Final Fantasy VII for the NES! (spoiler review)

After the example of the famous Chinese NES bootleg, this version was made to be a closer reflection of the PS1 original. These adaptations were made by Lugia2009 with patching and translation support from Lindblum, who also provided the English translation for the first Chinese version.

The 2005 Chinese “Famiclone” is widely credited to Shenzhen Nanjing Technology, which tempts me to assume that the game engine is original. There are however unmistakable resemblances to the first three Final Fantasy games, including reused assets. For the most part, it plays like an early FF as well. A notable improvement is that your party has armor, weapons and materia from the very beginning, which I’m happy with since I’ve recently dealt with FF1’s initial grinding slog.

Of course, when I say materia, what I mean is magic that works the same way as the spells you learn in shops in FF1. Each party member has a single piece of materia when they join you and each one will grow its own roster of spells as you accumulate AP. Each party member can only equip a single materia at a time. Perhaps that was the best way to reconcile the materia system with the early FF scaffolds- simply integrate it into the existing equipment mechanic. It also simplifies strategy- even streamlines it.

To an extent, anyway. It gives each party member a distinct function. This comes through in the mid to late stages of the game when more healing spells are likely to develop (excluding Aerith’s Light materia- the only one with healing magic enabled from the beginning). The majority of your strategic freedom concerns elemental affinities, which is accommodated by the ability to equip and unequip materia in your inventory mid-battle.

On the other hand…elemental affinities are infuriatingly difficult to keep track of. Especially since the whole range of random encounter monsters could potentially show up at any point. Like in the image above- you can run into Christopher and Tonberries and stuff as early as the bombing mission at the start of the game. Sometimes there are vague encounter patterns, but you could potentially run into any monster anywhere. Some reasonable consistency is still maintained by how tough they are, though, relative to location and progression route.

This rom-hack retains a few of the base game’s sudden difficulty spikes but, fortunately, not all of them. In an NES format it would be maddening.

After the unpredictability of the monster encounters, the next biggest combat annoyance is the scarcity of group healing magic. Even without Aerith, you’ll probably end up having one of your party members carrying her Light materia. Then again, you could simply cough up for a ton of group healing items, depending on whether you prefer to rely on magic points or money. The former can increase its max limit with usage and regular stops at “magic shops.”

Which brings us to another key mechanic change- materia and weapon enhancement. Your character builds will hinge on two point values: conventional “grinding” by winning battles and the frequency with which you use both weapon and magic.

EXP, of course, raises your level and therefore stats, etc. AP is accumulated every time you use a weapon or a materia-based spell. When you reach a given maximum limit, you’ll need to stop at either a weapon or materia enhancement station to move the ball forward. Neglecting this can make you feel extremely naked and challenged early on so luckily it doesn’t take long to put it together.

Stat + items are also dropped way more frequently than they were in the base game, which is interesting. 4-8Productions, on YouTube, has a video about the only non-finite source of stat+ items: using the morph materia on any monster in the crashed Gelnika. This is, naturally, a huge pain in the ass because that means whittling down a ton of really strong monsters to roughly below 10 HP so the morph ability can knock them below 0. However, if you’re patient and persistent enough, you can unlock a HUGE work-around the leveling system. (Yes I’ve done this and yes it’s every bit as grueling as it sounds)

This can either be good or bad. Good because it enables more character build freedom or bad because it makes a group of PCs that feel kinda same-y even less unique. As much of a fanatical Final Fantasy VII fan girl as I am, I still can’t help noticing that the combat system lurched between stilted and fluid to the point of emptiness. In order to notice and take interest in the subtleties of FFVII’s character build avenues, you would almost certainly need to like the story and the fictional world enough to pay close attention. While I’m one of those people, it’s still kinda sad that the character build experimentation was not more accessible.

Since this is an 8-bit, NES demake of Final Fantasy VII, it is necessarily shorter which means less time to stop and smell the mako. Which means the finer points of gameplay need to carry more weight. Perhaps the frequent stat+ item drops from monsters were meant to add an extra layer of build variability. This, like healing magic from non-Light materia, will likely be at its most noticeable near the end. Chiefly because you’ll have the ability to travel between the different land masses and observe which stat + items are dropped where.

Essentially, the progression route follows the original as closely as it can. Some of the music, early on, is a little tinny, but evens out once Cloud makes it to the Seventh Heaven. The chip-tuney version of Lurking In The Darkness was a pleasant and charming surprise, especially since it gets used in a few more dungeons. Those Who Fight Further was converted nicely which matters- in graphically simple turn-based RPGs, music carries a lot of weight.

As per the necessary shortening, certain musical cues are adjusted. During Cloud’s brief dream dialogue before waking up in Aerith’s flower bed, I was surprised to hear Listen to the Cries of the Planet (the music from the Forgotten Capital in the original game). Reunion is heard for the first time inside Gaia’s Cliff, which I appreciated. I realize that Reunion is basically Aerith’s Theme with a lower, mysterious-sounding key change. But I always thought it was unfairly overlooked.

One interesting consequence of the shortening was a new presentation of Cloud’s mental struggles. We simply hang out at the Inn room in Kalm as Cloud tells everyone. No actual flashback. Which means, when the party gets to Nibelheim, the player is seeing it for the first time. Unless you hang out nearby for the grinding, you won’t see it again until the illusion just outside of the Northern Crater. It’s a neat way to build tension; a series of small, gradual reveals that create questions about why Cloud told things the way he did.

Obviously there are far less side quests and stuff like Wall Market are pretty linear in comparison. I noticed some collision detection oddities on the world map (which, mechanically, functions no different from anywhere else) which made me wonder. I’ve been playing through the second quest on the Challenge Games Legend of Zelda rom hack, so I have been doing some compulsive wall-testing lately.

Maybe the Zelda hack is making me obsessive…but after I found a short length of mountain you can walk over in the Icicle area, I immediately doubled back and started testing other terrain barriers. Particularly around Wutai and the area between the Mythril Mines and the place where Fort Condor is in the original. You can see little entrances under mountain ranges and house sprites in inaccessible areas.

Like…you can see the entrance to the cave with the old miner who gives you Aerith’s Great Gospel limit break in the original. If you explore in the northern oceans, you can see a house that looks like it might be the home of the Chocobo Sage. On the southwestern continent, you can get a view of a circular pond collected from a waterfall that then feeds into a lake, like Lucrecia’s hideout.

Then again, the moogle construction site of Wutai was obviously there just to…pay tribute to the original and add a bit of cute, aesthetic consistency. Sort of a wink and a nod saying “Yeah, we get it, it should be there, but what do you expect? It ain’t like we got three discs!” Maybe the miner’s cave and the Chocobo Sage’s house are decorative, as well.

In an objective and qualitative assessment, this is equivalent to a streamlined NES-era Final Fantasy. Other than this one, I’ve played some of the very first FF and the very beginning of the second. This reimagining of FFVII has an intuitive and accessible combat system and some simple “high score” rewards that let you enhance your weapons and materia. The adaptation of the soundtrack from the original also adds to its stylistic distinction from other NES Final Fantasy games. But this second iteration of NES Final Fantasy VII doesn’t exactly “push boundaries.”

But for FFVII fans who also like retro gaming, this game is rather more than the sum of its 8 bits. Also like the original Final Fantasy VII, the storytelling is the main distinction here. The portrayal of Cloud’s background is significantly altered, as is the date with Aerith in the Gold Saucer. The location within the Northern Crater where Sephiroth’s original body is located, right next to Sapphire, Ultima and Diamond WEAPONs, is named “The Mako Tree” and the Prelude music is heard there, like the crystal chambers in FFIV and FFV. Since the original FFVII was such a huge in shift from all others before it, I was both bemused and charmed to see this thematic tie-in with the older, “swords and sorcery” games.

The “tree” part is also an interesting touch. Especially given the shortening of Sephiroth’s name during combat. I know it’s an NES remake which means that menu commands, item names, monster names etc. get shortened sometimes, what with the limited information storage. But when you name the antechamber of Sephiroth’s stronghold “The Mako Tree” and you drop the “h” from the end of his name…it kinda puts the whole Tree of Life symbolism closer to the foreground. Maybe it’s not the biggest deal in the world, but I think it’s cool.

30 days of Final Fantasy music (yeah I’m doing it wrong but whatever)

1. Best prelude:

IX, at the very end of Memoria, outside of creation ❤️

2. Best chocobo theme:

Also IX

3. Moogle theme:

Good King Mog from XIV! (never actually played it but wifers showed me)

4. Best airship theme:

Looking For Friends from VI! That’s the song you hear on board the Falcon.

(The Hilda Garde music from IX also has a tendency to worm its way into my head. Like, all the time, and once it’s in it stays for awhile)

5. Best character theme:

I feel a lil conflicted there. It would either be Coin Song from VI or J-E-N-O-V-A from VII.

6. Best town theme:

Kids Run Through The City- VI

7. Best overworld theme:

Something from VI. Either Terra or Dark World

8. Best dungeon theme:

Another World Of Beasts from VI.

And I’ve always liked Phantom Forest from VI and Lurking In Darkness from VII. Neither one of those appear exclusively in dungeons but both are used in dungeons occasionally.

I kinda have to mention the Collapsed Express Way from the VII Remake. All the music from Shinra HQ in the remake could also merit honorable mentions.

9. Best battle theme:

Don’t Be Afraid- VIII

10. Best boss battle theme:

The Decisive Battle- VI

11. Best victory theme:

Out of the variations of the traditional I’d go with the version from VI. Out of the different ones, it’s XIII.

12. Best end boss theme:

Dancing Mad- VI

13. Best ending theme:

Credits’ roll from VII

14. Best mini-game theme:

Vamo Alla Flamenco- IX

15. Best in-game arrangement:

Opening – Bombing Mission, from VII. I’ve heard different orchestral versions but they always make it sound like it came from a Batman movie. Which I think is all wrong. The version from the VII Remake works for what it is, but it has a different character from the original.

16. Best piano arrangement:

Ahead On Our Way from the VII piano disc ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

The Main Theme from VII on that album is also exponentially more beautiful than the original

17. Best remastered track:

The Nightmare Begins from the soundtrack remaster for the PC version of FFVII. The most atmospheric version of that song.

18. Best orchestrated track:

Seven Seconds till the End- VIIR

19. Best non-Uematsu track:

Crimson Blitz from Ligthening Returns. That would be Masashi Hamauzu. Born Anew is also really cool (also by Hamauzu, in the first XIII game).

20. Best song from a game you haven’t played:

Final Steps of Faith (Nidhogg’s theme from FFXIV. I still gotta get started on that sooner or later)

21. Best song from a game on first console:

Mmmmm I’ve already covered a lot of VII-

HEY WAIT the title screen music from the PS1 Anthology version of V!!!!

22. Best song from a game you don’t like:

All of the cutscene music from Type-0

23. Song that makes you feel nostalgic:

Voices Drowned By Fireworks- VII

24. Song that makes you feel sad:

Other Side of the Mountain- VII

25. Song that makes you feel pumped:

Fight On!- VII

26. Song that makes you feel relaxed:

Dali Frontier Village- IX

27. Best track from mobile exclusive:

I never played a mobile exclusive unless you count IV: TAY? I played the Ultimate Collection for the PSP but TAY at least started as a mobile exclusive. I enjoyed the music from IV in general but I don’t remember if TAY had any original music? I didn’t finish it either but got to the final dungeon and found out I was pathetically under-leveled and trapped there

28. Best track from handheld exclusive:

The Price of Freedom- Crisis Core

29. Most underrated track:

Reunion- VII

30. Song with a special meaning-

Anxiety- VII. My favorite song from a video game

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 for 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

Final Fantasy VII Remake lore theory (ending spoilers)

In a recent interview for the Final Fantasy VII Remake Ultimania Guide, Tetsuya Nomura dropped some huge lore bombs. Among them was the very strong hint that the Whisper bosses at the end are Kadaj, Loz and Yazoo from Advent Children. The descriptions revealed by the assess materia, for all three, state that they are defending their timeline.

Later, the party catches a glimpse of events from Advent Children and Nanaki says “this is what will happen if we fail here today”.

Two paths that fork from the point of departure at the end of FFVIIR are discussed. One openly, the other by implication. Advent Children was a sequel to the original Final Fantasy VII. The path of the original that proceeds into Advent Children is what Nanaki said would happen if they “failed”. The path revealed by implication is what the party embarks on after they appear not to fail.

Kadaj, Loz and Yazoo are protecting the timeline that shaped them as they were in Advent Children. Three of the Whispers at the end are meddlers from outside of the timeline.

What about the giant Whisper Harbinger that looms in the background during that fight? It looks a hell of a lot like Sapphire Weapon. Why would a Weapon be intruding into another timeline?

The planet created the Weapons to defend itself in the event of an existential threat. They were originally created to combat Jenova (according to Ifalna) but so long as Jenova exists in an undead, “viral” state, they can’t go away. The planet will also lash out at any soul that’s been exposed to Jenova as it passes through the Lifestream on its way to its next existence (Geostigma).

It is intuitive to think that a Weapon is attacking another timeline because it poses an existential threat to the planet in its own timeline. Aerith, in her dialogue describing what she knows or has deduced about Sephiroth, says that she thinks that he has good intentions even if his actions are destructive (“he would probably say he would do anything to protect it”, loose paraphrase). Later, after the final boss fight, Sephiroth tells Cloud that he wants him to exist for as long as he himself does.

In the original game, Sephiroth never said or did anything that would suggest he cares about the planet. Nanaki’s remark implied that the timeline of the original FFVII was a worst case scenario, yet in the chronology (which ends with Dirge of Cerberus, if I’m not mistaken) nothing seems to back this up.

If Jenova ever fully corrupted the Lifestream and turned Gaia into a new Meteor, we haven’t seen it yet. Maybe this is a mystery that the Remake series might elucidate in the future.

If Sapphire Weapon is penetrating into a new timeline, it is equally possible that it’s either attacking Jenova or defending the planet in its own timeline. If Jenova ever succeeded in corrupting the Lifestream, though, would the planetary Weapons continue to distinguish between it’s wellbeing and attacking Jenova?

And if the Whispers are pure, spiritual agents of destiny, why do they seem beholden to Sephiroth? Why, at the end of FVIIR, does it seem like both Sephiroth and the Whispers are protecting the same thing?

This theory depends on the ultimate fate of the original timeline. Either Jenova “won” in the end, during some far future event we just haven’t seen, or Jenova was somehow subtly “winning” the whole time. Either way, the Gaia of the original timeline does not seem to exist.

The behavior of the Whisper Harbinger and the three boss Whispers begins to make sense in this situation. Kadaj, Loz and Yazoo have no other existence except for the one that happened in the original timeline. They want to “enforce” the chronology that happened in their own past because it’s the only way to guarantee their existence in a new timeline. Sephiroth, Sephiroth clones and Jenova attempting to shape the events of a separate timeline to conform to their own only makes sense if the world they originated from doesn’t exist any more.

An event like that would also explain why Sephiroth wants to protect Gaia and why Aerith sees him as a threat in spite of that. Jenova is a colony organism that exists by spreading its cells into more bodies. When such a body dies and it’s soul passes into the Lifestream, the essence of Jenova is now mixed up in the planetary transmigration cycle. Jenova exists through “possession”, almost like a demon whose cells can be both spirit and matter. If Jenova “possessed” every body and every soul on Gaia in the original timeline, then the Lifestream itself would be possessed. The Lifestream is the spiritual existence of the planet, so even beings like the Weapons would end up enslaved. (That Sapphire Weapon was originally right next to Sephiroth in the Northern Crater might also be a factor)

If the Gaia in that timeline ceased to exist, though, Jenova would be saddled with a Lifestream with no planet. The existence of both Jenova and Sephiroth would be dependent on that Lifestream, so it makes sense that they would stop at nothing to protect it. If you have a Lifestream with no planet then you would want to find a new one. In a parallel timeline, for instance, within the same planet it came from.

This possibility also clarifies what Nanaki meant when he said “This could very well be her last line of defense, it won’t be easy.” If Jenova would “burn out” a planet while possessing or consuming it, the search for a new planet to move the corrupted Lifestream into would be the last line of defense.

If the Whisper Harbinger actually is a Weapon that (like Kadaj, Loz and Yazoo) originated in a doomed timeline, what about the rest of the Whispers? If the world was destroyed in that timeline and the displaced souls are pushing through to the timeline next door, there’s gotta be more than three. Maybe all visitors from outside your timeline look like Whispers in this fictional world.

I suspect that the Whispers are not agents of destiny but migrating souls desperate to create a timeline that will bring them into existence. That would mean making sure everything happens the same way it did last time. Not a single detail can be out of place because every single detail probably played a role, ala “butterfly effect”. That would also explain things like resurrecting Barret after the Sephiroth clone skewered him- he’s not allowed to die like that because he didn’t the first time around.

This begs another question- the last boss fights in the game imply that Sephiroth and the Whispers are working toward the same end. The whole theory I just unpacked would also support that. However, Sephiroth and Jenova need to shape the neighboring timeline to resemble their own in order to preserve themselves. If the old timeline is recreated in every detail in the new one, though, both universes might end the same way.

Final Fantasy VII Remake: Just finished first play-through (heavy spoilers)

Was it what I wanted?

Put simply, yes. I mean, there was a lot in the original that made you wonder about how it would play out “for real” and not all of it was even story-related: I mean…in the crashed Gelnika, there was a hostile gastropod with an attack called Creepy Touch. What exactly happens when one performs the Creepy Touch? I mean, I could tell you about the interpretation that my friends and I used to cackle over, but what actually happened? What exactly is a Dorky Face, and why are so many of them in the Shinra Mansion in Nibelheim?

When I was younger, I used to try to visualize what the combat would look like if it wasn’t a video game. My most recent frame of reference at the time was anime, so I kinda imagined some Z-fighter stuff like materia magic- casting bolt would probably look like a ki blast, for example. Later, I saw the Last Order anime with the non-delusory version of the Nibelheim incident and the travels of Zack and Cloud afterward. Both Zack and Cloud were infused with Jenova cells while in Hojo’s custody along with a mako bath (redundant for Zack, first time for Cloud). Cloud is unconscious for a lot of the story, though, so we mostly get to see Zack and Sephiroth in action. Sure enough, Zack flits around invisibly like a Z-fighter.

That last part actually sort of helped for my grasp of the in-world physics \ metaphysics: those who had been bathed in mako or injected with Jenova cells were supposed to be supernaturally formidable compared to ordinary people. For some reason, as a preteen, I was particularly attached to imagining the fight between the Turks and Cloud’s party during the return to Midgar as…basically…Dragon Ball Z with giant swords, firearms and electricity (no I’m not ignoring Trunks, let’s stay on topic).

For anyone who wondered about those nuts and bolts, Final Fantasy VII Remake absolutely delivers. Setting the first installment completely within Midgar was a good choice for every obvious reason: the original had a very large and detailed world map. The lack of exploration within Midgar was a teasing absence. Digging up the key card to get back into Sector 5 during the third disc assuaged the yearning a little bit but there was just so much that you still couldn’t check out- like more of the upper plates.

So kudos on being Midgar-centric. There were also quite a few moments that had an absolutely beautiful sense of place. Sector 7 and Sector 5, in the remake, both took my breath away. The graphics were crisp and detailed but…well…Sector 7 and Sector 5 both remind me of my childhood. Not that my hometown is absolutely dilapidated and cobbled together from garbage but…well…um…uh…actually nevermind ._.

I know I’ve droned about this a lot in the other entries about the remake, but I absolutely adore how carefully this game builds a sense of distance and proportion with nearly all of its environments. Very understated at times, like how in Sector’s 7 & 5 you can catch glimpses of the sky in certain directions which contrasts with other moments that are wide, open areas that are definitely beneath a plate.

The lights look uncannily like stars sometimes
Sometimes, when you look closely at the pre-rendered far-off images, the rest of the environment can look slightly surreal

Even the sound design contributes to the sense of place. In some environments, when explosions go off, any sound you hear immediately afterward will be muffled as if you’re ears are ringing. The background chatter in the town areas always sounds natural and spontaneous. The music is also very well placed and the score has a nice back-and-forth with the diegetic music from jukeboxes \ stereos \ whatever.

On that note, I was pretty happy with the soundtrack. I may find it hard to tease apart how my love of the original colors this, but I appreciate how the soundtrack layers motifs from the original soundtrack. In the original, Words Drowned By Fireworks is memorably used during the Golden Saucer date. I think there is another use of the track before then but I can’t remember.

Anyway, in the Remake, the first time we hear music that uses partial melodies from Words Drowned By Fireworks is during a flashback to Nibelheim, when Tifa and Cloud made the promise. A potentially intact version of the whole song can be heard between Sector 5, Wall Market and the collapsed tunnel leading to Sector 7.

This gradual layering of motifs from the original soundtrack is also used with Lurking In Darkness. The complete song is first used, in a quiet and unobtrusive way, when Cloud is taken aside by Don Corneo’s goons and snatches of the melody can be heard in the sewers.

Also really liked certain understated “teases” used for foreshadowing, like the first time we hear Trail Of Blood, when Cloud is woken up in the middle of the night by a nearby Sephiroth clone.

First use of ‘Trail Of Blood’

While we’re talking about the soundtrack, I was so fucking happy when I heard the orchestral version of Listen To The Cries Of The Planet when Sephiroth takes Cloud to the edge of creation. I bounced so much I shook the camera my girlfriend was using to record my gameplay. I also loved what they did with the J-E-N-O-V-A music during the fight with Jenova Dreamweaver.

Not that I don’t like the well-known music like One Winged-Angel, but many of the more powerful moments from the original soundtrack were the understated ones. I wrote earlier that Who…Are You? made a huge impression on me the first few times I heard it. Lurking In Darkness is slightly jazzy and melancholy and is used in a few very different situations. My favorite overlooked song from the original is called Reunion and is first heard in the Northern Crater when Sephiroth is doing a number with Cloud’s disassociation.

So far, the remake has given much of the original music time to breathe, some in multiple fragments or versions. Not everything, of course, because this new version of FFVII isn’t done yet, but as much as it can.

I hesitate to say whether or not the gameplay of Final Fantasy VII Remake outperforms the original or if it simply keeps pace with it in terms of overall quality. I say in terms of overall quality because many of the specifics are very different. FFVIIR has a quick menu to use restorative spells and items while simultaneously walking around, kinda like the menu in Bloodborne. All combat, of course, takes place in the same map as everything else rather than its own combat screen. In my last entry, I complained a little about the inconvenience of needing to build the ATB bar in order to do anything other than attack, block or dodge. Which means you need to go in blindly swinging at least a little bit in order to strategize.

That gripe being vented, it can be satisfying to dive in button-mashing like you’re playing Smash. It’s just that you might not actually accomplish anything. This was a really big headache during the Rufus and Hell House boss fights which I struggled with. I hate running in circles, trying not to get hit, because I need the ATB gauge to fill up so I can heal and my health is too low to risk attacking to make it fill up faster.

Also, this game is pretty linear which was absolutely the right direction to go in. More than any other Final Fantasy game, VII is a vehicle for a story: to jeopardize the momentum of that story with random exploration like XV would have been catastrophic. Even within those parameters, though, there is still a lot to do between story beats.

Other detours in the original story that really worked for providing more content and building a sense of immersion are your first visits to Sector 7 and 5. If the Midgar AVALANCHE cell is cut off from the bigger organization, it stands to reason they would be on a super tight budget and Cloud would have a credible reason to help Tifa collect his fee. If this were a movie, I could easily see that part of the game being a dialogue-heavy character building scene.

When I said Sector 5 works in the same way, I guess I just meant both of the towns you see with Aerith. The towns are probably better designed than any other towns in any other game that I’ve played.

The giant, meandering collapsed tunnel near Sector 5 was very welcome, both the first time with Aerith and the second time with Cloud, Barret and Tifa. Making the collapsed tunnel an entry point for the underground Shinra laboratory was a genius way to expand the gameplay and flesh out the world-building. The mutated test subjects bore a slight resemblance to the beings in the pods at the mako reactor in Nibelheim. Placing this nuance of the world-building close to Elmyra’s explanation of Aerith’s abilities and heritage was also a good thematic touch. (Also I never played Crisis Core or Dirge Of Cerberus so I’m not familiar with all the lore but…Deepground, much…?)

There are still a few potential red herrings though. Potential because there are hints of more subtle relevance but nothing openly stated. Particularly with Eligor and the abandoned train station.

The train station has a beautiful interplay of lights from different sources that, when they get the smallest touch of saturation, creates a cool, dreamy, otherworldly effect. Later, when ghosts show up and you’re doing switch puzzles, the otherworldly lighting can almost make the train station feel like a Silent Hill game. And not in a bullshitty, pandering way like the horror survival level in Nier: Gestalt.

Eligor is also a nice, tough, satisfying boss fight. We get some framing when Tifa recalls Marlene talking about what happens to the children who go missing at night, realizing that she must have been talking about Eligor. Later, Eligor shows Aerith and Tifa an image of Marlene that leads Tifa to think that Eligor actually has her, which turns out to be false.

What I meant earlier by red herring is that I’m not sure why Eligor is in the game. Is the abandoned train station just super duper haunted? Full stop? Are beings like Eligor connected to the Whispers, since it showed Tifa something that could happen instead of something that did happen? What about the fact that Aerith appears to recognize Eligor, during her brief abduction by the ghosts?

What I appreciated about the illusory vision of Marlene is that it sews the question of whether she’s okay or not in a way that gives weight to Aerith’s rescue later on. Particularly since you actually get to play as Aerith as she rescues Marlene. The appearance of the Whispers near the end of the station also suggests a connection with Eligor. All of those add up to implications, though, since Eligor’s contribution to the story is never made clear.

Speaking of the story…

This is…pretty much…not a big dramatic departure from the source material. Many of the differences have to do with framing things and fleshing things out. The main innovation that wasn’t there in the original has to do with fate…or potential alternate timelines.

You are haunted, throughout the whole game, by ghostly, ephemeral beings called Whispers. When they touch you, they may make you get flashes of the past or the future. After the bombing of reactor 5, Cloud missed a shot with his grapple hook that he’s more than capable of making. As if some unseen force wants him to fall onto Aerith’s flower bed and bring Aerith into it.

Cloud, no stranger to hallucinations, sees a flash of the future in Sector 7 with the plate falling. Later, when he runs into the Sephiroth clone named Marco, Cloud briefly glimpses a jagged, rocky landscape that a player of the original will recognize as the Whirlwind Maze in the Northern Crater. In the original game, this event occurs about halfway through the story, just before the third fight with Jenova. Rather far into the future for Cloud at that time in the remake.

Like FFVIII and FFXIII, Final Fantasy VII Remake deals with predestination and the role of free will. Incidents like Cloud’s improbable miss at the reactor 5 bridge and the attacks of the Whispers suggest that the strings of fate are now visible, and Sephiroth invites Cloud to challenge destiny with him. Most shockingly of all, though (the title warned you about the spoilers)-

Zack.

When the party reaches the end of the chase on the highway, we see a cutscene on the outer edge of Midgar. It is broad daylight and Zack is fighting off hordes of Shinra soldiers. It looks a lot like the depictions of Zack’s last stand in the original and in Last Order, but why the fuck does it look like it’s currently happening, with the Whispers enveloping Midgar in the background? Maybe clashes between agents of destiny are spiritually significant events that can be seen by nearby ghosts? Why does the camera show you the empty chip bag with Stamp on it? Does it signify a particular era?

I freaked out so bad when I saw this for the first time. Like…like…um…what? Zack of all people? Seriously? Is Cloud gonna run into him and flip shit? Does this have consequences for Aerith…??

And then, minutes before the game actually ends, we see Zack carrying Cloud toward Midgar just as the party passes through that same location in the opposite direction. That means it was a flashback, right…? Maybe…? Why did Aerith just stop in her tracks like she felt something?

And which specific manifestation of Sephiroth did we just fight with? I mean, it was a psychic presence in the clones that moves between all carriers of Jenova cells, right? Sephiroth was injected with Jenova cells while he was still in the womb and has a closer relationship with her than any other character. Any being carrying Jenova cells can be influenced by either Jenova or Sephiroth. So it wouldn’t be going far at all to suppose that Sephiroth can “possess” the body of a clone with his mind, like a demonic possession. We see both Jenova and Sephiroth change into clones with number tattoos, so it seems pretty obvious.

So. Is the final boss fight the same psychic presence that was walking around inside the body of the clone carrying Jenova’s original body in his arms? Did Sephiroth simply move on to a new clone to possess at the moment of the final boss fight? Does the final boss fight even happen on a physical plain of existence? We know from the original that Sephiroth can jerk Cloud out of his own body if he’s moved to. Could it be like the final telepathic fight at the end of the first game (oh, and we even see a certain version that scene as well)?

Sephiroth “possessing” a clone
The same clone, still carrying Jenova’s body like before, only without Sephiroth in control

Was the final battle an event on the astral plain or within a “collective dream” shared in everyone’s mind? Given what we know about Sephiroth and Jenova’s ability to affect the mind of anyone who carries her cells, it’s possible that the party is simply fighting a cell carrier that is “channeling” Sephiroth.

So did the party physically fight a “posessed” clone or did Sephiroth telepathically lash out and drag the minds of the party into his own imaginative construct?

So the question of “which” Sephiroth are we fighting has a handful of different answers. However, his wish to defy destiny and our glimpses of possible futures makes it hard to avoid another possibility: that he came from another timeline. Or the future, or something.

I seriously got nothing on that possibility, no idea what to think of it- it’s just too foreign from any analysis of this story that I ever encountered before playing this game. But the glimpses of other timelines at least imply that something like that might be possible. Especially considering something Nanaki says during the fight with the giant Whisper that looks like Sapphire Weapon: the whole party sees a glimpse of the opening scene from Advent Children and Nanaki says that it’s a vision of what will happen if they “fail here today”. Sooo….does that mean that the whole original time line is now off on a different course? That the events from the original to Advent Children are now not happening?

Oh and the big bad Whisper at the end looks a hell of a lot like Sapphire Weapon. Are the Weapons now involved in the new world-building with alternate timelines and destiny spirits? I don’t suppose I can complain about that. In the original, the appearance of the Weapons does seem a little out of nowhere, with only a tenuous connection to the previously established lore. So I appreciate that they are now trying to introduce the concept earlier.

Laying the groundwork for concepts that will be important later is something the remake really succeeded at. Cloud’s mako poisoning later is foreshadowed with Jessie’s father, and Jessie’s theory that those with mako poisoning are suspended between their body and the planet’s core, since mako is processed lifestream that still tries to transmigrate. Barret also makes a comment that’s relevant to both Cloud’s mako poisoning and to the last thing Sephiroth did during the Nibelheim incident:

Sephiroth’s original body, the one birthed by Lucrecia, is in the planet’s core after leaping into the mako in the reactor at Nibelheim. All appearances of Sephiroth during the present are either telepathic or channeled through the bodies of clones that carry Jenova’s cells.

Unless we’re gonna entertain the whole time travel thing…then I don’t know where the fuck that leaves us.

I have to echo a sentiment first expressed by the YouTuber The Night Sky Prince: Nomura says that the story will remain the same and that his only big point of departure is that someone from the original, who died, will not be dead this time. It really looks like that’s gonna be Zack. If Zack’s alive, I’m not sure how much room is left for the story to play out the way it did originally. A bit of a mixed message, but it’s drastic no matter how you interpret it.

For me, the really weird part of this is that the remake appears to be aware of the role that Zack plays in Cloud’s psyche and how Zack was turned into an alternate persona. Before Cloud wakes up in Aerith’s flower bed, he is having a conversation in his mind with someone else in SOLDIER 1st class gear. For the first few seconds, we don’t see the second person’s face, and it looks like it’s gonna turn out to be Zack. When we do see the face of the second person, it’s a second Cloud. So the writers were definitely aware of the role of Zack in Cloud’s arc. Soo…I’m not saying I think this will happen, but how the fuck would Cloud take it if he ran into Zack before he has the chance to work out his issues?

It’s a huge, huge gamble and I want it to work. No one wants this to work more than I do and I want the next chapter to come out right now. But keeping Zack alive can have very dramatic, far-reaching consequences for the story. I simply don’t see what Nomura can possibly mean if he says the story will be pretty much the same while also implying that Zack will be alive. And if this has some kind of consequence for Aerith, like not dying, she’ll cease to be a thematic mirror image of Sephiroth. The mirroring between Sephiroth and Aerith is absolutely fundamental to my understanding of the story and to keep Aerith alive would change the whole nature of the story. Maybe it will turn out to be a genius curve ball that will totally work and outstrip the original.

I hope so, anyway. There’s no denying the boldness of the step, and it is refreshing to see Square Enix regain the will to take risks, which was a fear I had after FFXV.

Soooo yes.

It was what I wanted and then some ❤️

If you’ve made it this far, perhaps you’d be interested in a lore theory:

https://ailixchaerea.blog/2020/07/04/final-fantasy-vii-remake-lore-theory/

FFVIIR play-through continued (light spoilers)

Yesterday I played for nearly ten hours, wrapping up the Sector 5 sub quests and going all the way through to the sewers, just before Avalanche’s last stand at the Sector 7 plate support pillar.

Something I want to mention that I briefly touched on earlier is the combat system. Put simply, you can attack, dodge and block all you want but every other option requires you to invest at least a little patience. This can be like charging Barrett’s gun-arm or slowly, carefully building momentum with Cloud’s punisher mode. Most frequently, though, it’s the ATB gauge, which you fill by attacking, blocking and dodging.

This can be annoying at times, since in order to properly strategize you often need the assess materia, and materia can only be used once you’ve built up the ATB gauge. So you roll in and start banging away and just lumping any consequence that goes with that. This necessity can be maddening in near-defeat situations, like when you have to avoid a game over by either healing yourself or reviving someone else. You often have to dive back into the fray with almost no HP to fill your ATB gauge enough to use an item or a spell.

That is my only nit-pick so far though. Square Enix made me really afraid of their tendency toward appeasement with Final Fantasy XV. That game was designed to appeal so universally that the final product hardly took a single risk. If it seems like I mentioned random comparisons with XV in the last post, it’s because XV cast a long shadow. It was released in a partially complete state so they could trickle out a finished product that would accommodate fan reactions. To say nothing of the prissy lack of risk taking or difficulty. FFXV might be less fun if you just press X throughout every battle but the sad truth is that you can. If you chose the easy difficulty setting you could even play through the game with Carbuncle resurrecting you every time your HP reaches zero.

If that appeared to be Square’s emergent business model then I couldn’t help but worry about what might come next. FFVIIR, luckily, doesn’t repeat any of this. In fact I’ve been playing a lot of Mana games in the last few years and I rather like the strategy of getting in, spend your stamina/ATB/whatever gauge, get out and charge it again. The need to build the ATB gauge to even use an item is annoying but it isn’t a deal breaker.

There are also some interesting little doo-dads that borrow from other FF weapon and buffing systems. Each weapon comes with abilities that you can master and take with you, like in IX, or the Espers in VI. You can also craft weapons in a system that bears a superficial resemblance to the crystarium in XIII or the sphere grids in X. You can even add extra materia slots which adds to the strategy since you are less likely to wander into a battle with the wrong stuff equipped.

It was my worries about appeasement that made me sweat the cross dressing scene. Like, it didn’t happen in exactly the same way that it did in the original, and so much in this remake does not, but I kinda panicked. I was kinda afraid they may have made the cross dressing in Wall Market optional in order to appease in the opposite direction. I was kinda freaking out. And then Aerith walked Cloud’s spikey ass over to the Honey Bee Inn and all was right with the world.

Noticeably absent from original- the uncanny freak-out when Cloud walks in on a ghostly mirror image of himself. The ghost Cloud lunges at living Cloud and he blacks out. This was also the scene where we hear the song Who…Are You? for the first time. Later, Who…Are You? is paired with Jenova. When you first hear it used in relation with Jenova, the association with the hallucination in the Honey Bee Inn is nothing short of disturbing.

There is an echo of this event in the Remake, though, and it even happens around that time, even if it’s not at the same time. Before waking up in Aerith’s church, Cloud chats with a mysterious figure in a white void. At first I was so sure it was going to be Zack Fair. But it’s a second Cloud- perhaps alluding to the conflation in his mind.

Even with that difference I do appreciate how Wall Market and Don Corneo have been mentioned and foreshadowed, going back to the scuffle with Corneo goons in Sector 7. The constant background chatter about the long-reaching consequences of the Avalanche bombings dovetails nicely from the unexpected carnage after the first attack and Barret’s belief in needing to crack eggs to make omelets.

Not sure if my favorite quote from yesterday’s binge was “The Lady of Frost is the perfect companion for a man like you, Cloud” or “Never be afraid, Cloud”.

I also like “Cloud…this dress…and makeup…”

“Yes. Nailed it. Thank you. Moving on.”

End of play-through:

https://ailixchaerea.blog/2020/04/29/final-fantasy-vii-remake-just-finished-first-play-through-heavy-spoilers/

What’s so good about FFVII anyway? (big fat spoilers for the original game)

The story.

The Final Fantasy games are a combination of gaming and story telling and each one has a different emphasis. My favorite FF title that balances good gaming with good storytelling is VI. My favorite for gameplay without attention paid to the story would either be XV or XIII-2. And my favorite for story, regardless of gameplay, is VII.

Nearly every Final Fantasy game has an identical plot, themes and story structuring. Since Final Fantasy uses a balance between gaming and story, the story often does not need to carry all the weight. I believe, though, that Final Fantasy VII is either the most successful version of the classic Final Fantasy story or the most ambitious.

No small part of this is the carefully consistent thematic language that discusses death. Two of the main characters are dead: one of them passes into the holistic network of souls (Lifestream) to preserve its interconnected vitality. the other dead person holds his identity separate and wants to absorb the interconnected whole into himself. And these two dead people are the main characters– as in, they move all of the plot pieces.

There is also the somewhat understated use of historical and mythic references. Final Fantasy VII is a post World War II legend. The upper plates of Midgar look a hell of a lot like romantic, 1940’s, detective movie New York. You start the game blowing up energy “reactors”, massive power sources that can provide indefinitely or destroy all life. The nuke parallels only get stronger from there: the WEAPONs are kaijus. The first kaiju-like movies in the sixties, Godzilla and stuff, were about mutants created by radiation that destroy entire cities.

Then there’s the not-so-understated WWII references: Heidegger is named after Martin Heidegger, the German philosopher that collaborated with the Nazis and had a few of his students sent to concentration camps. Professor Hojo is also clearly modeled after Josef Mengele and the Cetra have an ancestral legend of a place called The Promised Land. The first Cetra victim of Hojo that we see is Aerith, who is one of our two dead main characters.

The first allegorical Jew of the game lays down her life to preserve the dignity and familial (one might say “brotherly”) harmony between all souls.

To whit: the Lifestream borrows from ideas common in Hinduism that also appear in Buddhism. The soul of the individual needs to merge with all other souls and share the totality of its experience for its own good. And then there’s this big fat Jesus thing going on with Aerith. Which is interesting because the Final Fantasy games are usually very critical of both religion and also just power in general. So I don’t think it’s a pro-religion thing, maybe pro-spirituality.

If not pro-spirituality it is at least spiritual-friendly. What clinches the whole spiritual “reading” is the importance of Cloud’s subjectivity in the main plot. When we first meet Cloud, he doesn’t even give his name until he’s asked frankly- he’s just Ex-SOLDIER. Later, Cloud falls into the Lifestream while being locked in his own mind. He is both in the afterlife and trapped inside of his own pain. Another human being, Tifa, bodily enters his mind with him.

Later, the party goes directly into the planet’s core. Given that the Lifestream is every transmigrating soul crisscrossing through the core on their way to their next lives, this is familiar territory for Cloud. The final confrontation with Sephiroth even takes place in Cloud’s mind, after the last boss fight.

Basically, I’ve never played a game that gets plot, mythic themes and characters to work so well together. It sucks you into a discussion of big ideas in a way that’s poetic and exciting…and without getting preachy or taking sides. Or if it is, the side is that nukes and fascism are bad, which I happen to be okay with anyway 😉

Final Fantasy VII Remake: First Impressions (light spoilers)

After a five day delay it finally freaking came in the mail. I don’t normally get on crazy fan-girl hype trains like this but this, for me, is a truly unique game. I got hooked on Final Fantasy VII around 2000 on the PC version but I played it for the first time in 1997, when PlayStation in general was new to me. I was around nine years old and I got my mom to rent it from Blockbuster.

I remember finding this add in a 1997 issue of GamePro. I think I had the magazine in the first place because it had a story on Tomb Raider II.

By 2000, the Zelda series and a monster-hunting PS1 game called Jade Cocoon were my two favorite games. And then Final Fantasy VII happened. And I still don’t think I’ve encountered a game that has a story that’s quite like it. Like I mentioned in my earlier FFVII entry, I think a lot of that may have been a series of happy accidents, of a ton of cooks pulling off a good soup against the odds.

However it happened, though, it happened, and if you clicked on this then I probably don’t need to catch you up. So because my nutty lil fan-girl heart won’t let me keep this to myself:

The Deluxe edition, with the art book, soundtrack sampler and tin casing with Sephoroth

By the way, the FFIX Moogles are from an Etsy dealer called nhimconshop ^^

Between today and yesterday I’ve played for over twelve hours and I’m only just getting to the Airbuster fight. Still nowhere near finished, and I’ll definitely upload a post later when I’ve played all the way through. I’m completely spazzing out over this though and I gotta get something out now.

I’ve written at length on this blog about how scenarios originally written for sprites and dialogue boxes don’t always make the best one-to-one adaptations for modern graphics and voice acting. From what I’ve seen so far, though, the early portions of this game definitely justify the use of both. During the bombing of Mako Reactor 1 in the beginning, I quickly noticed something that FFVIIR did better than XV: meaningful use of size and proportion.

FFXV is a good looking game, don’t get me wrong, and it has some really cool moments with summoning Astrals- Leviathan and Bahamut in particular. Not to mention flying around in the Regalia. But the sense of size in FFVIIR seems to hit harder, somehow. Inevitably, this has got to do with my love for the original tempting me to compare the different versions. And…well…nostalgia: if you remember locations and events in a story fondly you would naturally enjoy seeing a beautiful and thorough reinterpretation.

A few reimagined moments from the original are super pretty

Not that there isn’t depth to be appreciated in that comparison: I played through the original multiple times and I always wondered A. is mako a gas or a liquid and B. although it is made from the Lifestream does that mean that it is the same as the Lifestream? Is that why they’re both pale green? In the first Reactor, you see a giant pool of churning, luminous liquid with crashing waves folding in on each other like whirlpools.

At the same time, though, there is an appearance of thematic consistency to the presentation of size. When you first descend the ladders in the actual Reactor core at the beginning, you are coming out of a series of infiltration obstacles that make you feel both cramped and like you are being watched. The hugeness of the room with the mako pool and the Reactor core shocks you. Barret also asks an interesting question as you navigate the catwalks and ladders: if you fell in, would you just keep falling until you reached the heart of the planet? Anyone who has played the original game knows how important those words are.

LOVE the sense of size and distance in this game

Also loved the use of size and distance in Sector 7. Parts of it are cramped and dilapidated, but there’s also these gorgeous, sprawling distances, stretching out from beneath the plate.

Callbacks and contrasts are also implemented through music. A song called Lurking In The Darkness in the original soundtrack is heard for the first time in the remake in a new scene. Cloud is taken aside by some goons that look and sound like they work for Don Corneo, attempting to dig up dirt on Avalanche. (Remember, this is about my first impressions so I’m still early in the game).

A few different songs from the original soundtrack are used in different ways. The song On Our Way, in the original, isn’t heard until Kalm, before Cloud tells his version of the Nibelheim incident. In the remake, we hear it in Sector 7. In the original, we first hear Words Drowned By Fireworks when Cloud takes Aerith (or whoever) on a date in the Golden Saucer. In the remake, we hear Words Drowned By Fireworks in the flashback to Cloud and Tifa as kids.

(Is that true about the Golden Saucer date? I feel like I remember Words Drowned By Fireworks before then….even if the song is named after the scene)

Another cool bit of foreshadowing and cosmology-building is the story of what happened to Jessie’s father: mako poisoning. He never wakes up and Jessie has a theory on why: mako is the Lifestream, the Lifestream is the flow of transmigrating souls between lives. All souls pass through the center of the planet on their way to the next life. If her father’s body and brain are poisoned by mako energy it makes sense that his soul would be suspended between the center of the planet and his body.

She deduced this through a discipline called planetology. I don’t know if the word / concept of planetology existed before Dune, but that’s where I first encountered it. Not that this means that there’s some kind of epic Dune tie-in, but I think it’s cool that a related concept is now involved in FFVII. (It’s just an elaboration on ecology: when humans discovered space travel and started to own and buy and sell entire planets, they realized that the well being of an ecosystem hinges on the whole planet. So it’s changed to planetology)

All that about Jessie’s theory establishes an important concept that has a big role in the original story. I also appreciated how the clones are introduced earlier in the story. It validated a theory of mine that both Sephiroth and Jenova are not only controlling them but can actually possess the bodies of the clones and transform them. Ifalna tells us that Jenova is a shapeshifter in the original game, so that would account for Sephiroth’s apparent ability to travel vast distances instantly and Jenova’s different forms. Anyway, in the remake Cloud runs into a clone super early and Sephiroth possesses him. He actually makes Cloud hallucinate Sephiroth’s old appearance, black cape and all.

The combat system is also great. It’s not stupid simple like XV where you’re basically mashing one button over and over again and you can freely play as other party members. It also requires that you strategize in many of the same ways you did in the original- like pairing the elemental materia with a relevant element spell so you aren’t forced to constantly tap out your MP in order to exploit elemental weaknesses. There is also just as much necessity to consider how different materia impact your stats when doling them out.

If those of you who have played through the game already noticed my mention of the elemental materia, that means what you think it means: I did the big annoying Easter egg hunt en route to Mako Reactor 5. It bugged the hell out of me but I couldn’t let it go, I just had to get the materia. I also snagged the chocobo / moogle materia from inside the fan. This game has side quests, and they rope you in, but they don’t run the risk of derailing the story’s entire dramatic momentum like they do in XV.

Loving the shit out of this so far and can’t wait to keep playing ❤

The play-through continues below:

https://ailixchaerea.blog/2020/04/19/ffviir-play-through-continued-light-spoilers/

Anticipating the Final Fantasy VII Remake

Early development pic from Final Fantasy VII Remake’s rendition of the Don Corneo / Wall Market sequence ^^

While I myself have not contracted COVID 19, the pandemic has had consequences for my living situation and my job. For that reason I have been trying to remain optimistic and excited about as many things as I can which is why I am now talking about a video game.

After a long and uncertain development, Final Fantasy VII Remake is hitting the market next month. Ever since the rumors of a remake were validated back in 2014/15, I could see a lot going wrong and a lot going right with this. After the initial confirmation, Square Enix revealed that it worked with some outside developers that had mishandled a lot of material and the project was substantially set back. If it simply remained in development hell forever, I don’t think I would have objected. So much went right with the original and with big budget video games being both collaborative and designed to give investors a return, such a good story is probably a happy accident. I don’t think I would trust a team of corporate writers, however capable or well-intentioned, to understand the finer points of what made the story of the base game so iconic.

Especially considering how certain decisions were made. Test players for the original were shown two versions, one with Barret dying and one with Aerith dying. The responses gave us the result we are all familiar with today. This is further substantiated by data miners who found dialogue for Aerith in the later parts of the game buried in the game’s code. If any mid-nineties gamers stumbled upon this unused data with a Gameshark Pro or anything similar, it no doubt would have lent credence to the contemporary rumors of a secret way to resurrect Aerith.

Which brings us to the edifice that Final Fantasy VII eventually became in the minds of those of us who fell in love with it. The true life of any work of art is what happens to it after it has left the hands of its creator(s) and Final Fantasy VII has had an interesting life. Having discovered FFVII in the year 2000, I remember the GeoCities and Angelfire websites with all the fan theories, lore dumps and fan fiction. The one I remember most fondly was hosted by an individual called Seraphim and had breakdowns of each character’s lore background and some thoughts on what builds were the most advisable for which party member.

As was typical of the fandom at that time, Seraphim included a lengthy explanation of why he believed Aerith could be brought back from the dead and some ways that he suspected it might be done. I don’t remember any mention of the dialogue that data miners would eventually uncover but Seraphim did rely heavily on circumstantial evidence. Much of which was derived from FFVII’s more random and fruitless fetch quests. You know, like finding all the Turtle’s Paradise flyers and buying the house in Costa Del Sol. The house for sale, Seraphim wrote, would be essential for a young couple wanting to make their way together after the threat of Meteor has been dealt with. Like many other gamers of the day, Seraphim also believed that the sick man in Midgar also held a mysterious key to Aerith’s resurrection (“This guy are sick”).

I remember other GeoCities / Angelfire sites from that time. One of them, authored by someone who called themselves Habib, had a far simpler site that existed only to celebrate Sephiroth, his favorite villain. The webpage had a bunch of screenshots of Sephiroth in Nibelheim, looking dramatic with the village burning around him while the song Those Chosen By The Planet played on a loop. For little preteen Ailix, this was fucking epic.

Another late-nineties beauty had a truly ambitious and well-written narrative poem describing the plot of the whole game from Sephiroth’s perspective. This page also contained a small personal bio of the author, stating that Professor Hojo was her soulmate.

As someone who had lived through that era and loved every minute of it, much of my appreciation and understanding of the game was shaped by this early dialogue between fans and the game. One particular fan theory has stayed with me and, in my assessment, was proven to be at least thematically relevant to the later Final Fantasy games.

I first discovered this theory in the writings of our old friend Seraphim, which was that Cloud and Sephiroth were not the real hero and villain of FFVII: this was in fact Aerith and Jenova. This has thematic echoes in Final Fantasy X, XIII and XV. Two of those games have protagonists that don’t survive the main game (I know Tidus is in FFX-2 but I’m sticking to the base games). The other one framed characters as protagonists who neither set the plot in motion nor were able to directly effect it in the end. All three of them wrestled with the angst of pre-determination and the plight of those who witness things happening versus those who make things happen.

In FFXIII, Lightening is propped up as the main character but only Fang and Vanille have the power to effect the mainline story in the end. XV and X examine doomed martyrs and their growing bonds with those they must leave behind. I don’t think it’s reaching too far to trace the emergence of these themes to Aerith.

That Square Enix first hit upon an idea they would explore in later FF titles within FFVII does not necessarily mean that it will (or even should) be treated with reverence in a remake. In general, what works well in one situation might work better in another. If they decide to be too dismissive of the importance of Aerith’s death, though, they will have sacrificed an essential, perhaps even defining aspect of the story of FFVII. This possibility weighs on me because many fans will loudly demand an opportunity to save Aerith’s life and Square Enix has shown an uncritical tendency toward appeasement in the past.

For me, this matters as much as it does because, whether one believes that Aerith and Jenova are the real main characters or not, I believe that Aerith and Sephiroth are mirrors of each other. Somehow, after all these years, I had completely failed to gather this on my own. I’m only aware of it now because I played through the game with one of my best friends a few months ago and she pointed it out. So kudos to you, bestie (It would feel inappropriate doing anything remotely close to naming names).

Aerith and Sephiroth mirroring each other does not get in the way of who you choose to believe are the main characters….but it goes a little smoother if Aerith and Jenova are the hero and villain and Cloud a kind of “narrator”. This lends itself to both a psychoanalytical and a religious reading of the story.

Both readings start with the soul. Let us begin with Freud’s notion of the uncanny. Put simply, Freud believed that the soul was initially conceived as a second self to assuage our fear of death. Kinda like a new car to drive in when the old one breaks down. Later, though, after the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution, religion lost much of the credibility it once had in the west. Yet many religious ideas continue to cast long shadows in our minds in spite of us not having any further use for them.

If one continues to believe in a soul after one no longer believes in a supernatural dimension to the world, it is tantamount to a second body killing you and taking your place. Another word for this is a doppelgänger, which according to Freud embodies the essence of the uncanny. Something uncanny looks like it might be alive but probably isn’t: it is a sense of dread over something that’s not alive exhibiting living qualities without a rational explanation.

Cloud wrestles with a doppelgänger. Do I even have to spell this out? In Final Fantasy VII, we see a second version of a familiar flashback with a vague shadow-shape in Cloud’s place. This shadow-shape eventually has a name: Zack Fair. Zack Fair was the last love of Aerith Gainsborough. Cloud’s idealized hero-worship of Sephiroth compelled him to join Shin-Ra, and Zack Fair was the protégée of Sephiroth.

In the game’s beginning, Cloud retells the story of the Nibelheim mission with himself in Zack’s place. Few things can threaten your sense of self like the possibility that you stole the “self” of someone else. The ultimate invalidation is the realization that you are the doppelgänger. When Sephiroth first reveals this to Cloud, he even includes a lie that Cloud is a botched Sephiroth clone. Not only is he a shadow of a real “self”, but he doesn’t even get a number like the other clones.

This visitation from Sephiroth comes after the death of Aerith. Cloud’s love for Aerith enabled him to cling to his identification with Zack. Aerith made Cloud’s fantasy self feel real and Sephiroth brought back the memory of the one who filled the place that Cloud wanted: a memory which made Could feel like his place was taken by a double.

Zack was both a fantasy that Cloud wished to embody and also dead before the mainline story even begins. And both Aerith and Sephiroth choose to die for a mysterious destiny beyond the grave. Aerith made Cloud’s shadow-self a convincing and comforting fantasy and Sephiroth turned the shadow-self into a frightening doppelgänger. Both Aerith and Sephiroth represent appearances of both death and fantasy for Cloud. Each one represents both a fantasy and a threat. Beyond these appearances though (and their importance for Cloud), Aerith and Sephiroth also embrace the reality of death within the world of Final Fantasy VII.

I say reality because both Aerith and Sephiroth go on to effect the plot in a disembodied state. The game treats their existence after death as real and their actions after dying as having consequences. The in-world mystical language offers other interpretations as well: in Cosmo Canyon, Bugenhagen tells the party that all biospheres rely on souls returning to a collective spiritual body (Lifestream) between lives to nurture the whole with their lived experience before moving on to their next earthly form. The holistic cycle of existence hinges on the transience of one’s specific, mortal identity. Death is not personal annihilation so much as a home-coming and a chance to share the growth of your lifetime with all other souls before moving on to the next life. This means that death is the gateway to a greater existence that’s based on interconnectedness.

In contrast, after dropping into the Lifestream \ Mako mixture in the Nibelheim reactor, does Sephiroth let go of his personal identity and move on to another? How many times do you see both Sephiroth clones and psychic representations of Sephiroth after that point? After the planned impact of Meteor, all souls will return to the Lifestream where the Sephiroth\Jenova hybrid will consume them. So far from integrating with the whole, Sephiroth wants to integrate the whole into himself.

During the very end of the game, we learn that there are only seven more days until Meteor strikes Gaia. At this point you can either enjoy the open world or go straight to the final dungeon. During the discussions made after the final raid on Midgar and the descent into the Northern Crater, there is expressed doubt as to whether or not a final confrontation with Sephiroth and Jenova is even really necessary if all rests in the hands of Holy, the force that Aerith summoned during and after her death. This is after Cloud has been forced to confront the lies he told himself, Barret’s admission to taking innocent lives in the bombing of Mako reactors and the proven failure of Shin-Ra’s huge materia bomb. To top it all off, Holy might not even step in. The final step before the ending happens after the loss of moral and psychological direction and the proven failure of a realistic plan. The steps into the final battle are taken after demoralization and in the pursuit of a final desperate hope after literally everything else has proven to be either fake or wrong. Between pushing on after accepting mortality or stalwartly clinging to the importance of your own survival and beliefs, it is clear which side the story sympathizes with.

If we wanted, we could take this into a discussion of different religious traditions that emphasize either the integration of the soul into the greater universal network (Hinduism or Buddhism) or the existence of personal identity after death (Abrahamic religions). On one hand it’s debatable whether the developers of Final Fantasy VII actually wanted to talk about *all that* but on the other…clear parallels are rarely coincidental. During the playthrough with the friend that I mentioned earlier, she even suggested that perhaps the last telepathic conversation that Cloud has with Aerith is meant to resemble the New Testament’s account of Christ’s anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Before moving too far past all this, I wanted to address the fact that I opened with a fan theory that Aerith and Jenova are the real main characters of Final Fantasy VII rather than Cloud and Sephiroth. Especially since I spent so much time talking about what the appearances of death mean to Cloud as expressed by Aerith and Sephiroth. By main characters, I mean the characters who move the plot. Antagonist does something, protagonist responds, etc. One of the more polarizing aspects of the story of Final Fantasy XIII was the revelation that the relationship between Fang and Vanille supports the entire plot and the characters that we initially thought of as protagonists (Lightening & co. ) are mere witnesses.

And clearly the division between the active protagonists and antagonists and those that witness alongside them can dramatically effect what the story is about. If FFXIII’s main character was Fang, it would be a story about interpersonal love triumphing above all. If it were Vanille, it would be about the supreme importance of the greater good. Situating Lightening (and Cloud) as main characters, though, makes FFXIII (and VII) about a clash between free will, determinism and the spectrum of truth claims that our minds use to make sense of the world around us.

Final Fantasy VII is a deeply compelling story about the search for meaning, something most Final Fantasy games touch on at least a little bit. If the function of a character like Aerith or Sephiroth is going to be fundamentally changed because of pressure from fans in the upcoming remake, I hope it is done thoughtfully. Is a lot of what I was just droning about pure fan interpretation and is it bullshit to expect Square Enix to keep up with every little pet conceit of every gamer? Totally. I don’t think Final Fantasy VII Remake will be a complete failure if it doesn’t validate every fan theory and interpretation and I’ve seen a lot that makes me deeply excited to play it. I don’t think anyone who was there for the original wouldn’t be excited to inspect every little inch of every street of Midgar- something that has been teased nonstop.

Speaking of the things that strike me as promising about the remake, I must disagree with a lot of people about the multi-game format. I think this is absolutely the right way to go about remaking such a huge and nuanced game. I would not want to play a remake that is not as meticulous in its recreation as possible so I couldn’t be happier about the current plan with multiple games.

Post script: I didn’t include this earlier when I first brought up Freud because I didn’t think it contributed anything useful to the analysis, but I wanted to make it clear that I was aware of the Oedipal interpretation that is opened up with Zack being an adopted shadow-self of Cloud. In Freud’s understanding of the associative logic of the subconscious, the doppelgänger taps into the Oedipal anxieties compelling the young male to identify with the father and reject the mother. With Cloud’s hero-worship of Sephiroth, it’s clear that Sephiroth is filling the role of a male ideal for an immature and neurotic Cloud to tack his self-image onto. This would make him both a father-figure and a vessel for castration anxiety.

This also has ramifications for Cloud’s relationship with Aerith that I don’t think advance an interpretation of the story in any way that’s interesting. Potentially even misogynist or queer-phobic: you could read the whole Wall Market cross dressing sequence as being sub-textually *about* castration anxiety…which just isn’t any fun, especially since it would associatively pair the whole experience with the flamboyantly gay Wall Market men with a fear of emasculation. Especially for queer Final Fantasy fans like myself who want representation to get better instead of worse.

Dragging all that into an interpretation would be particularly depressing since our last glimpse of the Honey Bee Inn in the new remake just looked so beautiful. It reminded me of the last few dance numbers in the movie Leave It On The Floor (a neat lil movie about gay men and drag queens). Like, I legit expected to hear the Beyoncé song Sweet Dreams playing as Cloud is scooped into that dance ^^

Here is Seraphim’s site for those who are interested

http://elbryan.tripod.com/FinalFantasyVII.html

Final Fantasy XV: Episode Ardyn (fan dialogue, fix-it fic-ing, tragic love done wrong, Ailix does fanshipping, etc)

Only a few days ago Square Enix dropped what is supposed to be the very last piece of DLC for Final Fantasy XV and it was…well…something.  It was something, anyway.

Not altogether bad, but severely flawed in certain ways.  Unfortunately, the flaws of this DLC echo many of the flaws in the base game so maybe that shouldn’t count too hard against it. One of the weaknesses echoed here is that it’s just too easy.  I get that it’s short and episodic like all the other character chapter DLCs and not meant to last too long, but you can still pack a decent challenge into a small space.  Again, though, the base game is almost startlingly easy compared to any other Final Fantasy game I’ve played so far.

I remember when I got to the point where Noctis wakes up in a daemon-covered Eos I was like “oh cool, now we’re starting the second half of the game”.  That part does resemble how a lot of Final Fantasy games mark the middle of the story: FFVI is divided between the World of Balance for the first half and the World of Ruin for the second (I’ll try not to dwell on FFXV’s botched references to VI…).  The middle of FFVII is marked by the appearance of Meteor in the sky, etc.  While this isn’t exactly consistent with the pattern, FFXIII has you get kicked down to Pulse.

Soooo given the established precedents, night-covered daemon-ravaged Eos seriously looks like the second half is about to start.  And then you get that notice saying that once you enter Insomnia the final battle is afoot.  It was kind of a facepalm moment for me.  I had barely been playing the game a few weeks by that point and I was seriously taking my time, trying to absorb as much as I could and do every side-quest I could find.

There were two reasons for this design choice: one of them is that the majority of the content is post-game.  The second is that Square Enix was seriously considering a move toward a different business model focusing on MMO’s and mobile apps, with Final Fantasy XV being something of a transitional device.  Square evidently planned on developing a ton of DLC for the game, to be released over the next few years, and how that would go would be guided somewhat by player feedback.

So it pretty much was an incomplete game upon its initial release.  Maybe some of the super-easy, loosely-structured gameplay in the main storyline was supposed to afford wiggle room for other DLC and update doo-dads.  Evidently the unfolding of the central storyline was also supposed to be guided by reactions from fans.  The unfolding definitely was, but I guess there’s also room to infer that some of the actual plot details could have been governed by fans as well.  The Ignis DLC, with its multiple endings that would impact the story going forward, may have opened up a door for multiple timelines.  So who knows what that would have yielded if they hadn’t decided to stop at Episode Ardyn and put the rest of the planned story revelations into an upcoming novel or story collection.

Interestingly, though, out of the fan reactions that made it to the ears of Square Enix, no one had mentioned the super-easy difficulty as a problem.  In fact, they thought the part where Noctis is stripped of his powers in Gralea was too hard.  Sooo the game started shockingly easy and stayed shockingly easy throughout the exchange between Square and the players.  So Episode Ardyn can’t be singled out for that, exactly.  And I’m sorry if I seem like I’m spending a lot of time dwelling on a weakness that’s fundamental to the IP itself and not the specific fault of this DLC, but it messes with me.  Because it’s so ubiquitous, in almost every facet of FFXV. The Pitioss Dungeon was the one clear exception.  Costlemark Tower requires some persistence and grinding but isn’t really hard.

It also reflects badly on how Square Enix has developed other parts of the digital supplements, like the multiplayer expansion.  It seems like quotas of monsters to hunt is something that gets plugged in a lot.  I mean it’s most of what happens with the multiplayer expansion and the majority of things to do in Episode Ardyn involve wandering around and getting in fights.  It’s like they want to do an “open sandbox” design but don’t really have a good idea as to how to flesh out the gameplay in the “open sandbox”.  The multiplayer expansion consists entirely of kill quotas and the dungeons that get unlocked post-game from Ezma’s key are just successive subterranean rooms with monsters to kill.  If Episode Ardyn was the last DLC for this game, they evidently decided to end with what they did the most of.

The biggest map in the DLC is the city of Insomnia during your raid, with items scattered all over that become visible when you knock out a shield generator, and gimme points for destroying signs and cars and balloons and megaphones along with push-over battles with Insomnia’s military (the Kingsglaive, maybe?).  A few decades ago, there was a game called Rampage on the Nintendo 64, where you play as a claymation monster causing random havoc in a city, Godzilla-style.  In elementary school there was only one other person in my sixth grade class who was as annoyingly hyper-active as me and we spent a loud, cackling evening once on that game.  That was what Episode Ardyn reminded me of.  Which is to say I had a little bit of fun.  It was easy to the point where I only got KO’d once and it was a simple planning mistake, but I had fun.  The music they used for the orgy of destruction also got a smile out of me: it’s this rap-like thing that reminds me of nu-metal, a late-childhood / early teens throwback for me.

But it’s simplistic, and after spending much of FFXV not being challenged at all, it’s just sort of…like…having another bowl of ice cream for dessert, after your ice cream dinner which was smothered with hot fudge, caramel and pieces of Oreo and Heath bar.  Ice cream is nice and I pretty much always like ice cream, but there is such a thing as being overloaded on it.

That being said, the story complications weren’t s’bad.  It was cool to see Ardyn get pulled out of the Angelguard prison after two millennia of somnolent captivity.  By a young Verstael Besithia, no less, when he was young enough to have the features we’d see on the Magitek troops once they started cloning them from him…which is to say a face quite like our lil blonde friend Prompto in the base game.  It seemed like a neat, subtle thing to do- seeing Verstael and Ardyn interact with each other was almost like a villainous mirror of Prompto and Noctis (what with Ardyn’s connection to the Caelum family).

Next, we have some follow-up to some other revelations from the prologue anime that got released back in February which set part of the stage of the DLC.  When the crystal flashed and gave it’s choice for the throne, there were wing and blade-like shapes flaring out from it that looked like Bahamut.  Implying that Bahamut chose Somnis and shafted Ardyn and causing people on YouTube to make theory videos about how Bahamut might be the real villain of FFXV.

Early in the DLC, we get a sort of convoluted reversal of that which I didn’t fully understand.  At the end, though, there is a conversation between Bahamut and Ardyn that goes back to supporting the idea of Bahamut orchestrating Ardyn’s journey.  Ardyn learns that his death will carry the daemons with it, and when they’re gone, the need for a divine steward (such as the Caelum family) will go away- essentially, that Ardyn and the kings of Lucis will perish together in the end, satisfying his desire for revenge.

Bahamut has a similar talk with Noctis near the end of the base game about accepting his destiny graciously, which creates a really nice parallel that links us back to the brotherly enmity we witnessed between Ardyn and Somnis and the role that destiny played between them.  It’s a neat way of characterizing the Caelum family as a group with a light and a dark half that are both equally dependent on each other.

There were still a lot of glaring omissions, though.  The Starscourge began with Ifrit’s rebellion and the Starscourge was the whole motivation for Ardyn becoming an Oracle.  Late in the game, Bahamut and Ifrit continue to be big players.  Has this all been about human proxies in a war between the gods?  It’s definitely implied.  Prolly not stated to maintain the impression that the human characters are still centrally important, though.

The possibility that the whole plot of FFXV is built around a proxy war between Bahamut and Ifrit also supports the presented narrative of the Caelum family, of it’s light and dark nature that are divided by enmity and united by mutual dependence.  Noctis, Ardyn and Luna are all martyrs to a superhuman cause.

While Episode Ardyn may have aptly tied together a bunch of the themes thus far, I also think it supported one of the worst narrative qualities of FFXV.  Most Final Fantasy games have a halfway point where the world is in danger and the priorities of every character are either turned on their head or otherwise re-evaluated.  FFXV stops at the point where this would have happened- not just in terms of Final Fantasy‘s typical plot structuring, but they also truncate the main character arcs where, in older FF games, they would only just be taking off.

The characters of FFXV are barely required to re-examine or take ownership of themselves.  Sure enough, one of our last images in the game is Noctis and Luna holding court in the afterlife.  He seems to be sharing a happy ghostly existence with a woman he pined over but has not spoken to since childhood, so evidently the plot requirement that Noctis die has rewarded him for not growing up.  All the pathos of tragic love rewarded with total indulgence, culminating in the most saccharine portrayal of tragic love I may have ever seen.

Just on it’s face, this is lazy and possibly repugnant storytelling that glorifies an unrealistic picture of romance.  That’s bad enough.  Especially with stuff like 13 Reasons Why and the Twilight books fresh in our memories.  But it’s worse when so many of the older Final Fantasy stories have done better than that, often with love stories.  In VII, Cloud found validation for his sublimated identification with Zach through Aerith, which is a kind of morbid fantasy ideal, but in the end he was nurtured by his friendship with Tifa, whom he had known since childhood.  In FFVI, Locke gets wrapped up in a white knight complex over his failure to protect his dead girlfriend, Rachel, and during the World of Ruin segment, he can be found attempting to track down an Esper that he believes can revive the dead, which turns out not to be possible.

Even without keeping our focus on romantic subplots, a lot of similar things happen.  FFIX involves the search for a soul, which both Zidane and Vivi have idealized as an unobtainable seal of approval entitling you to your existence, and both of them learn that you don’t need any deeper validation than your own subjectivity and lived experiences.  I could go on.

I’m not saying old Final Fantasy games are Shakespeare or anything, but a few of these character arcs show genuine attention to detail and there’s no reason not to give credit where credit is due.  And like I said, FFXV breaks the pattern of something that was (at least) admissibly pulled off in a lot of the older FF titles.

Another reason why I’m dwelling on the botched portrayal of tragic love between Noctis and Luna is that, in one of the polls Square Enix took among gamers, many reported that they would have liked to have seen Noctis and Luna get their “happy ending”.  None of the fan responses brought up the issue that the relationship was over-romanticized and that it was based on A. a marriage contract between two nations and B. a childhood encounter between the two affianced.  There are ways to deal with political marriages in narratively compelling ways, but trying to make the two marriage pawns “true lovers” on the strength of a childhood meeting years ago, and nothing else, is not the way to do it.  I also feel like Episode Ardyn was meant to leave wiggle room for the “happy ending” with Bahamut placing Ardyn, fully clothed and with his social standing in Niflheim intact, at Angelguard again.  And we hear no mention of the raid on Insomnia with the younger Regis in the base game, so presumably it was purged from the historical record, implying that Bahamut can manipulate time.  That’s two DLC’s (counting Episode Ignis) that suggest multiple timelines.

I would maintain that everything I’ve written in this post so far is defensible but I’m about to get into territory that departs from actual sources and is total speculation on my part, or fix-it fic-ing.

What if FFXV actually had a second half after the global disaster, like every other FF game, and Noctis had the chance to make his own choices free of family obligation and unrealistic fantasies?

Who has been at Noctis’ side throughout the whole journey, expresses concern and regard for his emotions, treats him like an equal without pulling any paternal moralizing crap, and has a truly upsetting falling out with him that they bounce back from?

Prompto.  You read that right.  I think Prompto should be Noctis’ canonical love interest.  I’m not saying this trait is always a telltale signs of closeted homosexuality in and of itself, but just think about it: Prompto is really vocal about thinking this or that girl is cute, way more vocal than any other character.  The other guys in the brotherhood even rip on him over it, albeit gently.  For all of his chauvinistic noisemaking, though, he never does anything chauvinistic, toward a female or anyone else.  Prompto even seems to easily make platonic friendships with female characters (Iris and, in his own DLC, Aranea Highwind).  You could rebut this by saying no other male character makes any romantic or sexual moves on any female character, but Prompto is the one who sounds off about it.  Therefore, it is only in his case that the question is begged.  Prompto makes a lot of noise about how straight he is, but when do you ever see him truly bent out of shape over a girl?  Who is the only person whom he ever gets bent out of shape over?  That would be Noctis.

Another rebuttal could be that Noctis shows no visible signs of being anything other than straight.  I think this was a commonly voiced objection when Gotham briefly entertained a ship between Penguin and the Riddler.  Viewers would complain that Edward Nygma, aka the Riddler, never frankly expressed attraction for a man.  However, a lot of bisexuals can attest to the fact that it’s possible to cling to the illusion that you’re straight, regardless of feelings, if you only ever act on feelings for the opposite sex.  This could just as easily be true of Noctis if the writers cared to take it in that direction.

If the game continued past the first glimpse of the World of Ruin, we also may have seen a different and more compelling story about demanding to live in spite of a prophecy requiring you to die.  That, as a central theme, would have gone nicely with a new love interest once Luna was ruled out as a possibility.  And by new love interest I mean Prompto.  C’mon, Square, one unambiguous same-sex couple wouldn’t kill you.  They sort of went there with Fang and Vanille in FFXIII, but it wasn’t frankly stated.

Is this me airing a fan-fic thought bubble?  Totally, but I think it’s defensible by the standards of fan-fic thought bubbles.  If that’s too wonky, then I guess I’m just saying FFXV has a story that’s abruptly short and compares badly to many of the older installments.  Boom.  Ended on an objectively arguable note.