A part of me thought this moment would come much sooner than it did, but as I activated the endgame of Final Fantasy VII it arrived at last — the moment where my team simply weren’t powerful enough to get past the challenges in front of them.
I had to go back to an earlier save and commence… the Grind.
Final Grindtasy VII
I guess this is partially my fault. I was enjoying the main plot so much that, in hindsight, it feels like I rushed through it. I didn’t really take in as much of the scenery as I perhaps should have done along the way.
The problems started when I bumped into an optional boss while driving a submarine underwater. It did 7000 points of damage to Cloud in a single attack, more than 3 times his maximum hit points at the time. Okay, I thought, I’ll need to come back for that one after a bit. Then I found a crashed plane and went in for a look… yep, everybody there did about 2000 damage per attack too, along with the odd debilitating status effect. Still optional, phew, we can save that for later.
But in following the trail to advance the story and hoping for guidance towards delicious experience points and powerful magic, I tumbled into the endgame. Locked out of the open overworld and funnelled into the Northern Cave to face Sephiroth at last, I started to meet enemies my team at about level 56 simply… couldn’t reliably defeat. With save points as limited as they are, that made forward progress ultimately untenable.
The interesting thing here is how the game seems to have far more numbers than it has narrative.
Up until this point, I was doing perfectly well just fighting anything that I stumbled into while exploring the plot threads. The difficulty/reward curve seemed to match quite well with moving through the story; you’d get comfortable with one set of enemies as you levelled up, then carry on to a new area to face new, more powerful enemies… and keep rinsing and repeating with each new story beat.
Once the overworld opens up by the acquisition of an airship, most fights have become pointless both literally and figuratively — the experience and money rewards for beating them are so pitiful they’re not worth the time or energy. You sort of shoot off the top of the balance curve and reach a kind of stasis. With nowhere else to go, it feels like you’re at the end of the game, both mechanically and narratively.
The aforementioned crashed plane turned out to be the closest thing to a way out of the rut. It has hideous mutants with devastating attacks and debilitating status effects, but commensurately high rewards — and more importantly, a Save Point in the hallway. Yes, I went there and yes, I fought one or two enemies before retreating to save my progress and moving again. Eventually these monstrous opponents started to get just a little bit more manageable. Is it time to go back and try the endgame again? No, not yet. There’s more.
Some way through the game, several kaiju are unleashed (yessss) that are called Weapon (… buh?). It was Emerald Weapon that I stumbled into underwater, but I’d faced down Ultimate Weapon as part of the plot already and it was much more ripe for the taking. Ultimate Weapon is a multi-stage fight, comprising of battles from which it retreats until you can finally whittle it down. This makes it comparatively easy to fight, which seems odd given it is Ultimate Weapon. Not so Ultimate now, eh?
On death, Ultimate Weapon gave me a vast pot of delicious experience points and, even better, reshaped the world with an explosive crater — unlocking the path to a secret forest area, an area with more manageable enemies that also deliver tasty rewards. At last! I struggled a lot with the puzzles to navigate deeper into this zone, but at least that wandering experimentation and probing made the farming a little less grating, as it was in service of some actual goal.
(Eventually I looked up some guides, and it turns out that the forests around Mideel have fairly trivial fights with high rewards. See what I mean about not doing enough sight-seeing along the way? I first visited Mideel donkeys ago.)
It was at this point that I started to get into chocobo breeding and racing. While the airship gives you access to most of the world, it can only land on grassy areas so there are still some tantalisingly inaccessible caves. The answer to these is breeding chocos with the special abilities of swimming and climbing, and ultimately, one that can do everything and go anywhere.
You encounter the Chocobo ranch very early in the game. You need to catch a chocobo to get across a dangerous swamp without being caught by its huge guardian monster, and then… well, that’s the only time you need a chocobo. After that point, you can catch them to get around faster and avoid fights, but once you reach any point of interest you have to get off and let your steed go. So I had initially filed the catching of chocobos away as “cute but pointless”.
Eventually, a long way into the game, you get access to stables for your caught chocos. Too late, I would say; if it was possible to stable and breed your chocos throughout the game, it would feel much more natural to pick them up as you went along, rather than having to retrace a lot of your steps for a huge diversion when the world’s fiery end is looming in the sky.
Has this soured my opinion of the game? A little, but there have still been loads of fantastic moments; date night at the Gold Saucer, the twists and turns around Cloud’s past SOLDIER, the launch of Shinra No. 26… Ahhhhh, and chocobos are adorable.
No, this structural, numeric problem is apart from the half of the game that I care about, and to its credit, the problem only kicks in at the very late stages of the game. So what if I have to put on some music and zone out while I exercise my team for a few hours? The fact that I’m even willing to stomach this should say all that needs to be said.