Just finished Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII for the first time (spoilers as usual)

After all this time, I have finally played and finished this game. And I went into it with a negative bias: with as much as I love the original Final Fantasy VII, I was bound to play it sooner or later but we all know the odds with later elaborations on cool stories (that do not necessarily need any). There is a lot that can go wrong. So I was not expecting it to come as close as it does to perfect. Perhaps it is perfect, for what it is.

The only problem I had with the game (if it ever qualified as a problem) was the kind of action RPG that it is. I think Crisis Core adheres to some sort of handheld action RPG formula that is also prominent in Final Fantasy: Type-0 which is my least favorite FF. Both Type-0 and Crisis Core have constant access to missions with varying degrees of relevance and irrelevance to the mainline story. At any given point in both games, one can access mini-raids that do not advance the story at all and you will sometimes be strongly pressured to do them.

A few times in Crisis Core, there are story beats with no obvious path forward. You will likely do a lot of these missions because it is easy to suspect that, since nothing appears to be happening, that the missions might trigger the next thing. Eventually, you realize it doesn’t work like that and then explore and trigger the next story event on accident. Since the PSP was a potential commercial risk for Sony, maybe they thought designing games that you can easily tune in and out of would be a way of playing it safe or appealing to “casual” gamers. Random fetch quests and random battles do not have a huge structural need for continuity.

For that reason, it is easy to spend lots of time playing either Crisis Core or Type-0 doing a lot of stuff with no cause and effect relationship with the story progression. This seems to be an emergent genre, and it is also a prequel and prequels have a little bit of reliance on the base game. This is what I mean when I say that Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII may be perfect for what it is. It happens to be in a genre that I often find boring unless it has some other strength going for it. Luckily, Crisis Core does.

What I liked most about FFVII was it’s story. So it was bound to be something I would be looking for here. One of the reasons I was interested but not quite eager to play Crisis Core back when it first came out was a story concern. According to a few sources, there were now two more characters that were infused with Jenova cells as fetuses.

While Sephiroth is still basically just “possessed” by Jenova like all carriers of her cells, he is still somehow different. Even though all carriers are controlled by Jenova, it often looks like Sephiroth is the vehicle and enforcer of her will, up to and including exerting his own will through the clones. The original Final Fantasy VII offers Sephiroth’s fetal exposure as something that could set him apart from the rest of SOLDIER. With that understanding, adding more characters that were changed as fetuses would undermine the plot of the original.

There are degrees of this procedure, though, which creates specific differences between them. In the first two experiments, a woman named Gillian who had been infused with Jenova cells was the source of the experimental DNA. Genesis had Jenova cells generated by Gillian’s changed body mapped onto him as a fetus. This was done surgically with a donor mother. Angeal, then, was conceived by and birthed by Gillian.

This does not necessarily need to subvert the plot of the original, though. By the time of the mainline Final Fantasy VII, Sephiroth is the only remaining fetus-hybrid anyway. Additionally, his closeness to the Lifestream nexus point of transmigrating souls in the core of the planet constitutes his real usefulness to Jenova.

At the same time, Crisis Core has a story that does make distinctions between different kinds of fetus-hybrids. If Crisis Core was the only FFVII story I ever encountered, I would be forced to assume that the enigma of Sephiroth’s unique nature would be clarified somewhere else. Crisis Core ends with Genesis’ inert body being mysteriously carted off by SOLDIER. This, at least, made it clear that Square wanted loose ends to lead into other installments in an expanded universe (at that time, anyway).

But if you played the original, you know that the only word on how Sephiroth was exposed to Jenova’s cells in the first place is that it was while he was a fetus. In light of the additional lore in this prequel, though, being infused as a fetus can mean different things.

Is this a serious narrative weakness, though? I don’t think so. Not even a weakness, really, more like a complication. The only real consequence it could have is whether or not all Genesis and Angeal carriers are eradicated. There are a lot of them for all three of the fetal experiments. The plot of Advent Children relies on three Sephiroth carriers surviving by simply falling through the cracks during the Jenova Reunion. Assuming, for now, that there are no more Angeal or Genesis carriers isn’t that much of a big deal. And if Sephiroth’s real usefulness to Jenova is his location at the Lifestream transmigration nexus, that leaves the plot of the original game intact.

So in the end, there is nothing about Crisis Core that really contradicts or subverts the original, in terms of plot or lore continuity. Crisis Core does more than simply not fail, though.

Whether or not Crisis Core starts off on an easy path is a matter of interpretation. Zack Fair, our protagonist, is super stoked to be in SOLDIER and to fight for the global dominance of Shinra. For a fan of the original, in which Shinra is an unambiguous force of evil, this is jarring. Then again, all armies have their propaganda and their own true believers. Warriors on all sides always think they are right- so Zack being a warrior of conviction actually makes a lot of sense.

This is hint one that Zack is gonna have an arc that goes from naïveté to maturity. But for a while he plays the role of the big bouncy Boy Scout a little too well. Zack never gets as annoying as Snow from FFXIII but walks up to the line occasionally. Being a guileless and trusting recruit at first, Zack’s ideals are larger than life and quickly slide from white to black (musing whether he is a hero or a monster, etc).

Zack becomes aware of necessary shades of gray when he is assigned to track and neutralize Genesis and Angeal once they defect. Hollander and Genesis have an exchange in front of Zack that makes it clear that Angeal and Genesis need Hollander and his Shinra-based procedure that staves off their cell decay. If certain death is the motivation for Angeal and Genesis remaining loyal to Shinra, then the possibility of a non-Shinra source of sustenance is life-changing.

In other words, the Shinra super-SOLDIERs fight because they have to in order to survive. Genesis’ mood swings could have a few different explanations, but the revelation that he doesn’t have to be Hollander’s dog forever seems like a contender. Angeal, who is also subject to the cellular decay, rebels also but tries to maintain his early values, such as protecting his old relations and innocents who get trapped in the crossfire. Genesis wants to start over and Angeal wants autonomy but still clings to his prior obligations.

The dialectic of balancing individual need versus wider complications is emphasized more by a conversation between Zack and Sephiroth immediately before the fatal journey to Nibelheim. Sephiroth tells him that he might defect from Shinra soon but does not offer any explicit reason. The only implicit reasons are the recent events with Angeal and Genesis. It seems possible that Sephiroth is also questioning (he says he may defect) whether or not he would die without Shinra support. This would mean that his personally-felt loyalty to Shinra is now irrelevant, since he’s learning he might be nailed down to it anyway.

A loved one of mine shared bits of the Crisis Core soundtrack with me a long time ago, including a song called The Price Of Freedom. That phrase captures the emerging thematic concern at this point in the game.

Crisis Core is a prequel and is fundamentally tied up in a relationship with the OG Final Fantasy VII. It would be an extremely weak prequel, though, if it had nothing but it’s connection to the source material going for it. This questioning of genuine commitment versus coercion leads us to a personal narrative about Zack, which kicks into overdrive when Zack is forced to act independently.

After escaping the grasp of Hojo and his lab tech, Zack is soon cut loose from Shinra. He has digital access to internal Shinra documents stating that both Zack and Cloud are dead. Then the word goes out that some important Shinra “fugitive samples” have escaped.

The game from this point resembles an escort mission: maybe the most emotional escort mission I’ve seen in a video game in a while. Zack has watched his heroes turn sadistic and homicidal and was forced to put down a few of them himself. Cloud looks up to Zack as a role model but, now that he is on the other side of the hero-worship he indulged in himself, Zack is more willing to treat Cloud like an equal than his own heroes were.

After the Nibelheim disaster, though, Cloud ceases to be a mere “kid brother.” Zack witnessed the importance of Tifa and Nibelheim for Cloud and the destruction wrought there by his own former masters. After the loss of Sephiroth, Angeal and Genesis, Cloud is now Zack’s only surviving fellow traveler. This also makes Aerith more than a long-distance girlfriend for Zack: she is the last part of his old life that remains good.

FFXV was lauded for its portrayal of platonic love between male companions. I think I gotta say that Zack and Cloud do this better. And it’s built up by a succession of smaller moments, like Zack carrying Cloud around and re-dressing him in new clothes. Final Fantasy is famous for being dialogue-heavy, but a lot of the pathos of this bond is built by being non-verbal. Cloud might not talk back to Zack post-trauma, but Zack still makes an effort to discern his feelings and needs.

Zack always addresses Cloud as if he is lucid and paying attention. At this point in the story, all institutional sources of meaning have, for Zack, been revealed to be treacherous. Zack’s only values need to be the ones that he embodies himself. The function served by Zack’s relationship with Aerith as a motivator is a little reductive but it works as something real for him to be invested in, after his other idols are discredited. Cloud, though, is a living embodiment of this.

Before wrapping this up, there is another gameplay element I wanna mention: the modulating phases. This was almost…kind of…subversive in a good way?

In lieu of normal experience points, we now have a slot machine mechanic that starts up after a certain length of time. This basically limits the rewards of combat to its’ length, which can achieve a lot of the same ends as an exp leveling system. Easy foes get done away with easily so there is no risk and no reward, since the battles won’t last long enough for the modulating phase. Most of the numbers correspond to materia slots and two or three numbers of a kind will level up the materia in that particular slot. Solid 7’s are how Zack himself levels up.

This creates a feeling very similar to more conventional RPGs. Enemies below your level are quickly done away with and have minuscule rewards: the real grinding needs to happen with monsters close to your own level. The modulating phase slot machine is also how special, hard-hitting attacks similar to limit breaks are triggered.

Near the end, during Zack’s last stand outside of Midgar, you are clearly overwhelmed and most of us knew how this would go anyway. But you keep getting thrown into playable combat against the vast Shinra hoard with frequent modulating phases that buzz with static and roll irregularly, as if glitching. The slots even have some of their character illustrations go white and fuzzy and the screen will white out without giving you a specific set of three numbers. The poignance of this portrayal of Zack gradually dying crept up on me.

I might also be stating the obvious by mentioning the similarities with the portrayal of Zack’s last stand in Final Fantasy VII: Remake. Both versions have Zack saying the words “(t)he price of freedom is steep” and some very similar “camera angles.” If Square continues to insist that Crisis Core is not cannon, we’ll just have to see how that bears out in part 2 of the remake.

After all these years, I’ve now learned that this is where the image of Sephiroth at the start of Advent Children came from

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