FF7 Recap, Ep. IV: The Nibelheim Flashback

Woo hoo! It’s time to head out of town and tackle the world map. A whole new wooooorld! A new enchaaanting point of v… good gods, what is this trash heap? Oh, right, Midgar.

Cloud on the world map

Actually, before we can start gadding about, we must egress the Shinra building where I left Cloud hanging. (Or was that Rufus?)

Let’s back up. Last time on Let’s Play Final Fantasy VII, our heroes infiltrated Shinra HQ, liberated one Distressed Damsel plus one lab specimen, landed in prison after suffering a steaming pile of Villainous Exposition, escaped via a grisly plot device, and ogled the hair flip of Rufus Shinra, new CEO, tyrant and sub-villain.

Cloud “couldn’t finish him,” as is the way of Disc One sub-villains — Tifa tactfully does NOT say, “because you took him on solo instead of letting us help, you ninny” — and they adjourn downstairs to find their friends penned in by security forces surrounding the ground floor.

Aeris plays the martyr card: “It’s not you they’re after, it’s me.” Oh, sure. They’ll just let AVALANCHE go, especially with all the bodies strewn about and all the eyewitnesses to our discreet manner of entry. Sorry, hon, I’m about done with my Distressed Damsel quota for this game.

Mini-FMV to the rescue! Sharp eyes may spot “Midgal’s” painted on the side of the truck.

Tip o’ the hat to whichever lackey kept those showroom models fueled with keys in the ignition.

An Akira motorcycle chase ensues, during which Cloud has to thwack Shinra pursuers with his ginormous sword without tipping over. Thank Shiva that gravity is his friend, because minigames requiring coordination are certainly not mine.

We dispatch the inevitable boss machina that corners us at the end of the Overpass to Nowhere, then take stock.

Cloud: Sephiroth is back...I...I have to settle the score.

“And that’ll save the Planet?” Barret asks, dimly sensing mission creep and a logical fallacy or three.

“Seems like it,” says the man who hears voices in his head and frequently loses arguments with himself.

That’s enough for Barret, who confessed his love for cheesebrain allowed that Cloud was a good guy after all during the rescue mission. “Awright, I’m going!”

Tifa accepts this with equanimity: “I guess this’s goodbye, Midgar.” Once again, she gives Cloud a beady glance and hides her medical tricorder behind her back.

Aeris says she has things that she wants to find out. (Back in prison, she’d mentioned hearing her mother’s voice telling her, “Someday [you’ll] get out of Midgar… Speak with the Planet and find [your] Promised Land.” Thanks a lot, Mom. Unless that was really Jenova meddling.)

Nanaki says he’ll stick with the group as far as his hometown.

Motivations established, everyone shimmies down a Cable of Contrivance and prepares to set out. Remember how I noted back in part one that Barret, Cloud and Shinra Sr. kept jockeying for control of the narrative? Barret hasn’t quite given up.

Barret: we need a group leader for our journey. 'Course only me could be the leader.

Dagnabbit, Barret. Up until this point, leadership sloshed between Barret, Cloud, and Tifa, depending on the scene. Now Aeris declares, “It would have to be Cloud,” and Tifa backs her up. From now on, Cloud is usually in charge except when he shorts out.

…Or when Barret gets irked.

Fuck....awright. Go northeast to a town called Kalm. If something happens, we'll meet up there.

Destinations now color coded for our convenience!

Kalm is your standard sleepy, peaceful first-stop-on-the-world-map village with crappy souvenirs ethers stashed in cupboards, cheap weapons and a Motel 6 with rooms under $40. Most of the NPCs rhapsodize about how Mako power has made their lives more convenient, although a few harbor misgivings.

Yeah, well either way, as long as we're using the reactor, we can't stand up to Shinra.

Some locals have noticed that plants and animals have been dwindling, while monsters seem to be multiplying. I think this is the first time a plot device has been introduced to justify random monster encounters. The woman above has heard that Shinra, Inc. is actually creating the monsters. (Whyyyyy?) She, like the other more clued-in NPCs, is too afraid of Shinra to protest.

NPC: My old man was a miner, but he couldn't go to work after monsters started appearing in the Mythril Mine.

Callback to the Mythril Mines of FFIII!

Another villager passes along the rumor that Rufus was pretty badly banged up while fighting AVALANCHE, who murdered his father. (Half right, anyway.)

It sounds like Sephiroth’s found himself another sword.

There was a suspicious-looking man in a black cloak! He was carrying a wicked-looking sword.

That was quick. I wonder who his dealer is?

NPC rumors of Sephiroth like this provide handy signposts to direct our party from point A to B for much of the game.

Meanwhile, the rest of the party waits impatiently for Cloud to join them at the Inn.

Barret: Yo man, you're late

Yep, Cloud’s always late. Hey, he was gossiping with npcs buying new weapons for everybody. Barret turns his gun on choco-head and says, “So let’s hear your story.” Whoa now! “You know, the one about Sephiroth and the crisis facing the Planet.”

Translation: “One minute, AVALANCHE is bombing Mako reactors to stop Shinra from draining the planet, and the next minute we’re after some white-haired anime villain to stop him from reaching the Promised Land. What the cumquat?”

Okay, gather round boys and girls, Uncle Cloud will play the part of Maechen tonight.

I’m hesitant to recap the lengthy Nibelheim flashback, since it’s so well-known to any FF7 player, but for those who haven’t played this game, This Is It. The fun part for those of us who know the game is to play “spot the unreliable narrator.”

Cloud’s tale begins five years ago, when he had already reached the exalted rank of SOLDIER, First Class, at the hoary age of 16. I thought Sephiroth was the prodigy?

Cloud: After working with Sephiroth on several missions, we became friends.

“You call that a friend?” Barret says.

“He was older than me, and he hardly ever talked about himself,” Cloud fails to explain.

At this, Tifa shakes her head and imitates Squall (“….”) She continues head-shaking and ellipsizing throughout Cloud’s recitation.

Cloud: So I guess you'd call him a war buddy....We trusted each other. Until one day....

Flashback!cam commences in the back of a Shinra transport, where a younger, much more caffeinated outgoing Cloud is determined to be pals with everybody, even the motion sick soldier who’s ready to hurl on his socks.

Cloud: Hey, how are you doing?

Cloud enthuses about his new Materia (“Just like a kid,” Sephiroth says), asks for a mission briefing, then interrupts it to blurt out his life story. He tells how he joined SOLDIER to emulate Sephiroth, but by the time he reached First Class, the war was over. He’s still trying to become a hero, so he’s joining every mission he can. He’s downright giddy:

Cloud: Say, how do you feel, MISTER Sephiroth?

I suppose he’s asking what it’s like to be a hero, not making a pass at his superior officer. (Mr. S? Oh, dear, that explains Sephiroth’s wardrobe.)

“…I thought you wanted a briefing?” Sephiroth says. Their mission is to investigate and dispose of monsters that have been spawning around the Mako reactor near Cloud’s hometown. Right on cue, a dragon t-bones the transport. The SOLDIERS (not soldiers) hop out to fight it. Or rather, Sephiroth fights it while Cloud gets KOed a lot.

Sephiroth doing over 3000 hp per hit

Holy sahagin, Batman. Sephiroth inflicts inhuman amounts of damage with both sword and spells. Instead of the usual battle music, there’s Sephiroth’s creepy Goth Pipe Organ and Bells of Doomy Doom. It’s all very understated yet terrifying. Meanwhile, at the back of the player’s mind niggles the worrisome thought: we’re supposed to fight this guy?

[After Sephiroth two-hit-killed the dragon, I encountered a dreaded emulator glitch that hung the game at this point. I was about to throw in the towel when I found a way past it. Phew.]

Upon their arrival in Nibelheim, Sephiroth exhibits no immediate signs of Doomy Doom. In fact, he’s quite personable.

Sephiroth: It's your first time back to your hometown in a long time, right?

[Side note: Nibelheim is Nilfheim, “Mist home,” the home of the dwarves (miners) in Norse mythology. So there’s the mist-motif in yet another Final Fantasy.]

“So how does it feel?” Sephiroth continues. He sounds like younger!Cloud. Cloud — still offscreen — says nothing. Sephiroth says he wouldn’t know, because he doesn’t have a hometown. Look behind you, goofball.

“What about your parents?” asks offscreen!Cloud.

“My mother, Jenova, died giving birth to me, and my father…” Sephiroth gives a strange laugh (indicated by spastically twitching polygons): “What does it matter…?”

Finally, Cloud and the two infantry grunts walk into view. The right-hand one whispers that Cloud will get in trouble for messing around; the left-hand lad is more eager to chew the fat with bigshot SOLDIERs.

Shinra grunt: It's so boring being on watch. Cloud (option A): You want to do what we always do? Option B: Just sit tight, it's your job, right?

Cloud jokingly coaches him on the correct pose (the typical FF hero stance with one elbow cocked). That’s right; standing around voguing is SOLDIER’s chief activity, as we know from that overwrought holodeck duel in Crisis Core. Eventually, the infantryman admits that he doesn’t really want to be in SOLDIER, after all. Huh?

“Yo, wait a minute!” Barret butts in, snapping us out of flashback!cam. “I remember Jenova. That’s that damn headless spook livin’ in the Shinra building.” I should hope you would remember, Barret; you’re not the one with the memory problems.

Tifa: Barret, would you please let us hear what Cloud has to say? You can ask questions later.

I imagine Tifa sounds a bit brittle here.

Back in flashback!cam, Sephiroth enters the inn, leaves one soldier on lookout duty, and tells Cloud, “you may visit your friends and family.” A number of villagers remember Cloud, but most don’t recognize him at first glance (even his own Mom gives him a puzzled “Yeeee—es?” when he walks in, before bursting out, “Cloud!?”)

You’d think this town was too small for paparazzi, but there’s at least one photographer trying to score a photo of Sephiroth’s bishie ass. (Cloud, alas, is too much of a nobody to warrant a picture.)

Gosh, Cloud, you've grown up to be a nice-looking lad.

Cloud stops by Tifa’s house, but it’s empty — and unlocked, like every other home in town. Game options let him play creepy stalker to his heart’s content: sneaking into her bedroom, plinking on her piano, reading a long love letter from Johnny in Midgar —

Yesterday, all of Nibelheim got together to welcome me. The only person that we couldn't get a hold of was Cloud.

— and pinching her “Orthopedic Underwear” from a cabinet. Thank you SO much, Motomu Toriyama. (Just a hunch.)

Cloud shies away from talking about his own family, but Barret and Aeris press him. He says his father died when he was small, so he was raised by his Mom, a “vibrant woman.” Yep, definitely a member of the FF Dead Moms Society. There’s several odd white-screen flashes while he’s recalling his visit home:

Cloud's Mom: So this is a SOLDIER uniform?

Cloud stammers in reply, “Mom…I…” *FLASH*

The scene jumps forward to the “My how you’ve grown…I bet all the girls never leave you alone” conversation that we saw in an earlier flashback.

Outside, Tifa’s father dumps a pile of clichés on Cloud’s pointy head: “We don’t need the Shinra’s help to protect our town!” Also:

Tifa's father: I want you to stay away from my daughter.

Oh dear. Didn’t Elmyra say the same thing, slightly more tactfully?

Cloud meets Sabin as an old man Zangan in the Inn. He’s a martial arts / monk instructor who travels around the world, randomly teaching children to kick ass and bouncing around like Gau the human flea.

Zangan: Tifa has good sense. She''ll be a powerful fighter.

Upstairs, Sephiroth is peering out the window towards the mansion that looms at the edge of town. Or Mt. Nibel, but I bet he’s scoping the mansion.

Sephiroth: This scenery... I feel like I know this place.

Foreshadowing, your key to quality literature.

Sephiroth mentions that he’s hired a guide, but he’s having second thoughts, as she’s very young. The eavesdropping Shinra grunt turns towards them as the screen darkens.

The next morning, Cloud is shocked — shocked, I say — to learn that the guide is Tifa, despite the fact that Tifa’s Dad accosts them with another “don’t you let anything happen to her” tirade while waiting for her to appear. Tifa stands up for herself:

Tifa: I just happen to be the number one guide in this town.

(Shinra Manor is the big building at left.)

Sephiroth drily tells Cloud that since he’s so worried about her, he can be her big manly man protector. *sigh* Wantz The town paparazzo gets his photo of Sephiroth and friends, and we head to Mt. Nibel. Which of course has disintegrating rope bridges (is there any other kind?) to set up Dangling Damsel sequences:

rope bridge on mt. Nibel

This proves pointless when the entire bridge breaks. They all plummet into the abyss.

One of the Shinra guards gets left behind. The other gets to be an honorary PC and enjoys a lessening of local gravity. After they dust themselves off, Tifa notices grunt #1’s absence, but Sephiroth coldly says they can’t afford to waste time searching for him.

Alas, poor blueshirt. We continue on. In the nearby cave, we find a free-flowing Mako fountain where raw Mako is bubbling up and condensing into natural Materia (the crystalline balls). Sephiroth decides they have time for a lengthy Mako 101 lecture.

Sephiroth: The knowledge and wisdom of the Ancients is held in the materia.

“Anyone with this knowledge can freely use the powers of the Land and the Planet. That knowledge interacts between ourselves and the planet calling up magic…or so they say.”

[Sephiroth, just say “Midichlorians” and be done with it. It’s quicker.]

Sephiroth laughs and immediately corrects himself (and Tifa) for using the term “magic,” saying that a man once got furious at him for using such an unscientific term. Which man? “Hojo of Shinra, Inc. … An inexperienced man assigned to take over the work of a great scientist.”

Sephiroth: He was a walking mass of complexes.

Mr. Pot, Mr. Kettle would like a word with you. (Also: Who’s your daddy?)

We proceed to the fateful Mako reactor. To Tifa’s annoyance, Sephiroth insists that only Shinra personnel may enter. He orders the no-name guard to stay outside and look after her while Sephiroth and Cloud investigate.

This reactor is far more interesting than previous ones (at least before they exploded).  It’s full of pods and — waaaitaminute — there’s a sealed door labeled “Jenova” at the top.

Cloud: This is Jenova, right? The lock won't open...

Sephiroth is conspicuously quiet, directing Cloud’s attention back to the other tanks, which appear to be the cause of the “malfunction.”

Sephiroth climbs up to look in a pod

“Now I see, Hojo,” Sephiroth mutters for the player’s benefit. “But, even doing this, will never put you on the same level as professor Gast.”

Sephiroth expounds to Cloud that “This is a system that condenses and freezes the Mako energy…” except that instead of just distilling it down into Materia, these tanks have something else in them.

monster in mako tank

I would ask why the heck a power company is letting Hojo use its Mako refinery (FOR SCIENCE!) to create monsters, but possibly ShinraCorp doesn’t know, or perhaps the monsters give Shinra yet another excuse to plant troops everywhere. Also: why is Jenova being stored in this security-free reactor in some podunk backwater?

None of these questiosn occur to Sephrioth; it’s all about him. “Was I created this way?” he wonders, clutching at his temples. Uh oh.

Sephiroth: Am I the same as all these monsters... Cloud: Sephiroth!

Sephiroth starts slashing at the tanks in a frenzy.

One of the tanks pops open to reveal a monster in mid-metamorphosis, limbs betraying its human origin.

Monster hatching in Nibelheim reactor

Back in the present, Barret says hearing all this makes him hate Shinra even more. Even Tifa is shocked: “Who would have ever thought the Mako Reactor held a secret like that.”

The flashback picks up with Sephiroth returning to the village and disappearing into the bowels of Shinra mansion, the big building at the edge of town which locals say was once a residence for Shinra personnel. Sephiroth pores over Professor Gast’s field notes.

An organism that was apparently dead was found in a 2000 year old geological stratum.

Gast names the specimen “Jenova” and identifies it as an Ancient. His notes mention a “Jenova Project” using a Mako reactor, but no details. That doesn’t stop Sephiroth from jumping wildly to conclusions.

Professor Gast...Why didn't you tell me anything? Why did you die?

I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Gast’s idea.

Sephiroth kicks Cloud out and buries himself in the library. After several days of waiting for him to emerge from the stacks, Cloud awakens in Shinra Mansion to the Sephiroth Bells of Doomy Doom.

Well, that doesn’t sound good. Prompted by theme music, Cloud heads downstairs to confront his war buddy. Sephiroth greets him as “Traitor” and spews backstory for a good fifteen minutes. The short version:

Sephiroth: The Planet was saved by sacrificing the Cetra. After that, your ancestors continued to increase.

The longer version is a little incoherent, but here’s the gist: The Cetra were an “itinerant race” that would settle a planet, then move on. Legend foretold that “at the end of their harsh, hard journey, they would find the Promised Land and supreme happiness.”

However, the present-day humans’ ancestors decided to abandon the journey and settle permanently, creating an “easier life” by taking resources from the planet, “without giving one whit in return.” (So the Cetra and humans are the same species?)

Sephiroth: You ignorant traitor. I'll tell you.

Sometime after Cloud’s ancestors chose to abandon the journey, there was a catastrophe that wiped out the Cetra. The humans who had built shelters mysteriously “hid” and survived.

Sephiroth declares that he’s an Ancient created from Jenova by Professor Gast’s research. So why did he think he was a monster created via high exposures to Mako? Is that how the Ancients incubated their babies?

Sephiroth: Out of my way. I'm going to see my mother.

Oedipus complex ahoy.

Cloud, giving chase again, emerges to find the town of Nibelheim on fire.  Firaga, I assume.

Zangan: Hey it's you! You're still sane, right?

(A more loaded question than one might think, although at this point it was still an unqualified “Yes.”)

Cloud tries to help Zangan pull people out of houses, but it’s too late. He staggers out of his Mom’s house and sags in defeat.

Then he spots Sephiroth cutting down villagers. Blocky polygons and post-game hype aside, this was a hell of a hair-raising sequence, thanks largely to Uematsu’s music (still the Bells of Doom).

Sephiroth killing villagers

And here’s the iconic moment of Sephiroth turning and disappearing into the flames.

FFVII Sephiroth FMV

FFVII Sephiroth in the fire of Nibelheim

Crisis Core re-rendered the same sequence with better graphics, less awesome music:

Okay, enough of that. Cloud dashes through the flames and follows Sephiroth back to the reactor and Mommy Dearest.

Cloud pursues Sephiroth to Mt. Nibel

Inside, we see the same sequence glimpsed in an earlier flashback. Cloud spots Tifa crouched over her dead father, crying vengeance. (Unanswered questions: Why did her father follow Sephiroth here? Why did Tifa?)

Tifa: Sephiroth...SOLDIER...Mako Reactors...Shinra....Everything!

“I hate them all!” Tifa shouts, picks up Sephiroth’s sword — again, he’s terribly absent-minded about leaving his stuff lying around — and charges into the reactor to take on Sephiroth all by her lonesome. This isn’t going to be pretty.

Tifa: How could you do that to papa and all the townspeople?

Tifa, hon, this is definitely a case of “strike first, ask questions later.” I’m sure Zangan taught you better.

Sephiroth turns to meet her, wrestles the sword away from her, slashes and throws her down the stairs. Cloud, late as usual, rushes in to find her crumpled.

You promised... you promised that you'd come...when I was in trouble...

Once again, the polygons get in the way, but the animation suggests that he’s cradling her head.

Meanwhile, Sephiroth has called on “Mother” to open the door to her inner sanctum. Alarmingly, something has the power to respond and open the door for him.

Mother, let's take back the planet together.

“I’ve thought of a great idea,” he says, a catch phrase echoed in Advent Children. “Let’s go to the Promised Land.”

Which crazy-ass scientist designed the art deco façade of a metal angel with wings surrounding Jenova’s holding tank? Sephiroth wrenches this away and comes face to face with the real Jenova.

Sephiroth and Jenova

Back then, the preserved body still has a head.

Jenova's Frickin Head

Yes, it’s got wings— this is Final Fantasy, so it has to have wings.

Um, Sephiroth? Remember how Professor Gast’s notes said that humans were basically Cetra who settled down? Does that look… human?

Cloud interrupts Sephiroth’s Villainous Gloating (“Those worthless creatures…are stealing the planet from Mother…but now I’m here with you…”)

Cloud: What about MY sadness? My family...friends...The sadness of having my hometown taken away from me?!

“My sadness is like yours,” Cloud says. Sephiroth laughs and goes on an extended “I am the Chosen One” rant.

I have orders to take this planet back from you stupid people for the Cetra. What am I supposed to be sad about?

Cloud yells, “I trusted you!” and brandishes his bigass sword. It looks like there’s going to be a face-off, but that’s where flashback!cam runs out of tape.

“…and that’s the end of my story,” Cloud says, capping the most anticlimactic ending ever. Barret is not well pleased.

Wait a damn minute! Ain't there more?

Cloud doesn’t remember anything else, but he’s sure that he didn’t have the skill to beat Sephiroth. Shinra’s official account in the papers is that Sephiroth died, but everyone here can smell a cover-up. Still, if he wasn’t dead, where’s he been, what’s he been doing, and why has he come back?

Cloud adds (how does he know?) that Shinra shipped Jenova’s body back to Midgar. Where’d the head go?

I challenged Sephiroth and lived. Why didn't he kill me?

“….I’m alive, too,” Tifa offers quietly.

So many unanswered questions, but that flashback was overly long as it is.

Barret loses his temper — “Damn! Don’t none of this make sense!” Nevertheless, he’s signed onto Cloud’s cause. “I ain’t lettin’ Sephiroth or Shinra get to no Promised Land. If they do, then we’re all screwed.” He storms out, telling the others to do the thinking for him. Again, I think Barret would make a great gaming buddy, and I’m sorry I haven’t written this entire recap from his POV.

Tifa asks Cloud just how badly she was wounded when Sephiroth “cut her.”

Cloud:  I thought you were a goner. ... I was really sad.

“….” Tifa says yet again, perhaps because the translation totally mangled the pathos of his statement. Or perhaps  because she’s keeping quiet about something yet again. Dammit, woman, just spit it out!

I’m going to pause here, because anything after this would be more anticlimactic than Cloud’s “that’s all, folks.”

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