Where I left off, Tifa and Barret were about to be executed, Cloud was missing, presumed dead (or… as good as), and the rest of the party was I don’t even know where. Luckily, an attack by one of the planet’s Weapons disrupts the execution, and they are rescued by an apparently headless fat man in a suit who turns out to be a disguised… Cait Sith!? Oh, Cait Sith, you magnificent bastard; I forgive you for everything! Despite complications, they all steal a zeppelin, to Cid’s inexpressible joy, and flee. Meanwhile, the Weapon monster is defeated by a blast from a cannon the size of a skyscraper (good thing there are more of them out there to mess things up!). With Tifa as the de facto party leader, the crew sets out to recover Cloud and defeat the numerous bad guys, with greater mobility and resources than ever before. I’m starting to feel like this game just really enjoys jerking you between “everything’s great” and “c^@p, we’re doomed.”
Speaking of which… Someone (Red XIII? I don’t recall) suggested that if Cloud fell into the lifestream when Sephiroth collapsed the impact crater, he might have been spat out onto the seafloor and washed up somewhere. Wait, that’s… weird; this whole time I’ve been assuming the lifestream was this sort of abstract, cosmic thing that had measurable effects but couldn’t be directly observed – apparently not. It turns out that it’s an actual, physical place; this planet’s mantle is literally made of pure life force… and Cloud’s fallen into it. Luckily, Red’s suspicion turns out to be totally correct: we stop by an island town we haven’t been to before, and lo and behold – they found Cloud on the beach a few days ago.
…and that’s where the good news ends.
To Tifa’s shock, Cloud is confined to a wheelchair, shows no sign of recognising anyone or even acknowledging their presence, can manage single words only with difficulty, and has only partial control of most of his muscles. WOW. I just… WOW. That is COLD, Final Fantasy VII. I’d already been sort of desensitised to the idea that Cloud might die (I mean, I doubted he would, but it wouldn’t exactly have been a shock), but this… it had never occurred to me that the game would do this to him, and that made it a pretty powerful, pretty gut-wrenching experience (possibly more so than Aeris’ death, if only because I knew that was coming), and Tifa’s reaction only makes it worse because you can’t help but see it from her perspective: her best friend and possible love interest, in what amounts to a coma, with no apparent hope of recovery… ouch. The doctors explain that, basically, he’s had a stroke due to massive overexposure to pure soul energy while floating in the lifestream, and that a normal person would certainly have died (I would here like to repeat my assertion that Sephiroth’s plan is probably not going to end well for him, no matter what we choose to do about it). Tifa, understandably, elects to leave the party and stay with Cloud. Barrett decides that they need a leader, but no longer feels up to the task, and selects… Cid, who initially declines the position, saying it sounds like a “pain in the ass,” but is eventually persuaded to accept.
So… Aeris is dead, Cloud’s a f$#&ing vegetable, Tifa’s on Florence Nightingale duty, and our new leader is a foul-tempered chain-smoking senior citizen who joined the party because he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life violently swearing at his girlfriend. That’s great odds.
Credit where it’s due, though, Cid’s leadership is… unorthodox, but effective. On the suggestion of Cait Sith, who has chosen to become a double agent, we decide to interfere with the evil power company’s latest plan: gather something called Huge Materia, build a bomb out of it, and launch it at the oncoming meteor in order to destroy it. Wait, that… actually sounds like a way more solid plan than anything we’ve got; I think I’m okay with this. Oh, whatever. The team prevents them from collecting two pieces of Huge Materia – in the process hijacking a train, saving Barrett’s hometown from destruction, commanding an army when the game suddenly tries to reinvent itself as real-time strategy, and hatching a giant phoenix egg (look, it was just that kind of Wednesday afternoon) – before going to visit Cloud and Tifa.
Then one of the other Weapon monsters attacks, causing an earthquake that plunges the entire town into the lifestream.
Tifa winds up floating in Cloud’s subconscious, which is a pretty weird place to be but does give her a unique opportunity to fix him by rooting through their shared memories. They eventually establish that neither Cloud’s account of his life nor Sephiroth’s is correct, and settle on an entirely different third version. Basically… Cloud wasn’t a clone of anything after all; he did grow up in Nibelheim and did know Tifa, although they weren’t exactly ‘friends’ (Cloud didn’t really have friends because even as a kid he was a tremendous douchebag), but when he left to join the evil power company’s secret private army of magic cyborg knights, he found that he just didn’t make the cut. The initiation treatment (which includes direct exposure to pure magical energy and injection with cells from Jenova) left him a bit unstable, somewhat prone to hallucination, suggestion and memory modification, and generally unsuitable as a magic cyborg knight (though it did, as we know, enhance his abilities to the point that he’s the best fighter in this party, anyway). He instead joined the evil power company’s regular private army of faceless minion cannon fodder. He did come back home five years ago, but not as one of the two elite agents on the mission – he was just one of Sephiroth’s troops. He saw Tifa, but she didn’t see him. When Sephiroth went nuts, the other elite, Zack, challenged him and was quickly defeated – but Cloud took Zack’s sword, sneaked up on Sephiroth, and stabbed him. Sephiroth, wounded but alive, fled. When Cloud attempted to pursue him, Sephiroth stuck a sword through his shoulder and told him “don’t push it”… and Cloud countered by grabbing the sword, lifting Sephiroth up, and flinging him into the reactor core.
…well done, Cloud.
Now, I’m not sure whether this is true, or just sufficiently plausible and agreeable that Tifa and Cloud decided to run with it, but either way, this is enough to heal Cloud’s tortured psyche and wake him up. He and Tifa survive their dip in the lifestream and wash up on shore to be collected by the rest of the party (wait, why isn’t Tifa…? Oh, you know what, I’m not going to question it, I’m just going to be grateful). There’s another piece of Huge Materia to snag, but this one slips through their fingers (long story short, it winds up on the bottom of the ocean and we now own a submarine – it was just that kind of Thursday afternoon). One last piece is already being loaded onto Cid’s old rocket ship – so the party hijack the rocket so Cid will get to go to space, steal back the Huge Materia, and then bail in the escape pod before the rocket hits the oncoming meteor (with a little timely and Karmically-appropriate help from Cid’s much-despised girlfriend Shera).
Without the Huge Materia in its warhead, the rocket damages the meteor (quite severely, in fact – several chunks of it are blown off, and some kind of core is now visible) but fails to destroy it. Again… would it maybe have been a better idea just to give this plan a try?
Cloud and the others realise that, in fact, blowing up the meteor with a Materia bomb was pretty much the only solid plan anyone had, and, in the absence of any better ideas, decide to head for Red’s home town to consult Bogenhogen. Blegenhegen. Bargenhosen. Er… Grandpa Red XIII. He’ll know what to do!