Barret tells everyone to split up for their escape, and despite going the same way the player is forced to, he’s nowhere to be seen after you catch up to him. Heading into the city, you’re confronted by a number of posters for LOVELESS. Kyle then sighed really, really loud, and we moved on with great remorse.
At the foot of the posters, Cloud met up with Aerith (hold on, the name issue is still coming), who is still selling flowers. We picked one up for a single gil rather than, you know, warning her to leave the burning, volatile, suspect area with all speeds. After this, we headed off and were promptly ambushed by the proper authorities. Cloud gets stopped multiple times, and you can choose to fight or run at each stop, though the only difference is your EXP and gil, as reinforcements will push Cloud back after each battle. At the end, he’s forced to jump on top of the very train he was set to board as it passes underneath a bridge, whereupon he reunites with the others.
Temporarily away from Cloud, it seems the other members of AVALANCHE are pressing Barret to get Cloud to stick on and continue to help them out, though it’s clear Barret doesn’t think Cloud will want to, and doesn’t particularly want him to either! Once Cloud rejoins them, they head off up the train, where Jessie shows Cloud a computerized map of the city. This sequence exists primarily for the player, as it introduces them to Midgar’s unusual structure. The city, as I’ve already said, exists raised above the ground. Why this is, I can’t stay for sure… beyond it being a very blunt, costly and frankly arbitrary way to divide the traditional haves and have-nots of dystopian fiction, of course. A lot of relatively modern futurists have seriously considered the idea of “vertical” cities in recent years (video game fans might be familiar with the arcologies of Sim City 2000), but the idea’s rather limited if you stop at just one extra storey, you know?
The city is divided into eight triangular sectors each with their own mako reactor – AVALANCHE just blew up Sector 1’s – and this circle-with-triangles structure leads to Barret hilariously calling the plate a “&^#$# pizza” later in the game. As I implied, Midgar’s underclass lives under the plate in slums divided exactly like the sectors above (divided by tall walls with gates). The group is currently bound for their hideout in the Sector 7 slums, though they have to pass through a sort of scanner to get there with the help of fake IDs.
Once they arrive in town, the party hops off the train station. And I mean that literally: they all jump off the platform just like the game would have done if it had to hop them over an otherwise impenetrable barrier. I’m not sure why they don’t just use the stairs, especially since some of the generic NPCs do use them (Jessie and Barret jump over the stairs), so I suspect something technical and silly was going on here, even if it does give them personality. Good on the part of the scripting team… weird on the part of the programmers. Barret gathers everyone together and talks loudly about their plans in front of the Shinra-employed train conductor standing not five steps away.
After that, you head to the next room where a man (taking a piss) shows you the pillar supporting the plate high above the slums. This pillar later becomes part of the action, but the game does a good job blending it in with the infodump from the train, as though the game was still talking about the geography of Midgar. This is pretty well done, because if a player knows a dangerous part of the map is going to be playable, they can guess at the upcoming danger, and the game does a good job of hiding the area and so the future plot! Unfortunately, it slips up right at the end: you see, there are stairs around the pillar that are clearly meant to be climbed by the player despite being locked off at the moment. There is no reason that a space-limited 90s game would have added that detail unless the pillar would be a major plot point later in the game. So close… and yet so far.
Once in town, the party heads to a bar on one side of town, Seventh Heaven, where Barret kicks everyone out. It turns out that this is their hideout, run by a fellow member of AVALANCHE and Cloud’s childhood friend, Tifa Lockhart (assuming you give her her default name). In gameplay terms, while Cloud is the typical heroic front-liner from every RPG in existence, and Barret has been doing a good job standing out on his own, Tifa more clearly descends from the Monks of older Final Fantasies, being a glass cannon fighter armed only with gloves. Technically, Tifa can wear armour, unlike past Monks… it just doesn’t help much against her horrendous base defence and HP. Several other upcoming party members will also fit into classic Final Fantasy archetypes.
While here, you also meet a young girl named Marlene, who is terrified of you. “A scary man made me cry!” Because he has blood all over his sword! And his face! We were given the opportunity to cheer her up with the flower from earlier, but being assholes, we handed it over to Tifa instead. Barret arrives at this point, and we discover that Marlene is his daughter, and he takes her down into a secret basement under the bar, activated by apparently slamming on with the pinball machine at one end. Boy, it’s a good thing nobody ever tilts pinball machines!
Left alone with Tifa, Cloud goes to have an invisible drink and chat. Cloud mentions to Tifa that he’s leaving as soon as he’s paid, and Tifa for some reason mentions that Cloud looks troubled.
Joining the others in the basement, Barret asks Cloud if anyone from SOLDIER showed up at the reactor. This is a strange question to ask, given that Cloud and Barret were separated only briefly on the surface, but I suppose it’s worth asking all the same. I also suppose (Crisis Core’s evidence aside) that it’s possible that Barret doesn’t actually know what a SOLDIER in uniform actually looks like? Even though Cloud is supposedly wearing a SOLDIER’s uniform? Cloud says no, there were no SOLDIERs, and that’s a good thing, because a SOLDIER would have mopped the floor with them. During this scene, Barret addresses Shinra several times as “the Shinra,” which would make sense if he was using its full name (“the Shinra Electric Power Company”) but just sounds silly as-is, like saying “the Square Enix.” It’s a linguistic flub the game will be making from end to end. Barret and Cloud get into a fight about Cloud’s pay, causing Cloud to declare that he doesn’t care about their little movement, upsetting basically everyone in the room who was hoping Cloud would come over to their side full time. There’s a great bit here where Wedge doesn’t buy your tough-guy act if you talk to him, and he’s got a point: after all, you talked to him instead of storming out! But Cloud storms out all the same.
(If you stick around, the news will inform you that the explosion at the reactor killed numerous innocents, which is confirmed later in the game by a more reliable source, but is generally muttered and coughed over by the actual cast for a large chunk of the game. Subtle work on Square’s part, but maybe a little too subtle, as it’s quite possible for you to miss these details entirely, or for it to appear as though the plot doesn’t care about these casualties, when in fact it genuinely does!)
Tifa follows Cloud out, and tries to convince him to stay out of environmental concerns, repeating that the Planet is dying. When that doesn’t work, she tries to shame him with a reminder about a childhood promise. Ho boy, it’s Chain of Memories all over again. We flash back to Cloud and Tifa’s hometown, where we see Cloud announcing his plans to go join SOLDIER, and Tifa says that if he’s going to be a big hero like that, he should come back and save her someday, just like the cliché (that’s her insinuation, not mine!). They’re on the town’s water tower during this scene, and Cloud seems to… take a swim in it for some reason. Kyle remarked: “I think he’s just trying to play ‘tallest.'”
This scene also marks the first mention of “The Great Sephiroth,” a hero of SOLDIER that Cloud looked up to back in the day. More on that as we go, for those who have been living under a rock at the centre of the earth and have legitimately never heard the name “Sephiroth.”
Back in the present, it’s not clear if Tifa’s guilt trip actually convinces Cloud to stick around, as the two of them are interrupted. It certainly helps Cloud make up his mind when Barret arrives moments later with Cloud’s pay, or at least some of it: 1500 gil. We got more than that fighting wandering monsters, and Cloud rightly complains, but agrees to do another job for AVALANCHE if they promise double the pay, which, given the way enemies drop more money in each region, is still not going to amount to much! But Barret agreed, so the plot is on!
The party essentially asked Marlene to tend bar while they were off terroristing. We’re the heroes. Now more than ever.
…Wait, are you serious about doing that bombing mission right after the other one? Are you so short-handed that you couldn’t do both at the same time to avoid the increased security? (Actually, signs suggest… yes!)
On other important stop in Sector 7 is the Beginner’s Hall in one corner. In an clever inversion, since Cloud is supposed to be an experienced SOLDIER, he’s the one who teaches most of the lessons! Someone go and taunt Lord Captain Cecil, he of the Beginner’s Halls in every town in the International and Easytype releases! Better yet, this Beginner’s Hall happily bribes players to learn the rules, handing over an extraordinarily valuable Materia, the “All” Materia. I suppose this is as good a time as ever to talk about this sort of thing. Materia – like Limit Breaks, now that I think of it – seem to be an evolved form of an FFVI mechanic, namely the Magicite. The two systems aren’t quite identical but you can see a certain line of descent. Like Magicite, Materia is the one and only way for you to get magic in FFVII, and it influences your stats. Unlike Magicite, the magic from Materia is never learned. Instead, the magic is a property of the Materia itself, which is equipped in “Materia slots” that exist in you weapons and armour. Materia level up with AP in a manner not unlike the Job Points / Magicite Levelling of FFV/VI, and your equipment can also give you boosts to that. Some Materia upgrades give you new spells, while other Materia (like Summons) have limited casts-per-battle and upgrading them will give you more. Stat adjustments also only apply while the Materia is equipped, and no longer influence your level-ups.
The “All” Materia we just picked up illustrates an important detail about the Materia system: some Materia can be combined with one another if equipped in special linked slots in your equipment. For example, you can combine the All Materia with most spell Materia to gain the ability to group-cast the attached spell, something you can’t do by default in FFVII. The level of your All Materia also determines how many group casts you can perform in a single battle. Summons in FFVII work with a similar limitation.
While we’re sort of on the subject of equipment, FFVII only has one armour slot, which equips arm bands of all things. I imagine that originally came as a byproduct of the Materia system, or possibly the fact that the arm bands are rendered on the character models in real-time, which would make more armour slots inconvenient and is certainly the reason armour is arm bands in the first place! But despite both restrictions only really applying to FFVII, the idea of having only one armour slot seems to have carried on to most of the FF games that followed, even those that don’t have similar excuses. I imagine that only having one armour slot must make balancing the games a lot easier, but it’s a bit of a shame. One of my childhood joys was decking everyone out in a full Sherman tank’s worth of metal in FFLIII, and it certainly limits the potential for customization, but as you will.
Before heading out, Kyle and I spent nearly a thousand of our 1500 gil payment on Iron Bangles for the party, which I guess proves our commitment to the AVALANCHE cause. We also picked up another Restore Materia at the Materia shop, and hooked one up to Barret and one up to Cloud with the All Materia attached. Tifa was left with no Materia to her name, a problem we frequently noticed during this section but ultimately never corrected? Together, we headed off on our second bombing run by going to the train.
The cast informed us of an upcoming problem right away: what with the explosion at the Sector 1 reactor, Shinra would undoubtedly fix their ID scanner systems, so the new plan was to jump off the train at some point and crawl through some sort of maintenance tunnels. But the group had underestimated Shrina’s contingency plans. Not only had Shinra fixed their system (and so well that Jessie’s ramshackle attempt to make new fake IDs didn’t work either) but they had moved the scanner ahead on the track to prevent this exact tactic. My compliments to our evil overlords!
Unfortunately, the Shinra scanning system could use some serious and obvious fixes. While it could detect the party, it couldn’t get a bead on their locations, and so we simply… ran up the train! They didn’t lock the doors, call guards, or install a system that wasn’t fucking ridiculous. For what it’s worth, a cut line of dialogue suggests that this was an old system with a known flaw, though that still doesn’t explain why they’re still using it. We got up to the front of a car (no thanks to a pickpocket) only to discover that as stupid as Shinra’s security might be, Barret’s plan to get off the train wasn’t exactly brilliance either. He just wanted to jump off the train… like he could have done in any previous car. He just held off because he didn’t want to walk as far! Apparently if you do get caught, you have to jump off earlier, adding nothing more dangerous than a bunch of rooms to the next dungeon. Barret is that guy you used to know who drove his car to the corner store. And let’s not forget how everyone in the party stands around chatting at the final door instead of jumping, ensuring that the last person to jump will be miles away from the first. You know, I’m starting to suspect this might not be a professional terrorist organization.