Plunging into the Lifestream, Tifa finds herself in a void, threatened by voices of people the player cannot see, before she finally wakes up in a strange world that she (rather quickly and astutely) recognizes as Cloud’s subconscious, made up of places from his past. There are also three memory-copies of Cloud in the area, alongside a giant, and… yet again unfortunately… comical vision of Cloud in pain in the background. I’ll admit that that last one’s probably only funny to me and not anybody else. Anyone who’s read the Kingdom Hearts 2 Retrospective knows that I find giant humans to be hilarious rather than threatening, and certainly not emotive, and the slow motion makes it so much worse for me.
You can’t explore Cloud’s subconscious at your leisure, as the game has a fixed order of events and refuses to let you go out of order. The linear sequence starts with the part of Cloud’s memory representing the gates of Nibelheim. Tifa arrives and tried to restore Cloud’s memories of his childhood, rationalizing that if he had accurate childhood memories that hadn’t been fed to him by her, they would be truly genuine since they predate Cloud’s near-death-experience at Nibelhei, and yet she would still be able to verify them. She also set about reconstructing the real sequence of events at Nibelheim. Now bear in mind that Tifa doesn’t know that Cloud really was in Nibelheim five years ago, so her version of events isn’t fully accurate either, but first steps first, both in real life and the world of pop psychology.
(By the way, internally this version of the Nibelheim town gate is not the real one and is a unique copy!)
The next memory to visit was Cloud and Tifa’s childhood memory of the night on the water tower, Tifa once again reassuring Cloud that this really happened. Trying to think of a way to get Cloud to realize his childhood memories are real, she asks him why he wanted to join SOLDIER, and he responds with the implication that it was to get Tifa’s attention, and he leads her to the third memory, a window handing in the air of the dream environment.
Inside the window, we find this is Tifa’s room, and Cloud talks about how he used to be a jealous outsider kid who wanted to be better friends with Tifa but also felt that he was better than all her other friends. I was going to say a few choice words about this, but thankfully Cloud himself confesses that he was being a jerk, so kudos on him growing up a little. The game then throws in the detail that Tifa’s mom just died before this scene, but it’s done in a way that strikes me as very odd for some reason, though I don’t feel I have the cinematic vocabulary to describe why it feels so odd? The revelation that Tifa’s mom had just died seems to be presented as though it were an explanation for stuff that happened before, but it’s actually a segue to the next scene. I had the same impression both when I was playing this sequence for the first time and when I was watching the scene again while writing this draft. What gives? I just don’t know how to put my finger on it.
After this revelation about Tifa’s mother, we cut to Mt. Nibel. Some of the other kids tell scary stories, saying that no one crosses the mountain alive, but this just inspires young Tifa to attempt the crossing herself, wondering aloud if her mother could cross the mountain now that she’s no longer alive (it’s hard to say how literally she’s taking this, or if it’s just a metaphor accompanying her grief-driven recklessness). Young Cloud, we discover, is following at a great distance, and was put under our control. When he attempts to cross the Nibelheim ladder-bridge, however, we learn that both he and Tifa fell off the bridge. Remember that a fall from this bridge would later kill an armoured Shinra guard, so it’s remarkable that they survived at all. Tifa was knocked out for a week (the same length of time she was unconscious after the Northern Crater, curiously enough). In a bit of totally irresponsible adult behaviour, Cloud is blamed for Tifa’s injury, which scarred him and led to him becoming a problem child who beat up his friends and eventually ran off to join the army just to fight more people.
Back in the hub room, Tifa realizes that since Cloud remembers this incident, and that means he’s starting to regain his sense of self, and they return to the Nibelheim memory and head to the reactor to see what really happened five years ago. There, we learn Zack’s name for the first time and learn what Crisis Core had already taught us: that Cloud was the Shinra guard protecting Tifa and that he had very nearly killed Sephiroth and stopped this whole plot before it had begun by stabbing Sephiroth in the chest and putting him out of commission for five years. The game then jumped around the Nibelheim flashback to put Cloud in his proper position during the events, and to show Sephiroth, complete with Jenova’s head, impale Cloud and all the rest of the events from Crisis Core. We then returned to the dream’s hub, and the mental projections of Cloud all merged together (including the hilarious giant one) and became whole again, bringing everything back to normal if not better, stopping Cloud’s amnesia, PTSD and his sci-fi mind control, all thanks to a psychic Fantastic Voyage and bringing a single repressed memory brought to light! Just like real psychiatry!
I cannot believe how much changed between Square’s FFVII in 1997 and Square Enix’s Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories in 2004. CoM treats the idea of repressed memories with tact, game-long patience, the idea that uncovering the memory could be incredibly traumatic, that uncovering it would just be the first step in a journey, and chief among all: by not, my god, dragging in ideas of mental illnesses and therapy that the author clearly doesn’t understand. Both games do share the problem of trying to treat a medical problem with trite plot devices and magic, but CoM knew when to back away and let the characters work on their problems over the course of years, and that’s almost important as everything else. Note that Sora’s concerns in CoM were only wrapped up by a year of magical-medical treatment and at serious cost, and might not even be fully healed by the events of KH2, while Riku’s concerns were only wrapped up after two games of hard work even after his effort in CoM! And on the other hand we have… Final Fantasy VII. About the only thing I like about this entire plotline was Tifa lying to Cloud and having to undo her serious, selfish mistake, which she did admirably. Everything else is just… style and pop psychology, and while I suppose I like the style, my real-world concerns regarding the pop psychology trump any like I have for its flash.
Also the giant Cloud just undercuts everything for me.
Cloud is better now, but now he too is hearing the voices of the Lifestream that Tifa heard when she first fell into the ocean of souls. The two of them decide it’s time to get the hell out of there, and apparently wanting to leave is all you need to do to get the hell out of here, since out they go! I guess I can accept this, since the ghosts in the Lifestream can’t all be awful, and are probably cognizant enough to help the characters back to the surface. Once Cloud and Tifa woke up, we discover that the party has fished the duo out of the Lifestream in the ruins of Mideel. After learning Cloud is all right, Tifa begins to make a pop psychology moral conclusion that probably would have had me ranting all over again, but gracefully she falls unconscious, and when she wakes up, this plotline is over.
Back on the Highwind, Cloud thanks everyone and confesses that he was never in SOLDIER. Incidentally, he then reveals that the process of creating SOLDIERs involves them being injected with Jenova’s cells. This is curious because there are still plenty of SOLDIERs left in the world and only one of them (now an easily-missed shopkeeper) reacts to the Reunion in any way. You even end up fighting SOLDIERs 1st Class later in the game, implying that not only are they fine, but they’re in greater numbers than they ever were in Crisis Core! While the Crisis Core connection can be excused, and the SOLDIERs do appear in a context that you could construe as being working for a piece of Jenova, this still seems like a plot hole in my mind.
Cloud resolves to fight Sephiroth to the end, and the game was back on. We assembled another party (Cloud, Tifa and Barret, if I’m not mistaken) and it was time to deal with the underwater Junon reactor. Note that Cloud also has no reason to chase the Huge Materia, but I guess there’s no sense in stopping what you nitwits have already started. Pilot! Plunge into the sea!
No, no, of course Kyle and my reaction now that the party was full was to take the Highwind to all those places we could have taken it earlier if we hadn’t been so concerned about Cloud’s EXP. Our first stop was to go to Nibelheim to chase down that optional flashback cutscene I mentioned during the timeline of the actual Nibelheim incident. By going to the Shinra Manor, you can see one final cutscene detailing Cloud’s past, this one showing Zack escaping with his body, Zack riding away with Cloud on a truck and declaring that they should become mercenaries, and Zack’s less dramatic but far more realistic FFVII death against three grunts. Oh, and I promised I’d explain why Zack got out to fight the Shinra army, didn’t I? Okay, here we go: the giant army was a Crisis Core-only addition and they didn’t even bother to set it up. Yes, really. In FFVII, we see Zack trying to get Cloud up a slope when the gunmen come for him. In the FFVII OVA, Last Order, which was decanonized, Zack took a sniper’s bullet for Cloud first (which I actually quite like), but really any kind of injury would have sufficed and Crisis Core provided an army… without justifying Zack going after the army!
In Tifa’s house, we were able to get the item associated with her ultimate Limit Break by playing the piano correctly, which was no mean feat, as the game was expecting a lot of us to play a song basically by ear from an unrepeatable flashback from hours ago – comma – which would also only work if we had done the right thing in said flashback that should by rights have no measurable impact on the real world – second comma – and also it wouldn’t have worked if we had tried this too much earlier in the game – third comma – which happens for no reason! Oh, and you have to do it all on a controller, of course, not a musical keyboard. Technically, we could have done this while Cloud was absent from the party to get an Elemental Materia (…why would they make it different…?) but we missed our chance, and weren’t honestly using the Elemental Materia we already had very effectively to begin with.
After the trip to Nibelheim, we also visited Bone Village for a few pickups, including the Sector 5 Key, a legendary item thought for many years to be tied up in the mythical Resurrection of Aeris, a thing that didn’t really exist but makes for interesting gaming history lesson nevertheless. Ironically, it was only the 2012 PC release that finally allowed you to keep Aeris alive without a cheat device, thanks to accidentally introducing a glitch called Yuffie Warping, but that’s neither here nor there. Using the key to return to Midgar’s Sector 5 Slums after such a long time away, Kyle and I searched the place only to realize there wasn’t much to find! We brought Cid to Wall Market so that he could fix the auto-turret there and allow us to get Tifa’s ultimate weapon, the Premium Heart, though we didn’t actually use it because, like all the game’s ultimate weapons, they can’t train Materia.
We also stopped off at Aeris’ church to see her equally mythical “ghost,” wherein Aeris appears for just a few frames before vanishing, accompanied by the voices of ferocious fans debating whether or not this is a glitch in a never-ending, angelic choir. Evidence suggests that it is intentional, but it is kind of awkwardly done, in such a way that it honestly does look more like a glitch than an actual Easter egg. If I hadn’t seen the evidence to the contrary, I’d have been arguing the other way!
After Midgar, we took a trip to the Gold Saucer because Kyle claimed it would be really easy to get Cloud’s ultimate Limit Break at this stage in the game. However, after only a single attempt, we realized that he was gravely mistaken. He explained that since he used to grind up to max level every time he played this game in the 1990s, he seems to have forgotten that he completed challenges like this at that max level. Yeah, yeah, I can see how being at level 99 would make this minigame a bit easier!
Finally arriving in Junon to investigate its secret underwater reactor, Cloud noticed that the giant cannon had vanished, but there was no time to worry about that, though if I can say so myself… it’s kind of hard not to worry about!
Where the first two Huge Materia quests were basically mini-games (probably because the party was missing two members), the third was closer to a traditional dungeon. Getting there was as simple as going to Junon and taking a different turn in the upper levels than you had in the past, accessing a new area. There, you find a group of Shinra grunts who, in either confusion or fear, end up running away from you. After this, you faced a gag battle in an elevator where two grunts gambled on who would get to take a woman on a date based on who didn’t die in battle against the party. Pride before a fall, fellas, you haven’t even asked the lady yet, and–well. After that, another set fight and then a walk through an underwater passageway, where we fought a specific enemy of note that I’ll mention in the post-game, but didn’t do anything special with it because damned if we ever touched the Materia you need to start that particular sidequest!
In the next room, we discovered a submarine bay with a number of set encounters. After crossing them, we came to the reactor and discovered that Shinra was already in the process of gathering the Huge Materia, so we rushed to stop them from escaping with it on a red submarine. They failed. We discovered Reno on the scene, and he ordered a dock robot to attack us instead, which served as a boss battle.
The Carry Armour had a serious advantage over the party: the ability to pin down a character and prevent them from fighting the rest of the battle, essentially killing them without chance of revival. During my first attempt, I didn’t know this. After one party member was taken out, I felt confident I could free them, if only I had been bombarding the boss with group magic the entire fight, and how much health could its arms possibly still have?
Enough. They had enough.
During Kyle’s attempt after my total party kill, he overcame the Armour by building up his limits ahead of time and going into the battle with three limit breaks.
While we’re here: if holding a party member still takes them out of battle for good, why do no other super-strong bosses try it? And isn’t it funny how 75% of the game ago we fought the military’s newest weapons, and now are losing to industrial lifting equipment? Square Enix has a poor sense of scale.
After collecting the Leviathan Scales from the dock – an item that would help us out later, if in a somewhat silly manner – we beat up the crew of the neighbouring submarine a little and scared the rest of them so much that they surrendered, and we let the rest of them sort of stand around after the fact, which was hilarious. After that, we were presented with the submarine minigame, which was so confounding that I just sort of passed the controller back over to Kyle in a daze. He then won within a few seconds and returned the controller. Seconds. I couldn’t honestly tell you how to play the game, as it was completely out of my scope. If you’re wondering why it’s so complicated but was so easily won, there’s one big reason: it returns as a minigame in the Golden Saucer with more difficult scenarios, so naturally this first encounter is the easiest. But… this easy? And considering the complication, I can’t say I’d be all that eager to replay it!