The party headed off to Kalm, where they reunited at the inn and everyone decided to grill Cloud for information on Sephiroth, since he was clearly holding out on them up in the Shinra HQ. This began an extended flashback sequence (so long that it has a break in the middle!) of the time Cloud teamed up with Sephiroth and on a visit to a town called Nibelheim – Cloud and Tifa’s hometown. Crisis Core players will probably find this section a little familiar, but I’m going to describe it just as presented, without any Crisis Core commentary at least for the time being.
The flashback began in the back of a military truck, where Cloud, Sephiroth and several soldiers were being taken to their destination, Sephiroth’s mouth locked in a permanent and ridiculous-looking “O”-shape. We’ve seen this on the main cast, but I’m delighted to say that it’s almost a default for Sephiroth, who must catch more flies than a high-speed semi! The truck was interrupted on the road, however, and we got a briefing from Sephiroth: they were to investigate a Mako reactor in Nibelheim, Cloud’s hometown, which was supposedly creating monsters. Speak of the devil, there’s a monster right here! A dragon attacks, and so thoroughly outclasses young Cloud that you’re basically doomed to die and watch Sephiroth finish the fight for you. “I was mesmerized by the way Sephiroth fought,” Cloud says. Also I was dead. He just tossed me in the back of the truck and figured someone else would bandage me up.
Arriving at Nibelheim, Sephiroth and Cloud discussed hometowns, Sephiroth mentioning that he has none and that all he knows about his past was that his mother was named “Jenova.” Barret drew attention to the fact that Sephiroth’s mother had the same name as the headless monster in the Shinra building (or, perhaps, vice versa?), but Tifa interrupted before we could continue down that line of questioning. Barret got his revenge later, when someone seemed to “disappear” from Cloud’s memory and he refused to let Cloud question it. Geeze, talk about your forced narratives, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a forced narrative inside a narrative!
Cloud also supposedly visited his mother, only for that too to become confused and static-y, though we learned that Cloud used to live with his single mother. Cloud curiously remarks that his mother died not long after, which he thinks was strange because she looked “fine” at the time. Once you learn how she died, you realize just how scrambled Cloud’s memory really is, because her being fine or not fine has basically nothing to do with her death. Meanwhile, a visit to Tifa’s bedroom only got creepy, though Kyle directed us to the piano to set up a quest later on that, frankly, shouldn’t have been tied to a throwaway action in a flashback, but apparently was. The implication seems to be that Cloud’s actions in the flashback are becoming his canonical past actions in front of our eyes! I feel like I have something important to say about diegesis, but I’m just so shocked by this implication that I’m not really sure what it is!
Sephiroth had everyone stay overnight, after which we got up to go to the reactor in the morning, a young Tifa serving as our guide. A photographer took everyone’s picture (Kyle put on his Sephiroth voice to say: “Couldn’t even get all my sword in it, this is bullshit”). The journey began at that point, and led up to a preposterous bridge, which, if I may say so, probably should have been shot from another angle. At the current angle the bridge looked like a bloody ladder. Unfortunately, the rickety old bridge collapsed, leaving one of the Shinra soldiers dead (and never, ever mentioned again) and everyone else stranded. From here, you had to navigate a short dungeon, which was full of pointless random encounters just there to show us how powerful Sephiroth is supposed to be. A little tedious honestly, since I got the point during the fight with the dragon!
Partway through the dungeon, we encountered a mako fountain, which Sephiroth called “a miracle of nature.” (Kyle: “‘Miracle’ may not be the word I’m thinking of… ‘dangerously radioactive.’ That’s it.”) Sephiroth used this pretty sight to explain that Materia was just concentrated mako. Other than that detail, this scene was included so that the game could get across a brief environmentalist message, which was all well and fine, though I was surprised to learn over time that no other mako fountains appear in the entire game? I really did see this scene as establishing mako fountains for later in the game, but nope, just the thematic message! I wonder what gave me the wrong signal?
We eventually arrived at the Mako Reactor (goodness knows how we were ever going to get back), and Sephiroth refused to let Tifa enter, saying it was “full of Shinra’s industrial secrets.” I’ve already mentioned how stupid it is that they leave the place seemingly unlocked during the Crisis Core Journals. Sephiroth then passed Tifa off to the remaining grunt, saying to “take care” of her. Sir, normally when you give that order you mean “kill.” Is this a “kill” situation?
Inside the reactor, we discovered a number of pods, as well as a door ominously marked “JENOVA.” Sephiroth figured out how to fix the leak, which we did, and while we were working, Sephiroth examined one of the pods. He said that Professor Hojo had done something strange, and allowed us to look into the pod, where we saw a crystalline, humanoid beast that Crisis Core would term a “Makonoid” (curious that they never make another appearance in FFVII itself). Sephiroth elaborated, saying that members of SOLDIER were imbued with Mako, but these Makonoids were imbued with even more than usual. He raised the interesting question that if these creatures are “monsters,” what does that make the members of SOLDIER? Sephiroth also cryptically alluded to his being different from the other members of SOLDIER in some manner, though when Cloud asked exactly how, Sephiroth began to have a rather rapid breakdown.
The scene cuts here, and Sephiroth spends the next few days holed up in the basement of the ancestral home of the Shinra family, studying the notes of a man named Professor Gast, who in turn was studying “Jenova.” You have to go into the mansion and locate him, which is no great task and is mostly here to familiarize you with the layout for when you visit the mansion in the present later in the game. Gast’s studies proved that Jenova was an ancient. With this little seeding, Sephiroth began calling Cloud a “traitor,” and ranting about the Cetra, saying that Cloud’s ancestors betrayed the Cetra and exploited the resources they had cultivated on the Planet, and that the Cetra were wiped out saving the world from some sort of cataclysm. Sephiroth explained that he had been produced from Jenova’s cells, making him a successor to the ancients.
Sephiroth is so enraged at the treachery of humanity over the Cetra that, several days later, he decides to burn the entire town of Nibelheim to the ground. Most of the inhabitants are dead by the time Cloud makes it out of his hotel, including Cloud’s mother, which he reacts to by coming out of her home and just shaking his head. It’s almost heartbreaking, but only almost. As it stands his chibi overworld model just looks mildly put out. I agree with their directorial choice but the technology just wasn’t ready for it!
Tracking Sephiroth to the Nibelheim reactor, Cloud discovers Tifa grieving over her father’s dead body, declaring her hatred for Shinra. She collected what appeared to be Sephiroth’s own sword from the body and then went in to attack Sephiroth herself. Sephiroth, who was on his way to the “JENOVA” door in search for his mother, attacked Tifa and left her lying behind. Tifa was relieved to see Cloud, talking about their promise that he would come to her aid when she needed him. Hey, that’s right! We’ve already fulfilled that promise! Man, why am I working this terrorist racket for you assholes? Later, suckers!
Inside the depths of the reactor, Sephiroth discovered an inexplicable thing: an angel-shaped frontispiece in front of where they kept Jenova. I really do like this Jenova angel prop, even if, as I said in Crisis Core, it doesn’t serve a purpose and is never explained. It’s really just… there. Sephiroth tore the prop off to reveal the real Jenova, her head still attached: Cloud made a speech arguing that Sephiroth had caused him as much pain as the humans ever caused Sephiroth or the Cetra. I don’t necessarily agree with him as a strict matter of numbers, but Sephiroth’s actions are still clearly beyond the pall. In any event, Sephiroth wasn’t really listening.
Cloud insisted that his memory cut off there at the climax, and that he didn’t know what happened next, bringing the flashback to an abrupt stop! After the story telling, Tifa had a brief line where she asked Cloud just how injured she was when he found her, and didn’t seem all that satisfied with his answer for reasons that weren’t clear. With that, we were essentially freed from the flashback and the party resolved to track down Sephiroth and see what was going on. More importantly, Kyle and I were able to explore Kalm for the first time, finding a number of treasures, including a gun weapon that bizarrely belongs to a character we won’t have for ages. We also spent so much money that we were only able to afford three potions when we were done!
Our next stop was to the nearby Chocobo Ranch, which introduced this game’s far-too-complicated chocobo-catching mechanics. I won’t be covering them, since I don’t believe we ever used a chocobo on the map screen again for the course of the entire game. Fuck ’em, honestly. Just no. Catching, breeding, no, it’s almost always too much trouble compared to walking and picking up a vehicle you presumably left sitting nearby, instead of relying on a bird that takes a fair time to catch and runs away when you’re done with it.
In this case, this one chocobo was required to get past a giant sand-snake called the “Midgar Zolom.” Curious name, huh? This was actually a recurring Final Fantasy enemy, but where I often take issue with FFVII’s translation, I think I can respect this mix-up! The monster had always been translated “Jorgandr” in the past (save the Woosleyized “Terrato” in FFVI). Yes, that’s right: the boss that destroyed the Talon in FFLIII! The trouble here is that the two names are equally-valid English names for the same mythological creature, the Midgard Serpant (Midgardsormr) of Norse mythology, properly named “Jormungandr.” The FFVII localizers appear to have confused the word “Midgard” for “Midgar” and re-named the monster based on its proximity to the city. As localization decisions go, this is rather clever – considerably more than when they mistranslated the name again during FFT. Seeing as how FFVII made “Midgar Zolom” more widely known than “Jorgandr” had ever been in the past, Square Enix has used “Midgardsormr” since 2003 (specifically, 2003 was the year they opened the Midgardsormr server for FFXI, now retired).
Long story short, we got the chocobo and ran past, though not before Kyle fought the Zolom to get its Enemy Skill, Beta. Enemy Skills are this games’ version of Blue Magic, with each copy of the Enemy Skill materia keeping its own record of which spells it’s learned. This took some serious luck on Kyle’s part, since the Zolom can both easily kill party members when using Beta, and can eject them from battle before it even uses Beta to begin with. That’s why I’m sad to say that his getting the skill didn’t exactly help, since we rarely, if ever, used it.
After we crossed the Zolom’s territory, we discovered another Zolom had been killed by a previous traveller, presumably Sephiroth. Besides taunting you with how big and bad Sephiroth can be, this scene didn’t add to much. Bear in mind we were just forced to play a flashback where he dominated every combat we encountered, much to our continued boredom. But there you go. Sephiroth. Big and bad.
Beyond the Zolom scene was a miniature cave dungeon which served one key bit of plot importance: it reintroduced us to our friends the Turks. This included Tseng, Rude, and a new member named Elena, who was prone to blabbing secrets. Elena revealed that the Turks had two major orders from upstairs: primarily, to track down Sephiroth, and secondarily, to deal with the player’s party. Luckily for us, the first order overrides the second, so they left us to our own devices in the cave, allowing us to easily move on to the next part of the world map: the Junon region.
Despite multiple notable features in the Junon district, all Kyle and I were interested in was a tiny patch of forest in one corner. By grinding in the forest for a long stretch, we encountered what we were really looking for: the first of the game’s hidden characters, our favourite ninja teenager, Yuffie Kisaragi. Yuffie was out to steal our Materia and cash, but after a quick battle, we were able to subdue her and get her to join the party, mostly by showing brazen disinterest for her and her mission, which is honestly hilarious. This was obviously intended to take multiple encounters in a true first playthrough, but since we tend to use walkthroughs when it comes to secret characters (so that we don’t miss them, as part of the Marathon’s rules), this wasn’t a problem for us. Yuffie was something of a favourite character for the two of us, and sadly the Journal format is only going to capture a little bit of our admiration and in-jokes about her.