The party arrives to find Shinra already attacking the pillar! Like a pack of lemmings, the people of the slums have come to watch the show in horror rather than flee. The only thing keeping Shinra off the pillar are AVALANCHE themselves, who have engaged in a running firefight with their soldiers. Tifa asks Aeris to separate from them to go to Seventh Heaven and get Marlene out of the sector, which she agrees to do, leaving Cloud and Tifa alone to climb the tower.
There are some grisly sights on the stairs up the tower. Every one of your companions from AVALANCHE, save Barret, have been wounded and left to die, many of them dying after a quick goodbye conversation. Poor Biggs was left draped over a railing! It’s a jarring sequence and might have been effective, if it hadn’t been entirely undercut by the wacky helicopter soldiers that Shinra has sent to attack you. It does make sense that Shinra would send some sort of fliers, since I can’t imagine they’d want to sacrifice their lives under the pillar, but these guys are just way too goofy to take the scene seriously as a whole.
At the top of the tower, we found Barret still up and fighting. He didn’t seem all that surprised to see us, least of all Cloud, considering he must have thought Cloud was dead, but that just goes to show what a practical sort of guy Barret can be. Unfortunately, any hope we might have had now that the party was reunited was dashed by the arrival of Reno by helicopter, who set off a bomb on the tower and decided to fight us off to wear down the timer.
The fight against Reno has an interesting new gimmick: he can call in a pyramid (seemingly inspired by this game’s debug/test enemies, which are themselves pyramids) to imprison a party member. The only way to break out is to have someone else attack the pyramid, which in this case means you have to target and attack your own party member. While this was all very cute, it was scuffed by some of the game’s slippery controls. This wasn’t the first complaint Kyle and I had made about the controls, though it was funny to me seeing Kyle make the same mistakes I had made even though he had grown up with the game. The game seemed to fight us every time we tried to change from enemies to the player party, and again whenever we tried to shift to (or from) group spells to normal spells. This sort of targeting trouble hadn’t been an issue since we first started with the smartphone games, and we had never had this sort of control issue in games with a traditional control scheme, at least not until now. Was it a problem with FFVII itself, and its constantly panning camera making it hard to tell what directions to press? Or was it our joypad? I legitimately do not know, even after clearing the entire game, save to say that the control problems continued throughout.
(It’s worth noting that our second play session ended not long after this battle, and I wrote most of the journal you’ve seen so far a short time after that session. When it came time to write for our third play session, I forgot I had made the above complaint about controls and repeated it wholesale! In fact, I went a little further! Since I deleted the repeat critique, I’ll copy over my additions to say that it’s often hard to select individual targets as well, and what the game really needed was not to select enemies from the screen (which is constantly moving and panning about) but to select them from a menu.)
Control was also an issue outside of battle when mixed with the pre-rendered backgrounds, which were often unclear, sloppy or outright misleading. Bridges that look like slopes, slopes that look like bridges, roofs that look like holes, holes that look like roofs, and don’t forget that golden oldie of pre-rendered backgrounds: returning to the room you just left because the camera is now pointing in the opposite direction and you moved the wrong way. Hopefully the later PSX Final Fantasies would fix that sort of thing – their competitors certainly did – because I don’t have high hopes for the rest of this games’ environments if they continue the way they have.
After the battle with Reno, which was rather quick, he revealed something of a trump card: his superior in the Turks, Tseng, had just arrived via helicopter, and revealed that he had kidnapped Aeris. It took the party a long stretch to notice she was even there! Tseng explained that he had orders to capture “the last remaining Ancient,” meaning Aeris, and he claims it somehow took them a long time to do it. I have no idea why, considering the Turks seem fairly capable and Aeris has been stalked since she was a child according to her mother, but whatever you say, Tseng. I’ll admit, this was one of only a handful of things that Crisis Core improved from FFVII in my mind, because the shallow, henchman-cliche portrayal of Tseng in FFVII itself understandably doesn’t have time to explain his delay or to give him any depth-of-character. Before being flown off, Aeris shouts that “she’s all right,” presumably referring to Marlene, but that’s our last bit of good news before the pillar detonates. President Shinra watches as classical music plays, like the old, bullshit legend of Nero and his fiddle.
The party finally escapes when Barret finds a… crane hook? And everyone grabs hold of Barret to swing out Indiana Jones-style. What a delightful way to undercut the deaths of thousands.
Not that the sequence needed any further undercutting. As has happened in the Marathon in the past, Kyle and I think alike sometimes, after all these years knowing one another. Bear in mind that Kyle grew up with this game while I’m seeing it for the first time, so Kyle has nostalgia and I don’t. And as has happened in Marathon in the past, Kyle voiced a complaint just as I was typing my notes on the exact sentiment: this is a fucking cartoon. Dr. Wily could do no better, and we know, because his virus (long story) followed FFVII’s lead by dropping a space colony onto earth during the plot of Mega Man X5. But at least the Mavericks were actually at war with the people of earth! There are real-world atrocities performed by corporations against the disenfranchised, and that’s what FFVII is trying to emulate, but the game shoots its own point in the foot by making its corporation staggeringly incompetent and willing to execute 1/8th of its topside customers, supposedly to stimulate the business of the survivors? We’re not talking about spiting the poor to help the rich here: the plate-dwellers are the rich, or at least the middle class. This is cutting off the nose to spite the face. I take back my Dr. Wily comparison. Zapp Brannigan could do no better.
Even coming back to edit this after finishing FFVII, watching Advent Children and DoC, I feel this scene doesn’t work for me. I think it was driven home to me by Episode of Denzel, one of the FFVII short stories, which recounts the destruction of the plate from the eyes of a survivor, and the portrayal is devastating and effective. But in FFVII, the portrayal is from the eyes of the villains, and is basically a dog-kicking moment. Hey, while we’re here, take a look at these two portrayals of a tragedy, one from FFVII that’s about just how evil a cackling villain can be and the length they’d go to harm their own assets to achieve a minor gain, and about how serious the plot is; and compare it to Episode of Denzel, which is about the suffering, grief and lack inflicted on the victims and their fractured families. Now that you’ve done that comparison: do some simple math and tell me which portrayal was released before, and which portrayal was released after 9/11.
(Ed. Before I go any further, I’d like to point out that sephy raised an interesting possibility that Sector 7 topside wasn’t supposed to be populated after all, and that the game tried and failed to hint at that, which you can see in the comments below. That said, in Episode of Denzel, Sector 7 was absolutely populated!)
(Funnily enough, this isn’t the only time On the Way to a Smile throws sand in the face of FFVII’s portrayal of bad guys, as it also has Tseng outright acknowledge that he was acting like a cliché villain at this stage in the game. It just straight-up says that!)
But that’s enough about insensitivity, let’s talk about excess. Excess in storytelling is something that I believe has to be earned. Let me tell you a brief story. One day, I was browsing around the net for Doom map packs. I can’t remember why – I was never much into Doom – but there I was nevertheless. I downloaded several high-rated maps, including one that was loudly proclaimed as the hardest map ever. It had a lot of praise, and was high-ranked among users out of a lot of stiff competition, so I gave it a run, and found my Doomguy in the middle of a wide-open wasteland area surrounded by Cyberdemons, multiple copies of the game’s first boss. Within second I was dead. I tried again, and again, and again, with no change in results. After cheating, I found each remaining room in the game was likewise packed to the preposterous brim with enemies. Since that day, I’ve seen similar mods and custom maps for other games, like Duke Nukem 3D or Starcraft, which purported to be the hardest thing ever, but were in actuality simple, rudimentary designs cranking enemy stats to the thousands and surrounding you at every opportunity without the slightest trace of nuance.
Turning back to Final Fantasy for a moment, this kind of excessive violence against one’s own people is to be expected from literally demonic or chaotic villains, Square’s stock-and-trade up to this point. For example, Emperor Mateus destroyed his own city, but he had literally deposed Satan as the ruler of hell before doing it, so I think he qualifies as a demon. Kefka’s betrayal of the Emperor and Empire was built up over the course of the game, so by the time it had happened (around the game’s 60% mark) you realized how you had gotten there. Kyle tells me that this trend of villains destroying their own people for pathetic reasons may sadly continue through the PSX era. Now, Kyle and I came to FFVII straight of the heels of Crisis Core, where we constantly joked about Zack’s inability to see that Shinra was obviously evil, but now we were only a few hours in to FFVII itself, and we have a company so exaggerated and evil that it may as well be wearing plastic devil horns and a tail, and it’s only gotten worse since.
But President Shinra isn’t a literal demon : Square is either cranking the dial to 11 just to prove how evil he is in stupidest way imaginable, or they’re trying to make a social point about corporations, and in cranking it up to 11 I feel they miss the real world almost entirely. In fact, I’m not certain they realize they’ve cranked it up to 11 at all? After this scene, Barret acts as though Shinra only wiped out “a village,” not taking into account the god knows how many people living on top of the plate. Now, Barret is angry and biased and certainly entitled to be angry and biased at the moment, so I initially dismissed his comments, but later on someone else remarks on Sector 7 as “scrap,” as though it weren’t a residential area. Was Sector 7 secretly the all-robots district? Someone needs to clarify this, and fast, and they never do, even though the difference between killing X-many people in the slums alone and killing X-many people in the slums and Y-many people on the plate is a difference measured in fictional human lives, maybe upwards of hundreds of thousands of human lives given the size of real-world metropolises, and if Square themselves overlooked those casualties that would be some hell of a writing problem.
The lesson here is that there’s always someone out there who thinks that by cranking things up to 11, they’ve created the best thing in their class, be it a DOOM map or a highly praised video game narrative. Then they crank it up to 12, up to 23, and keep going until they’ve gone as high as they could possibly go, because they see excess as “good writing.” And they get fans for this, they get highly rated on the map sites, so I can’t deny that this sort of “design” has its place. But for me, I stopped doing game design like this in fifth grade. I remember the situation specifically: my design didn’t survive contact with others, so I toned it down. I was ten, and I learned better. About the only thing I like about this sequence is the shot of President Shinra watching the carnage as classical music plays.
By cranking things up to 20 just to make Shinra look as evil as possible within the game’s third hour, FFVII has already reached its “Cid suicide bombs off the airship” moment from FFIV: the moment where I developed serious, serious doubts about its ability to tell a competent story from this point on. The Indiana Jones exit really brings Cid back to mind, too: a fundamentally goofy sequence that thinks it’s being serious. Thankfully, while it is disappointing to reach this unearned extreme so early, FFVII does have a lot of playtime left to go and improve, where FFIV was entering its final quarter and was basically doomed. But this is… this is bad writing, I mean really bad, and FFVII is going to have to do a world of work to get me to believe in it again.