We've learned from Elmyra that Aeris has been captured by Shinra, who have been after the girl for years on account of her being an "Ancient". We decide to rescue her for reasons of loyalty and plot development.
Shinra's HQ is built in the middle of the wheel-shaped city of Midgar and stands far above the desolate slums where we've spent all our time thus far. Luckily, Shinra's villainous decision to drop the "plate" (the giant platform on which Sector 7's middle-class live) on to the slums, thus destroying them and all their inhabitants, has left a rickety pathway of architectural detritus leading directly to their corporate fortress.
But first, some backtracking, for local colour as much as anything else. We return to the Don's mansion, from which Aeris and I rescued Tifa only a few hours ago. There's a guy with a mohawk in the S&M dungeon. We set him free, without even knowing if we'll unlock some kind of minigame as a reward.
Poking around in the mansion, we come across some mess left by the Don's guards, who ran from the mansion in a panic when the plate came down.
The mahjog board is a nice touch.
We can't put Aeris' rescue off much longer, so we ask around Wall Market for advice on getting to Shinra's HQ.
My HP is 450, is that what you meant?
He doesn't answer, so we stock up on potions and head up to the plate.
I'm in two minds about this sequence, which includes several timed jumps and nothing else, not even a fight.
On one hand, it's pseudo-platforming in a game in which the player has very little physical control over their on-screen avatar, making it an fiddly exercise in trial-and-error key tapping. Final Fantasy VII is a difficult game, but its challenges are tactical rather than physical. It's a game about risk assessment and decision-making: when to make a detour for a lengthy quest, when to grind, how many potions to buy, who to equip with what armour, which materia to develop. This means that the timing sequences are not only tedious, but they neither hone nor test the skills that you need to master the main game mechanics. They're sub-minigames with flat mechanics.
On the other hand, the Midgar climb does add texture to an extremely long adventure. The slow vertical ascent shows you the extent of the plate's damage, and the lack of any fights means there's nothing to distract you from it. It's almost the JRPG equivalent of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves' village sequence, in which Nathan Drake takes a break from shooting and climbing to walk slowly around a mountain settlement and kick a ball around with some children. Mechanically pointless, perhaps, but valuable to the narrative.
Eventually, we reach the Shinra tower. Whether it's pollution or just that time of year, the ominous clouds remind us of the seriousness of our mission. That is, to rescue Aeris. Because she's an "ancient'. Which is important. Probably.
Pause for effect.
Tifa suggests using the back stairs as a way to sneak into Shinra. Barret suggests a full-frontal assault.
I need the XP, so we go in the front.
...murder your employees in cold blood?
After killing the first wave of goons, we decide to pick up some doodads in the Shinra "Accessories" store.
Wonder if they sell T-Shirts?
Shinra need to train their people in customer service. It's not Barret's fault he has a gun for an arm.
We wander around fiddling with the merchandise before watching whatever it is those dudes in the top left are staring at on TV.
It is a weird advert for Shinra brand vehicles.
The incongruity of this FMV makes me wonder whether the steampunk vehicles it showcases were made by Square at some point in development but never got used in the final game. They're practical and quirky rather than sinister, so they don't really contribute to the narrative point of this entire level: that is conveying to the player that Shinra is a vast evil mega-corp full of faceless bourgeois capitalists who need to be brought down.
Still determined, despite the lack on narrative re-enforcement of Shinra's general dastardliness, we get in the lift and head up to where Aeris is being held. Barret fills the character development void.
When we get out, we're greeted by Shinra's HR department.
Needless to say, we are not the ones who get destroyed.
Barret gives us a pep talk. Apparently the numerous terrorist attacks and the complete destruction of his home town were not "real" enough for him.
You can't tell from the screenshot, but this security guard is napping. This is what he would have see if he'd opened his eyes:
Floor 60's high, but still about 5 minigames lower than we need to be.
Here's the first:
When I saw this, my heart sank. The use of timed button pushes in order to get from one end of the hall to the other is just a really annoying way of gamifying something that doesn't need to be gamified.
I passive-aggressively named this screenshot "annoying timing puzzle".
I failed to safely guide Tifa and Barret across so many times that we end up killing all the guards on the floor, so eventually I am excused from further Quick Time Events on floor 60.
With its polished tiles and indoor tree, the next floor clearly belongs to the Shinra suits. We talk to a few of them, and they're all as devious as the are flippant. One guy has this to say when asked about the consequences of the mass destruction in Sector 7:
These suits need a lesson in social justice.
Onwards and upwards.
The next floor is home to Shinra's library. It's run by an eccentric who says he'll give us the keycard to the next floor if we guess the password.
To do so, we need to solve a puzzle, and it's a good one. The library is arranged in categories, and each category contains one book that doesn't "fit". You have to find that book, take the number that appears before the title, then find the letter in that title that corresponds to that number.
There are four categories, so you end up with four letters. Re-arrange them to make a word, and that's your password. The answer is different on every playthrough, so although you can check a walkthrough to find the means to guess the password, you can't just look it up. In my case, the password was "MAKO", but the joy of solving the puzzle was its own reward.
On the next floor I have to fix a broken model of Midgar. With every piece I assemble, the treasure chest containing the next piece opens. It's very simple and thus not as satisfying as the library puzzle.
Once Midgar is complete, it's time to get our kicks on floor 66.
I try to think of a funny answer while exploring the rest of the floor. Before I can come up with anything, I find the cause of the stench.
I flush, then climb up. Tifa and Barret follow and we crawl along the smelly air vents until we're over the conference room.
Inside, President Shinra is holding an evil meeting with his evil executives and his evil head scientist. After discussing their plans to make money off the Sector 7 "accident", they address the matter of their new tenant, Aeris.
I'm glad Aeris isn't around to hear this. No girl wants to know that she's 18% inferior to her mother. That kind of stuff can really mess you up.
We make our way back to the smelly toilet and find ourselves in Hojo's lab. Before examining the glass tank in the back, we examine the round container on the right that looks strikingly similar to the cryogenic dewar flask that holds Akira's remains in Akira. It's the first real similarity I've seen between Final Fantasy VII and Akira, but I'll be on the lookout for more. As a piece of dystopian cyberpunk about plucky teenagers and governmental abuse of power, I wouldn't be surprised of Final Fantasy VII contained deliberate homages to Otomo's masterpiece.
We take a peek inside.
No head or clothes. Perfect woman.
I'm joking, of course. That is messed up. Feeling a bit ill, we turn our attention to the tank.
It seems that as well as keeping naked headless corpses in cryogenic storage, Hojo is also in the business of cross-breeding rare species. Neither Aeris not her cell-mate (who looks like teenage Simba in the time-lapse section of "Hakuna Matata" in The Lion King) seem to happy about the prospect.
We bust them out.
I caught this screenshot before the character had finished talking, which is bad form. Basically, he's a playable character and we have to choose his name. As with the other characters, I keep the default, which is "Red XIII".
After the naming ceremony, we're attached by a monster who poisons us. Red XII uses his first limit.
Even though Red XIII has a hefty HP of 607, we don't get far without our escape attempt. Pretty soon we're outnumbered and taken to the President's office.
Like all good villains, he gives us a lot of highly classified information.
This time, Aeris is around to hear the traumatising comments. I hope she doesn't develop a complex.
We're dragged off to prison. This being "fun" prison, they put me in the same cell as Tifa.
You know, I'm going to start drinking whenever the localisation throws up some kind of double entendre.
Just as Tifa and I are about to come up with some interesting ways to pass the time, Aeris starts soliloquising.
As she speaks, our cell doors open. Aside from the corpses in Shinra uniform that litter the corridors, this isn't really explained, but we decide not to look a gift horse in the mouth.
And thus begins our second attempt to escape Shinra's HQ. Will we succeed? Who slaughtered the guards? And will Aeris overcome her mummy issues in order to save the planet, or whatever?
Find out next time on the Final Fantasy VII Playthrough!