So Cloud, Tifa and Barrett walked into a trap while attacking another power plant (considering that they tried to attack this plant, during business hours, only a day after attacking the last one, again during business hours, I’d say they got what was coming to them, but then again, they’re the terrorists and I’m not going to tell them how to do their jobs). Long story short, Cloud fell off a building and landed in some chick’s garden inside a ruined church. This is, like, just a regular work day for him, you understand. Luckily, the girl says, the roof broke his fall. Ha. Ha. Ha. Still, after a fall like that, I suppose the five minutes or so of unconsciousness Cloud suffered are a fairly minor setback, all things considered, so maybe she has a point. The church is a wreck anyway; everything is falling to pieces, and the gardener seems to have torn up the floor to make room for her flowerbed.
This girl is Aeris (which means that she is going to die). Her thing is basically hanging out in this abandoned church growing flowers, which she then sells on the street. Cloud has actually met her once before, hanging around near the first power plant we bombed, apparently totally oblivious to the chaos. She strikes up a conversation with him as she tends her garden, prattling about nothing for a while, before asking him to escort her home, since he’s such a hotshot mercenary – in exchange for the promise of a date at some unspecified time in the future. Aeris is being hunted by Turkish people from the evil power company who want to give her Cloud’s old job. Cloud is a bit mean about Aeris’ combat skills when he learns this, although in fairness she does manage to kill a couple of trained soldiers with machine guns using only a long stick – she’s definitely much more effective as a spellcaster, though. The Turks want Aeris because she is something called an Ancient – supposedly the last one. Not entirely sure what that means, though I’m guessing her aptitude for magic has something to do with it.
Cloud is inexplicably nice to Aeris, possibly because he hopes to one day sleep with her, possibly because he enjoys being around someone who just flat out refuses to buy into his usual “I am the biggest jerk on the planet” persona. Aeris, in turn, is inexplicably nice to Cloud, possibly because she also hopes to one day sleep with him, but probably more because she’s nice to everyone. After he finishes escorting her home, Aeris attaches herself to Cloud, deciding that she will help him with his vaguely-defined quest – as far as I can tell, she does mainly because she’s bored of being a florist – and has been tagging along pretty much ever since, apparently always meaning to go home but never quite finding a moment at which she’s prepared to stop helping. This works for me since, again, she seems to be the game’s designated spellcaster and is pretty damn good at it.
Meanwhile, Tifa has apparently become a prostitute to help make ends meet. This does not seem like her at all, so Cloud decides to investigate – but the local pimp king’s mansion is only open to girls, and he isn’t willing to let Aeris go in alone. Aeris devises a zany scheme to get Cloud inside by dressing him up as a girl, which works surprisingly well, they get inside, and they find Tifa, who is actually here for a chance to get the pimp on his own and interrogate him for information about the power company. Tifa and Aeris seem to get along very well, all things considered, probably because Tifa likes being able to complain about Cloud to someone who ‘gets’ it (also because Aeris is a pretty difficult person to dislike). Further zany antics ensue, culminating in Cloud, Aeris and Tifa confronting the pimp king in his bedroom and proposing increasingly gruesome threats to his vulnerable genitalia. He confesses that the power company has decided to just drop a couple of suburbs on Tifa’s pub and blame it on the eco-terrorists. Then he drops them through a trapdoor into the sewer.
To cut a long story short, Cloud and Tifa arrive home too late to prevent the destruction of the pub (along with, incidentally, a huge swathe of the city), while Aeris, who had gone off on her own to find Barrett’s daughter Marlene and get her to safety, runs afoul of her Turkish enemies and is kidnapped (when characters leave the party they don’t take any materia with them, and Aeris without materia is basically a girl with a big stick, so in retrospect it was probably a bad idea to send her off on her own). Cloud, Tifa and Barrett escape unharmed, but the rest of the eco-terrorists are buried under thousands of tonnes of rubble. A moment of silence for these three – Biggs, Wedge (named, I imagine, for Luke Skywalker’s friends and fellow pilots Wedge Antilles and Biggs Darklighter in the Star Wars films), and Jessie. They weren’t remarkably competent, but they got their jobs done and they seemed like nice people. They liked Cloud even though he was a total jerk to them most of the time, and Jessie the technician, I think, even had something of a crush on him. Barrett loses it when he realises that they’re dead, but manages to calm down a little once Tifa explains that there’s a good chance Aeris was able to get Marlene out, at least. He seems to be oscillating between the ‘denial’ and ‘anger’ stages of the grief process, although it’s hard to tell against his usual baseline anger. Tifa has fast-forwarded to ‘depression’ and is no longer sure she can keep up the fight. And Cloud… well, Cloud, as usual, doesn’t give a $#!t about anything; he wants to go see Aeris’ mother Elmyria and find out what the hell this ‘Ancient’ business is really all about.
I have to admit, this game knows a thing or two about atmosphere. The graphics may be extremely clunky by today’s standards (it was made in 1997) but the character sprites are pretty expressive considering the level of detail they have to work with (basically substituting gesture and body language for facial expressions and vocal cues), I’m enjoying the music, which contributes nicely to the overall ‘feel’ of each area, and the cutscene of the huge chunk of city falling on the slums gives this wonderful impression of impending doom; it’s really quite powerful stuff. Also – not going to lie, a lot of Aeris’ dialogue during the cross-dressing sequence made me giggle, especially the part where you’re asked to choose what kind of dress you want for Cloud, “something soft… that shimmers…” Getting in touch with his feminine side is probably going to be good for him in the long run anyway.