Once Tifa was safely aboard, Cait Sith explained that, in short, this airship was now under the party’s control. Its name? The “Highwind,” clearly named after Cid. As it happens, this is the airship Rufus used to get to the north, so this is a hell of a carjacking. Cait Sith rushed the party inside, and we – still in control of Tifa – followed, leaving poor Yuffie to be airsick on the deck.
Cait Sith led us into the bridge, revealing that everyone else in the party had already been rescued off-screen, and sure enough, Cid had taken command of the airship (we later learn that Cid had talked the crew into committing mutiny to join him). While talking to Red XIII, the party entered a conference, Tifa saying: “…If only Cloud was here, everything would be fine.” This prompted Kyle to say: “No, things wouldn’t be fine with Cloud! He’s the reason things aren’t fine!”
Red XIII reasoned that Cloud must be still at North Crater, but Tifa realized that if North Crater had been “buried” (Red’s phrasing), Cloud may have been dumped into the Lifestream itself, which physically exists just under the planet’s crust. Red said that the Lifestream sometimes surfaces in the ocean, which sounds a little… silly, considering so few people know about it… but I suppose he’d know better than me! Of course, the odds of Cloud coming up through one of those holes was so low that it could only happen in an incredibly contrived and arbitrary story, so I guess it’s good we’re playing Final Fantasy VII, huh?
Like the airships in FFIII, LIII, and VI, the Highwind was a fully equipped base with healing facilities and other options (including a portable Chocobo stable for anyone interested in breeding the wretched, tedious things). We initially formed a party of Tifa, Vincent and Cid, but after I remembered that Vincent’s Limit Breaks were Berserked, I believe we went back to swap him out, though I can’t remember to whom. Barret? We were still avoiding Yuffie at the time, even if she didn’t have quite the level lead that she had back in Wutai.
After forming the party, it was time to go searching for Cloud. In a nice touch, Cid’s trainee pilot “levelled up” as you go through the game, becoming a better pilot as you go, though it had no mechanical effect on the game. Arriving on the map screen with our new, genuinely useful vehicle, we discovered that the party had been hovering above Junon this whole time! Really you guys? We’re just sitting right here? With Shinra and their rocket launchers?
While I suppose we could have gone anywhere at this point (and the devs sure put in a lot of effort to account for Cloud being missing from your party, let me tell you, with unique dialogue in essentially every town in the game!), we decided it was best to get our leader back so he wouldn’t fall behind in levels. We did make one stop, however, which we reasoned wouldn’t affect our EXP in any serious way: Fort Condor. When we got there, we discovered that we had missed a whole eight battles, and we certainly hadn’t left them with enough money to hold out against them, but thankfully that doesn’t cause any particular disaster. Kyle did a battle here and we finally went off to find the main plot.
As it happens, the plot picks up in the small town of Mideel, which I mentioned briefly when we originally got the Tiny Bronco. Mideel had a number of relatively obscure sidequests that could only be accessed before the plot goes much further (for reasons that will become clear very soon), so it was a good thing that we chose to explore the town when we did! One was to feed a small white chocobo some Mimett Greens, and then to solve a dialogue puzzle in exchange for a Materia. The other was to solve a ridiculous series of puzzles, including a false door with a key stuck in its “lock” (don’t ask) to get a Cursed Ring we didn’t even particularly want. Once the sidequests were done with, we also discovered that Mideel was home to a clinic, where we found our lost leader Cloud sick with “mako poisoning.” He was muttering, and a patch of muttering famously includes the name of another Square Enix PSX game, Xenogears. Or at least… it was supposed to, as on the PSX he says “…zeno… gias…” instead, as the localizers apparently didn’t catch the advertisement. Ironically, the reference is only clearly made in English on the PC version, a platform that never even supported Xenogears!
Related note, but I wonder if Cloud’s muttering went on to influence the Homestar Runner joke about Strong Bad muttering SNES titles in his sleep?
The party gave Cloud and Tifa some time alone, but were swiftly called back in so Tifa could tell them that she wanted to leave the party to stay and tend to Cloud. The rest of the party was incredibly supportive, which is basically the first time the game has ever acted like this when it comes to a character doing something counter to the main plot? They’ve frequently shouted or argued against people doing stuff like this. For that matter, the only time they ever acted like this in a situation peripherally involving a sick person. What game did I put in today?
Regrouping on the Highwind, the party sat down to a meeting, Cid looking like had already drank himself into a stupor over the news. Thankfully, Cait Sith (god, I just wrote the words “Thankfully, Cait Sith”) had news to report. “Yeah, what!?” Barret asked, “That you a spy?” See? Barret understands our position.
Cait Sith got a laugh out of me by saying “Both [Gya] ha ha and Kya ha ha are up to something,” referring to Heidegger and Scarlet, respectively, identifying them by their signature laughs, which was genuinely hilarious. The PC version actually went out of its way to make sure that almost all of their laughs followed these patterns (the PSX version had a few plain “ha ha has”), and I’d argue it was mostly done to make sure this one joke was as clear and funny as possible. Good on them! Cait Sith told he could even help us eavesdrop on the two of them, revealing they were in the middle of a meeting in the Shinra boardroom. In the boardroom were Heidegger, Palmer and the long-forgotten Reeve. In that instant, it was clear to me that Cait Sith’s controller was Reeve. I won’t pretend it was even that much of a brainwave? In hindsight, the game did set a lot of honestly good clues, but it ruined the whole mystery with that one establishing shot. Cait Sith wouldn’t be tattling on himself, so he’s not Heidegger or Scarlet. That meant that either Cait Sith is Reeve, Cait Sith is Palmer, or there’s a mic in the room left by an independent party, but that last thing just didn’t seem like FFVII’s style somehow. Now Palmer, as a nominally comedic figure, makes for a nice red herring for Cait Sith’s controller! I could see Palmer actually being Cait Sith as a late-game surprise! But in comparing Palmer to the morally conflicted Reeve, I knew where to put my money. Maybe if Palmer had been a more competent, while still comedic? Or if Reeve had shown up more often, so that his arrival in this scene wasn’t so notable?
Rufus entered to start the meeting, and revealed that he hadn’t given up on destroying Meteor entirely, and Heidegger and Scarlet were going to explain their plan for dealing with it. Heidegger said that he aimed to collect “Huge Materia” from each region. Scarlet explained that Huge Materia was created in mako reactors, and you might recall her looking for one such Huge Materia in the ruins of Gongaga’s reactor. The two of them then begin to act like they have to gather Materia from the reactors scattered around the planet instead of just grabbing materia from the eight reactors they have sitting in their bloody laps! All they had to say was: “Oh, the local ones weren’t equipped to do this!” (By the way, yes: 8 reactors. Shinra had repaired the one you damaged in the early game.)
Scarlet’s big plan was to gather the Huge Materia and use them as the payload in a Materia bomb to destroy Meteor. She refused to say how she planned to get the bomb there, and discussion just returned to the subject of gathering the Huge Materia. Heidegger reported that they had already grabbed the one from Nibelheim (it would have been pretty boring to go back there for a third time), leaving the ones at Corel and Fort Condor. Heidegger said that “I’ve already dispatched troops to Corel.” But since there’s an infinite source of troops at Fort Condor, I didn’t see any reason to send more. In fact, I haven’t even checked in to see if they’re even alive? Hrm. Naaah, forget it.
Back in the airship, Barret was furious that Shinra troops would be going to Corel, sure that something terrible would happen (so I guess that reactor doesn’t normally have a Shinra presence on the ground or something?). Barret declares that they can’t allow Shinra to get their hands on the Huge Materia, which I understand from him: he hates Shinra, and he adds that he basically wants to brag about stopping them to Cloud. Okay, that’s fine and all… but here’s the thing. In just a few lines, Barret will admit that the party needs a new leader to replace Cloud and Tifa, and that that can’t be him. He’s had an epiphany about his time with AVALANCHE and he wakes Cid, telling Cid that he’s been appointed leader instead. This is a nice choice if you ask me, ass though he may be. This means that Barret isn’t the party leader, which makes it incredibly strange when they go after the Huge Materia anyways. Remember: Barret has plenty of selfish, petty reasons to get the Huge Materia, but no one else does. Everyone else should be rooting for Shinra’s well-equipped attempt to save the goddamned world!
Do you know what I want? I want the giant projectile falling from the sky to be blown to hell! Oh, sure, by any proper standards, the shards will turn into meteorites and dust and bury the Planet in an age of darkness and cold, but if FFVII has shown anything, it’s that it doesn’t understand science, and that means this is our opportunity, dammit! It seems to me that Shinra’s plan might actually solve this problem, so why is everyone who isn’t a Shinra-hating environmental terrorist agreeing to this plan? Cid will later remind us that Materia houses the wisdom of the Ancients, and suggests that the Huge Materia will be helpful for them stopping Sephiroth, but a) this is a “FFII Ultima Plot,” which is to say, sure it might help but it’s not as mandatory as you’re acting, and Kyle and I ultimately didn’t use any of the Huge Materia any more than we used FFII’s Ultima; and b) do you guys actually have a plan to deal with Meteor? I get that you’re still hell-bent on killing Sephiroth, but unless the writers slam the reset button and Meteor disintegrates the moment Sephiroth dies, everyone on the Planet is going to die even without Sephiroth, because you haven’t done anything about Meteor! Personally I’d burn every book and Materia on the Planet, Ancient knowledge or not, if it meant the difference between “the 100% certain extinction of all life on the planet” and “anything even fractionally more hopeful than that,” and I think there’s a chance the Ancients might actually have my back on this one!
Long story short, the party elects Cid to be third-string leader, and they go to chase down the Huge Materia whether we want them to or not. I’m afraid I didn’t make a list of our party for the next section, but I believe we brought Barret back to his hometown, and we’re fairly sure the other person was Vincent this time, which was probably a mistake as he was considerably under-levelled at this point. You’re allowed to pursue either the Corel or Fort Condor reactor at your liberty, and I believe I went for the Corel reactor first, but I can’t be certain because my notes fail to mention our trip to Fort Condor at all!
Your return trip to Corel gets started slowly, as you make your way through the dungeon that surrounds the reactor on one side or another (I chose to come from the original entrance, not the Corel-side entrance, but I admit I didn’t check to see which would be shorter; RickyC comes from the Corel-side entrance). Once we reached the reactor we found two Shinra guards and killed them, but we were too late: the company had already loaded a train with the Huge Materia and were heading down the tracks to Corel. You… you people know the tracks are broken like three or four times in that direction, right? The game chose to ignore that silly “logic” stuff, and Cid seizes a second train to go on a high-speed chase.
The train section forced you to alternate two buttons to make the train work – mechanics I would have expected more for a handcar mini-game (with buttons for up and down) than a train, but whatever you say. You had ten real-time minutes to finish the task, but thankfully it wasn’t all button mashing (oh sweet Ginpei Yokoi, can you imagine ten minutes of button mashing?). You actually catch up to the train in about thirty seconds of good play, after which the party jumps over to the back of the Shinra train. Unfortunately, you have to fight a forced encounter on every one of the train’s three cars and a fourth at the engine, the timer running all along. After finishing those encounters, you still have to shut the train off, which is a bit of a task because the engineer set full steam to get away from you. This hints at what would have happened if you hadn’t stopped the train in time: the train would have crashed into Corel, cutting a mean gash through the middle of town. Of course, the engineer was only going that fast in the first place to get the hell away from you, so in a manner of speaking, this is your fault to a certain degree. No, really: apparently there’s a rarely seen ending variant for this scenario if you never catch up to the Shinra train button mashing segment, where the Shinra train arrives in Corel without doing any damage because they never had any reason to panic! Food for thought!
Since we stopped the train, the townspeople came to thank us, finally making amends with Barret, and giving them the spirit to dig their own bunker in the old coal mines. As a reward for what we had done, we got both the Huge Materia and the Ultima Materia from one of the townspeople, and it only took a quick exploration to find the item that gives Barret his ultimate Limit Break… though as you might recall, Barret only had his Level 1 limit breaks and you can only get your Ultimate if you’ve earned your Level 3s. The Huge Materia was of no practical use to us at the moment, but the plot had been advanced nevertheless!
Fort Condor was next, and apparently Shinra was launching its final assault against the defenders. Now you’ll recall that Kyle did a Fort Condor battle just before Mideel, which took ages, and on top of that, Kyle lost. As a result, I urged Kyle to try another strategy for this mandatory battle: lose deliberately, so that we would fight and easily defeat the commander of the Shinra army as part of the losing scenario. If your party was able to win the fight against the enemy commander, they still technically “win” the battle, even if you don’t win any traditional Fort Condor prizes for doing so. Our hope was that, because this was a story-mandated mission, this sort of half-loss would count as a full narrative win, and so we waved a white flag around like fucking champions and ambushed their leader when he came to arrange our surrender. In winning the battle with the commander, which wasn’t remotely a challenge at this stage in the game since the midboss never gets any stronger after you first arrive in Fort Condor, we got the Huge Materia. Furthermore, the Condor’s egg hatched… which is to say that the condor shot out a burst of fire that killed the condor but allowed the egg to hatch! In checking the egg, we found the baby condor and also the Phoenix Materia, revealing that the condor was something like a Phoenix all along, explaining this strange death by hatching.
For those keeping track at home: yes, that means we yet again had to watch something or someone die to get Phoenix. Good job keeping up this super morbid running theme, Square!
Now that we had found two Huge Materia, the party suddenly announced that there was a third reactor that Rufus and friends – or for that matter the rest of the game world! – hadn’t even mentioned but were certainly aware of: an underwater reactor at Junon. That struck Kyle and I as a huge emergency, but Cid recommended that we visit Cloud and Tifa instead, and well… you know railroaded plots. You can’t argue with them!
When we reunited with Tifa, she told us there had been no news, but just then the earth began to shake. The party headed outside, only to discover that the Lifestream was “gushing” out of the ground. Cid recommended Tifa stay behind, which may have been bad advice given what happens next, as Cid heads to the centre of town only to discover that another of the Weapons had been drawn in by the strange behaviour of the Lifestream. This was Ultimate Weapon, an inconsistent (though not unfair) re-localization of Ultima Weapon from FFVI. Ultimate Weapon absolutely destroyed my mostly underlevelled party, what with Vincent having been out of the party for eons, and Cid out of the party for the events at the Northern Continent, i.e. a good half of his tenure thanks to his late join. Thankfully, you didn’t have to win this particular battle so much as survive just a few turns, as Ultimate Weapon flees the scene after only a short visit.
Ultimate Weapon vanished, but the earthquakes only became worse, and Cid ordered the party to flee the town. As you’ll recall, however, he told Tifa to stay indoors, so she had basically no chance of getting out in time, certainly not with Cloud in a wheelchair. In a scene that – sad to say – ends up looking pretty comical, Tifa sort of shuffles along at quarter speed, pushing a wheelchair as the town experiences an all-out Hollywood earthquake that, like all Hollywood earthquakes, begins to chase its victims. Tifa and Cloud both fall into a green sea beneath the land: the true form of the Lifestream.