Final Fantasy VII – “Use a Phoenix Down!”

Cloud wakes up in what turns out to be Gongaga of all places, where he learns that Aeris really has vanished. Once Cloud tells them where he thinks she’s gone based on his dream, everyone wants to rush off to help her, with Cloud being the only dissenting vote. Naturally, he’s afraid of going near Sephiroth at this point, lest he do something horrible again. This is fair, though I note that he never mentions – and so no one respects – Aeris’ request that she be left alone. Barret and Tifa ultimately talk Cloud back to his feet, and off we went.

While we were on our way to the next part of the plot (or possibly here in Gongaga) an NPCs described Sephiroth as a figure in a black cape, as characters had been doing this entire game. Kyle remarked: “There’s got to be someone else out here who has a black cape and has the worst rep ever.”

After leaving Gongaga, it was a long plane-boat ride to the north pole, where we went to a place informally known as Bone Village. This place was an established archaeological dig, and they were willing to dig for you if you pay them and then instruct them where to stand. And we’d have to do so, too, because there was no way through the Sleeping Forest to the north without a Dream Harp from this dig. Presumably Aeris had found her own, or been able to get through without one because she was a Cetra?

I was expecting some kind of 2D minigame to pop up and representing the dig, but much to my surprise, you actually dig in the town itself, just as rendered! The various occupants direct you by facing towards the proper dig spot, allowing you to draw imaginary lines between them to see where those lines cross. This took two attempts… and a ruler, held up to the screen! One thing that bothered us at the time was that we weren’t sure whether we were supposed to be drawing the lines from the guides’ eyes (real-world logic) or their feet (programmer logic), but we went with feet and that seemed to work. Looking at the longplay for screenshots, it’s clear the game says “line of vision,” so I guess we just got lucky!

Once the Harp was in our possession, we for whatever reason decided to go with a party of Barret and Tifa, even though Barret was still on his level one limits. He actually stayed with us for much of the remaining game, and guess what? He never, ever got his level two limits. I suppose we could have made a point of giving him kills to boost his limits, but after a while it became part of the joke, and we were curious to see when he would get his limits naturally… and it never happened!

We headed to the Sleeping Forest and played the Lunar Harp, causing the forest to awaken and let us in, and on an unrelated note, to give us the Kujata Summon Materia. Kujata takes the form of a large bull and launches an attack called Tetra-Disaster, doing Lightning, Ice, Fire and apparently physical damage. Yeah, we never used him. Infamously, it’s possible to lose Kujata permanently if you pick him up with a full inventory, thanks to a coding oversight.

Past the Sleeping Forest, we came to the City of the Ancients, which was still standing, untouched after thousands of years. Naturally we began to raid them! “Hi Ancients,” one of us said, “thanks for leaving your stat-up items, that’s cool.” Part-way through the town, we discovered an inn, and it was a good thing Kyle was playing at this point, because there’s a cutscene attached to sleeping here, and my instinct would have been to skip it, given that we had only been in a single battle between here and our last stop at an inn. Aren’t we in a hurry to save a friend from Sephiroth or something?

(The reason that there’s no hint to use the inn is yet another piece of deleted content. In this case, there was a deleted scene that prevented you from leaving the town the way you came, which wasn’t just inconvenient to the player (probably why it was removed) but is frankly a useless place to have put the directions in the first place!)

After going to sleep in the town, we find Cloud wandering around at night, saying: “I feel it…” I feel the cosmos! Cloud says that he knows Sephiroth and Aeris are here somehow. He says they should hurry, and the party heads out right that minute, into the night.

Now that it was night, Cloud was drawn into a structure in the middle of city… one we had already tried to visit, only for Cloud not to react to our efforts in any notable way. Video games love to hide things this way: oh, your characters just didn’t look, and also your agency is wholly artificial! Once inside this place (or in this case, during my first search attempt), we found a Materia containing the Comet spell. Oh, that’s lovely. I think I’ll hack FFLII, find an equally dramatic moment, and give the party Quake. Hack FFII and give them Tornado! You get where I’m going with this. During this nighttime visit, either Kyle or the game’s pointer system actually had to point me in the right direction, because the map had changed by adding a blue, downwards ramp in such a way that, to me, it had looked like an innocuous pool!

At the bottom of the long ramp, we found a cluster of building in a strange sort of bubble, and discovered Aeris, praying in a room that could only be accessed walking atop a series of pillars. Cloud climbed the first one, and then signaled to the others to stay behind. “No, you stay here, you might be helpful. Just because I brought you here to keep me from hurting Aeris doesn’t mean I actually want you to keep me from hurting Aeris.” He then hopped across the pillars, though he began to hesitate as he got closer. I, of course, took this opportunity to say: “Glad we’re prefacing the most dramatic scene of the generation with Cloud’s inability to hop across blocks.”

Yeah, I knew what was about to happen, who doesn’t? It’s the most widely spoiled plot element this side of Half-Blood Prince!

Cloud approaches Aeris, only for Sephiroth to once again claim his mind and force him to draw his sword. Cloud resists, but not enough, and it’s only the shouts of his party members that stop him from killing Aeris. At this point, Aeris looks up to see Cloud, smiling… and Sephiroth descends on her from above, killing her instantly. In the process, Aeris’ White Materia (the one she claimed definitely doesn’t do anything, which turns out to be tied to the ribbon on her hair) falls into the water below.

At this point during our playthrough, considering the historic moment in gaming history that had just passed before us, I just had to ruin it by sharing a few memes.

If you’ve never seen this scene before, I should probably tell you that Sephiroth stands around with his arms spread, looking somewhat gloating but mostly ridiculous in front of the personal trauma he just created. Just… just leave, Seffy, we’re doin’ something here. He says that he’s going to go to the Promised Land, which he claims is to the north. Finally, Cloud tells him to shove it. In response to nothing in the English translation, Cloud starts talking about what he feels, not just because he’s upset, but as though his feelings were somehow a reason for Sephiroth to shut up? Dude. He just stabbed Aeris. He doesn’t give a damn about your feelings and didn’t even say anything to imply that he did or didn’t. Still, Cloud gives a list of feelings and Sephiroth replies that Cloud shouldn’t “pretend” that he has any feelings at all, because “Cloud, you are…” Well, given the criteria in front of us, I’m going to say… a Nobody? From Kingdom Hearts?

Oh, wait, pardon me, it appears Sephiroth has decided to not even finish his godforsaken sentence, that’s fine. What’s that, Sephy? “Zelda is your…”?

At this point, Sephiroth flew away, and JENOVA-Life dropped down to attack us, all while Aeris’ theme kept playing. Now, I’ve heard on the internet that JENOVA-Life is supposed to be an easy boss for this point in the game, to avoid ruining the dramatic moment with forced replays? But this wasn’t our experience. While we weren’t forced into a replay, it seems we’d finally burned up our over-levelled status. Jenova’s Aqualung attack kept killing nearly everyone but Barret, who luckily had a Water Ring. Jenova’s curiously named Blue Flame attack was also water-aligned. Tifa, when she was able to stand, used Comet, but that burned through her MP mighty fast. In the end, it also burned through Jenova and we did win, but it was close. “Victory by default!” Kyle proclaimed. In an especially nice touch, there was no post-battle victory posing or victory tune.

After the battle, it’s Jenova who finishes Sephiroth’s sentence from earlier, announcing that “Because you are… a puppet.” (Fans would be disappointed if I didn’t acknowledge that the PSX version says “Beacause,” [sic] but the PC version does not have the typo and never did, even in the 90s!) Remember this scene for later (not the typo, the scene), because we’re going to be referring back to it.

Now that the fight is over, your party members react to Aeris’ death in their own ways, after which Cloud famously takes Aeris down to the water (urm… “up” to the water actually, since he first returns to the surface), and he allows her body to sink by way of a funeral. As has been noted three billion times and a half more, he makes no effort to revive her with the game’s myriad spells and curatives. It’s almost a good thing that Square only released FFV internationally after FFVII, or else FFV’s scene where characters do try to revive a dead comrade might have made this scene look incompetent! Honestly, if I’ve proven anything with these Journals, it’s that Square has a gameplay and story segregation issue so goddamned wide that you have to build a bridge over it yourself just to make their games make sense, and FFV’s one exception should be treated more like a happy exception rather than a hammer I should use to bludgeon the other games. It would never fix the problem to begin with. In short: Aeris is dead, healing doesn’t really work, minor enemies do not genuinely exist, levelling up is an artifice, and gameplay is an unrelated fee you play to watch plot developments. We on the same base now? Grand.

After the funeral cutscene, Cloud talked about his backstory and how he feels someone else is inside him. Hey man, don’t blame Zack for this, he’s as upset as you are! Cloud spends some time trying to explain his losing control to Sephiroth, but says that he’s now going to stay on the mission to get revenge on Sephiroth, though he fears that he might lose control again and hopes the party will prevent him from doing that like they did before. They agree to go with him.

After this speech, the original PSX release came to the end of the content on Disc 1. The game shipped with three discs, but don’t take that to mean the game is 1/3rd completed! I’d say Disc One has the most gameplay content by a wide margin, while on the flip-side, Disc 3 is almost restricted to the eleventh hour. While the length of my notes shouldn’t be considered an exact measure of time spent on the discs, the fact that I wrote four times as many notes about Disc 1 than Disc 2, and ten times as much covering Disc 2 over Disc 3, should say enough by proportion alone. A helpful commenter on GameFAQs, gmo7897, explains that the only difference between the content of the three discs is cinematics! They say that all three of discs contain the full game besides the cutscenes, and you can actually swap out the discs during play and the game would function just fine until it comes time to play a cutscene. This means that the reason Disc 2 contains less story than Disc 1 can be blamed solely on its cutscenes!

In any event, many players today will play FFVII on the PC version (be that on PC or PS4 port of the PC version), which acknowledges the old disc swaps – I suppose for historical reasons? – but simply proceeds after saving without any additional fuss. I imagine the PSOne Classic release functions in a similar manner. Onwards, then, to a new horizon!

Before we move on, a quick word about Aeris’ famous death: I like the scene, but I’m kind of surprised it became a famous death? My phrasing is deliberate so let me clarify: as far as I can tell, FFVII became a massive hit in large part because of fan reaction to this death. Unless I’ve misread the signs, it wasn’t the other way around, i.e. it wasn’t that Aeris’ death became an incredibly famous scene because FFVII was massively successful for other reasons? The reason I find this curious is because the death had the potential to be a really awful scene. It’s not a problem with the scene itself, however, oh no! In the KH2 tradition: it’s a problem with the rest of the game.

Here’s my reasoning: Aeris hasn’t been in our party for hours and hours, and we can’t have been the only players to do so. It left us incredibly detached from her character. Yes, she was forced into the party early on, and that’s better than nothing, but I didn’t care much about her anymore starting around Kalm. Let me take this to a further extreme: was anyone moved when Banon of FFVI, who hadn’t been in the party since hour 3 or so, who vanished around hour 10-15, and then presumably died off-screen? Of course not. And while she did have a death scene on-screen, Aeris has been out of our party for even longer than Banon! Aeris is one of only a few Final Fantasy playable character to die without the game forcing her to be in your party for a long period of time before her death. Even most fake-out deaths have followed this simple rule, and you can see why. A lot of blame falls on the technical decision to reduce the party from 4-5 to 3 party members, but the problem remains.

Spoiler time for previous Final Fantasy games already covered on this blog, because I’m going to refer back to them in detail. I actually already complained about this very briefly during a the scene where you learn Fuji’s fate (not quite a “death”) at the end of FFA, and I’m going to go into more detail about it now. Here’s the list of Final Fantasy Marathon deaths, be they real, temporary, or fake-out: Josef, Minwu, Ricard, Aria, Dad from FFLII, Palom and Porim, Tellah, Yang, Cid Pollendina, Calca and Brina, the Eblan Four (optional), Fusoya (if you consider Fusoya to be dead at the end of TAY), Golbez (optional), Dion, and of course, the character death that I feel was most effective for me personally, Galuf. I’m also going to be talking about Fuji from the FFA scene I mentioned above. Fuji isn’t quite dead, but isn’t continuing her human life, either.

Now, Aeris was only forced into your party one dungeon ago (excusing some sizable overworld segments). There are four “dead” characters who die shortly after being returned to centre stage after a time away. The first close counterpart is Dad from FFLII, who actually does this horseshit twice (once a fake-out death and once for real), but the player’s attachment to Dad is bolstered by the fact that Dad is the the central focus of FFLII’s entire plot, so it doesn’t feel like a perfect match to Aeris’ situation. Next we have Fuji’s “your human life is over” scene from the FFA, which is… okay, I guess, but she’s also not truly dead, so it’s hard to take it at the same level, miserable as it may be. We’ll have to set both characters aside thanks to those technicalities. That leaves us with only two points of comparison: Minwu from FFII and Cid from FFIV. You know… two of Final Fantasy’s most comically humiliating deaths or fake-out deaths. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing about a character vanishing for huge chunks of gameplay, coming back and then dying on the spot that makes them inherently comic, but the absence does decrease my attachment to the character, which is what made Minwu and Cid’s scenes so vulnerable to appearing comic.

Personally, I think Aeris’ death was probably my second-most impactful Final Fantasy playable character death so far, just after Galuf, but I can’t help but feel the game missed the most important part of the experience: making certain that Aeris’ death felt like a loss?

(Ed. Speaking of Final Fantasy deaths, it occurred to me several years later (in 2019) that Aeris’ death could be seen as an homage to Aria’s from FFIII? A young woman prays in a sacred site while holding a magical fragment of a much larger magical whole for a miracle that will save the entire world from evil, only for said evil to reach out and kill her. Even the follow-up is roughly similar in execution!)

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Screenshots in this Journal come from RickyC’s longplay of the original PSX release of Final Fantasy VII available from World of Longplays (YouTube).