Saturday, December 27, 2014

Let's Play Final Fantasy VII (Part 1): The Beginning

First, we're treated to SquareEnix's ridiculous DRM. Irritating. I should have just played the PSX version on emulator. I have no idea what the controller mappings are, so I will probably have to mess with them during the game. I'm using an XBox 360 controller to play the game. I could borrow a PSX controller adapter for the true 'authentic' feel, but it's not that big of a deal.

We're treated to a view of a field of stars. At this point, we have no context for what this means. It could just be pretty imagery, but it could mean that the game will have a galactic scope, or perhaps it will involve looking beyond our world. Generally in film, if the work has any sort of "greater meaning," these early abstractions mean something. We'll hopefully find the context later.

Next, we're shown an image of a girl. There are little green fireflies sparking all around her, or perhaps they are some kind of magical energy. The music and the tone of the scene leads me to think that there is some kind of spiritual connection here.

The odd part is that she isn't part of the group we'll be meeting first, which means that, along with her simple introduction (she's clearly not an evil mastermind), she's important to the story.

If I were to guess at her value to the plot, I suspect that she's a plot device, or a damsel in distress type of character.

The camera zooms out and we see that the girl is actually looking at some sort of mechanical device that is producing sparks. The sparkles in the scene with the girl's face are a bit too gentle to be electricity, though, and my guess is that they are magical. Perhaps this world's technology is based on magic?

Next the world zooms out more and we see more of the city; a theater, a bar, cars and motorcycles zooming by, and this girl in pink is carrying a flower basket as she walks across the street.

This imagery is almost certainly a duality meant to show contrast. We have a girl dressed in pink and red amidst the gloomy city colors. We have the modern nature of the city, with its lights and loudness contrasted with the soft click of this girl's heels as she walks on the pavement. Her flowers represent a connection with nature, meant to contrast with the decidedly urban feel of the environment she is in. The way she walks and her facial expressions seem confident and natural, as though she's used to this place. I would guess that she's an advocate for the natural world amidst the industrial sprawl of the city. Perhaps those sparkles she saw earlier (and her clasped-together hands) were some sort of nature spirit she was praying to? Regardless, I can say with almost 100% certainty that this girl is meant to oppose the city's nature.

This scale of things seems off, though. We just saw a starfield earlier, hinting at a galactic scope of a game (rather than the typical planetary scale of a Final Fantasy game). This apparent conflict between this girl and the city might be symbolic rather than literal, or it might be meant to show that the urban development might be a form of nature, and she (as the representative of nature in this city) has learned to live and commune even in this place which seems to have no natural connection at all.

We get a full zoom-out of the city, followed by the game's title screen. The city seems to be surrounded by a ring of factories on the outside, with greenish-white smoke spewing out. These factories appear to be connected to a massive, bright central tower.

If I were to hazard a guess, I would say that those connecting beams are probably related to power or electricity, and connect the central structure to the outer factories. Either the central structure is a power distribution center and the "factories" are actually power plants, or the central structure is a power plant, which provides power to the "factories." I would actually guess the former (which we'll see is the more correct answer) just because I would suspect that a city with this kind of urban sprawl actually would have factories and production elsewhere. At this point though, we can't really be sure that the city design is all that important - it's actually more important to say that it's clearly industrial or modern age technology, and that this city (which is all we know of at this point) is far beyond the technology of any Final Fantasy we've seen thus far. It feels like a mashup of industrial and modern styles, but is very different from any sort of technology that we know. Since when do factories produce bright white-green smoke?

The camera does a really neat trick here. When we first see the girl in pink and then have the zoom out to the city view and the title, the camera zooms out from the left side of the huge tower in the middle. When it zooms back in to show this scene, it zooms around the right side of the tower, showing the image on the right: a train zooming up just a small distance from where we first saw the girl.

A man and a woman jump out of the train and attack the two station attendants before they can react. Another three characters leap out of the train afterwards: a fat guy with a red hat, a large, oversized black man who is probably missing a hand (but has a metal-looking box on his missing right hand), and a "newcomer" with spiky blonde hair.

This "newcomer" is obviously our character. The camera, which has remained fixed the entire scene, suddenly locks to the newcomer as he leaps out of the train.

Accessing the menu screen, we see that his name is listed as Ex-SOLDIER. That's clearly his occupation; a former soldier of some government or another. In this context, being an ex-soldier is clearly relevant. He has some kind of miltary training, and is tougher than average. The guess would be that since he's an ex-soldier, he is probably a member of a revolution, and that he was only recently separated from military service. The concept of a former military member joining a rebellion is so common that even real life uses the trope, so I'm making that guess now.

Why would I jump to that conclusion? Well, in Final Fantasy IV, Cecil discovers that he is working for an awful government, and deserts, forming a revolution to fight back. In Final Fantasy VI, Celes deserts the Empire to join the Returners, a revolutionary group. What else should we expect from a title of "ex-soldier?"

We get into our first battle and it's mostly a laugh. Oddly, the two enemy soldiers run past the big black guy and attack us instead. This is probably because the game doesn't expect us to know how to "run" yet, so the big guy was supposed to be off screen when we were attacked.

Ex-SOLDIER is barely even damaged by the enemy attacks, and he defeats them with a single hit.

His huge sword is more than a match for these guys, even though they are armed with "machine guns."

Clearly this guy is no ordinary soldier. He uses a sword, they use assault rifles (or submachine guns), and yet his sword is much, much more powerful and he is nigh-invulnerable, only taking 3 HP from their guns when he has 302 HP. This is definitely still a Final Fantasy game.

The first guy to exit the train, Biggs (who looks a bit like a pirate or a guerilla with his bright red Rambo headband and olive drab tanktop) comments on our hero's exceptional fighting prowess.

Jessie, the lady opening the door, mentions that people in SOLDIER are the enemy. It's also here where we get that our main character's job is not merely "soldier" in the traditional sense, but rather that he is a former member of SOLDIER, which is probably an elite military unit.

We also find out our character's name (or rather, we get to name him). His name is Cloud Strife, and now we know a little more about him. He's the equivalent of a former SEAL (more or less), and that he used to be aligned with the people we are now fighting. As both a newcomer and a former enemy, his team seems to be torn on whether or not to trust him. For his part, he doesn't seem to care about any of his teammates.

At this point, we're clear now on who he is. The people he is working with (AVALANCHE) are the revolutionaries, while he is a paid mercenary.

I feel like the distrust is not warranted; in real life, a mercenary is far more reliable than people fighting for a cause. Mercenaries depend on good reputations, so if he is paid to do a job, he isn't going to be a danger to operational security. He's going to do the job, and the only way he would fail is if he becomes unable to complete the mission due to complications (including injury or death). However, these guys seem to be typical rebels, and don't know how mercenaries really operate. We also get to name the big guy, Barret Wallace. He tells us that our target is the North Mako Reactor. In the earlier scene where we saw the train drive up, we saw one of those big "factories" from the intro right in front, with a big "01" painted on the side. Somehow I think that's our North Mako Reactor. So it is a power plant of some kind. The camera pulls down to show the reactor as we run towards it.

More battles occur and we explore Cloud's magic spells. They're even more powerful than his attacks, and destroy enemies in a single hit. He has two spells available.

The first one shown here is Bolt, which is especially good against mechanical foes. Against some of the more powerful robots we'll see later, it deals well over 100 damage.

We also have a second spell, Ice. It's not as good as Bolt, but it's still plenty strong and it still one-shots most foes. Then again, so does Cloud's sword; although it sometimes falls a bit short and takes two hits instead of one.

We get to the bridge in front of the reactor where Barret told us to meet up, and we learn the name of our fourth AVALANCHE member, Of course, because we knew the Rambo-wannabe was Biggs, that had to mean that chubby red-hatted guy has to be Wedge. Also, I think his red hat is actually a bandanna.

Also, he states that our objective is to blow up the reactor.

Wait a minute.

We just saw the flower girl in the intro scene. She was in the vicinity of where we are right now. We saw bars and theaters and stuff. There is no way that this city is a military base, and even this part of the city isn't a military base. We're blowing up a civilian power station.

So we're fucking terrorists. I'm working with terrorists. I'm not working for the FARC, I'm working for Al-Qaeda. No wonder Cloud doesn't care about these guys. I would even wager a guess at this point that Cloud might be infiltrating the terrorists and that he isn't actually an "ex-SOLDIER." However, the game spoiled that for me because Barret is a character that I get to name. I'm probably going to end up believing in this terrorist message.

It's a pretty novel thing, really. Remember that this game came out in 1997. We're basically the Final Fantasy equivalent of Unabombers right now. Playing as an actual terrorist, targeting civilian infrastructure? That's pretty crazy from a video game made in the '90s. It doesn't even matter if this act is justified in some way. We're blowing up a civilian power plant. It's not justified but makes for a really interesting twist. Hopefully the game covers the ethics of this in a realistic way.

Barret asks Cloud if he's ever been in a reactor, and Cloud hesitates before saying that of course he has, as he used to work for Shinra. Shinra could be a person or a government, most likely the latter. Shinra runs the reactors and has a military force, including a special operations unit, called SOLDIER.

Barret also explains to Cloud that the reactors are powered by Mako, which he claims is the life's blood of the planet. He further claims that the use of Mako is killing the planet; thus justifying to him the destruction of the reactor.

Let me just say that this doesn't make perfect sense. In real life, power doesn't "go away" when it is used. Living beings consume food as a sort of fuel, and the leftover energy is given off as waste heat. Even if people stopped using fossil fuels and other fuel sources, the planet would eventually die without an influx of energy from the sun to feed plant life.

I'm sure that this Mako power is a thing, but isn't life solar powered anyway? Or is the planet's energy the actual source of life, and things like the sun and kinetic energy have nothing to do with the natural life cycle? Barret isn't a scientist, and I don't see any reason to believe his simplistic reasoning any more than I have to believe that "sustainable" businesses actually help sustain the environment.

Also, I'm not working for Al-Qaeda, I'm working for Greenpeace now.

Fortunately, Cloud doesn't give a shit about the issues with the environment. Also, as shown in this screenshot, Jessie has a pretty big chest.

Barret joins up with Cloud after he shows his dismissive attitude in order to keep an eye on this cold-blooded mercenary.

Also we see that Barret's block arm is actually a gun. A minigun at that.

This of course doesn't make any sense, as Barret's gun arm has no ammo container, feed tray, or anything else that a minigun might need to actually load rounds into the gun. The rate of fire also seems more consistent with an automatic rifle; I'd guess that he is shooting maybe 300-400 rpm, which begs the question as to why he would need multiple barrels.

Yeah, I know, because it's cool. I'm just saying, it makes no sense. Barret also doesn't have any magic. I'm guessing that's because as a terrorist leader he never learned how, or maybe it's a special training for members of SOLDIER (as it was with Celes). Barret is also a bit more fragile than Cloud despite having more HP. He gets banged up pretty bad, but there is an upside.

When a character takes damage, the Limit gauge fills up, and when the gauge reaches maximum, he can use a powerful special attack, called a Limit Break. Barret's limit break is called Big Shot, and it attacks a single enemy with about the damage of a magic spell. You can see in this image, Cloud's limit gauge is only about 3/4ths full even though he's fought several battles on his own. He's definitely made of tougher stuff than Barret is, but the difference isn't as big as the difference between either Cloud or Barret and one of these enemy soldiers. And since taking more damage means getting more limit breaks, it's not so bad as long as the damage isn't that dangerous.

Either way, we get to our first save point, so I'm going to stop for now. That was a lot of exposition, and a lot of speculating on stuff. Next time, we'll head into the reactor and hopefully end the mission.

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