The general tale of Final Fantasy VII is told is a somewhat non-linear fashion where the facts often turn out to be obscured lies until late in the game. I’m going to do my best to summarize this in a LINEAR fashion, so it actually makes sense.
Long long ago, the Planet (Yes, that’s its name. Hence the capital P.) was inhabited by a race called the Cetra who lived in harmony with the Planet. Then a giant meteor crashed into the planet’s northern pole 2000 years prior to the game’s beginning and brought a creature known as Jenova with it. Jenova pretty much wiped out the Cetra before they were able to contain the thing.
Skip to a few prior to the main game, protagonist and sword enthusiast Cloud Strife, a lowly Shinra soldier, accompanies SOLDIERs (the capitalization makes it different) Zack and Sephiroth on a mission to Cloud’s hometown of Nibelheim. There Sephiroth discovers the horrible “truth” of his existence: He was imbued with the cells of Jenova, discovered by the Shinra Corporation and mistaken for a Cetra, to create a Supersoldier. Believing that he is a Cetra, and thus the true ruler of the Planet, and also driven to madness by the Jenova cells in his body, he burns the village to the ground and goes to retrieve the body of Jenova hidden inside a Mako Reactor nearby (Mako being the life energy of the planet and the Reactor is a power plant that sucks up Mako to turn into electricity and such.) Zack tries to stop him but is defeated, and Cloud ultimately strikes down Sephiroth and throws him into the Planet’s Lifestream below the Mako Reactor. Shinra shows up and uses the villagers of the destroyed town as experiments to infuse Jenova cells into and create a new Sephiroth to replace them. Zack and Cloud are deemed failures of this experiment and to be locked away. They escaped but Zack died from injuries sustained and Cloud’s mental state from the experiments shattered his memories, blurring them with Zack’s.
The story starts proper a few years after the Nibelheim incident, with Cloud working as a mercenary for the Eco-Terrorist group AVALANCHE along with his childhood friend Tifa and the group’s revolutionary leader Barrett. They’re on a mission to destroy the Mako Reactors and stop the Shinra Corporation from harming the Planet. The first part of the game follows AVALANCHE’s missions including the destruction of two Mako Reactors, saving Tifa from a slumlord pimp, Cloud meeting the flower girl Aeris/Aerith who is relentlessly pursued by the Shinra special ops team called the Turks because she is an actual Cetra, trying and failing to stop Shinra from dropping one of the city’s upper levels onto the sector of the city that AVALANCHE’s base is in, and then assaulting Shinra directly to find the president murdered by Sephiroth who apparently survived the whole Lifestream ordeal. The first ‘act’ ends with President Shinra’s son Rufus taking the big chair and chasing down the remnants of AVALANCHE as they flee from the mega city.
Realizing that Sephiroth is back, Cloud declares his intentions to hunt down the man who destroyed Tifa and his’ hometown. This launches into a global chase as the party pursues clues about where to find Sephiroth while Shinra and their Turks chase down the party. They learn about the Planet and the Lifestream where all life is said to come from and return to when it dies, they find a restored Nibelheim full of crazy Sephitorh “Clones” (Other people injected with Jenova cells to test out the ‘Reunion Theory’ that all lifeforms infected with Jenova will strive to reunite with the original) and that Sephiroth is looking for something called the Black Materia that contains the ultimate destructive magic (Materia being a magical crystal formed from condensed Mako energy). This is followed by the party getting the Black Materia, then Cloud getting brainwashed to hand it over to Sephiroth. Then the party getting the Black Materia again, only to have Cloud get brainwashed and hand it over to Sephiroth. In between these two, you get the tragic moment of Aeris dying while praying to the Planet with Sephiroth (Actually Jenova disguised as Sephiroth) turning her into a shiskabob. Sepiroth-Jenova taunts and mind-%$&*s Cloud with the half-truth that his memories of what happened in Nibelheim were a lie and he was a false creation with false memories. Completely mind-screwed, Cloud gives the Black Materia to the real Sephiroth who has been chilling in a mako cocoon. This allows him to summon Meteor, awaken the WEAPONs (Godzilla sized bio-mechanical creatures born from The Planet as a defense mechanism), and collapsed the area forcing everyone to escape.
The last act of the game is pretty much dealing with the fallout. Shinra is trying to blow up the WEAPONs and send a rocket into space to blow up Meteor. Cloud & Tifa are trying to solve Cloud’s existential crisis (Leading to the truth of Cloud being a lowly infantryman and Zack being the elite SOLDIER finally being revealed.) And the entire team trying to discover what Aeris’ plan of running off to get killed was actually supposed to be about – summoning Holy, the ultimate White magic, to counter the ultimate Black magic of Meteor but Sephiroth, deep in the planet’s core via the Lifestream, is preventing Holy from emerging. The team plunges down toward the core of the planet to fight of Sepiroth, ending with a final confrontation between him and Cloud one-on-one. Sephiroth is defeated and Holy is released and… Cut to 500 years later. Midgar is a vine covered ruin. Red XIII or one of his descendants along with a couple of cubs look out over the ruins. The end.
It wasn’t until years later with the release of Advent Children did we find out the outcome of Holy v. Meteor. Everyone lived. Except Aeris, naturally.
Most people who read this blog know that I don’t have a high opinion of Final Fantasy VII. That’s not to say it’s a bad game, it really isn’t. In fact as a strict gameplay factor, I really enjoyed VII. Nor was the story really that bad either. It had a lot of interesting bits that were admittedly borrowed heavily from other things I like such as The Thing and Chrono Trigger, but it wasn’t bad. In fact, most of my complaints were how flat the characters ended up being and that’s mostly because of the complete failure of how the story was presented to the player: By people talking about it. Periodically through the game the story just stops at a random location so all the characters can talk about what is going on in the plot. They don’t talk about their feelings about it, or their reactions as people, they just would sit and exposit for a while before moving on. That’s how the story is mostly conveyed in the game – by expository dialogue – to make up for the non-linear what-is-truth-what-is-lie narrative that no one could follow otherwise. Was Jenova an Ancient? No, but I know plenty of fans who think it was. And because of this method of plot delivery, the characters are never developed or fleshed out. This lead to what I called the ‘Backstory City’ effect. Every non-central character (Cloud & Aeris) have ONE town you will visit that goes into their backstory, once that is done they are officially stand-in’s for the rest of the game to fill the roster sheet. So I found the characters to pretty fairly flat. Probably why Aeris’ death didn’t phase me much.
It almost might not have helped that I didn’t play VII tills years after the game was released. Completely missing the “hype” time that the game had early on. I was a Nintendo kid. I didn’t own a Playstation until FFVIII came out a couple years later, and even then I didn’t go back and play VII. For a long time I held it in resentment simply for existing on a different console than all the Final Fantasy’s before, because I’ll be honest. I was there for the Nintendo/Sega Console Wars. Those days got dark. Like not calling people Xbots on a forum dark, but like fist fights in the school yard for brand loyalty… Yea, we were kind of dumb like that. So when I finally played VII I was probably way less forgiving of its flaws, and less awed by the technical aspects than someone who experienced it fresh and I’ll admit that.
The seventh installment is also where Square started to go in a different direction with the franchise. Where they began to experiment with new technology and opportunities that the earlier 16-bit systems couldn’t offer. It also seems to be where Square decided they needed to formally part ways with the Western European Fantasy/D&D knock off style that they had been using up until this point. Granted VI was already a departure from that aesthetic in a number of ways, but it kind of felt like the Eberron campaign setting for D&D as in “Steampunk doesn’t make it any less D&D.” From this point forward it seems that Square wanted to push further and further from the “old school” games and establish a strong new identity for the Final Fantasy games, however for many a old-school Final Fantasy fan, it marked a long road of bitter pills to swallow. I’m in the middle. I think the strong identity that they had in the early days: Four elemental crystals, vehicles, the Archfiends, the ‘Warriors of Light’ and even the early iterations of the Job system were all fairly strong identifiers that you were playing a Final Fantasy game. As they series went on, we saw less crystals, less vehicles, no Archfiends or ties to the four elements, and each game trying to do something completely different in terms of mechanics, setting, characters, etc. While trying something different is surely worth applauding, it almost felt like that Square was ashamed of how the series started.
Next time I’ll be back with what was my first actual foray into 3D Final Fantasy’s and one of the stranger iterations that takes the term ‘experimenting’ with setting and tone to a whole new level – Final Fantasy VIII.
May the light of the Crystals guide your way!
Do you have any great memories from these classic Final Fantasy games? Feel free to share in the comments!