacing his right arm as a prosthesis. Last off the train is our main character, a spiky-haired blonde man with a sword made out of half a space elevator. To our Crisis Core-trained eyes, this is our old buddy Cloud with the Buster Sword, though he’s known briefly as “Ex-SOLDIER.” Just hold that thought, we’ve got a few basic scruples to deal with first. But before I go on, let me just say: Great job, Zack. Great job on this kid.
Set aside Crisis Core for a moment and let’s take in FFVII in comparison to FFVI. The first thing you notice playing FFVII are the new graphics and models, namely that FFVII uses pre-rendered backgrounds and fixed camera angles to give the environment a lush, if… flat appearance, shared by many PSX, Saturn and PC games of the era, plus a handful of under-shooting N64 games. But while the backgrounds are all very pretty, the character models are incredibly low-res chibi models, even though the game could and would render more detailed, human-proportioned models in combat. I can’t decide exactly why this was done and wouldn’t be surprised if an interview out there holds the answers: it seems likely to me that it was a technical limitation (especially given its release relatively early in the PSX’s lifespan), though it doesn’t escape me that it might be a misguided attempt to mimick the sometimes mismatched overworld and battle sprites of previous RPGs (stumpy top-down sprites versus tall side-view sprites). Who knows. (Ed. sephy in the comments below seems to remember an interview touching on the matter, scroll down to see the comment!)
Unfortunately, the choice of chibi overworld sprites isn’t going to escape as a mere curiosity. Where other games of the 32-bit era could get away with these kinds of simplistic character graphics against their blocky, smudged 32-bit landscapes, FFVII puts these simplistic chibi models up against lovely pre-rendered backgrounds, and the graphical clash never stops being goofy to me. Most of the PSX RPGs I played back in the day used sprites on top of 3D environments instead, and achieved a certain degree of consistency despite the counter-intuitive clash of dimensions. FFVII’s battle models look well enough against the backgrounds (then again, the arenas aren’t quite as detailed as the overworld), so maybe I would have preferred they use the battle models at all times, like they later would in FFVIII, but only time and later Final Fantasy games are likely to change my mind. As it stands – and I hate to say this – even Quest 64 looks more graphically coherent than this mash. Certainly not better, but more coherent.
Cloud’s new buddies run off, and I think it’s clear that Square expected players to take a moment to react to their monumental new graphical and control changes because something incredibly stupid happens right off the bat. You’re supposed to take a moment getting used to the control changes before you follow your buddies, at which point two more bad guys run in via the route the others just took (presumably through some unseen side path between rooms) and they find and attack Cloud. Of course, if you have played a 3D RPG, you quickly work out how to walk and also that there’s a run button. This means that if you’re like me, you follow your buddies so fast that the guards run past your allies to get at you. “Oh excuse me, Mr. Terrorist.” “Yes, pardon us, sir.”
Despite the shift in graphics and overworld controls, once you get in battle, you’ll find that FFVII uses an ATB system not so far removed from the SNES Final Fantasies. Magic works differently, but seeing as that isn’t very readily available at this stage, I won’t talk about it until later. I will talk about one of FFVII’s big features, however: the famous Limit Break system, an evolution of the Desperation Attack system from FFVI that – if you’ll recall – appeared so rarely that Kyle and I never encountered it during our playthrough. Suffice to say, the base idea from FFVI needed more than a little tune-up. In FFVII, your Limit bar sits on the GUI next to the ATB and fills up whenever you attack or take a hit. Once full, your Attack command is functionally replaced by the Limit Break command, at which point you can select from any Limit Breaks currently unlocked by your character. Cloud’s opening Limit Break is Braver, an overhead swing.
Another thing I should probably mention early on is that FFVII famously discarded the old Final Fantasy battle music’s opening sting. Most later games would follow its lead by producing entirely unique battle themes, although the signature Final Fantasy victory theme remains.
After the battle, you head into the next room and find your companions (minus our friend with the gun-arm) trying to hack into an electronic lock. Here, you get to name your main character, though as per Marathon rules we kept the default, Cloud. We learn that most of the people here are members of an organization called AVALANCHE, and that Cloud is presenting himself, as his filler name implies, as an ex-member of SOLIDER, AVALANCHE’s mortal enemies. Of course, we know from Crisis Core that Cloud was never a part of SOLDIER, and was simply dressed as one, but as we’ll go on we’ll learn that poor Cloud genuinely seems to believe he was a SOLDIER! This is all tied up in something of a late-game twist, maybe the game’s biggest. While I certainly won’t pretend that I haven’t played Crisis Core, I will try to give the twist the fairest shake I can manage by holding off on commentary until the game’s played all its cards and makes the big reveal.
By the way, don’t try to make sense of “AVALANCHE” as an abbreviation, any more than SOLDIER. They seem to have simply been capitalized as a way to emphasize them as proper names. FFVII could have just as easily coloured the text instead of capitalizing it and gotten a similar effect. I grant that the capitals do immediately tell me “organization” at a glance, so that’s a plus, and since the game uses coloured text to highlight gameplay terms, I can see where they were going with this in the end. Oddly enough FFVII won’t capitalize the other key organization in the game – Shinra – but perhaps that’s because it’s named after a person?
Conversation naturally turns to why an Ex-SOLDIER would work for AVALANCHE, and Cloud insists he’s just in this for the money and refuses to even listen to the other characters’ names! Just then, the man with the gun-arm returns tells the group to split up past the gate and meet at the “North Mako Reactor.” At this point, you’re given the chance to name him as well: his default name is Barret. He runs off without you again, and you head into the building, dealing with random encounters as you go.
Inside the reactor, the group is once again bottlenecked by some electronic doors, and Barret takes the opportunity to proselytize to Cloud about AVALANCHE’s mission. Extrapolating a little based on later evidence and what we already know from Crisis Core, I can tell you that Shinra is harvesting mako as a power source, but Barret claims that mako is “the life blood of this Planet” and that sucking it out would be incredibly bad. AVALANCHE is here to blow up one of Midgar’s mako reactors in a good old fashioned spat of environmental terrorism. Ah good, someone discovered where FFV decided to drop the environmentalist messages half-way through its run time, picked them up off the floor and dusted them off for further consumption. Hey, five year rule, right? Of course, Cloud isn’t listening, but Barret continues on-and-off for most of the time both of them are on screen in this early part of the game.
Barret joins the party at this point. Naturally, his chaingun makes him a back-rank character, not unlike the Rangers of past games, although in practice Barret is more the prototype for a brand new class, the Gunner, used in games to come. While passing through the bottleneck, we learn from Biggs that AVALANCHE’s spies managed to find the codes for the doors, and that’s why they’re only able to break in now. The terrorists leave their agents behind one-by-one to guard the exits, a really good display of organization (and of getting rid of temporarily unnecessary NPCs!) that I wouldn’t have expected from a 90s RPG! Wedge stays to guard the exit from the reactor, Biggs to guard the interior electronic doors, and Jessie goes with you part-way and stays behind because… urm… well, anyway!
The game leads you down to the basement of the reactor, fighting a number of strange, sometimes mutilated-looking monsters, including one that, if anything, seems to have gone on to inspire the Stalker from Half-Life 2. Along the way, the game teaches you how it handles ladders and the unusual way in which the game often puts items on the ground in random places without a housing treasure chest (this is realistic for potions and other junk since they might have been dropped along the way, but simply inglorious for high-level spells, and wouldn’t you know it, but…). You pick up something called a “Restore Materia” just prior to the end of the dungeon. Curiously, you aren’t able to use this thing, and won’t be able to for a surprising amount of time. Frankly, it might have been better if they just… hadn’t given you the Materia now, and I’m not entirely sure why they did? At first I suspected it might be a remnant of the game’s famous demos (how famous? The demo made PSX game Tobal No. 1 a best-seller simply by being bundled with it!), but it turns out that you can’t equip the Materia in any of the game’s demos, any more than you can here!
The game never told us what Cloud and Barret’s destination was supposed to be, though I imagined it to be part of the reactor core, or whatever conveniently explodable place this is. When we approached, Cloud was stopped as the player got a flash of red across the screen, alongside a voice in Cloud’s head telling him not to blow up the place, as it “isn’t just a reactor!” Unfortunately the mysterious voice doesn’t elaborate, so of course Cloud continues prepping the bomb. (Curiously, this line doesn’t mean what it seems to mean, and furthermore, is never explained at all! Reactor 1 actually is “just a reactor,” despite all conventions of narrative prophecies. The real explanation for this line is never given in the finished game, because it relates to a cut line of dialogue!) Barret insists Cloud set the bomb so that he doesn’t “try” anything, although I’d say that that’s just as good a reason not to trust him with high explosives in the first place! Unfortunately, Cloud doesn’t even get to set the bomb, as he and Barret are attacked by a security robot, this game’s first boss.
The Guard Scorpion is one of the first truly obvious victims of FFVII’s sometimes questionable translation. We’re not talking quite, say, FFV’s original translation, or certainly no Zero Wing, but FFVII still screws up a number of sequences. For starters, quite a few series standards, like recurring enemies, which are needlessly mis-translated into other names, even including some actual mythical creatures with proper names the localization team overlooked. I hear-tell that Square wouldn’t switch over to an external translating team until after the FFV debacle (which occurred not long after this), but I assume that that means FFVIII will be relatively safe. FFTactics was originally translated by the same awful internal team (between FFVII and V), but Kyle and I will be sidestepping that by playing the remake.
So what’s wrong about the Guard Scorpion? Oh, it’s simple. Like every first boss in the main series since the Mist Dragon in FFIV, the Guard Scorpion makes a shallow attempt at variety (and more importantly, tutorial) by entering a phase when you shouldn’t attack it. Half-way through the fight, it raises its mechanical tail and Cloud says: “Attack while it’s [sic] tail’s up! It’s gonna counterattack with its laser.” This sentence is misleading enough as is but it’s made infinitely worse by the fact that the text is broken up into two text boxes, split right between sentences, making it seem even more like the game is ordering you to attack while the tail is up (see the attached screenshot). Things are even worse if Cloud is dead, at which point Barret will speak instead, and Barret doesn’t know if the Guard Scorpion will counterattack or what. Barret just says “Let’s see what it does when it’s [sic] tail’s up…”
And silly me, I read Cloud’s text and, even though I’m familiar with the past three games and should have known better, I still attack the Guard Scorpion while it’s [sic] tail is up. Why? Well, actually, it was because I was familiar with the previous games, and said “Oh good, they finally changed that boring old boss pattern!”
Later, I attacked again because I was too eager with my first ever Limit Break. I’ll take the blame for that one.
Despite being hit by the Guard Scorpion’s tail not just once but twice, I pulled through thanks to a liberal amount of potions, and also Cloud’s “Bolt” spell (FFVII was released prior to Square standardizing attack names to their current forms, a process that appears to have begun in FFT). Boss defeated, the party set the bomb on the reactor for ten minutes and started to raced out of there. Well, “raced” in a relative sense of the term. “Stand and pose after every battle while the timer ticks down” was more like it.
Part-way up the stairs, you spot Jessie having somehow caught her foot on a girder as she stood perfectly still in one spot. You help her up and she’s able to open the electronic lock above to get you back to Biggs, and so on until you all escape out the side door and the explosion theatrically chases after you, even if you actually managed to get up with five minutes to spare, as Kyle and I had. And that’s not just a stylistic complaint: the explosion is actually plot-critical, as it traps the terrorists in a small section of pipe. They’re forced to blast their way out, arguably explaining why the cops are on their asses not four screens from here. It never should have happened because we had five minutes left!