We pick up our adventure and third play session in the Sector 6 slums’ playground, now covered with shrapnel from the collapse of the Sector 7 plate. Although… not that much shrapnel! I’ll give Shinra this: they may be run by Raul Julia’s M. Bison, a man with one effective moment of drama in a web of wall-to-wall cackling and shouting, but they do tidy demolitions work!
Our first objective after gathering our wits was to check on Aeris’ place to see if Marlene was, in fact, tucked away there. Sure enough she was, and while Barret went to see her, Aeris’ mom, Elmyra, explained to us why Aeris had been singled out by Shinra, what with her being a descendant of the Ancients and all, but in far more detail than in Crisis Core.
By the way, before I go into Elmyra’s story, I’ve gotta say: there are some great panning transitions in this flashback, used to depict Aeris’ house from one camera angle or another. Very well done. On the other hand, there’s a small graphical problem with these flashbacks as well. One lesson it seems Square Enix learned too late in development was to always use a small “tongue” of space to illustrate an exit. It appears in a lot of places in the game, but not all, which leads to the weird appearance in these scenes where you see Aeris running “through a wall” at one point when she’s actually going through a door!
Aeris’ mom, Elmyra, told us that she had adopted Aeris after encountering Aeris’ biological mother dying at the train station in the now-former Sector 7. Wow, that train guard in the background is the worst guard ever. People dying on his watch, people talking about conspiratorial bombings on his watch…
Elmyra had been waiting for her husband to come back on leave from a war with the far-off nation of Wutai, which had apparently been going on long before the events of Crisis Core – so long, in fact, that I have to take Before Crisis’ insinuation that the war started during BC as a retcon! Aeris began to display strange psychic powers when she announced that “someone” dear to Elmyra had died far away, and sure enough, Elmyra soon learned that her husband had died in battle. To make matters worse, finally the Turks arrived to talk to Elmyra, telling her Aeris was an Ancient, which prompted Aeris to loudly and repeatedly denounce it. As we can glean from Crisis Core, Tseng ended up taking a shine to Aeris and left her be for many years, but it seems the situation has somehow changed to force Tseng’s hand.
Going upstairs to chat with Barret, we learned that he was so thankful to Aeris for rescuing his daughter that he was going to demand a rescue effort even though he had never met Aeris. That meant it was up to the three of us to find a way back above the plate to get to her. Unfortunately, the destruction of the plate took the train out of commission as well (great job, Shinra! Great way to make sure you have no minimum wage employees coming in to work for the next few months to work regular jobs or repairs! Enjoy your middle- and upper-class riots!) The party decided to start looking in Wall Market, ostensibly because you could find anything in Wall Market, though as it happens this wasn’t going to be so much of a shopping trip as it was an actual search for an exit. While we were in Wall Market, we bought a Fire Materia and a third Restore so that every single member of the party would have a copy of that precious, precious healing materia (no, really, you need to see us play Shining Force 2). For reference’s sake, Cloud was level 12, and Tifa and Barret level 11.
As I said above, you don’t actually buy your way up to the top of the plate, but as it happens you do want to make a story-related purchase while you’re there: namely, of three batteries restored by a man in the weapon shop. Awkward trigger zone for that conversation, by the way, since you have to counter-intuitively do it through a fence nowhere near the character. I actually left the shop because I couldn’t find it!
Medium story short, a group of kids inadvertently show you a way to the top of the plate: a climb through the ruined gap between the two sectors. This involved a lot more finding-of-hot-spots, and sure enough, was a fiasco of us missing one hot spot after another. The worst was the swinging cable section, which I’m sure must be infamous because the timing is so specific and unintuitive. The cable didn’t function at all like someone would expect if they had experience with video game platformers, and replaced it with basically nonsense. Oh, and let’s not forget FFVII’s weird obsession with repeating messages that were no longer necessary, as it gave you your instructions every time you approached the cable – two boxes worth, typing along as the cable continues to swing. This isn’t near as bad as the save points, that continue to remind you of their function every single time you visit them, but it stems from the same root.
At least the scenery and music are nice. Actually the music for this section reminded me of FFVI, something no other track in the FFVII OST does?
Once at the top of the wall, it was time for the main event: an assault on Shinra HQ itself, with the front door apparently right next to this massive rent in the ground! Our two companions gave us one option each. Barret’s suggestion was to storm the front door, and Tifa’s was to sneak up the fire escape… sixty storeys, and you have to walk them manually. Of course, Kyle and I were walkthrough-prepared to get the best of both worlds: climbing up half-way, getting an Elixir, and then climbing allllll the way back down and going in the front door for several battles of EXP and gil. Boring, yes, but thorough!
There’s not much to say about the staircase climb (except for one of the game’s two uses of the word “retarded”) so I’ll skip ahead to the door guards. Wow! What a set of guards! I understand the general upgrade in security after the reactor bombings, but is using hand grenades in the lobby really your ideal form of security?
The lobby beyond was the familiar room from Crisis Core, but despite our familiarity with the area, we apparently missed several optional rooms, including a shop! I’m not sure how. In any event, after this you had to ride the worst haywire elevator ever (great security system, Shinra, taking us exactly where we wanted to go after just a few detours!), fighting monsters along the way. Finally, we met up with the staircase route in a battle with robots that shed their outer skin to reveal… skate-bots! A standard in any modern military!
Once past the skater guards, you have to make your way up the next ten floors, each with their own theme and usually a puzzle. Floor 60 was a stealth sequence and easily the most frustrating part overall, since you have to move yourself manually, but your teammates move in set motions that you can barely control! I could do without it, to say the very least. Floor 61 was simply an employee break room designed to explain the rest of the – urm – “dungeon” and its gimmick from this point on: that you have to get a card for each floor that follows and that you’ll probably (or as it happens, definitely) only get one card per floor, each to the next floor. On Floor 61 in particular, you simply get a card by pretending to be maintenance crew (with swords and gun-arms, just your average photocopier repair team). This is probably my favourite dungeon in the game, and maybe even the series so far. Yeah, I’ll go that far! I just love the mix of monstrous areas, puzzle areas and NPC areas. It feels more alive than any other dungeon in the game, or series-so-far, for that matter. I’ll have to try to keep it in mind when Kyle and I come to do a second Top 5 list.
Floor 62 houses one of the series’ most unique puzzles, hosted by Midgar’s powerless mayor. Being powerless, the Mayor is happy to help you to spite Shinra, in exchange for a little game at your expense. His assistant offers to help you out in the game if you’re willing to spend some cash. A lot of players have a great deal of trouble with this puzzle-game, but in the end our real problem wasn’t the puzzle itself, but… sigh… hot spots. FFVII, why do I get the feeling that my final verdict for you will have less to do with narrative and more to do with your revolutionary but nowadays shoddy interface? It’s like looking back at Mario 64’s camera: game-changing at the time, mouldy today.
The problem, you see, was that you have to check a number of bookshelves in nearby rooms to solve the mayor’s puzzle, but the game never explains or implies that the bookshelves each have two hot spots, not one like nearly every bookshelf in RPG history, even those that were two carefully demarked tiles wide. Without that knowledge, Kyle and I just weren’t able to solve the puzzle without the help of a walkthrough, because we were only reading half the books! It’s possible the mayor’s assistant would have explained this (I don’t remember if we paid him, I was making a lot of furious notes on the puzzle and how the it appeared to work), but if he didn’t, shame on the developers! This puzzle is hard enough to work out as it is!
The actual puzzle – and bear in mind that working out this explanation is more than half the job – has to do with assembling a password by checking the books in the mayoral library and determining which don’t belong in their given section (an astronomy book in the military section, for example) and then using a numerical clue to determine which letter in the book’s title is part of the password. The rest is a simple anagram, which at this point is easy enough to work out since the mayor gives you a list of possible passwords. The puzzle is especially time consuming, and since the answer is randomized, most walkthroughs provide an alternate method to solve the puzzle based on the way the game will distribute the books based on the random answer. In non-English regions other than Japan, the answer is always the same, which is a lot easier for cheaters, while in Japan the answer is a full sentence rather than a single word, which leads to some additional wordplay that, at the very least, helps you tell if you’re on the right track!
Thankfully, you eventually get a bye if you get the question wrong often enough, but you lose out on prizes, including a rare materia you can only get by getting the answer right straight away!
Floor 63 played host to a puzzle involving several locked rooms, three “keys,” and a bevy of “coupons.” The trick here was to find a way through the maze to find all the coupons with only your three keys. Thankfully you have the usual top-down perspective omniscience to help you find the coupons. This wasn’t all that hard once we had discovered the air duct shortcut (it’s impossible otherwise), but you have to wonder why on earth this puzzle even exists narratively, since it doesn’t remotely resemble a functional part of the HQ.
Floor 64 was the employee gym, complete with inn. After a rest here, we went on to Floor 65. Oh, if you’re wondering how we could just walk in and sleep in the employee rest room, the dungeon had a running joke that no one was aware we were terrorists breaking into the building despite the potential slaughter and panic in the lobby and at the very least the destruction of three robots guarding the secure levels! It was goofy, but I liked the dungeon so much that I didn’t mind. If someone feels differently, well, I understand where you’re coming from, for whatever that’s worth.
65 was a puzzle floor, featuring a giant model of Midgar. The objective was to search the room’s many chests looking for the one that was unlocked, then find a missing piece of the model. Then, bring it back to the model, unlocking another chest. Geeze, what’s the in-universe point of this one? I can imagine a need for a big model but these missing pieces feel like a stupid team-building exercise. That’s the trouble with realistic environments: you have to justify the puzzles, or you end up with a Resident Evil situation like this. At least the problem was industry-wide at the time, but it’s still a problem!
One interesting footnote here was that there was no way to replace Sector 6 in the model, which the game suddenly announced was still under construction! It makes a big deal out of it, too, saying that once it’s complete, Midgar will reach its true potential or something to that effect, except… this is never brought up again!
Floor 66 was where the plot started to kick off. It featured the big Shinra board room, where the highest execs met to plot their taking over the world or what have you. Of course, we weren’t allowed in, but a few quick hints pointed us towards an air vent in the bathroom that would lead us straight above them. There, we met the whole Shinra crew. You already know President Shinra, Reeve and Heidegger, but let’s meet Palmer, head of Space Exploration, and Scarlet, head of… urm… gloating. The wiki informs me that she’s in charge of weapons development, but I’m not certain this was established in the game itself. Maybe I missed it. If I hadn’t had to look that up to write this not long after our third session, I probably would have assumed she was COO or something else wide-reaching, since her role seems to be administrative but also all over the place.
President Shinra calls the meeting to order and tells Reeve that he has no plans to rebuild Sector 7, namely because he’s restarting a “Neo-Midgar” plan, which he only partially elaborates on, implying that it involves building a new city at the site of someplace he calls “the Promised Land” connected with the Ancients. He believes he can discover this Promised Land now that he’s captured Aeris. Turning the subject to Aeris, Shinra calls in Professor Hojo, the head scientist you might remember from Crisis Core. Hojo complains that Aeris is an “inferior specimen” to her mother, estimating 120 years of study to get the results he wants. Wait, I don’t mean to interrupt mid-argument, but why is President Shinra making immediate plans if there’s a 120 year schedule up ahead? He doesn’t change his plans when Hojo gives him the bad news or anything. Kyle suggested that “Maybe he knows Hojo can’t be trusted. I mean, [Hojo’s] clearly evil.”
Hojo continued, saying that he plans to “breed” Aeris since she won’t live 120 years. Naturally, no one reacts to this in this room of evil people, not even Reeve, the gentleman who objected to dropping the Sector 7 plate, or for that matter Palmer, who’s being made out to be something of a joke. The meeting ends, and the party retreats up the air vent and is able to follow Hojo up to the next floor, the first of two floors dedicated to science and research. Or, considering this is Shinra, perhaps I should say: “science” and “research.”
The first floor of the laboratory was, fundamentally speaking, just a monster floor with a few random encounters and one bit of plot. But that didn’t make it any less interesting, since it featured some unspoken plot in the form of a row of cells, including one marked “2,” like the sick fellow in the slums. Another interesting factor on this floor were the SOLDIERs, third class, who served as wandering monsters. While they were definitely above the curve for the wandering monsters in this area, the SOLDIERS were hardly the terrifying legends we had been warned about by the early plot. I think I was expecting them to be midbosses at the very least! Come to think of it, the plot hasn’t really mentioned the SOLIDERs recently. I know their reputation was built up over the course of the fandom and sequels, but they are presented as super soldiers in this game too, and I can’t help but think that something flubbed along the line. In any event, Kyle and I sat around Stealing from the 3rd Classers to get an advanced sword for Cloud that Kyle happened to remember, which thankfully didn’t take that long.
The one plot scene on this floor started with Hojo examining a red, dog-like creaturein a tube. He soon leaves the room, allowing us to explore the lab with impunity. There, Cloud found another specimen locked up in a highly secure tank, and for some reason he was able to identify the specimen: “Jenova.” You’re probably supposed to assume Cloud is remembering the name “Jenova” somehow, but I’d like to point out that this specimen chamber actually does seem to have text on the door, so it seemed more like Cloud was reading off the side of the can! We got a brief close-up of the specimen, which was immersed in a blue fluid and visible only through a small porthole, preventing us from seeing it in full. Nevertheless, it’s clear that “Jenova” was a strange-looking alien being (specifically, the one we already saw in Crisis Core), and that her head is missing.
But no time for that now. The party followed Hojo up the elevator and entered his main lab, where Aeris was being held captive in a tube not unlike the one downstairs. The party threatened Hojo, but he saved himself by implying the lab would explode on his death, which I have a feeling was just a bluff. He apparently bluffed so hard that the party didn’t even try to detain him (really, team?), and he continued to run the experiment he was doing before we had arrived: to introduce Aeris to the red dog monster from earlier via an elevator in her tube, saying that he wanted to breed them together. You just operate with no supervision, don’t you Hojo?
I’ll save the comment on how this series has gone from one rapist and one sexual predator across thirteen games (the Bandit in FFLI and Edgar in FFVI, respectively; and also that incident with Firion and the Lamia that pretended to be about sex when it was really about murder) to several rapists over the course of only four hours, and instead jump ahead through the scene to the point where Barret starts shooting the glass and somehow breaks things. It’s the same sort of cliché scene you’d expect where someone slams a control panel at random and Incredibly Convenient/Inconvenient Stuff Happens, but somehow involving bullets and an electric barrier that’s apparently connected to the elevator controls, because… well, because! It’s bit like kicking your refrigerator and suddenly your TV changes channel. In this case, shooting the tube not only opens the tube but triggers the elevator again, raising up an even more dangerous specimen that, as you’ll recall, wasn’t in the lower chamber in the first place. Remarkable.
To the party’s surprise, the dog creature, freed alongside Aeris, began to speak. He introduces himself politely as “Red XIII,” though claims that the name was given to him by Hojo and that it has no meaning to him at all. He offered to let us call him whatever we wanted. We called him Red XIII, firstly because it’s Marathon rules to go with default names, and secondly because we’re assholes.
Cloud sent off one member of the party to get Aeris out of the building (we sent Tifa, as we found her Limit Break to be too inconsistent and weren’t planning on keeping her in the party much longer. Ed. Funny in hindsight), and teamed up with Red XIII for the upcoming boss fight. The monster turned out to be another of Hojo’s experiments, the monstrous H0512, who was accompanied by three tiny “H0512-opt”s (I can only assume “opt” is a reference to Gradius’ “Options,” because they filled a similar role as a tiny, unattached gunship, although in this case they were tiny bouncing beetles). Since we quickly learned the opts could be regenerated at will, we attacked the main target with our Fire spells
After the battle, we learned that Tifa and Aeris hadn’t fled the scene at all. Red apologized to Aeris, saying he was just acting in the previous scene and wasn’t much attracted to “two-leggers.” You split up the party at this point, Kyle and I taking Red and Barret, and we accosted the other scientist in the room to get a passkey for this floor, though we didn’t use it so much as we used it to get back to Floor 66 – specifically Floor 66, god help you if you try anywhere else – to get on an elevator. Unfortunately, once we were in the elevator, two men in suits got on with us: Tseng the Turk and his underling, Rude. We were under arrest, with no chance to fight off our attackers in the tiny elevator (urm, or rather that’s my best guess) and we were dragged off to the President’s office in handcuffs.