The brief dungeon that followed featured a number of new enemy encounters, including several flying fish. It also featured a bubble attack that for some reason caused Sleep, something that was so “Mario RPG” that it made me sniffle with nostalgia. Later in the dungeon, we came across a chute that Barret refused to go down without some goading. Rough-and-tough Shinra-listed terrorist is worried bout going down a little slide. That’s cute, don’t you think Tifa? I think that’s cute.
As it happened, the one-way slide went straight into the Sector 5 reactor, which in a clever decision mostly matched the design of the Sector 1, save that it was in much better repair and many of its rooms were shot from a new unique camera angle. Not quite perfect, though: Kyle remarked that one of the stranger changes in this section is a jump in the basement, which in Sector 1 had been from concrete to damaged concrete, but in Sector 5 is from concrete to a round pipe, despite both routes seeming to be on the employee’s way into the reactor! One of the most prominent enemies in this section was a strange green and yellow thing called a Smogger, which was essentially a vaguely-humanoid assemblage of pipes that annoys Kyle with its nonsensical design. One of them was so kind as to drop an item called “Deadly Waste” (a one-use bomb item) that Cloud ever-so-eagerly stuffed into his pants.
The bombing went off without a hitch, not even a security robot this time, though Cloud did have another… incident. This time, it wasn’t a voice in his head, but what appeared to be a flashback, showing young Tifa in a preposterous cowboy hat, grieving over her dead father and saying something about Sephiroth being responsible. Cloud soon returned to himself, however, and we learned little else. As we were walking back out, I remarked to Kyle that obviously something was wrong (there was no timer in the corner) but that it was interesting how there were no other clues that something was wrong… and that’s not necessarily a compliment about subtlety. I’ve frequently talked about Square’s problem with forgetting about minor encounters, and as a consequence, I genuinely can’t tell if there are no guards in this power plant here because there are supposed to be no guards (aka, this is a trap, as it now clearly was), or if there are no guards because the random encounters are supposed to be guards?
The party didn’t discover they had been had until they had left the facility, which meant at least one more sequence on the way out. For unknown reasons that don’t honestly sound all that secure, you had to slam on three buttons at the exact same time. It was so stupid that Kyle was nearly rolling in the aisles laughing at it, especially once I actually started to play. Meanwhile, I had to have Cloud hit the button with virtually no prompting but trial and error, and I did so poorly at it that I can’t help but suspect some of that laughter was at me.
Shinra sprang its trap right at the exit… or should I say “his” trap? President Shinra himself showed up in person to gloat over us. Mr. Shinra here is never fully named in any Final Fantasy spin-off product, so I’m going to have to address him by his title just to keep him and his company distinct! President Buttface then delivered another boss robot to crush us. To my surprise, he seemed to know about the bomb but did nothing to disable it, and little did I suspect that he had his reasons. He left us behind with a giant robot, presumably to keep us there until the bomb went off and killed us too, though thankfully there wasn’t a timer here either.
This new boss monster was the Air Buster, a vaguely humanoid robot that made the mistake of moving into the middle of the party, allowing us to surround it. The Air Buster would turn to face whoever attacked it, be that Tifa and Barret on one side or Cloud on the other, but it took extra damage from behind (indeed, the FFWiki notes that it takes five times as much damage from behind, instead of the usual double for fighting surrounded enemies!). On the downside, it countered our attacks as well, and even after we broke its ability to turn around, it was still able to fire bullets behind it into Tifa and Barret. Our real trouble came from Cloud, who got slammed in the face with a cannon, knocking him out, and he kept getting killed the moment we revived him with a Phoenix Down. This cost us all our Phoenix Downs for almost no gain, since Cloud never recovered and was still dead by the end of the battle, blocking him from any EXP reward.
Perhaps it’s only fair, then, that Cloud ended up in an even worse situation after the fight was over. The boss exploded when it was destroyed, tearing a hole in the bridge and leaving Cloud dangling from his fingertips on the opposite side of the bridge to his companions. The conversation he had with the others was hilarious, as both Cloud and Barret, both very practical, decided that Cloud was doomed, and figured it would be best if Barret and Tifa ran for it. Seeing Tifa distraught while both her only companion and the man who was about to die were just shrugging off the situation was something you just have to see to believe.
Naturally, Cloud took a plunge but he didn’t die. Instead, he crashed through the roof of a church in the slums below, landing in a bed of flowers. This might be sounding a little familiar to any Crisis Core readers. There, Cloud found Aerith looking down on him, who told him this was a sacred place and that the flowers had somehow cushioned his fall. I’d argue that this sounds like more like a Looney Tunes visual gag than an actual explanation, but I have absolutely no other way to explain how Cloud survived this disastrous fall, so I guess she wins this round!
After some friendly banter between her and Cloud (who had pulled a Cid Pollendina and was fine, by the way), we got a chance to name this flower girl. Here we come to one of FFVII’s great controversies, namely that Square renamed this character starting in Kingdom Hearts 1 and never looked back. In the original English release, she was “Aeris,” while in all subsequent releases, she went by “Aerith.”
Perhaps to everyone’s surprise given my history with Kingdom Hearts, we went with “Aeris.”
Why? I chalk it up mostly to the Marathon rules. Kyle and I sometimes take those rules a lot more seriously (and literally) than you’d expect, given that we… you know… made the rules and could hypothetically do whatever we want with them. We haven’t even shared the full list of rules, so how would you know if we broke one? And yet here we are! Suffice to say: the Marathon’s rule is to use the default name, so even though I kept referring to the character as “Aerith” when talking to Kyle, it simply made more sense to call her “Aeris” in-game since the Marathon’s rule is to use the default name! “Aeris” it is!
Part-way through the conversation, Aeris completely changes the subject for no reason to announce that she carries a Materia that does nothing, which is probably the most jarring and artificial non sequitur I’ve seen in these games since FFLII was forcibly censored mid-dialogue. Aeris changes the subject like this in every version, though, where FFLII’s problem was English-exclusive, so I think FFVII walks away with the trophy.
After Aeris’ name was entered, a man in a suit arrived at the door and Aeris seems to notice the fellow, and suddenly develops an interest in Cloud serving as her bodyguard. She says that she’d like to go out with him in return. Zack has taught her that this is currency. After agreeing, the voice in Cloud’s head told Cloud that the person behind the voice knew the man. Presumably thanks to information from the voice, Cloud recognized that the man was a Shinra spy: Reno of the Turks, whom we first saw in Crisis Core, making this his original introduction!
Reno has come with a group of soldiers, and Cloud and Aeris are forced to escape through the back door. Unfortunately, this means going through a number of random encounters, which means our first fights with Aeris, who fulfills the White Mage with her use of Staffs and healing Limits.
That said, Aeris doesn’t really follow the White Mage architype very far, since anyone in FFVII can use any sort of magic, and have very little setting them apart from one another in general. Kyle’s always been critical of this kind of RPG character design in the past, talking about how he hates it when there’s no real reason to choose one character over another when they’re all functionally identical unless you put their stats under a microscope. I imagine FFVII was one of the games he was talking about all along, even if the Limit Breaks do make more of a difference than other examples I’m sure he could name. Personally, I’m usually a fan of strong character customization, as shown in my love of the Job System games, but I can see where he’s coming from with this. The Job System games essentially toss away the idea that characters have gameplay distinctions in favour of fully player-controlled builds. Meanwhile, FFVII is trying to hold on to gameplay distinctions, but in a very shallow way. It’s essentially pretending that Limit Breaks are nearly enough to differentiate a cast of many different player characters, since they’re the most substantial thing about any given person. Kyle simply didn’t agree!
One thing we were glad to find now that Aeris was in the party was that the game had auto-unequipped Tifa and Barret of their Materia when it kicked them out of the party, which is more grace than FFVI ever showed us, and an outright slap in the face of FFIV.
Not far into the back of the church, Aeris and Cloud began to climb into the rafters, but Aeris missed a jump and was cornered by Reno’s guards. As Kyle was joking at the time: “Cloud!” he said in an Aeris impression, “I think you forgot I’m a normal human being with that jump!” Ultimately, the Shinra soldiers knocked Aeris down to ground level, and Cloud decided the best way to help her was to go into the rafters and start shoving down barrels, rather than, say, jump down and help her out. You have to pick the correct barrels or else Aeris will have to fight one of the guards per incorrect barrel. Kyle and I managed to get all the barrels right, though it got easier as you went along. Only the first barrel was really that difficult to make out, as it’s fifty-fifty between it and another, while the other two were dead obvious as we ran out of other options.
Reno vanished in the chaos, so Aeris and Cloud were able to slip onto the rooftops and escape, Cloud once again leaving Aeris several jumps behind. Dude doesn’t learn. While on the rooftops, Cloud explained that Reno was from the Turks and said that “they scout out candidates for SOLDIER” Yeah, that’s not even… most of what they do, but I’ve already talked about that in Crisis Core. Cloud eventually admitted that the Turks also do assassination (Aeris, when you hear this, please read: “almost entirely”) as he and Aeris began to roof-hop to stay away from the bad guys.
As they talked, there were a lot of great minor moments I’m skipping over by consequence of summary. I have to admit, despite my complaints about the general appearance of overworld character models, FFVII has much better character animation moments than in VI, and we’re just slapping IV in the face for fun at this point. This is probably because of the larger breadth of animation available to 3D models outside of stock 2D sprite animations like laughing, jumping, and, urm, well… laughing and jumping. That said, just as I’m complimenting minor moments, the game has Aeris talk about how Cloud’s eyes have a strange glow, which she says as Cloud looks directly at the camera with no glow in his eyes at all. Cloud (like Zack in Crisis Core) explained that this was a mark of his being a SOLDIER: he had been infused with mako. President Shinra and Reno had previous mentioned this as well, calling them “Mako eyes,” so you’d think they’d maybe show a one-time glint on his Lego face for this line of dialogue!
Aeris decided they should flee to her house. Ah yes, the last place they’ll look! Great job on her too, Zack. On our way into town there were a number of shops, as well as an odd, sick gentleman living in an old pipe. As we got closer to the guy, Kyle let out a frustrated groan as he learned that the recent re-release of FFVII had fixed one of the game’s original typos, wherein Aeris saw the man and said “This guy are sick.” You will be missed, typo. Taking a closer look at the man, we learned he had the number “2” tattooed on his arm, but we learned little else.
Heading on to Aeris’ home, we raided her garden (which was full of flowers despite her earlier comments to the contrary) and we met her mother, who unlike Cloud was actually distressed by the news that Aeris wanted a bodyguard, as it meant she was being “followed again.” That made it surprising when, just a few lines later, she seemed completely unfazed when Aeris suggested she was going to keep going with Cloud to Seventh Heaven, in hopes of meeting up with any other survivors of the bombing run. But it turns out it was just a façade: Aeris’ mom as she came up to Cloud in private later on to ask him to politely leave during the night before Aeris could follow. After this, there was a brief conversation between Cloud and his red-light mental voice, followed by another flashback, this one to Cloud and a woman we would later learn was his own mother.
Later in the night, Cloud decided to sneak out. This provoked a brief stealth sequence, but even after we had gotten away, we found Aeris up and waiting for us as the crack between Sector 5 and 6. Begrudgingly taking her with us, we carried on into Sector 6, where we headed north and were well on our way when—
We were well on our way north when I was stunned into silence by the arrival of a giant, wandering house! This random monster actually had two separate forms, one a simple if somewhat bulgy, N64-cartoon-graphics-styled house, and the second a giant skeleton… robot?… that launched missiles at you. It was a hell of a thing to see! I love it.
As much fun as I was having with this monster (the Hell House), I couldn’t help but notice that some of its attacks were somewhat nonsensically named. FFVII is the first game in the series that sets aside generic “attacks” in favour of named attacks (and thankfully animated attacks – the old Final Fantasy standard of the enemy flashing and causing damage with a simple thud sound effect is over!). This is definitely admirable, but more than a little sensationalized, with impressive things like “Hell Press” turning out to be a stomp attack. The animations are great, don’t get me wrong, but there are times when I might have preferred the attack names be replaced with the boring but still above-par “Attacked with axe” from FFMQ!
Just before the gate to Sector 7, Cloud and Aeris pause in an old playground and have a chat about Cloud’s time in SOLDIER. Aeris asks him what rank he was, something Cloud has already said in the past, but for some reason when he answers here, we get another suspicious flash on the screen before he says he’s SOLDIER 1st class. This prompts Aeris to talk about her first boyfriend, who was also ranked first in SOLDIER. She says the relationship wasn’t serious. Oh burn! Luckily for Zack, Aeris may be lying, considering an earlier line from her mother suggesting that a connection to SOLDIER led to Aeris being emotionally hurt in the past. Despite my teasing of our poor favourite puppy, Aeris doesn’t technically name her ex.
Just then, their conversation is interrupted by the arrival of a chocobo-drawn carriage that seems to be carrying Tifa in the back. Cloud and Aeris run off to follow it, and are led to the oddball town of Wall Market in Sector 6.