FFVII Recap, Ep. III: Fun Storming the Castle

Last time, we psychoanalyzed the most blockheaded hero in the history of gaming…

…and put him through his paces as a cross-dresser and champion of put-upon sex workers (in which task he failed miserably, since we left Don Corneo alive with his family jewels intact. Phooey).

Reluctantly, I must set Wall Market frivolity aside and get back to saving the Planet.

Where were we? Ah yes, the diabolical plans of Shinra Power Company, which is absolutely nothing like its real-world counterpart, TepCo. Because Shinra is as effective as it is corrupt.

For those of us who arrived late and missed the briefing, President Rufus pauses to inform the security cam of his plans.

President Shinra: We'll destroy Sector 7 and report that AVALANCHE did it. Then we'll send in the rescue operation care of Shinra, Inc.. ...

Actually, I caught the tail end of the meeting, but that was a handy summary.

Just before this, he’d been talking to two Shinra Executives: Reeve, the head of Urban Development, who’d half-heartedly tried to dissuade the president from destroying a large chunk of the city to get at a few terrorists, and Heidegger, head of “Public Safety” (the Turks and military), who enjoyed watching Reeve squirm when the president asked if he “want[ed] out.” Reeve backed down like the spineless plushie he is, and Hedegger sauntered off to put finishing touches on mass murder.

Since Reeve and Heidegger refused to face the camera in the same frame, they don’t get screencaps, so there. But Reeve is a dark-haired bloke with a goatee who cleans up nicely in Dirge of Cerberus (right), and Heidegger is Brian Blessed in a kelly green suit. Complete with “Gya ha ha” laughter.

Except that Heidegger is just a bore, rather than endearingly insane.

Back in the slums, Cloud, Tifa, and Aeris have been dropped through a trapdoor from Don Corneo’s second-story bedroom into the sewers, which is I suppose how he empties his chamber pot. Thank goodness gravity tends to go easy on PCs. They wake up just in time to fight a big blue troll resembling Genie from Disney’s Aladdin in need of orthodontia. Boss dispatched, Tifa angsts over what we just learned from Don Sleazeball.

Tifa: It's too late... Marlene... Barret...the people of the Slums.

“Don’t give up, never give up hope!” Aeris enthuses, waving the Hope Hammer (tm VideoGameRecaps) about. “It’s not easy to destroy the pillar, right?” 

That’s right! Time and space are connected, which is why most important RPG events simply can’t happen without PCs in the vicinity.  Therefore, we can stroll at our leisure through the obligatory Final Fantasy Sewer Crawl as well as  — this is new, at least — the Train Graveyard maze, collecting treasures and level grinding along the way.

Alas, the Plot Conveyor Belt finally catches onto my dilly-dallying and blocks us from making a final sweep of Sector 7 for anything I missed.

Tifa: We made it! The pillar's still standing!

There’s machine gun fire above — I guess we know who that is — and spectators standing around like apocryphal turkeys in the rain waiting to be killed by falling bullets. The camera pans up, up, and up, revealing the flash of gunfire and a tragic little cluster of polygons plummeting from the heights.

the pillar in Midgar sector 7

Cloud, forgetting that npcs don’t have the same immunity to gravity as party members, hurries over to ask Wedge if he’s all right.

Cloud...you remembered...my name.

So apparently Tifa’s not the only person aware of Cloud’s memory problems. Wait, no, it’s just that Wedge is such a die-hard (ouch) fanboy of ex-SOLDIER Cloud, action hero, that Cloud’s name is almost the last thing on his lips before he dies. That’s very sad.

Cloud, still in denial about gravity, asks Aeris to look after the poor broken sod while he goes up to investigate. (A polite way of saying that he needs to open up a party slot for Barret. This prompts old-school fans to grouse about how parties had four members back in the good old days.)

Synapses intact, Tifa realizes that Wedge is well past saving and speaks up as if Cloud hadn’t said a word. She asks Aeris to go fetch Marlene. Aeris promises to get her to safety.

Tifa also orders the spectators to evacuate Sector 7, warning them of mortal danger. Everyone within earshot immediately concocts various stupid reasons to stand around rubbernecking until smooshed.

If things get too hairy, we'll escape. It's not something you'll see happen too often.

Yep. People acted like this even back when they weren’t trying to capture it for YouTube.

Leaving idiots to their Darwinian fate, Tifa and Cloud start up the endless flight of stairs. Is this the BigAss Tower for this game? Ahahaha. No, this is just a warm-up. It still takes forever for them to climb, fighting random Shinra guards and weird dudes dangling like one-armed tree sloths from spinning propellers.

Once again, the Third Law of Video Game Dynamics states that calamity can’t strike until the main party has arrived in time to fail to thwart it. So they dawdle long enough to let Aeris find Marlene, spirit her out of Sector 7, defend her from random feral houses in the Sector 6 junkyard, and deposit her at Elmyra’s house before… but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Partway up, Cloud and Tifa find Biggs crumpled over the bannister. He reproaches the anti-hero with his dying breath:

Cloud...so you don't care...what happens...to the...planet

Nope, Biggs, that’s Barret’s obsession. Cloud’s got a different one.

Jessie, a little higher, says that she’s glad she can talk to Cloud one last time. Oh, dear. I’m not sure whether she or Wedge had a bigger crush on him, and this makes me even sadder. She also offers a less-than-idealistic assessment of AVALANCHE’s achievements:

Because...of our actions...many...people...died...this probably...is our punishment...

I don’t have the heart to tell her that many more people are about to die.

At the tippy top, we find Barret shooting ineffectively at a helicopter, using the Star Wars Stormtrooper school of aiming. While the reunited party stands around picking their noses, Reno leaps off the helicopter, slouches his way over to the bomb and activates it.

Reno: You're too late. Once I press this button...

Tifa recovers from her fugue and dashes over to try to disarm it, asking Cloud to help. Reno bestirs himself to hinder their efforts with a boss battle.

Reno, Tifa, Cloud, Barret boss fight

It’s a little embarrassing that Bigass Sword, Machine Gun and Bar Brawler are an even match for a slacker with a stick. (Okay, it’s a shock stick, but still). Reno casts slacker “Pyramid” spells that cause targets to stand around doing nothing until allies physically beat on them to get back to fighting. This is a very appropriate special attack for Reno.

To cover his retreat, he checks his watch…

Reno battle model

…and leaps dramatically lazily over the edge, where a Lego Helicopter catches him in mid-air. (I’m impressed that these lousy graphics managed to convey Reno’s disdain for company dress code).

Instead of clearing the blast zone, the helicopter hovers alongside the platform so that Tseng — yet another Turk — can torment us with a shower of Villanous Exposition.

Barret: Shut yer hole!

(For those who haven’t played FF7, Barret’s right forearm and hand are a prosthetic machine gun.)

Tseng tells him not to do anything rash lest Tseng hurt his “special guest,” Aeris. He demonstrates by smacking her when she pipes up to call, “Tifa, don’t worry! She’s all right!” (And we’re to believe that Tseng has a thing for her? Um. No. Hitting her qualifies him for  “creeper” at best.) Since Cloud missed Reno’s clue-dropping back in the church, Tseng reiterates that Aeris is the “Last of the Ancients.”

[I would also like to note that Tseng and his supersonic helicopter dropped off Reno to activate the bomb one boss battle ago, and Barret was shooting at the ‘copter for who-knows-how-long before we arrived. When did Tseng zip off to collect Aeris? Did we really take that long on the stairs?]

After telling us that the bomb is set to go off “the second that some jerk touches it” — really suave there, Tseng — he gloats that only a Shinra Executive can arm or disarm the “Emergency Plate Release System.” Once again I am confused. Which is it, a bomb or a built-in mechanism in the plate’s design? And if the latter, who the heck came up with that stupid idea? Reeve? I remain baffled at the ubiquity of self-destructing architecture in fiction.

pillar for sector 7 breaking fmv

Whoops. While I was nitpicking, the explosion FMV has started. The Lego helicopter flies up and scoots away, the pillar collapses in incredible slow mo, and our heroes once again take advantage of anime physics for a daring escape.

Barret Cloud and Tifa swing away from sector 7 collapse

Barret grabs a hook at the end of a long Cable of Contrivance, and they swing away into Sector 6. I imagine them making a Wiley E. Coyote shaped splat mark on that big wall partitioning off the two sectors, but they find a convenient gap and sail through, even as the plate from which their rope is suspended begins to drop.

Boom. Lots of boom. Scenes of hapless polygon people diving for nonexistent cover as the plate comes down. The camera pans up the Shinra tower and cuts away to a tableau of its evil CEO in his penthouse office watching the 99% get flattened. For a sadistic touch, he’s listening to classical music.

Shinra watches fall of sector 7 plate

Below, in the wreckage of the playground where Aeris and Cloud hung out earlier — the Mog sliding board where they were sitting has rebar stuck in it, damn you Shinra! — Barret has himself an epic BSOD.

Barret: Marlene! MARLENE!

Jessie, Biggs and Wedge get callouts as well in some of the most movingly angst-filled textboxes ever. He bellows, “What the hell’s it all for!?” and starts shooting his machine gun arm all over the place before Tifa can slip a word in edgewise to say, “Yo, I think Aeris got Marlene out in time.” Small consolation for all the other people who just got flattened, but still.

Tifa, like Jessie, shoulders some of the blame, wondering, “Innocent people lost their lives because of us?” Barret’s having none of it. This is all on Shinra.

It aint us! It's the damn Shinra! It's never been nobody but the Shinra!

After a lengthy rant, Barret concludes: “Our fight ain’t never gonna be over until we get rid of them!!” Welcome to the Wakka school of grief management: when life kicks you in the balls, cling tightly to your dominant belief system.

I find this debate fascinating. FF7 updates the old-school fantasy “saving the world” quest with the archetypal 1990s “eco-terrorists” trope, but in an uncomfortable way that forces the protagonists to ponder human costs and whether to shoulder blame for pushback. Tifa, at least, is having second thoughts.

Mr. I-Don’t-Care-About-the-Planet wanders away from ethical ambiguities to give Elmyra the bad news. Barret follows because Cloud may know where Aeris stashed Marlene, and Tifa follows because she’s keeping a beady eye on him lest he disappear and come back weird again worried about Aeris, too. As they leave the area…

Barret: Tifa, there's no turnin' back now.

But Tifa turns back — to look at the smoldering ruins of Sector 7.

Tifa looks over her shoulder at the ruins

Ouch.

Tifa asks Cloud if he’s going after Aeris. He says yes, but first there’s something he needs to know. “…It’s about the Ancients.” (Tifa fails to point out that they can rescue Aeris and then bloody ask her.)

“Ancients” triggers another memory flash. This time, it’s white text instead of gray, so this is not the voice inside Cloud’s head:

In my veins courses the blood of the Ancients, one of the rightful heirs to this planet!

“Sephiroth…?” Cloud muses, identifying the speaker. Tifa once again asks if he’s all right. I am picturing her carrying Dr. McCoy’s mini scanner-Feinberger-whatsit from old Trek and waving it behind his head when he’s not looking.

On the way back through the Sector 6 slums, we touch base with denizens who are buzzing with the enormity of what just happened.

The hell's up with that?! I don't care if they're AVALANCHE or Avant-garde or whatever you call them. Anyone who brings the plates down on us is nuts!!

The news broadcast blandly reports, “…the worse in the history of the metropolis. But thanks to the quick response by those in charge, there were no civilian casualties.”

No casualties. Riiiiiight. (Advent Children introduces at least one victim, Denzel, who lost his parents. He blames AVALANCHE and never realizes that the people who adopted him are ex members of that organization. Which is an angst opportunity that Square failed to milk, just for a change.)

One more stop before we reach Elmyra’s house. The first time I passed this way, I found 5 gil stashed in a kid’s hidden drawer. I chose to leave it. The result of my good deed? The kid bought “an item” with it, which will help kickstart his new career as a drug dealer:

My dream is to grow up and become a big time dealer on Wall Market.

My hopes that he meant a simple black market dealer are dashed when he proudly offers us his starter drug, Hyper Ether. Good deeds in this game do not always result in happy outcomes, erk.

Arriving at Chez Elmyra, Cloud apologizes for failing in his bodyguard duties. This is not news to Mom:

Elmyra: They took her from here.

Oh, Elmyra has a Backstory Dump for us! She reveals that she’s not really Aeris’ mother. Surprise, surprise.

15 years ago, Elmyra got a letter from her hubby, a soldier in the war at Wutai (home of a not-yet-introduced PC), saying he was coming home on leave. But he never showed. Elmyra visited the train station day after day looking for him. One day, she spotted a mother and sobbing child.

Her last words were: please take Aeris somewhere safe.

Elmyra adopts Aeris and quickly discovers that she’s a Magical Girl:

She told me that she escaped from some kind of research laboratory somewhere. And that her mother had already returned to the planet, and she wasn't lonely...and many other things.

Years later, Tseng shows up to take Aeris back. He informs her that she’s the Last of the Ancients, that she’ll lead people to the Promised Land (!), and that this will bring happiness to the people of the slums. When a man in a nice suit starts talking about the Promised Land on my doorstep, I tell him I’m Jewish (hey, my grandfather was!) and shut the door.

Teen!Aeris ain’t buying it:

Aeris: He's wrong! I'm not an Ancient! I'm not!

With that, she bolts out of the house.  After which, Tseng fails to capture her for — what, seven years? — even though he knows exactly where she lives. Because he’s got a soft spot for her. And Tseng has job security thanks to his boyfriend Rufus President Shinra is such a patient man.

Back in the present, Elmya explains that Tseng blackmailed Aeris into the Distressed Damsel Penalty Box by threatening to hurt Marlene if she didn’t comply.

Barret grovels.

Barret: I'm sorry. Marlene's my daughter. I'm... really sorry...

Elmyra is less angry on her own daughter’s behalf than on his. She asks the burning question I’ve had for several hours:

Elmyra: You're her father!? How in the world could you ever leave a child alone like that?

Of course, this is a real-world problem that many soldiers face, leaving families at home for what they hope is a worthy cause. But most aren’t leaving a child of four unattended.

Barret doesn’t have a good answer, as he freely confesses. He starts talking in circles, agonizing over what would happen to Marlene if he got himself killed, but arguing that he has to keep fighting for the planet. Knowing better than to discuss politics or religion, Elmyra gives up and tells him to go see Marlene upstairs.

When Cloud butts in on their happy reunion, Marlene blurts out that Aeris was asking about him. The girl wants to know whether he likes Aeris or not. If he says, “I don’t know…”

Marlene says, "Stupid!"

I love Marlene. I’m afraid that’s about the last we’ll hear from Marlene until Advent Children. Hers is a small part, but she’s got a lot of spunk. Barret asks Elmyra to look after her a little longer, and urges Elmyra to leave Midgar for safety. Wanna give her any travel money or upkeep for the kid, maybe? No? Okay, just hog the two bedrooms and leave.

After a quick nap (what’s the hurry?), we set out on our second Distressed Damsel Rescue Mission. Er, where are we going? Tifa randomly suggests that we head to Wall Market to hunt for clues. Maybe she can get Barret into a dress along with Cloud.

I stop by the Honey Bee to pay respects to Mukki, but they won’t let Cloud back in.

In addition to dressing like a woman, it seems you like to smash and grind things.

Hmph. Someone needs to fire the transphobic bouncer before Mukki and Beautiful Bro get word of him. (For that matter, it was actually Tifa who threatened to “smash them.”)

A gun merchant sells us batteries, but they’re too large to fit in the kind of gadgets I’d expect to find at Wall Market. He says they’ll help us escape. Oookay.

On a whim, I enter Don Corneo’s mansion to loot anything I missed. It’s completely deserted. Except… wait, is there a body on the torture table? With my bad eyesight, I nearly miss him, especially since his body is is a lot shorter than the normally-proportioned chalk outline on the table.

Kotch: Hey! You're...not them... you're...

Kotch begs Cloud for help. Once freed, he reveals that some Shinra heavies came in muttering about “information leaked” and “good for nothing.” Then they hauled Don Corneo away. Well, good! I hope they dropped him in the sewer.

Near the mansion, we find the eponymous wall of Wall Market. There’s a wire dangling down that some kids have been climbing on a dare. Barret is sure that adults carrying heavy weapons could climb it, too. Cloud, perhaps recalling what it felt like to fall on a church, is dubious. “Do you know how far it is up there?”

But to Barret, it’s not just any old dingy wire.

Barret: Oh yeah? Well to me it looks like a golden shiny wire of hope.

Cloud is so gobstruck by this ridiculous line (best in the game, in my opinion) that he gives in.

Ok, that was a bad analogy, but, Barret, I understand how you feel.

Up we go. The kid’s friends are perched at the top of the wall, surveying what’s left of Sector 7. If Elmyra knew what they were up to, she’d have a stern word with their parents.

Kid1: Oh man, this is horrible. Kid2: Hey, scary, huh? Dad told me that it's the Shinra's doing.

So at least some of the locals are savvy enough not to buy Shinra propaganda.

Above their lookout is one of my least favorite parts of the game, a junk maze. This requires us to look up a walkthrough insert batteries wherever they’ll fit in the industrial detritus hanging down. I am reminded of my Mom’s network engineer colleague whose motto was, “If it fits, stick it in.”

Twisted train tracks

The smoldering ruins of Sector 7 make a depressing backdrop. And yes, Cloud’s climbing what’s left of the train tracks. Which almost certainly had trains on it. Occupied ones. Whenever I feel warm fuzzies for the Turks in their kinder, sexier Advent Children incarnation, I need to remember this view.

Conveniently, we come out right at the foot of to Shinra HQ.

Shinra Tower

Uh oh. I think we’ve found the bona-fide BigAss Tower of FF7, aka Tower of Babel. It would be mythologically just if the gaping hole in Sector 7 undermined its support enough to bring the whole thing crashing down. But that wouldn’t be fair to the wage slaves, I suppose.

looking up at the Shinra building

Barret assumes that Cloud knows his way around the Shinra Building. Hahaha. Cloud’s glib tongue, ever at the ready: “Not really. Now that I think about it…”

This is the first time I've ever been to the headquarters.

Cloud, I’m pretty sure that’s apostrophe abuse.

Barret explains that everything above the 60th floor is restricted access. He reasons that Aeris must be held somewhere up there. Joy. Of course, Frodo HAS to be at the top.

Barret’s also pleased to see that the security is very light. UM. Gee, I wonder why THAT would be? Could they possibly be…expecting us? No. Don’t be silly. Why would they drop a plate and ruin billions of dollars of infrastructure, killing legions of low-paid workers, if they expected their primary targets to survive and waltz right into their headquarters? That’s just crazy talk.

Tifa sensibly wants to look for a side entrance instead of busting in through the front door, but I override her  because I simply can’t bear to climb up all those stairs again as I did on my last playthrough. So Barret has his way and busts into the front lobby with all the subtlety of Snow Villiers crossed with Tidus, bellowing, “Anyone who don’t wanna get their face bashed in better git out of the way!!”

The lobby guards put up a very token resistance. I pity the poor redshirts (who unaccountably turn to blueshirts on the battle screen) assigned to slow us down.

Who do they think they are? You don't think that's avalanche? Intruders! Seize them!

Lots of grunts to kill, all of them potential younger!Clouds. We feel secure in our moral imperatives. Afterwards, I have fun chasing the remaining npcs around like a flock of pigeons until they finally flee out the doors.

Note the little green truck on display in the main lobby. There’s a motorcycle on a similar platform a couple floors up. I hope someone remembered to put gas “makou” in them.

Slogan on wall: Shinra's future is the worlds future!!

We drop in on the company store to pick up some souvenirs for Aeris. The terrified shop clerk tells us to “T-take the money,” mistaking us for burglars. Barret, offended, tells her that we have bigger fish to fry, blurting out our identity to make sure security is properly alerted:

Barret: Don't want no money, AVALANCHE ain't no packa criminals.

He promises to make it worth her while if she sells us a few items. Alas, it’s the usual potion-tent-antidote selection, but she’s having such a bad day that I buy a few items to fill her quota before moving on.

Trivia note. See that TV monitor behind the two customers? They were staring at it when we burst in, a hint that there’s actually an Easter Egg FMV on it which I failed to watch (the music is the “sneaking in” theme for this whole section of the game):

Traumatized by memories of stairs, I steer the party into the nearest elevator. Uh oh. Shinra’s insane intruder response system turns the elevator controls into a giant slot machine, stopping at random floors to admit Shinra guards. We stack their unconscious bodies like cordwood against the back wall.

We finally escape the insane elevator around the 60th floor, spend about ten hours failing to sneak past some guards I HATE MINIGAMES INVOLVING TIMING, and come out in an employee lounge full of trees. The heck? Is THIS what they kidnapped Aeris to do for them? I thought nothing green grew in Midgar.

I heard a ruckus downstairs a minute ago. Do you know what that was all about?

From here up, every floor requires a different key card. We’re aided by conveniently snoozing security guards and oblivious employees who (pretend to?) mistake us for maintenance workers and hand us cards. We even receive one from Mayor Domino, who wants us to stick it to The Man.

Actually, I'm mayor in name only. The city and everyhting in it is really run by Shinra, Inc.

I begin to see why security seems so lax.

Since I'm the head of security for this building, stamina's very important to me.

We soon reach floors that no employees would ever visit, since there’s nothing on those levels but puzzles to gain key cards to the next level. Most are tedious, but I like this giant model of Midgar:

...born from Mako sucked right out of the earth.

I’m guessing that this is Reeve’s dollhouse, just the sort of expensive corporate toy that top executives get to play with. He likes to build things, as we’ll see later. While I love Reeve in Dirge, this model reinforces my suspicion that he thinks a lot more about the city than the unfortunate people living in it.  (Earlier, when he was protesting the plan to drop the plate, he didn’t mention casualties; he only spoke of the city itself. Although possibly that was just because he knew that “Think of the children!” would only result in some tasteless comment from Heidegger.)

On the next floor, we eavesdrop on a Shinra executive meeting by the simple exigency of a random air duct connecting nothing but the bathroom and the boardroom. The security here is top-notch.

Option A: Flush Option B: Climb Up Option C: Get out of here

With a friendly wave to Adam Savage debunking the Air Duct trope, Cloud, Tifa and fricking Barret magically squeeze through the freeway-sized duct without making a sound. Below, Reeve is making his report:

Reeve: Considering those factories we already set up and all the investments, the damage is estimated at approximately 10 Billion gil...

The president cuts Reeve off about rebuilding and insists on “restarting the Neo-Midgar plan.” At which point the corporate doublespeak takes a swan dive into LUNAR WHALE territory.

“…then the Ancients?” Reeve says, apparently in reference to this “Neo-Midgar plan.” The reply:

President Shinra: The Promised Land Will Soon Be Ours.

I don’t know about you, but this is not the sort of talk that I expect to go on in a corporate boardroom.

Then they’re back on familiar ground: raising utility rates to squeeze more cash flow. Palmer, the dude with the monk’s tonsure next to Heidegger, starts bouncing high in the air:

Palmer wants more revenue for his space program, but Shinra says the money will go to (blond woman) Scarlet’s weapons program and Reeve’s work on Neo-Midgar.

Reeve, as usual, weakly protests, but not enough to endanger his job.

Sir, if you raise the rates, the people will lose confidence...

The president flashes his 1% credentials, chortling about how the “ignorant citizens” will only trust them even more. Heidegger chimes in: “After all, we’re the ones who saved Sector 7 from AVALANCHE!” Saved? I’m thinking the burning pile of rubble where Sector 7 used to be might put a damper on this bit of spin doctoring, but what do I know.

Hojo hunchbacks in. Unlike most of the characters who reappear in Dirge of Cerberus, I hate Hojo with the force of a million gamma ray bursts.

Shinra asks for his report on “the girl.” Hojo, playing the caricature of a coldly clinical scientist to the hilt, sneers that she’s an inferior specimen to her mother, and that the research is going to take 120 years to complete, longer than the lifetimes of test subject or researcher.

Hojo: That's why we're thinking of breeding her. Then we could create one that could withstand our research for a long time.

Yuck.  (The Compilation gives Hojo a wheezy shrill mad scientist voice, but I can’t help thinking of Alan Rickman.)

I completely fail to understand the remainder of their conversation.

President: What about the Promised Land? Won’t it hinder our plans?
Hojo: That’s what I need to plan. The mother is strong… and yet has her weaknesses.

If they think Aeris will lead them to the Promised Land (that still sounds more appropriate for a religious cult than an emerging market), then why would she hinder their plans? (Or is “it” the breeding program? Durrr.) I guess “the mother” must be Jenova, not Aeris, but weren’t we just talking about Aeris?

The meeting breaks up, and Cloud and friends scramble with ninja-like silence back through the air duct to follow Hojo. Barret, surprisingly well-informed about ShinraCorp’s upper echelons, exposits that Hojo is head of the Science Department (duh), and asks if Cloud knows him.

Cloud: This is the first time I've actually ever seen him. So... that's what he looks like...

You mean to tell me that Cloud was on a “So we meet again, Mr. President” basis with the CEO but never met the researcher in charge of providing Mako for SOLDIER? (My suspicion is that he does remember Hojo, and that he’s feeling pretty twitchy right about now.)

Upstairs, Hojo is preparing to “breed” Aeris with another specimen. I’d say that someone needs to give him some lessons in basic biology, except that later on we’ll see he’s an old hand at cross-species genetic manipulation. Ew.

Hojo: My precious specimen

Hojo putters upstairs. Tifa peers into the tank, patting the glass and asking if Hojo’s about to experiment on the beastie. I’m glad someone cares. Cloud, meanwhile, spots the glowing pink tank on the right labeled “Jenova” and peers in the window. There’s that creepy-icky “Who are you?” music again, complete with Edgar Allan Poe heartbeat, and we see through his eyes for a moment. Brace yourself:

Jenova's headless torso

Yes, that’s right, the true nightmare of a teenaged male gamer is a woman’s body. With no head because it’s all about the boobs. Why did the left nipple crawl off onto the Aztec-plastic-surgery heart?

Cloud staggers back. There’s another whining noise, and he grabs his head and sinks to the ground. Tifa rushes over to him with her medical tricorder urging, “Cloud, be strong!”  Barret peers in to look.

Barret: Where's its fuckin' head? This whole thing's stupid. Let's keep goin'.

I would like to play a lot of FF games with Barret providing running commentary.

So we follow Hojo upstairs, where Aeris is trapped in a tank like the one below. Cloud pulls the “We’re here for Aeris” routine. Hojo counters with the “I can’t be bothered with you scientifically uninteresting peons,” and the “kill me, and you’ll never get her out of there” gambits. He claims that only he can operate the “delicate machinery.” Come on. It’s a plexiglass tank, not a supercollider.

That's right. I recommend you think things out logically before you make any rash moves.

Aeris calls for help when the polygon lion-critter gets hoisted into the tank with her. Hojo once again demonstrates that he’s really just a kinky asshole engaging in sick fantasies FOR SCIENCE!

Hojo: Lending a helping hand to an endagered species...Both of them are on the bring of extinction...

(I really don’t want to know what he’s done to Aeris to ensure that this experiment works.)

Cloud orders Barret to shoot out the door of the cell. Delicate machinery, I give you a Borg. Aeris stands back. As soon as the way is clear, lion-critter leaps out and starts savaging Hojo’s neck.

Thanks, Cloud!

Hojo magically preserves his trachea and employs telepathy to release a boss monster on us. He escapes during the ensuing battle. Afterwards, we make the acquaintance of our new party member, who is Kimahri after a liberal arts education.

(Barret asks what he is…)

An informed question. But difficult to answer. I am what you see.

When Cloud asks his name, lion-person says that Hojo called him Red XIII, and he has no particular preference. However, I know from my last playthrough that his birth name is Nanaki, and I’m not about to saddle him with something Hojo gave him.

So, we’ve sprung Aeris, and she’s apparently okay — “in many ways,” Tifa says, which causes my latent f/f instincts to flutter weakly, don’t mind me — and it’s time to brave the damn elevators again. The group splits once more, because of course the elevators only have room for three (plus an unlimited number of KOed Shinra guards).

A bald black man with shades steps in behind Cloud and politely asks him to press the Up button. Why do I love Rude? Oh, right, because he’s a sexy deadpanning badass in Advent Children. Yes, I’m shallow. Tseng steps into the elevator as well.

Tseng: It must have been a real thrill for you...Did you enjoy it?

So yes, the whole conspicuously-lame-security thing was a trap. The Turks blew up Sector 7, costing thousands of deaths and billions of gil, then let AVALANCHE ransack 68 floors of the Shinra building beating up dozens of random employees before stepping in to arrest them. The hell?

The scene changes to the grand staircase leading to President Shinra’s office. Rude and Tseng frog march our heroes up the stairs. All of them have their hands tied behind their backs, except Nanaki, who ambles docilely.

Now, I have the utmost respect for Rude’s fighting abilities — I’m not sure about Tseng, who couldn’t even capture Aeris unless she came willingly — but how the heck did Rude disable a guy with a BigAss Sword, a bar chick with ferocious fists, and a six foot magic-using lion in the confines of that narrow elevator?

Next up, President Shinra conspicuously violates the Evil Overlord list by telling his enemies all his plans instead of just killing them.

President Shinra: Don't you know? They called themselves the Cetra, and lived thousands of years ago. Now they are just a forgotten page in history.

If the rest of the Cetra died off “thousands of years ago,” which almost has to be true since they’re just a legend, how did they maintain a breeding population capable of producing Aeris’ Mom? Then again, in the real world, there were still small mammoths trundling about on Wrangel Island into the Minoan period, so maybe there was a pocket of Ancients hanging on up north until recently. Riding dwarf mammoths.

President Shinra finally explained why he’s hooked on the Promised Land: legend says it is a land of milk mako and honey, with raw mako just bubbling out of the ground, so they’ll have unlimited energy. He plans to build Neo-Midgar there. I am convinced that he got his job from his Daddy, because a real corporate shark would realize that abundant and easy access to the commodity they sell will totally kill their monopoly. (Unless he plans to get out of the energy business and focus on selling mako-powered cars, which may actually be true, considering all the display models and vehicle advertisements on the lower floors).

Also: before trusting the prophetic powers of an ancient civilization, always check to make sure they’re not dead. Otherwise, how reliable can their prophecies be? (See also: Mayan calendar 2012, although that was actually a hoax.)

Barret tells him to “quit dreaming” — an interesting reversal, since businessmen are usually ruthless pragmatists while environmentalists are often derided as dreamers — and spits in his face.

Exposition Dump over, Cloud and friends are shuttled off to a cell block. (Another common Evil Overlord mistake.)

Cloud and Aeris have a saccharine “I knew you would come for me” conversation through the walls, and Aeris reminds him that she promised him “one date.” I hope Cloud saved that dress. Tifa gets a bit fed up listening to this — “EXCUSE me!” — but quickly brushes jealousy aside and asks Aeris whether the Promised Land really exists. Aeris doesn’t know, but opens up a little about herself:

The cetra were born from the Planet, speak with the Planet, and unlock the Planet.

Aeris says that she can hear the Planet talking to her, although the noise of people mostly blocks it outside the church.

Another Black Screen of Fast Forward. Cloud wakes up to find the door open. Also, there’s a dead guard outside with the keys to the other cells. I side-eye the convenient coincidences, then realize that a certain someone probably sensed Cloud’s presence, set this up on purpose and must’ve been standing right outside the door. Eeeeeeee.

Nanaki: No human could've done this.

This isn’t disconcerting or anything. Nor is the busted-open Jenova tank on the floor above, nor the dramatic bloodstains streaking from the tank across the floor, up a few flights of stairs, and past the dead bodies of every employee in sight. Even the monsters in the random encounters switch to creepy eldritch horrors to add to the unnerving atmosphere, and the battle theme has gone spooky.

Nanaki: Jenova Specimen: Looks like it went to the upper floor using that elevator for the specimens.

Nanaki, my erudite feline friend, how does something with no arms press the buttons on a remotely-operated lift while standing on the lift? (And what happened to Jenova, anyway? Was it crawling all over the place, or was it dragged? Did it kill all those people, or did its assistant? And what happened where the bloodstains stop at the top of the stairs — did someone stuff it in a Bag of Holding?)

Upstairs, the president is slumped in his chair with a sword stuck in his back. It’s almost like the swordsman who killed him dropped straight from the ceiling or something.

Tifa: Then this sword must be...!?

A Dragoon’s, right? Oh, no. “Sephiroth’s,” Cloud says.

Tifa is shocked to hear that he’s alive. I’m shocked that Sephiroth would leave behind his uber-special sword, which Cloud says only he can use. (Really? Come on, it’s just a katana). It’s like Sephiroth is Barthlemew Cubbins of the 500 Swords, leaving one in each of his victims like a business card. I suppose his endless supply of katanas explains why he keeps acquiring a longer blade in every spin-off.

Palmer peeps out from a hiding place and gets snagged by Cloud and Barret. Cloud asks him several times if he really, truly, for sure, cross my heart, saw Sephiroth.

Palmer: Uh! Would I lie to you at a time like this!? And I heard his voice too!

So Cloud, also, had reason to believe Sephiroth was dead.

Palmer overheard Sephiroth saying that he’d come to stop President Shinra from reaching the Promise Land. Tifa employs the powers of wishful thinking: “Does that mean the Promised Land really exists and that Sephiroth’s here to save it from Shinra?”

Uhhhh. In a manner of speaking. Much in the way that Seymour wants to make sure the people of Spira aren’t depressed anymore.

Palmer squirms away as the sound of a Lego helicopter interrupts Cloud’s sudden display of Resolve and Determination to go after his old nemesis. Who could it be? Oh yes, the villain for which President Shinra was only a temporary stand-in.

Barret: Vice president Rufus, the President's son.

So much for Barret’s claim not five minutes ago that Shinra, Inc. was finished with the death of its CEO.

The rest of the party doesn’t know much about Rufus, but Aeris says she’s heard he doesn’t bleed or cry. I don’t want to see the vampire!Rufus fanfics that this comment inspired.

Outside, we find Rufus and Palmer chatting. Our Heroes line up for their yearbook photo.

Rufus: So... So Sephiroth was actually here. ...By the way."

“…Who are you guys?” Rufus finishes, picking up the blasé baton.

Cloud: I’m Cloud, former SOLDIER First Class!
Barret: I’m from AVALANCHE!
Tifa: A bartender who can kick your ass! Same here!
Aeris: …a flower girl from the slums.
Nanaki: …a lab specimen.

Rufus: What a crew.

“Well, I’m Rufus. The president of Shinra, Inc.” he says with the most awesome hair flip ever. Alas, he’s going to do another Evil Villain Reveals His Plans speech before he kills us. Can’t we just skip to the boss fight?

Rufus strides around charismatically (well, as much as blocky white boxes and canary yellow hair can be charismatic), addressing parts of his speech to each member of his passive not-at-all-wanting-to-kill-him audience. He says his father maintained power by liberal use of money, but he’s going to save his gil and rule through terror. Fear will keep the local systems in line.

Cloud orders everyone to clear out in a fit of macho stupid. Grr.

Cloud: I'll explain later! Barret! This is the real crisis for the Planet!

(It is? Then why not let them stay to help?) Suddenly, Cloud’s turn from disinterested cheesehead into almost-decisive leader. It’s like he’s under a compulsion or something!

Rufus stands by patiently while they sort out who’s going where.

Dragging out the suspense, the camera follows the rest of the gang downstairs to the elevator. Tifa politely stays behind to wait for Cloud because party slots. Wait, I thought that elevator could only hold three people? Ah, yes, but the other elevator is big enough for an assault vehicle.

Nanaki, Barret and Aeris fight

This boss battle is a lot scarier if you realize that you’re fighting a fricking TANK blasting away at you over a 60 story drop with no guardrail (it shattered the walls). It’s only vulnerable to ranged attacks. I feel a strange urge to bop it with a knobbly blue and white beach ball.

Meanwhile, Rufus and Cloud have a civilized conversation about Sephiroth, the Ancients, etc. and have nearly picked out which restaurant they’re going to when Cloud suddenly realizes they’ve fallen into Exposition Mode again. Pulling himself together, he declares that he won’t let Sephiroth or Shinra near the Promised Land.

Rufus: I see. I guess this means we won't become friends.

I really think Rufus wanted to him for a boy toy. Don’t tell Tseng.

So it’s yet another-bigass-sword-vs-gun boss fight, plus Rufus has one of those cool shadow panther thingies from the wastelands.

Cloud and Rufus Shinra

Which goes down in one hit thanks to the limit break I was holding in the oven, and Rufus doesn’t really feel like playing after a couple of Thundaras. (How did Aeris manage to toss Lightning Materia back up to Cloud before this battle started? Don’t ask.)

Heh...That's all for today.

He seizes the leg of the waiting Lego helicopter and flies away. I’m impressed with his arm strength.

And with that semi-cliffhanger, I’m going to end this installment, as I’ve probably put you all to sleep by now.

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