First, a recap.
Cloud (a mercenary), Barret (a terrorist) and Tifa (a woman), are on their way to blow up the Sector 5 Mako reactor. Mako is a powerful energy source being used by Shinra, a large and most likely malevolent corporation, to provide the planet's energy and make lots of money. According to Barret, their activities are putting the planet in huge danger, and so he and his band of fellow environmentalists, AVALANCHE, decide to blow up Shinra's reactors.
After the first successful attack, on Sector 7, the gang headed back to the slums beneath the reactor, at which point the player learns of the moral ambiguity present in the situation, namely that the violent attack affects the livelihoods of many innocent citizens. However, all of the AVALANCHE members are really earnest and Barret loves his daughter, so at least we identify with them. Plus, the plucky rebels are always the good guys.
Back in Sector 5. This is the first time we've been out on an expedition with Tifa whom we met last time but whose naming screen I forgot to include. Here it is:
|Tifa has really well-conditioned hair.|
The journey from the train track (where the trio found themselves after leaping from a train to avoid an I.D. checkpoint) is not without incident. Cloud and friends are attacked by a selection of mutant worms and sentient machine guns. Most exciting is Tifa's "winning" animation.
|Like all athletes, Tifa knows the value of cool-down stretches.|
Never mind. This is Final Fantasy, after all.
|That's her hair, not a tail.|
|I've heard that before!|
The trio move deeper into the reactor, coming across a hole in the floor that minds me of the garbage chute in the detention centre in the first Star Wars. Sadly, Harrison Ford is not at the bottom.
|The "industrial" look was cool in the '90s.|
Climbing ensues. We emerge outside the Sector 5 reactor, which looks a lot like the Sector 7 reactor except for the blue lighting. Good re-use of environments there, Square.
|Cloud slides down a pipe. Pretty hard to tell in a screenshot, it's not like his hair moves in the wind or anything.|
I have to say, the blue lighting actually makes the reactor look a lot more sinister than Sector 7's browns.
|This is how mouthwash is made.|
|Nice hat, Tifa.|
|Wonder what happens if we turn that wheel?|
It's the moment of truth. Time to blow up another of Shinra's reactors, thus eroding a little more of their tyrannical hold on the planet's resources. What could go wrong?
|Are those pecs? On a robot?|
|We're back in the lift.|
After defeating the strange chesty robots, it's back in an elevator to make our escape. I'm very confused, however, about the Pi symol there. This is a lift. The only numbers you tend to see lit up on the interiors of lifts are numbers that indicate the floor. So we're on floor 3.14159....?
No wonder it was such a faff getting here.
|Damn you, Jessie.|
Now, this sequence is awful. Cloud, Tifa and Barret each have to press their button on the console in front of them at the same time in order to open the door to the next area. You only control Cloud, but all three characters push the button in the most ridiculously convoluted way, swinging their super deformed arms back as far as they go, then up in the air and finally down on the button. Pressing the correct key on the keyboard triggers the initiation of Cloud's button pushing dance, but you have to guess when Tifa and Barret are beginning theirs because by the time you see them move, it's too late to push the button.
It requires guesswork, not logic, and the animation is utterly silly. It took me about three minutes to get the timing right, possibly because I could not see through my tears of rage.
|I love the perspective in this shot.|
Finally, we open the door, and thus begins a brief flight across Shinra's catwalks.
|Thanks, Exposition Monitor!|
It's brief because we're soon accosted by President Shina. Turns out it was a trap, and our bomb didn't work properly. Before he leaves in his little helicopter, he makes sure to tell us about the mysterious Sephiroth.
Can one ever be "too brilliant"? I guess we'll find out later. Right now, we have more pressing concerns.
This boss fight actually turns out to be quite good fun. The robot can only attack if you're in front of him, so you have to time your attacks and healing spells to co-incide with the direction he's facing in. Because he's electronic, he's vulnerable to "Bolt", Cloud's lightening spell.
|Is that an intake vent above his head? How fast does he go?|
Although it looks like he's about to attack there, the lightening means he's succumbed to "bolt" and it's time for us to scarper. But nothing ever goes as planned when you're a mercenary eco-terrorist vigilante bastard with silly hair.
|So... many... Star Wars... parallels...|
The robot explodes, leaving Cloud dangling above Midgar. Remember that screenshot of him on the catwalk earlier? Remember how small the buildings were? Mm.
|His hair looks like bunny ears.|
The 1997 graphics do not allow Tifa's face to fully express her dismay.
|Barret shows Tifa why he can never find gloves that fit.|
A gas canister explodes and Cloud loses his grip on the catwalk. Tifa sinks to the floor, devastated.
Now, remember how high up we're meant to be right now?
|It's like that bit in Cloud City, in The Empire Strikes Back. CLOUD City. See what I did there.|
Cloud plummets to the ground. Given that the game has only been going for two hours, it seems unlikely that he will die, even though the laws of physics would suggest otherwise.
|The Nativity, as directed by David Lynch.|
Well, it seems like he's found a soft landing in a patch of flowers, of which more later. First, a note on the architecture.
Now, I've always found the western medieval influence in a lot of Japanese games quite interesting. A lot of the time the architecture or costume crops up in JRPGs as a fairly straightforward fantasy setting, which always seems a bit odd because it's often done about as well as western depictions of Japenese settings in pop culture, i.e. not very. I think the reason it often doesn't work is that fantasy as we know it emerged in the 20th century when medieval things were already ancient, and steeped in centuries of history and context. Consequently, western use of those settings makes use of that.
Take Oblivion, which plonks medieval castles in the middle of what looks like the South Downs. This works because it makes them filthy and populates them with hairy blokes in leather armour who talk about ancient dynasties. A lot of JRPGs (and this may be a buget, rather than a cultural thing) end up making them too flat and clean, like Tales of Graces f, which was pretty enough but had sterile, textureless medieval castles that seemed devoid of any life, past or present. It's true that plenty of western games make medieval settings rubbish, but that's generally through lack of imagination than anything else, the environments at least seem believable.
One of the few games I can think of that's executed this kind of setting really well is Dark Souls. Of course, though that's a Japanese Role Playing Game, it's not a JRPG, but it does take a very Western dark fantasy aesthetic and make it incredibly rich and strangely believable. This is because the creatures it populates its dank castles with are so utterly bizarre that within the context of the game, you feel they could only possibly have ended up there by a long, slow, natural evolution. Like anglerfish.
I think Final Fantasy VII makes the church and the stained glass window work here. It pulls it off because the fiction of the entire world is rich and believable. Why is there a Catholic church in the middle of this dystopian slum? Why not! We've already had magic, giant robots, eco-terrorists and "Hell Bubbles", so we're rather at the stage where anything goes. Like London, for example, where Tudor castles rub shoulders with skyscrapers, hippie art markets and the Disney Store.
I'm over-simplifying, of course, but I do think a large part of making an imaginary world believable is a sense of history, a solid backstory. Fantasy worlds work best when they have a rich fictional history to draw on. For all its faults The Lord of the Rings is the perfect example. You never read that and think "whatever, the elves would never give the men the time of day" because Tolkien had already spent ages thinking about the shared history of the two races. That bleeds into every page, and you never question it. Final Fantasy VII's backstory isn't so long or involved, but later events in the game only make sense in the context of the world's lengthy history, and it's the juxtaposition of seemingly incongruous elements early on that give us the idea that this is a world with a long, chequered story behind it so sit back: all will be explained.
That's what the church made me think of, anyway.
|There's Something About Mary was released the year after this game. Just sayin'.|
But just as we're about to ask who she is, why she's growing flowers in the church or whether either of her parents had a lisp, we're accosted by some guy with a rattail.
|I'd recognise that haircut anywhere!|
But before things can get ugly, I realise that it's been a very tiring few days and that I should go to bed and read Vanity Fair. Yes, I'm reading Vanity Fair. Given that it took me about a year to plough through Middlemarch (taking the odd break to read House of Leaves), it's hard to predict which I'll finish first, Vanity Fair or Final Fantasy VII.
I quite like the idea of George Osbourne as a giant robot.