Watch our stream!

So today Jim and I tried out streaming Final Fantasy X and chatting about it, and you can watch the result on-demand here:

I am clearly not good at this but we’re going to keep doing it every week, and maybe develop our, uh… live entertainment skills. So if you find this passingly amusing, stop by next week (8-9:30 pm Friday in the UK, 7-8:30 am Saturday in New Zealand); it’ll probably get better!

I guess this is also the first time anyone who reads this blog will have heard my voice? Except the handful of you who also know me in real life, obviously. I dunno if that’s a huge selling point for you. It’s a weird voice. Jim’s is much more representative of a New Zealand accent, mine is all over the place.

so yeah, that’s this thing

Pokémon Trainers of Fire Emblem: Three Houses (Part 1: Black Eagles)

I’m dramatically late to the party for doing anything related to Fire Emblem: Three Houses, but I’m going to write something anyway because I loved this game and its characters and story.  Because I’m a Pokémon person, I think the best way for me to talk about it is through the medium of creating Pokémon teams for all the characters!

If you haven’t played this game, the setup is that you are a mercenary (your character can be either male or female, and their default name is Byleth) in a continent loosely inspired by late mediaeval/renaissance Europe, divided between three major nations that are historically rivals but share a common language, culture and religion, and have united against external threats in the past.  Shortly after the beginning of the game, you visit a sword-and-sorcery academy, located in neutral ground at the centre of the continent, where nobles of all three nations send their kids to learn how to be JRPG badasses.  The academy is part of a monastery where the Fantasy Pope, Archbishop Rhea, lives.  She decides, unexpectedly and despite your total lack of relevant qualifications, to appoint you to a teaching position; thus the plot begins in earnest.  The students are organised into “houses” according to which nation they come from (so the “Three Houses” of the title are, like, school “houses,” but also noble “houses;” the word “house” is beginning to lose all meaning for me), and this year just happens to be the year the future rulers of all three nations are starting their training, so they get to be class president of each house.  You’re asked to pick a house to be in charge of, and mainly interact with the eight students of that house, but can become friends with others and get them to transfer to your class as well.  You then guide them through the plot, gaining their confidence and affection, teaching them to be fantasy RPG protagonists, fighting bad guys, traumatising them and yourself through exposure to the horrors of war, and so on and so forth.  As a real-life educator this premise scratches a very specific “I am so proud of all of you” itch that I have.  I’ve played through the entire game at the head of all three houses, but in case you haven’t played it and think you might, I’m going to avoid revealing details of the plot or any character development past roughly the first third of the story.

So, without further ado, here’s the first instalment: the students of the Black Eagle House, who come from Adrestia, which is the Fantasy Holy Roman Empire (used to rule the entire continent but has since lost a lot of its power; founded with the blessing of the church but has fallen out with them over time; looks to the past and tradition for its authority and strength).

Edelgard von Hresvelg

  • Future Emperor of the Fantasy Holy Roman Empire
  • Natural leader; charismatic, decisive, supportive
  • Progressive socio-economic agenda
    • I mean, she still plans to rule as an absolute monarch and everything, but they’re a mediaeval empire whose hierarchy appears to have been largely unaltered for about 1000 years; baby steps
  • Has a Dark and Tragic BackstoryTM but channels it into determination to save the world
  • Extremely scary if she gets her hands on a battle-axe; capable of wearing five times her own body weight in plate armour
  • She is perfect and I love her

Favoured types: Fire, Steel, Dark
Fire for spoilery reasons; Steel because she wears about a ton of it; Dark because she can use dark magic and isn’t afraid to achieve her goals by… questionable means.

Disfavoured types: Dragon, Water, Ice
Dragon for spoilery reasons; Water because she can’t swim and is afraid of the ocean; Ice as an opposite element to Fire.

Partner: Heatran
As one of the house leaders, Edelgard deserves a legendary Pokémon as her partner, and Heatran’s Fire/Steel typing, heavy armour plating and willingness to either rule the world, or watch it burn, make it a perfect fit.

Other Pokémon: Emboar, Umbreon, Corviknight, Coalossal, Drapion

Edelgard favours bulky Pokémon with powerful physical defences that aren’t afraid to wade into the middle of a brutal melee.  Emboar, Coalossal and Drapion share her imposing physical presence and ability to dominate in close combat.  Corviknight gives her a “black eagle,” the insignia of her house and the empire she is heir to.  Umbreon is just as tough as her other Pokémon, but fits in better at court.

Continue reading “Pokémon Trainers of Fire Emblem: Three Houses (Part 1: Black Eagles)”

Quarantine Playtime

Soooooo, a week into pandemic lockdown, my laptop broke down, and getting it fixed is taking a bit longer than it otherwise might, so I haven’t been able to work properly for the last few days (notwithstanding the Q-and-A posts I had already written and queued). Courtesy of this disruption to my normal workflow, you’re getting a short (and for once I actually mean that, I’m drafting this entirely on my phone) review/discussion of a Nintendo Switch game I bought to amuse myself while my laptop is out of commission: Octopath Traveler.

Continue reading “Quarantine Playtime”

A Paean to an Obsolete and Underloved Game

I wish to ramble, at length and for no reason in particular, about something of absolutely no importance.

More specifically, I wish to ramble about an interesting but obscure and not particularly successful 1997 real-time strategy game that is wildly unbalanced, has clunky and unintuitive controls, is frankly kinda glitchy, and was created by a studio that went under more than 15 years ago.

You have been duly warned. Continue reading “A Paean to an Obsolete and Underloved Game”

Final Fantasy VII: Entry 10 and wrap-up

Basically all that’s left to cover now is the final boss sequence – there’s a big cave full of monsters to go through, but nothing of tremendous interest happens during that, so I’ll just cut to the chase.  Cloud and his party reach the bottom of the old Jenova impact crater, which is now open to the lifestream beneath the planet’s surface.  They fight Jenova herself, who is… anticlimactic, to be honest; she’s mostly just a great big sack of HP with a couple of slappy tentacles.  I’m still not totally sure I ‘get’ Jenova.  She’s some sort of alien, she created a plague that wiped out the Cetra, one assumes she’s quite intelligent, and this whole thing has been about her cells, which have been implanted into various humans like Sephiroth and Cloud as part of genetic experiments, trying to reassemble themselves… but what exactly does that have to do with what Sephiroth is now up to?  Has he subordinated Jenova to the demands of his own power trip?  If so, how?  Or is Jenova just a destroyer by nature, and totally on board with anything that causes more death?

Anyway, once Jenova’s dead, it’s down into the lifestream to fight Sephiroth, who promptly turns into some kind of… giant floaty angel statue thing which has to be fought with two parties at once: one group to attack his left side and breach his defences, so Cloud’s group on the right can destroy his ‘core,’ which otherwise gives him sufficient healing power to recover from just about anything you throw at him.  A bit of a pain, but throw all your summons at him and he’ll drop.  And then turn into a radiant seraph-like creature with even greater powers.  Joy.  In this form, Sephiroth has a number of nasty abilities; he can shield himself from both physical and magic damage, he can attack with his one black wing, he can dispel your beneficial magic, he can blast you with magical energy, and he can turn your party members into frogs… but certainly the most devastating is his special attack, which is to blow up the sun.  He can do this more than once, which makes me wonder how many solar systems this planet is part of.  Equally, it makes me wonder why he didn’t do that earlier.  It seems like a much more efficient way of traumatising the planet, and also probably not vulnerable to interference from Holy.  He’s certainly happy to get rid of Cloud by blowing up suns left and right; it seems like it would make a useful all-purpose solution.  Neighbour’s dog digging holes in your yard?  Blow up the sun; that’ll teach ‘im.

Once Sephiroth falls and the party is about to leave, Cloud’s soul unexpectedly leaves his body and backflips into the lifestream for one final round against Sephiroth, but this seems to be unloseable; Cloud just kicks the cr@p out of him, then has a vision of Aeris before waking up – now certain that he’ll be able to meet her again in the promised land (I’m… still pretty sure the promised land is a Cetra metaphor for death, but whatever floats his boat, I guess).  The party zeppelins out on the edge of a huge explosion as the power of Aeris’ final spell, Holy, is released at last.  So, that should stop the meteor, right?  Well… no.  No, apparently not.  It’s too close.  Its proximity is already tearing the city of Midgar apart, and the Holy pulse only makes things worse, whipping up a vortex of doom across the entire massive city.  Nice going, Aeris.  GREAT plan.  Just GREAT.  At this point, countless tendrils of green light – the power of the lifestream – burst out of the ground from all across the landscape and converge on Midgar.  For a moment, we see Aeris’ face, surrounded by the green light of the lifestream.  And… then the credits roll.

…so what happened?

After the credits finish, there’s a short scene depicting Red XIII five hundred years later, along with two children (I guess he wasn’t quite the last of the last of his kind…) running through a canyon and cresting a ridge to see Midgar on the other side.  The city is in ruins, but it’s been overgrown by beautiful, thriving jungle.

Hmm.  Well, Sephiroth explained earlier that when the planet is wounded it uses the lifestream to heal itself.  That was the whole purpose of his plan, except that he was supposed to be at the epicentre to absorb the energy.  I guess that’s exactly what we saw happening.  It sort of seems like the whole ‘Holy’ thing was kind of a bust, because in the end it only caused more damage instead of stopping the meteor, so I guess that was a terrible plan after all, Aeris, but at least we killed Sephiroth and prevented him from following through with his plan to take control of the lifestream.  And anyway it’s all good because Aeris is… in the lifestream now.  Possibly… directing it.  Um… Aeris…?  Did you… get yourself killed on purpose so that you could reach the ‘promised land’ first and do what he was trying to?  Because if Aeris is seriously going to tell me that traumatising poor Cloud by being brutally murdered right in front of him was all part of the plan, then so help me, I- I-

…I really have to congratulate her.  Sephiroth struck her down, and she became more powerful than he could possibly imagine (well, okay, that’s going a bit far; Sephiroth has an unusually vibrant imagination when it comes to power, but you take my meaning), because she just ‘got’ the whole ‘lifestream’ thing about ten times better than him.  Go Aeris.

Speaking of Aeris, a couple of people have been wanting me to watch the Game Theory video on her death, which I have now done.  I gotta say… I am extremely sceptical.  Jim described it as “a waste of internet” and not “worth the megabytes taken to download it, let alone the time [we’ll] never get back,” and I don’t think I’d go that far, but I sort of have a hard time going along with it.  In case you’re not in a position to watch the video, the argument is as follows: Aeris did not die when Sephiroth stabbed her in the Cetra shrine, but collapsed and went into shock when his sword severed her spinal cord, dying only as a result of Cloud’s touching but misguided water burial.  The evidence presented is that Aeris does not visibly bleed when skewered (suggesting that the sword blow miraculously missed all her major blood vessels and internal organs) and that her body sinks like a stone when Cloud releases it (dead bodies are usually more buoyant than living ones).  The video does anticipate the obvious counterargument to the absence of blood (i.e. the developers thought it would be too graphic and avoided it) by noting two prominent and deliberate uses of blood in other parts of the game (namely, the aftermath of the slaughter in the Shinra building, and streaked all over Sephiroth’s face after his final dream-duel with Cloud in the lifestream).  I think there’s actually an even more obvious reason they forgot, though: the blood in the examples given by Game Theory is not moving; it’s texture, whereas blood spilling from Aeris’ perforated torso would necessarily have to be in motion.  Flowing liquids are notoriously difficult to model in computer animation, and this game was made over a decade ago.  Based on what I’ve seen of  Final Fantasy VII’s graphical capabilities, I don’t think the game designers could have shown Aeris bleeding in a realistic manner even if they’d wanted to; in fact, I think any attempt would have appeared almost comical and seriously detracted from the gravity of the scene – as good a reason as any not to do it.  For the water burial likewise, there is a perfectly good reason for Aeris’ body to sink: because it looks right.  There are only so many ways to get rid of a dead body.  Cloud could have buried Aeris, or cremated her, but somehow I just don’t think that seeing Cloud dig a grave for Aeris, or seeing her body burn, would have produced the same effect of serenity as seeing her body sink slowly into the clear water, with her hair fanning out around her.  The water burial also fits with the marine motifs of the City of the Ancients (I still have no idea why the City of the Ancients has a marine theme, but given that it does…).  In short, there are perfectly compelling artistic reasons for the anomalies noticed by Game Theory, and I think these are much more likely to have been on the developers’ minds than obscure anatomical trivia.  I just don’t buy it.

Anyway, the game.

So, I liked this game.  It was fun.  And stuff.

For me, it wasn’t a big turning point in how I view games or anything, though perhaps it might have had a greater impact on me if I had played it in the 90’s when it was first released.  The plot is intricate (at times a little too intricate for my taste, to be honest, and I feel like there are still loose ends there – which I guess is the reason this game has a movie sequel, Advent Children… which I guess I should watch… later…), the characters are compelling (even Cait Sith has his moments, I feel – though I think I’m in the minority on that one), and as I’ve said before this game has a really good handle on atmosphere; the music does a great job of backing up the action, there are a good number of very powerful moments in the story, and the game milks the extremely basic character models for all the expressiveness they can muster and then some.  I mean… I certainly can’t say there’s nothing I would have done differently, but in terms of story and atmosphere it’s undoubtedly well put-together.  I’m kind of neither here nor there about the battle system.  Although it produces some interesting tactical considerations, I’m not a huge fan of the materia system, partly because it makes switching party members such a pain, but also because it makes it rather difficult to see what each character actually brings to the table in terms of skills and abilities.  The characters have different stats, sure, which makes some better at certain roles than others, but even Barret and Tifa aren’t that bad at magic, even Aeris and Cait Sith aren’t that bad at hitting stuff, and most of the other characters are pretty competent at both.  That just leaves their limit break powers, the vast majority of which are pretty straightforward: Aeris’ limit breaks heal and protect the party while Vincent’s allow him to transform into various horrifying monsters, but aside from them, most of everyone else’s skills basically amount to “I hit the monster lots of times really hard.”  Of course, for most of the game, that’s all you really need – I thought Pokémon was generally pretty easy, but Final Fantasy VII was a walk in the park up until the last four or five boss battles, when things rather suddenly became much more interesting (and apparently my party was dramatically under-levelled compared to Jim’s normal experience of this game because I spent very little time training, finishing with no-one above level 60 except for Cloud).  Is that a bad thing?  I’m not really sure.

In short?  I guess I have mixed feelings about this game.  I can see why it’s considered a classic, though.  It got a lot of things right – and, well, compare it to what Pokémon was doing in the same year.  Obviously comparing gameplay and mechanical complexity isn’t entirely fair because the demands of their respective consoles are very different, and I’d still side with Pokémon on creature design and diversity, but in terms of story and characterisation… well, Yellow version made some important advances on its predecessors, but was still kinda ‘meh.’  I mean, Final Fantasy’s going to have to do a lot more than that to convert this Pokémaniac, but I’m still glad I played this game, I think.  Beats the $#!t out of doing actual WORK, anyway…

Final Fantasy VII: Entry 9

Cloud and Red XIII drag the party back to Red’s hometown, Cosmo Canyon, to get advice on the whole “obliterative meteoric cataclysm” thing from his human grandfather, Borgenhorgen.  Badenhoffen.  Whatever.  He feeds them a spiel about having to remember where they’ve been in order to figure out where to go next, or something like that, and they all just start thinking about poor dead Aeris, which is kind of a downer for everyone concerned (‘cept for Bosenhugen; I’m not sure he ever actually met her, so he just keeps doing his creepy “hoo hoo hoo!” laugh).  It occurs to Cloud, though, that maybe Aeris actually had some kind of plan.  That… huh.  Y’know, I suppose if she had some kind of Cetra ace up her sleeve, that would explain why she was willing to go and face down Sephiroth alone… I mean, it was still dumb; there’s no reason she couldn’t have taken a few people with her and left Cloud behind, but if she legitimately had good reason to think she could end it right there, I can sort of understand wanting to keep her friends out of danger (well, except for Yuffie; I think Yuffie should be kept in as much danger as possible).  Binglehopper suggests he accompany the party to the place of Aeris’ death and see if they can find any clues as to what her plan was, so it’s time to hit the road again.

Back in the City of the Ancients… well, the entrance to the hidden shrine where Aeris actually kicked the bucket is blocked by some kind of oversized ornamental clownfish (seriously, what is with the marine motifs in this place?), but Buglehorken does discover that Aeris’ plan was to use an artefact known as the White Materia to access the ultimate form of white magic, Holy (the opposite to Meteor, Sephiroth’s ultimate black magic), a spell which is said to wipe out everything that threatens the planet.  Cloud, justifiably, finds this definition concerningly vague, but Borkahoogen insists it’ll work out fine.  For a given value of “fine.”  And “work.”  They discover that Aeris has actually cast the spell already (so there’s no need to go and find the White Materia, which was in her possession when she died), but Sephiroth is blocking it from taking effect somehow.  Remove Sephiroth from the equation in time, and Holy will take out the meteor.  You know, I think this is the first time in this entire game we’ve actually had a plan!  YES!

Things are… disrupted a little… when one of the Weapon-monsters, Diamond Weapon, decides to attack Midgar, the capital city of the world or whatever.  Luckily, the Turkish electricity board have taken the giant cannon they used to destroy the first Weapon, moved it to Midgar and reconfigured it to run on pure life force, making it pretty much one step down from the Death Star as far as mass-mudering potential goes, but it’s not quite operational just yet (wait… how exactly did they move this thing to begin with?  It’s bigger than a skyscraper and clearly not built to move under its own power; did they… like, roll it to Midgar, or…?).  Cait Sith alerts the team to what’s going on, and actually gets a really awesome bit of dialogue where he calls Barrett out for only caring about his daughter’s safety and not being bothered with innocent people who just happen to live in Midgar or work for the evil power company (the kind of innocent people who were written off as collateral damage by Barrett’s eco-terrorists at the beginning of the story).  Y’know, I initially found Cait Sith kinda boring, and then he was a massive douchebag by betraying the party to the Turkish police, but in spite of everything, he’s really growing on me.  Even if he is a fortune-telling robot cat.

Cloud and the others go down and fight Diamond Weapon, keeping him busy long enough for the giant cannon (which, for some reason quite beyond my comprehension, is now called the ‘sister ray’) to fire.  Before the beam actually hits him, Diamond Weapon fires off a massive barrage of sparkly things.  End result: both Diamond Weapon and Midgar are wrecked, and Sephiroth’s great big energy shield, hundreds of kilometres further north and directly behind Diamond Weapon, takes a hit from the giant laser and collapses.  Whoo!  Let’s go stab him!

Only… the giant laser isn’t shutting down like it should.  Actually it’s drawing even more power for another shot.  It’s drawing levels of energy that are in fact hugely dangerous to the city.  Um.  It seems Hojo, the mad scientist, has decided that he can use the cannon to feed power to Sephiroth.  Cait Sith convinces the party to enter Midgar and stop him from blowing up the city in the process.  When we reach the giant laser to stop him, Hojo reveals that the reason he’s doing this is because he is, in fact, Sephiroth’s biological father.  Wait, I thought Sephiroth was… like, a clone or something, with a surrogate human mother (Vincent’s ex-girlfriend) but no father… no, actually, Hojo used cell samples from Jenova to mutate his own child.  Okay, I guess he thought he was making some kind of hybrid Cetra, which isn’t so bad, but still… WOW.  Just… WOW, Hojo.  Dad of the year.  Seriously.  And then once he’s finished explaining all of this he turns into a twisted purple fungus monster thing and tries to kill us.  And then turns into some kind of sleek, colourful, flying humanoid tadpole and keeps trying to kill us.  So, uh… good to see the gene therapy’s working out there, Hojo.

Hojo, after Diamond Weapon, is probably only the second fight in this game I’ve really had to think about, in terms of picking the right spells to use and managing my party’s actions and such.  To be honest, there are moments when it sort of feels like most of the actual gameplay in Final Fantasy VII is really just a run-up to the ridiculously powerful optional bonus bosses, Ruby Weapon and Emerald Weapon, and everything else is deliberately a little on the easy side so it doesn’t get in the way of the story.  I’m not sure how I feel about that.

Anyway, with all this happily resolved… well, okay, ‘happily’ is a bit of a stretch, but resolved, at any rate… there’s only one thing to do: go shank Sephiroth!  (Okay, this being a Final Fantasy game there’s actually loads of stuff left to do but most of it I don’t find all that interesting).

Final Fantasy VII: Entry 8

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.

Well, $#!t.

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!

Final Fantasy VII: Entry 7

Well, Aeris is dead.

I realise I should probably be more emotional about this, but I think the fact that I knew it was coming dampened the impact a little.  I can imagine that for Jim, playing this game when it first came out at the ripe old age of 8 (what kind of sick mind does that to an eight-year-old?  Hell, what kind of sick mind does that to my eight-year-old best friend?), it was probably a pretty nasty shock.

What happens, in short, is that Cloud and the others arrive at the City of the Ancients (which seems to have a very pronounced marine theme for some reason; I didn’t think the Cetra were an aquatic race…) and find Aeris praying alone in an underwater sanctuary.  Apparently under Sephiroth’s influence, Cloud draws his sword and, slowly but surely, struggling every step of the way, raises it over his head, ready to slice Aeris in two.  This, I think, is about as close as I got to the shock someone playing this game sans spoilers would have experienced because, although I’ve known from the start that Aeris’ life had a use-by date, I didn’t think the game would be cruel enough to make the player push the button.  That was… well, honestly a little sickening.  I briefly contemplated just turning the game off.  In the end, though, Cloud snaps out of it, and instead Sephiroth drops out of nowhere and skewers her.  As I said, probably quite a nasty shock for someone who doesn’t know it’s coming, especially after Cloud has just come to his senses and you think it’s safe.

After Aeris’ death, Cloud vows revenge, and the party continues following Sephiroth north, past another town (where we learn some interesting things about Aeris’ mother, Ifalna) and eventually to a crater in the middle of an ancient glacier where Sephiroth’s black-robed mind-slaves are gathering for the ’re-union.’  Cloud fights Sephiroth again and takes back the Black Materia, gives it to Barrett for safe keeping, and heads further in to settle things once and for all.  Meanwhile, Rufus Shinra arrives at the head of the Turkish air force, believing that the materia-rich crater is the ‘Promised Land’ he has been searching for this whole time.  This… is where things start to get a little bit screwy.

Backing up a bit.  Ifalna left a few video recordings behind – interviews between her and a scientist studying the history of the Cetra.  This man is Professor Gast, the former Turkish head of science, and apparently Aeris’ father (!!), who sacrificed himself to help Ifalna escape the Turkish police with their daughter.  The substance of what she says is as follows: two thousand years ago, the planet was struck by an object falling from the sky (the last time Meteor was cast…?) – the impact crater is where we are now.  The local Cetra clan attempted to help the planet heal itself, but they were deceived by the thing that fell from the sky: Jenova, who approached them in the guise of a Cetra and infected them with some kind of plague that drove them mad.  Jenova destroyed all the Cetra clans in the same way, though a few survivors eventually defeated her.  The planet itself had also been concocting some way of fighting back – a huge, powerful monster called simply ‘Weapon’ – but by the time it was grown, Jenova had already been subdued, so Weapon now sleeps in the impact crater along with Jenova’s remains… and Sephiroth.

Yeah, Sephiroth’s been here the whole time.  In fact, as far as I can make out, he’s been here ever since he was supposedly killed five years ago.  The Sephiroth we’ve been seeing, and chasing, and fighting, who killed Aeris, is… I guess a figment of Cloud’s overly active imagination?  The real one is sealed in some kind of crystal at the centre of the crater.  However, after he ‘died,’ Hojo tried to clone him, with mixed results – hence all the black-robed men with numbers tattooed on their faces… and hence Cloud.  Yeah, Cloud is actually a clone of Sephiroth… somehow.  Apparently the boy Tifa grew up with, who came back home five years ago and fought Sephiroth then, is a completely different person.  Cloud, being a clone of Sephiroth, who is a clone of Jenova, was able to insert himself into her memories, without even realising it himself (kind of like how Jenova was able to appear to the ancient Cetra as members of their families).  He, and all of the other clones, are drawn to “reunion” at the crater – they all contain cells from Jenova, who wants to reassemble herself.  How exactly this fits into Sephiroth’s whole “nuke the planet so I can take control of the lifestream” plan, I have no idea.  In fact, in the midst of all these revelations, I still don’t think we know what Jenova actually wants, or even whether ‘want’ is an applicable verb here, for that matter.  Is it just in her nature to destroy things?

Anyway, while Cloud and Tifa are learning all these things, an image of Tifa, another of Sephiroth’s illusions, appears to Barrett outside, telling him Cloud is in trouble and he needs to come and help right away.  Once Barrett arrives, Cloud asks him for the Black Materia, which he obligingly hands over, and Cloud promptly gives it to the real Sephiroth, suspended in his stasis crystal thingy.  All hell breaks loose.  Sephiroth brings down the whole structure of the crater, forcing everyone except Cloud to evacuate on Rufus’ airship, creates a magical barrier around his sanctum, and begins casting Meteor.  The monster Weapon wakes up (Ifalna only mentioned one of these things, but I think I counted at least four leaving the crater – only one seems to be relevant right now, though) and, apparently heedless of its function to destroy Jenova, starts destroying everything but Jenova.  This is where we stand now: Rufus Shinra, the evil power company, and the Turkish air force are trying to save the world from Weapon; Barrett and Tifa are prisoners on his airship, and are about to be executed as scapegoats for the whole ‘end of the world’ thing… oh, yeah, and Sephiroth is bringing an enormous flaming hunk of rock down upon the planet.

In short: it’s time to put on your war face, b!tches.

To be totally honest, the whole Cloud/Sephiroth thing is still making my head spin a little, but I think it may have some very worrying implications.  If Sephiroth’s been up north in the Jenova crater the whole time, it seems like the Sephiroth we’ve been seeing is basically in Cloud’s head – only everyone else can see him too.  Of course… as a descendent of Jenova, Cloud can alter people’s perceptions, without even necessarily realising that he’s doing it.  He caused Tifa to recognise him as her childhood friend (who looked completely different, by the way), and inserted himself into all her memories.  So maybe everything ‘Sephiroth’ has been doing this whole time is the work of the shuffling, mumbling clones… along with Cloud himself.  What I’m getting at here is that it’s possible Cloud never actually gave the Black Materia to Sephiroth at the Temple of the Ancients at all, but was just subconsciously creating a narrative that would justify his drive to travel north so he could bring the Black Materia to the real Sephiroth at the crater.  And, even worse… I think it’s possible Cloud actually did kill Aeris.

Final Fantasy VII: Entry 6

Where I left off, the party had just remembered that they were supposed to be looking for Sephiroth, who is supposedly heading for a place called the Temple of the Ancients.  Questioning random members of the citizenry reveals that this temple is ‘way down south’ and cannot be entered without a special keystone – and, as luck would have it, we also happen to bump into the random weaponsmith who just sold this thing to, of all people, the owner of the exorbitantly pricey Golden Saucer amusement park, who even agrees to loan it to Cloud in exchange for a brief stint in his arena.  Everything’s going according to plan!  Now all we have to do is keep Sephiroth from getting his grubby mitts on this thing- and I guess maybe check out the temple too, just to be safe.  The party chills for a while at the Golden Saucer’s haunted house, which doubles as a hotel, and Tifa drags Cloud out on a date, although I don’t think he ever quite realises that it is a date.  He’s just… not a subtle person (as his taste in mêlée weaponry makes abundantly clear).

At this point, Cait Sith steals the keystone, hands it over to the Turkish police, and reveals that he’s been working for the evil power company all along, and GOD DAMN IT I knew it was a bad idea to trust a fortune-telling robot cat with a pet marshmallow demon but I just had to let myself be won over by his… his… I don’t know, I guess his blatant disregard for reality?  And after pulling that $#!t, he then has the gall to ask that Cloud let him stick around like nothing had ever happened!  Unfortunately, he has apparently taken Barrett’s daughter prisoner somehow (damnit, you had ONE JOB, Elmyria!), and his body is only a remote-controlled toy anyway (he’s really a power company employee, plugged into some sort of remote interface at their headquarters), so Cloud and Tifa reluctantly agree to let him stay rather than just filleting him on the spot as any reasonable person would.

Okay.  New plan.  We’re going to the Temple of the Ancients to fight the Turkish police.  Cait Sith, for his part, is totally okay with this and even gives us the co-ordinates to the temple.  Once we get there, it turns out that the Turkish police not only stole the keystone, they also failed to keep Sephiroth out of the temple after opening the damn thing.  Nice going, boys.  Good job.  It’s not even like he’s that tough; one good stab and he just turns into a twenty-foot-tall alien angel monster, and we all know how to deal with those, right?  Anyway.  The moment Aeris gets near the temple, she starts hearing the voices of a group of Cetra who refused to rejoin the lifestream when they died, who give her pointers on getting through the temple, and also show us a vision of Sephiroth in a room with a striking mural of a large group of people watching a meteor fall from the sky.  When we find the room, Sephiroth isn’t there, but it doesn’t take him long to put in an appearance and, like all good supervillains should, explain his diabolical plan: acquire the ultimate destruction spell, Meteor (a ‘calamity from the skies’… hmm…), from the Black Materia inside the temple, then use Meteor to cause such massive, horrific trauma to the planet that it will divert a significant portion of the lifestream to the epicentre of the blast in order to heal itself.  Sephiroth will then use the knowledge he has already gained from the temple to absorb all that power and become, for all intents and purposes, a god.  Honestly this sounds like a terrible plan and, if not for the part about “massive, horrific trauma to the planet,” I’d buy a truckload of popcorn, tell him to follow his dreams, and settle in to watch the show, ’cause I figure there’s better than even odds the lifestream will either take control of him somehow or just blow him up.  It’s almost a shame we can’t afford to let him try.  Oh well.

Anyway, Sephiroth messes with Cloud’s brain briefly and then vanishes.  Aeris learns from the Cetra spirits that, actually, the Black Materia Sephiroth is looking for is the temple itself, which can be magically shrunk down to a nice convenient size by solving a puzzle model – but this can only be done from the inside, crushing whoever gets stuck with that job.  Luckily, Cait Sith has a suggestion – he’ll do it!  His body’s only a toy anyway.  Before the others leave, he says farewell to the party by offering to read someone’s fortune, and Aeris asks him to check her romantic compatibility with Cloud (apparently, they’re astonishingly perfect for each other) – while Tifa is standing right there.  Dick move, Aeris.  Seriously, dick move.  Cait Sith gets a nice scene in the temple core where he talks about how he’s happy that he gets to be a hero, and how there are lots of toys like him, but there’s only one of him, and anyway even if he’s going to die it was worth it to make Aeris smile, and y’know what?  This would be really touching if not for the fact that the bastard comes straight back in an identical new body about five minutes later.

So we get the Black Materia… and Sephiroth shows up again, mind-rapes Cloud into handing it over, and leaves.

…y’know, I’m starting to think everyone in this party is going to betray everyone else at least once by the end of the game.

Cloud has a total breakdown and goes to sleep for about a week, waking up with a profound sense of total worthlessness, and contemplating abandoning the whole fight, since he clearly can’t let his teammates rely on him against Sephiroth.  Tifa and Barrett convince him that it’s no biggie; they can always smack him upside the head and sort him out later if he flips again.  There are bigger problems, though.  While Cloud is sleeping, he sees Aeris in a dream, explaining to him something she has evidently told the party as well: Sephiroth is going to a place on the northern continent called the City of the Ancients to cast Meteor, and Aeris wants Cloud to just sit back, take some Cloud-time, and let her handle Sephiroth.  Alone.

Wait, what?  No.  Aeris, no; that is a terrible idea.  Do you remember what happened the last time you left the party without taking any materia, Miss Quarterstaff-and-a-pink-dress?  I can understand wanting to leave Cloud behind; he’s just not in a good place at the moment, even if he is the best fighter in the group.  You don’t need to leave everyone else behind to guard him,though!  Even if you don’t want anyone else to get hurt, what did we just learn about Cait Sith?  It’s okay if he dies.  He doesn’t mind.  By the way, as long as we’re on this train of thought, it’s also okay if Yuffie dies.  She f#$%ing deserves it.  I’m pretty sure with Cloud out of commission you’re pretty much the de facto protagonist anyway; no-one’s going to question you if you just want to lead the whole party in there.  There’s no reason this has to be a…

…suicide mission.

…c^@p I just figured out how Aeris dies LET’S HAUL ASS, PEOPLE!