Here we are again, thanks for coming to the reunion! Now that I’ve outlined the different cast members of this play, how do they perform? Well, not great!

Inside a cavern, Zack from the waist up is looking down. He says, "Why is everyone...always pushing things on me?"

I wanna go back to the low stakes war times.

So, Is It Really About Zack?

The main story feels less about Zack himself and more about him getting caught in a power struggle between a bunch of top-ranking SOLDIERS that all have the same plot thread as Sephiroth. Angeal, Genesis, and Sephiroth are all good friends until Genesis gets jealous and overextends himself during training, resulting in an injury that sets off his body’s degradation. Genesis decides to wage war against Shinra, all the while looking for this mythical “Gift of the Goddess.” Angeal, unable to commit to attack or join his friend, just gets Zack to kill him. And Sephiroth ends at the same place of losing it at Nibelheim, burning the town to the ground. Zack feels incidental in all this, constantly trying to get both Angeal and Genesis to rejoin the company that used their bodies as literal weapons.

A lot of story beats that happen in FFVII get used here at a discount. We have supersoldiers that were all gaslit and gassed up and decide to go AWOL, attacking the world, but only kinda. We have an even crappier scientist than Hojo in the form of Hollander, trying to science his way into a better position at the company. Clones are here, and there’s a hundred times more of them! There’s a director within Shinra’s ranks who’s ultimately a turncoat to the “good” side. A special materia can summon a powerful being who will bestow some sort of gift upon the summoner or the world. Oh, and one winged angel is taken literally everywhere.

Zack stands in front of a platoon of SOLDIERS inside a Shinra facility. Zack has his sword raised while saying, "And, whatever happens, protect your SOLDIER honor."

ASAB

And as I watched the playthrough again, I recognized an issue that I didn’t think I would have when I played it back then. You spend the vast majority of this game playing for and even lionising the bad guys. Genesis may be a dick, but he’s right. His family did betray him; he was a tool for the evil conglomerate right from the start. Shinra gets to look exceptional and cool. The Turks are shown to be well-meaning, going to lengths to protect Zack. I think a smarter narrative might have touched on just how much Shinra reaches into everyday life that it makes it so hard for any of them to imagine a different way of living.

The Wutai war that occurs near the beginning of the game should have been a perfect place to start showing how messed up everything is. According to current records, Zack ran off to join SOLDIER when he was 13! With him jumping into a mission at the tail-end of the war at about 16. (Also, side note: Sephiroth was apparently 12 when he started fighting in the war.) Literally child soldiers and nobody is batting an eye. This is where I feel tighter story-telling on Zack’s reactions as a young man facing war could’ve really helped pull at a criticism of the company, even if Zack doesn’t outright say it himself.

As far as gameplay goes, most of your time will be running around to different areas trying to track Genesis, then trying to track Angeal, then back to Genesis, and getting nowhere. Zack is ordered to go scout; he never goes on his own to find them till the final hour. Most of Zack’s interactions with any direction from the company are to roll with it. He even partners with the Turks for some joint missions. There’s even a really egregious example of how he learns that Aerith is the last surviving Ancient (a long extinct race of people) and the Turks monitor her. Zack tells Tsengthe fucking secret policethat he’s the only one he can count on to watch over Aerith! Doesn’t ask about why, just okay, Shinra definitely has her best interests at heart. I know there are some hints that Tseng wants to protect her in the original game, but give me a break.

I promised I’d get to Sephiroth’s role in all this. For those unaware, Sephiroth in the original FFVII was the highest ranked SOLDIER and a failed attempt at cloning an Ancient. The Ancient they were trying to clone from wasn’t an Ancient at all, but a creature known as Jenova who wiped out the Ancients. Since he happened to have incredible strength and magic ability, Shinra kept him around as a weapon.

Sephiroth is standing in the interior of the Nibelheim reactor. He's dishevelled and lifting his sword upward. He says, "Don't...test me!"

Forget About Being a Child Soldier, Did Your Friends Leave You on Read?

Crisis Core‘s story wants to put a lot of Sephiroth’s eventual sanity slippage not on his child soldier status but into him being upset about his friends leaving Shinra. It feels this way due to the very sped-through moments that happen in Nibelheim. He’s seen his friends Genesis and Angeal sprout wings and wander away without thinking about how the company did that to them. Then suddenly is all shocked pikachu face at the fact the same thing happened to him. It takes away the real intensity of the revelation for him. Also, I guess neither Genesis nor Angeal bothered to tell Sephiroth about the Jenova Cell issues till right at the moment Sephy finds it, oopsie!

Once you’ve gotten through the bullshit of added content that is Crisis Core and watched the Nibelheim incident in action, it’s test tube time, baby! Zack and Cloud are floating in Hojo’s experiment zone of the Shinra mansion. This whole segment of leaving gets expanded in some infuriating ways.

We Gotta Pad This Ending Out!

Zack breaks out with Cloud, who’s currently too ill to walk, and is shocked to see Nibelheim none the worse for wear. Right away, there’s Shinra soldiers running and gunning towards him. So after dealing with them, Zack goes back to the Mansion to get Cloud a change of clothes and wait for a bit. You’d think he’d be a sitting duck there, but oh well. When they finally leave, Cissnei confronts them and actually pretends she didn’t find anything and gives them a bike. My girl!! So with the bike now in possession, Zack starts travelling a way bit farther than straight to Midgar.

Gongaga, meme status aside, is Zack’s hometown. So here’s where the game really starts to rankle me. I appreciate that he wanted to check on his folks, but does he seriously not see the giant exploded reactor plant? He doesn’t mention it at all when asking about them, or react to sitting next to a defunct thing that I can only assume inspired him to head to Shinra. The reactor exploded while he was floating in science juice. I can’t stand the game bringing me here and not even commenting on the glaring wreckage nearby. Oh, and as a kicker, he asks Cissnei to watch over his folks. I’m sure the people of Gongaga are very happy to have the Shinra secret police about.

So in all that time, both Hollander and Genesis just hung around elsewhere, not bothering to grab the cells they wanted from Zack and Cloud, even though they were weakened and trapped. This, to me, is a major plot issue. Genesis starts harassing Zack as soon as they leave to get the “S” (Sephiroth) cells from Cloud. Why didn’t he attack the Shinra mansion? Welp, who cares at this point, might as well give Genesis some of Cloud’s hair. But we don’t do that, and instead kill Hollander.

Lazard’s here, as a full-on Angeal clone. His anger towards Shinra is gone and now replaced with Angeal’s will. Which, uh, while he’s mellowed out, is another example of unconsented body transformation. They figure out that Genesis must be hanging out in Benora, Genesis’s hometown, because he always has a Benora apple! Wow!! It is funny that Genesis must’ve flown back home to grab an apple to quote Shakespeare/Loveless with every time. Shinra bombed the shit out of that place five years ago, and he just had a fallout shelter underneath the whole time. Please, please, Square, stop just saying there’s a whole area underground when convenient. I’m looking at you, Dirge of Cerberus!

There was a huge freakin’ rock of natural materia underneath Benora, connected to the “Goddess.” Then why, the fuck, did Genesis need to dick around the world?! Like, I know he has the whole degradation issue, but both Sephiroth and Angeal wanted to save him, so wouldn’t he talk to them? Apparently, all his actions up to this point were him trying to reenact all the events of Loveless in order for him to lose, and this would cure him of his degradation. But it seems unlikely he knew this would work for sure, considering he has a clone eat some of Zack’s hair (to possibly reverse the degradation), then tries to nab Cloud. So you see, there are various interpretations.

After beating Genesis, finally, he’s cured of his degradation through lifestream shenanigans. Approaching the light, he’s found his Goddess, literally! Named Minerva (apparently, Goddess of the Lifestream) in this incarnation. And what does our Goddess say upon meeting this guy that won’t shut up about her? She turns her head away and palms him back to Earth. At least she seemed to heal him, but it was really funny watching Genesis be so completely rejected. Take that, she’s just not that into you!

Zack, nice guy that he is, drags Genesis out of there and lets him be. I guess he for sure thinks Genesis won’t pull any more stunts. Lazard passes away protecting Cloud (thanks, comrade). When Zack leaves with Cloud, though, two guys come and pick up Genesis’s body, and I remember screaming because I didn’t want to see this guy again. Now I gotta see him in the FFVII Remake, don’t I? Anyway, this brings us to the final piece of the piss pie that is Crisis Core‘s changes to Zack’s last stand.

On a dusty and mountainous terrain, hundreds of infantrymen of the Shinra army are lined up pointing their guns towards the viewer. In the sky, Shinra helicopters are flying.

Where were they for the Genesis Soldier clones?

The Final Act

This is, without a doubt, the most painful moment of the game for me. In the original, while protecting Cloud, Zack gets gunned down by a few infantrymen just outside of Shinra. I didn’t think it was weird he couldn’t fight back, because he was stuck in a test tube for four years with no Peloton bike. It reminded us that death can be sudden and hollow. Zack is still a solid dude for trying to get his friend to safety, that isn’t in doubt. But Crisis Core said no, we gotta spice this up a bit.

In the Crisis Core version of the story, Zack is facing the whole damn army! Hundreds of guns are trained on him from every direction. This is Zack’s last stand, and we gotta make it as Hollywood as possible—Michael Bay would be proud. I think that’s what rubs me the wrong way. I don’t think someone is a hero because they fought the most enemies, I think they’re a hero because they saved someone at great personal risk. He could’ve gotten away by himself much faster, but he wasn’t going to abandon Cloud. And this somewhat encapsulates my issues with the game. It needs to justify and overexplain itself for why I should care about Zack. I didn’t need this, none of us needed this. It feels like they’re worried if Zack isn’t doing cool things every minute we might not think he’s cool enough.

I feel I should also mention that the Turks are desperately flying towards Zack during this time to… bring him back to life. So, yeah, the secret police are trying to out-manoeuvre the army to get back Zack and Cloud. I can only think that this was added so we wouldn’t think too badly of the Turks or all of Shinra in general. See, there’s good guys in there!! Also how did they think that would work? Would Zack and Cloud be like, “Oh, no harm done, we were just held by bad Shinra people. Now we’re with the good Shinra people!” Square, I just want to talk.

After it all, Cloud drags himself over to Zack’s body. And hey, just like Angeal, Zack gets to have some final words with Cloud! Passing on the buster sword to Cloud, he tells him, “You’ll be…my living legacy.” Cloud listens to him and is cosignant enough to agree. And, if you’re familiar with FFVII, oh boy! Did he agree! Thanks, I hate it!

Cloud kneels beside Zack's battered body. While cradling the buster sword, Cloud says, "I won't forget."

And then he did, immediately.

Zack’s death doesn’t end there. He ponders to himself whether he became a hero or not. I guess this is where the player has to scream at the screen that he did, like some Dora the Explorer question. He’s lifted up to heaven with, I think, Angeal picking him up? Aw, bless, he was an angel after all! I’m so tired. Why’d it have to be like this?

In writing this all down, some parts of me have softened on it. I get they were trying to push the melodrama and make it more like a play, I think. The whole: oh this doomed youth, we must watch all the actors play their part. But it’s no Hadestown. I don’t feel tension for the other characters. I did feel a bit for Zack, but he’s so unaware and uninterested in the cage that’s around him that it’s hard for me to care about him either. Let me know about his time at Shinra. Let me feel a creeping realisation of his dreams being scattered to the wind. His crime of being in that place and knowing he was a part of it. I know I’m demanding it to be a different game, but I don’t care, I think it would’ve been better!

Part of how I’ve been able to enjoy the remake is by pretending a lot of the extra stuff around Final Fantasy VII doesn’t exist. They feel so superfluous and further and further away from actually critiquing the true threats of that world. Which, in case you forgot, was a corporate, militaristic company, ready to suck the planet dry for profit. And I believe we need that narrative now, more than ever. But I’ll have to see how the new stuff shakes out.

But I’m glad I got this all out of my system and was able to circle in on the pieces that really bothered me. Hearing the praise of this title, non-stop, has been a lot. I feel Square Enix can do better, and I hope it will. If by some miracle, anyone from the development team sees this though, please don’t make me fight Gackt again.