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Final Fantasy Month: Final Fantasy VII

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The Story

The general tale of Final Fantasy VII is told is a somewhat non-linear fashion where the facts often turn out to be obscured lies until late in the game.  I’m going to do my best to summarize this in a LINEAR fashion, so it actually makes sense.

Long long ago, the Planet (Yes, that’s its name. Hence the capital P.) was inhabited by a race called the Cetra who lived in harmony with the Planet. Then a giant meteor crashed into the planet’s northern pole 2000 years prior to the game’s beginning and brought a creature known as Jenova with it.  Jenova pretty much wiped out the Cetra before they were able to contain the thing.

Skip to a few prior to the main game, protagonist and sword enthusiast Cloud Strife, a lowly Shinra soldier, accompanies SOLDIERs (the capitalization makes it different) Zack and Sephiroth on a mission to Cloud’s hometown of Nibelheim.  There Sephiroth discovers the horrible “truth” of his existence: He was imbued with the cells of Jenova, discovered by the Shinra Corporation and mistaken for a Cetra, to create a Supersoldier.  Believing that he is a Cetra, and thus the true ruler of the Planet, and also driven to madness by the Jenova cells in his body, he burns the village to the ground and goes to retrieve the body of Jenova hidden inside a Mako Reactor nearby (Mako being the life energy of the planet and the Reactor is a power plant that sucks up Mako to turn into electricity and such.)  Zack tries to stop him but is defeated, and Cloud ultimately strikes down Sephiroth and throws him into the Planet’s Lifestream below the Mako Reactor.  Shinra shows up and uses the villagers of the destroyed town as experiments to infuse Jenova cells into and create a new Sephiroth to replace them. Zack and Cloud are deemed failures of this experiment and to be locked away.  They escaped but Zack died from injuries sustained and Cloud’s mental state from the experiments shattered his memories, blurring them with Zack’s.

The story starts proper a few years after the Nibelheim incident, with Cloud working as a mercenary for the Eco-Terrorist group AVALANCHE along with his childhood friend Tifa and the group’s revolutionary leader Barrett.  They’re on a mission to destroy the Mako Reactors and stop the Shinra Corporation from harming the Planet.  The first part of the game follows AVALANCHE’s missions including the destruction of two Mako Reactors, saving Tifa from a slumlord pimp, Cloud meeting the flower girl Aeris/Aerith who is relentlessly pursued by the Shinra special ops team called the Turks because she is an actual Cetra, trying and failing to stop Shinra from dropping one of the city’s upper levels onto the sector of the city that AVALANCHE’s base is in, and then assaulting Shinra directly to find the president murdered by Sephiroth who apparently survived the whole Lifestream ordeal.  The first ‘act’ ends with President Shinra’s son Rufus taking the big chair and chasing down the remnants of AVALANCHE as they flee from the mega city.

Realizing that Sephiroth is back, Cloud declares his intentions to hunt down the man who destroyed Tifa and his’ hometown.  This launches into a global chase as the party pursues clues about where to find Sephiroth while Shinra and their Turks chase down the party.  They learn about the Planet and the Lifestream where all life is said to come from and return to when it dies, they find a restored Nibelheim full of crazy Sephitorh “Clones” (Other people injected with Jenova cells to test out the ‘Reunion Theory’ that all lifeforms infected with Jenova will strive to reunite with the original) and that Sephiroth is looking for something called the Black Materia that contains the ultimate destructive magic (Materia being a magical crystal formed from condensed Mako energy).  This is followed by the party getting the Black Materia, then Cloud getting brainwashed to hand it over to Sephiroth.  Then the party getting the Black Materia again, only to have Cloud get brainwashed and hand it over to Sephiroth.  In between these two, you get the tragic moment of Aeris dying while praying to the Planet with Sephiroth (Actually Jenova disguised as Sephiroth) turning her into a shiskabob.  Sepiroth-Jenova taunts and mind-%$&*s Cloud with the half-truth that his memories of what happened in Nibelheim were a lie and he was a false creation with false memories.  Completely mind-screwed, Cloud gives the Black Materia to the real Sephiroth who has been chilling in a mako cocoon.  This allows him to summon Meteor, awaken the WEAPONs (Godzilla sized bio-mechanical creatures born from The Planet as a defense mechanism), and collapsed the area forcing everyone to escape.

The last act of the game is pretty much dealing with the fallout.  Shinra is trying to blow up the WEAPONs and send a rocket into space to blow up Meteor.  Cloud & Tifa are trying to solve Cloud’s existential crisis (Leading to the truth of Cloud being a lowly infantryman and Zack being the elite SOLDIER finally being revealed.) And the entire team trying to discover what Aeris’ plan of running off to get killed was actually supposed to be about – summoning Holy, the ultimate White magic, to counter the ultimate Black magic of Meteor but Sephiroth, deep in the planet’s core via the Lifestream, is preventing Holy from emerging.  The team plunges down toward the core of the planet to fight of Sepiroth, ending with a final confrontation between him and Cloud one-on-one.  Sephiroth is defeated and Holy is released and…  Cut to 500 years later.  Midgar is a vine covered ruin.  Red XIII or one of his descendants along with a couple of cubs look out over the ruins.  The end.

It wasn’t until years later with the release of Advent Children did we find out the outcome of Holy v. Meteor.  Everyone lived. Except Aeris, naturally.

My Opinions

Most people who read this blog know that I don’t have a high opinion of Final Fantasy VII.  That’s not to say it’s a bad game, it really isn’t.  In fact as a strict gameplay factor, I really enjoyed VII. Nor was the story really that bad either.  It had a lot of interesting bits that were admittedly borrowed heavily from other things I like such as The Thing and Chrono Trigger, but it wasn’t bad.  In fact, most of my complaints were how flat the characters ended up being and that’s mostly because of the complete failure of how the story was presented to the player: By people talking about it.  Periodically through the game the story just stops at a random location so all the characters can talk about what is going on in the plot.  They don’t talk about their feelings about it, or their reactions as people, they just would sit and exposit for a while before moving on.  That’s how the story is mostly conveyed in the game – by expository dialogue – to make up for the non-linear what-is-truth-what-is-lie narrative that no one could follow otherwise.  Was Jenova an Ancient? No, but I know plenty of fans who think it was.  And because of this method of plot delivery, the characters are never developed or fleshed out.  This lead to what I called the ‘Backstory City’ effect.  Every non-central character (Cloud & Aeris) have ONE town you will visit that goes into their backstory, once that is done they are officially stand-in’s for the rest of the game to fill the roster sheet.  So I found the characters to pretty fairly flat. Probably why Aeris’ death didn’t phase me much.

It almost might not have helped that I didn’t play VII tills years after the game was released.  Completely missing the “hype” time that the game had early on.  I was a Nintendo kid.  I didn’t own a Playstation until FFVIII came out a couple years later, and even then I didn’t go back and play VII.  For a long time I held it in resentment simply for existing on a different console than all the Final Fantasy’s before, because I’ll be honest.  I was there for the Nintendo/Sega Console Wars.  Those days got dark.  Like not calling people Xbots on a forum dark, but like fist fights in the school yard for brand loyalty…    Yea, we were kind of dumb like that.  So when I finally played VII I was probably way less forgiving of its flaws, and less awed by the technical aspects than someone who experienced it fresh and I’ll admit that.

The seventh installment is also where Square started to go in a different direction with the franchise.  Where they began to experiment with new technology and opportunities that the earlier 16-bit systems couldn’t offer.  It also seems to be where Square decided they needed to formally part ways with the Western European Fantasy/D&D knock off style that they had been using up until this point.  Granted VI was already a departure from that aesthetic in a number of ways, but it kind of felt like the Eberron campaign setting for D&D as in “Steampunk doesn’t make it any less D&D.” From this point forward it seems that Square wanted to push further and further from the “old school” games and establish a strong new identity for the Final Fantasy games, however for many a old-school Final Fantasy fan, it marked a long road of bitter pills to swallow.  I’m in the middle.  I think the strong identity that they had in the early days: Four elemental crystals, vehicles, the Archfiends, the ‘Warriors of Light’ and even the early iterations of the Job system were all fairly strong identifiers that you were playing a Final Fantasy game. As they series went on, we saw less crystals, less vehicles, no Archfiends or ties to the four elements, and each game trying to do something completely different in terms of mechanics, setting, characters, etc.  While trying something different is surely worth applauding, it almost felt like that Square was ashamed of how the series started.

Next time I’ll be back with what was my first actual foray into 3D Final Fantasy’s and one of the stranger iterations that takes the term ‘experimenting’ with setting and tone to a whole new level – Final Fantasy VIII.

May the light of the Crystals guide your way!

Do you have any great memories from these classic Final Fantasy games? Feel free to share in the comments!

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Solo Game Vacation: Stick a Masamune in me, I’m Done

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Cloud shares my feelings

Well, time trudges on and games get played.  And I have finally finished Final Fantasy VII and put it back on my metaphorical shelf to sit.  You know, I don’t know what I can say at this juncture that won’t invoke the ire of many internet dwelling denizens.  Final Fantasy VII has taken on this mythic larger than life position that has rendered it untouchable by so many, like Zelda: Ocarina of Time or Mario 64.  And part of my really gets why that is.  It’s solid from a game play standpoint, even if the materia gets a bit grindy toward the end.  The minigames are fun, and reminds me so often how much I’d LOVE a Gold Saucer style area in an MMO with racing, PvE arena battles with handicaps, little arcade minigames, etc to win prizes and have fun.  And for the time, the technology was indeed a huge leap forward in the genre and it is really easy to see how it would endear itself to a generation of gamers both as a jump forward and as a first glimpse into the Final Fantasy series.  I mean, the Playstation was how many people’s first console?  FF7 was how many people’s first Final Fantasy?  Yea.  There’s a nostalgia factor and it’s not hard to see why.

I suppose all this complimentary stuff is being dumped up front because I am trying to build a shield with it.  You see, after completing the game. Doing everything I could save for the Ruby and Emerald Weapon and mastering 100% of the materia, I can honestly say that I found the story to be ATROCIOUSLY LACKING.

Did I get your blood boiling? Good. I’ve just gotten started.  I talked about this with some people on Twitter yesterday, but I keep coming back to it as the greatest single problem with Final Fantasy VII.  The gameplay, solid. The music, beautiful. The technology, amazing for its time. The story? OH MY GOD WHY?!  Not only is the plot so complicated to Evangelion proportions (Starting to see why this one is so popular with anime fans), it is told is the most sideways methods that David Lynch would stop the game to say “Wait. What?” with buckets of exposition tossed on you combined with misinformation that has some fans of the games stunned when I mention the bit that Jenova ISN’T a bloody Cetra.

Worse yet, the way the story is conveyed is usually via the party talking, which means you spend most of the time with the characters trying to figure out the story instead of getting to know these character’s personalities.  Combine that with the fact that so little time is spent with their individual stories save for usually one town on Disc One that serves as that character’s “backstory town” and then you move on and never bother with them again.  Red XIII does a complete heel turn about his father.  Any and all resentment is just dropped and now he is the proudest frickin’ lion dog thing ever to be the son of Soto.  If it was that damn easy, why didn’t Bugen just tell him that crap years ago?  “My dad sucks.” “Your dad was a hero.” “I love my dad!” “Good, now heal the party and don’t be relevant till disc 3.”

I know I’m really harping on this, but come on people.  With the exception of Cloud, Tifa and maybe Barrett, these aren’t characters.  They’re cardboard cut outs that can cast spells.  Even Aeris falls victim to this, hence why I had no emotional weight to her death (Spoiler warning for a 15 year old game by the way).  She was cheerful?  And she offered Cloud a date in exchange for protection?  And then she was a Cetra.  And she summoned holy.  And she’s dead now.  Sure, you get a bit more time with her if you do the Gold Saucer date, but by that point I didn’t give a damn about her and was much more interested in the childhood friend who clearly knows something isn’t right with her friend and shares an emotional tragedy with the loss of their mutual hometown and their parents.  And you know that much about them by the time you get your first chocobo.  Aeris’ backstory is…  she’s a Cetra. She dated Zach. Her mom died… somehow? And she’s a Cetra.

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Wait… I’m WHERE?

Not convinced?  How about Cid?  Cid who becomes the de facto leader when Tifa stays with Cloud at the hospital for a few missions on Disc 2.  Captain of the airship in the game.  Clearly an important figure.  Why does he join this mission to save Planet?  Well,  in his own words:  My time in that town is over, and my business with Shinra is through…  So yea, why not?  Why not indeed.  Why not join a bunch of terrorists?  Got nothing else to do.  And it’s true.  He has no reason to get involved, but he does because the plot says so.

It just drove me nuts.  I’d take a simple plot with great characters over a complex plot with bland characters.  I mean, if I can have both, sure. But this ain’t it.

So I’m glad I played it.  I enjoyed the game.  But I wish the story were handled better.  It wasn’t a bad story. Just… not told well.  I remember the problem being similar in Final Fantasy 8 – another on my list to revisit someday – but right now we’re going back to a game I know I love that I’ve been wanting to replay forever.

A game beneath cerulean skies

Oh! I suppose I should note in terms of offline gaming, my fiance and I picked up Age of Empires III on sale and decided to give it a try.  First impressions were…   mixed?  I guess it’s like an historical warcraft game essentially?  I think we were both hoping for something more like a more realtime active Civilization, but hey at least it’s on the cheap. And it fulfills that “Lets blow up the other country!” feeling.

Solo Game Vacation: Week One

So as I said before in my previous posts, I had decided to take some time off of the hustle and bustle of the non-stop worlds of MMOs and what not and get in touch with my roots of single player games.  Single player games are actually my preferred form of story, outranking movies, books, and comics.  There’s something just satisfying about playing a story to its completion and feeling like you actually changed things in the world.  That’s something MMOs have always sorely lacked for me.  Even if SWTOR, where choices can affect a great deal, you are ultimately on a straight path that has a clear and set beginning and end with a few dashes of flavor.  The events of the Imperial Agents chapter two always occur, though not necessarily for always the same reasons.  In the end, whether you are a cut throat bounty hunter, or a member of the fricking Dark Council, you still get called on to work the front lines of Makeb.

So when I feel in the mood for games where the story actually can change and alter the world around me as I play through them, I enjoy these breaks to come back to my roots and dig in with some games I may have put on the shelf, haven’t gotten to yet, or want to revisit from yesteryear.  Hence, Chrono Trigger.

Chrono Trigger

There’s not much I can say about Chrono Trigger that hasn’t already been said a thousand times across these worlds wide web.  The game is still fantastic.  It’s solid, tells a good story, and is fun.  However, there is a lot of things I didn’t notice when I first played it.  Which admittedly was like… middle school age I think.  So around 12?  Anyway, first and foremost that this game is actually incredibly simple.  I mean compared to Squaresoft’s other offerings at the time. The older Final Fantasy games can seriously kick my butt still at times to this day, especially in the extra boss or final boss sense.  Chrono Trigger?  There’s always a trick, always some weakness, that once you know it, reduces a fight to mere child’s play and this includes the final boss.  The final form of Lavos can be quite simply boiled down to: don’t attack the thing you THINK is the boss, kill the little thing to the right of it.  Bam. Done. Many bosses have a weakness in the form of some kind of magic that nullifies their defenses.  Really, the hardest boss fight in the whole thing was probably Magus because it’s a) early on b) the trick isn’t obvious and c) he has a wide range of heavily damaging and/or party wide attacks.  The whole thing in retrospect feels like a beginners RPG.  One to introduce people to the genre before graduating up to things like Final Fantasy.

The other thing I should note on my replay is that the game is really short.  I completed the whole story the long way, completed all the optional side missions, collected every little doodad, unlocked every tech, and did quite a bit of grinding and the whole thing still took only about 23 hours to do.  Now admittedly, if I was being honest about completion I’d have to include the X hours it would take to do a New Game+ and get all 15 other endings. But for a strict single playthrough that was surprisingly short for an RPG.  Right? Or is it just me?  Still, if you want an amazing old school RPG that isn’t gonna devour all your time, here ya go.  The same however cannot be said for its sibling.

Chrono Cross

Well, I finished up Chrono Trigger, and I said, “What shall I play next?” and my game shelf answered “How about the sequel?” which was odd because my shelf usually recommends that I play Mega Man every time I ask it.  Chrono Cross is one of those games that I played once, enjoyed it tremendously, and never picked it up again.  The reasons being twofold.  The first is that the plot is insanely confusing and requires a great deal of thinking to wrap your head around the combinations and consequences of time and dimensional travel presented, and second that the only way to get the “good ending” is complete bullcensored.  Having to toss the correct color combo of magic (magic and attacks have colors in this game. Don’t ask me why.) and then smack with a special magic.  That’s all well and good but the boss ALSO is tossing out color magic and it messes up the whole thing.  TEDIOUS.  So why did I start replaying it? (Still haven’t finished)  Well, unlike when I was 16 (a literal half a lifetime ago now), I didn’t have access to things like FAQs on the internet.  So that helps immensely with the ending.  And I’m older and wiser now.  Kind of.  Stop giggling.  So the convoluted plot so be a bit easier to follow. I hope.

As I said, I haven’t finished this one yet but I am enjoying it.  The combat system is not nearly as frustrating despite  five different components and resources to keep track of (Hit chance, Tech points, Tech color, Field Color, and Stamina), it becomes a fairly intuitive dance after a while.  Hit to generate tech points, spend tech points to use techs, and keep in mind your colors to maximize damage.  The story is also pretty cool and seems designed with the intent of multiple playthroughs.  For instance, early on you can take 3 different paths to get to the next objective. Each path requires different things, and recruits a different party member.  I don’t know if you can still get the other party members later in the game, or you need to grab them in a new game+ set up to recruit them all.  Not too worried since this game hosts a multitude of companions (It’s in the double digits at least).  But that’s kind of a cool mechanic you don’t see very often.  Three paths that lock you out of the other two when you pick one?  Bold and interesting choice.  I didn’t even realize it was there until I accidentally locked myself out of one of the other paths.

However, if Chrono Trigger is a beginner RPG then Cross feels like a fricking Advanced Placement class. There is so much here in terms of plot, collectibles, recruitable characters, and mechanics that I can’t imagine jumping into this one right after Trigger without playing some other RPGs in between.  Luckily there were YEARS between the two games when they first came out.  I still look forwarding to playing this one some more and seeing how the rest of it holds up.

FINAL FANTASY VII

Okay.  Alright.  Confession time, readers.  I…  never finished FF7 before.  Yes, you may laugh, jeer, throw things, etc.  But I never did.  I got to the point where Aerith dies and then I was done.  Not because I was heart broken by the loss. Oh heck no.  I NEVER liked Aerith.  She always came off to me as a cheerleader mixed with a purity sue that continuously got shoved in my face because “LOOK! IT’S A TRAGIC ROMANCE!”  No.  It’s that by that point in the game, I had utterly stopped giving a damn about the greater plot that confused me worse than Chrono Cross, and I decided to just walk away.  To give you a time frame, I bought FF7 when it was just given its greatest hits release.

Now, I can’t click anything Final Fantasy related on the internet without hearing about how no game in the entirety of the Final Fantasy series could hope to hold a candle to the MAJESTY that is Final Fantasy VII.  Alright, internet.  Here’s your chance to prove me wrong.  I got the game again. This time on Steam.  I’m playing it. I won’t stop until it’s done.  And if this thing doesn’t blow me out of the water, we are having words.  And I’m not going to declare this whole thing moot before then, but I have played a while so far and I am less than impressed.  I mean, I get the nostalgia factor.  I get the technical WOW! factor with the cutscenes and music.  But that’s not what people rave to me about, they say “Vry, the characters! Vry, the story!”  and I’ve only just gotten to Junon but thus far the story is pretty simple: Help the terrorists win.  Yea, there’s a lot more going on with Sephiroth and the Ancients, and the Planet, but that stuff has only been set up for what I assume is coming later.  Right now, I’m helping the terrorists win.  I’m blowing up buildings, cutting power to innocent civilians, and doing so in the name of the Planet.  Also I’m cross dressing to save my friend from a fat slum lord pimp. (Is there any actual reason for the Don Corneo stuff beyond padding and some frighteningly inappropriate rape-y dialogue?)

However, if anything has been enlightening so far it’s that the characters are so very much NOT the characters the fandom and the movie portray.  Cloud is not a brooding whiny emo, he’s a snarky jerk who delights in ticking Barrett off.  Sephiroth is not the cold noble warrior, he’s psychotic and obsessed and not in the entertaining Kefka/Joker way.  Aerith is not the kind gentle soul, she’s a cheerleader crossed with a purity sue.  Wait.  Didn’t I? Lemme scroll up.  Huh.  Looks like I remember the annoying flower girl correctly.  I also didn’t remember Tifa being as ‘teenager with a crush’-y around Cloud.  Barrett and Yuffie are one note characters that can’t be incorrectly portayed.   And Red XIII (who is not named Nanaki in my game.  His name is “NotNanaki”) hasn’t had a ton of dialogue so far so I have no clue.  Far as I know, he’s Clifford in a weird crossover.

The gameplay is standard Final Fantasy fare.  You can’t make me Oooo Aaaah at pretty summons.  I accidentally killed a whole village of Summoners in Final Fantasy IV.  This is old hat.  Although the developers seemed a but full of themselves with this new fangled CGI animation stuff.  Airbuster, one of the earliest bosses you face, has animations that are so slow that you can take three turns in the time it takes it to do one.  Annoying.

And please, don’t jump on me because I’m being snarky.  I’m gonna play the whole game.  I’m going to think about the whole game.  And I get that I’m barely into Disc One of a three disc game so I can’t expect the story to be leaping off the page yet.  They are doing a great job at establishing a mystery with the whole Sephiroth and Jenova thing.  The Ancients are wonderfully under-explained despite apparently everyone knowing what they are already.  Though the biggest problem I have so far with the game is that I have NO clue what AVALANCHE stands for and I have no clue how they know without the text boxes when someone is referring to SOLDIER (All caps) or soldier (no caps) – one being a military organization and the other being well… a soldier.  Can the characters read the text boxes in game? Is that how they know?

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