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Final Fantasy VII is the first Final Fantasy game to be released in full 3-D, with characters appearing in towns, dungeons, and in battles in 3-D polygonal form (and in greater detail than in OTL, the increased capabilities of the Ultra Nintendo mean that Cloud and his allies aren't blocky like in OTL's game, they appear in slightly less detail than in OTL Final Fantasy VIII). Final Fantasy VII spans two Gigadiscs, the only Ultra Nintendo launch game to appear on more than one disc, and the gameplay is almost identical to OTL's, with the familiar Active Time Battle system, as well as the Materia system for the equipping of spells, battle commands, and various augments. Limit Breaks appear in similar fashion to IOTL, and, like IOTL, cannot be stored up, in order to use the normal Attack command again, the Limit Break must be used (a criticism of the game that remains from OTL). The biggest addition to the sidequests featured in the game is an optional multiplayer mode where the player can race chocobos against friends at the Gold Saucer, either with the friends using their own chocobos on their memory cards, or the player raising up four chocobos for three friends to use. The game's score is composed by Nobuo Uematsu, and is comprised of largely the same soundtrack as OTL, with some minor butterfly-induced changes and eight additional songs, including the addition of a lyrical theme, “Life And Spirits”, that plays during the game's credits. The game is fully voiced by professional voice actors in battle, outside of battle in dialogue scenes, and in 3-D cutscenes. The voice cast includes: Bob Buchholz (Cloud), Amanda Winn Lee (Tifa), Mary Kay Bergman (Aeris and Scarlett), Beau Billingsley (Barret), Steve Blum (Sephiroth), Steve Cardenas (Red XIII), Gregg Berger (Cid), Cam Clarke (Vincent), Larisa Oleynik (Yuffie), Quinton Flynn (Rufus Shinra), Jim Cummings (Heideggar), Richard Cansino (Tseng), Jonathan Ward (Reno), David Coburn (Rude), and Janice Kawaye (Elena), along many others. It's one of the largest and most prolific voice casts to ever appear in a video game, and Squaresoft's casting, which spans from professional, long-time voice actors like Bergman and Cummings, to non-union (at the time of casting anyway, all non-union voiceover artists got their union cards to appear in the game) newcomers who specialize in anime dubbing like Lee and Blum, lead to the rapid unionization of most anime dubbing (which has become feasible due to the rapidly increasing popularity and profitability of anime which began with Sailor Moon in 1995) and a shift toward more professional voice acting in games and anime in general. The game probably has the best production values of any of the Ultra Nintendo launch games, its cinematic-quality 3D cutscenes and mature subject matter rarely addressed in a mainstream JRPG win the game accolades and it does as much to popularize the JRPG as a mainstream genre as Secret of Mana did in 1993, if not moreso.
The plotline of the game itself, while largely similar to OTL's plotline, contains some major changes, especially at the end of the first disc. The game starts out in Midgar with a bombing raid on Mako Reactor No. 1, lead by Barret Wallace of the group AVALANCHE, which has dedicated itself to bringing down all Mako energy to preserve the life of the Planet. Barret is accompanied by Cloud Strife, an amnesiac soldier of fortune, along with Biggs, Wedge, and Jessie. While the Midgar sequences of the game largely play out as OTL (with Cloud becoming separated from Barret and Tifa, meeting Aeris, exploring Wall Market, etc.), there is a major change: the Detective Joe storyline, excised from OTL's version of the game, remains somewhat intact (influenced by the popularity of detective games). Detective Joe lives on the upper plate of Midgar and we first encounter him in the aftermath of the bombing, when he questions Aeris about her encounter with Cloud. Joe is present on the train when Avalanche is heading to Mako Reactor No. 5, and even gets into a tussle with Cloud at the reactor which ends with him being knocked out and left with Biggs, Wedge, and Jessie. While Cloud and Aeris explore the Wall Market slums, Joe and Tifa get to know one another and he actually becomes playable in a brief mission that sees Tifa and Joe temporarily teaming up against some thugs trying to kidnap girls for Don Corneo. The Sector 7 plate collapse happens as IOTL and it's here that Joe realizes the depths of Shinra's evil and joins forces with the party for the raid on the Shinra Building, helping them to infiltrate the building and rescue Aeris. After the party defeats Motor Ball, Joe heroically sacrifices himself to stall Shinra troops in order to give the rest of the party time to escape the city. After the escape from Midgar, Cloud and his friends head to the village of Kalm, where Cloud tells the party the story of how Sephiroth lost his mind and destroyed Nibelheim (this is largely preserved from OTL). After Kalm, the game again takes a few different turns. Yuffie is encountered in the Mythril Mine, not as an optional encounter out in the field. In the Mythril Mine, the party has a more in-depth confrontation with the Turks that ends with a boss fight with Rude, followed by Yuffie taking Elena hostage and forcing the Turks to back down, which impresses the party sufficiently enough to let her join them (though Yuffie still steals Materia and is still fairly annoying). The Junon quest largely proceeds as normal, but the Corel quest is very different. The party is no longer compelled to visit the Gold Saucer (though it's still optional at this point). Instead, after Barret gets a cold reception in North Corel, Dyne is reported in the Corel Reactor, having taken the entire staff of workers there hostage. The party reluctantly goes to the reaction to take Barret's old friend down. Instead of a one-on-one showdown between Barret and Dyne, the whole party faces Dyne after he injects himself with Mako to transform into a ferocious beast. Scarlet is also encountered by the party for the first time in the Corel Reactor, though she escapes before Barret or the party can get revenge on her. The Gongaga quest is also much more involved: we get a much more in-depth look at the character Zack, while Jessie is revealed to have survived the destruction of Sector 7, only to live in Gongaga atoning for the deaths caused by AVALANCHE. The Gongaga jungles are a much bigger area, the party has to stop the Turks from taking a vital piece of Materia from the destroyed reactor there and the party battles Reno, Rude, and Elena all at the same time. Aeris and Barret are both given heavy character development via the Gongaga quest. When the party returns from stopping the Turks, Jessie begs them to stop their quest because she doesn't want them to cause any more violence, but Barret re-emphasizes his reasons for saving the Planet and Jessie mentions Cosmo Canyon (there's an optional sidequest later on where the party can lift Jessie's spirits, if they do so she moves to Cosmo Canyon afterward). The buggy still breaks down in front of it and the quest goes largely as IOTL, as does the Nibelheim quest, though again, Vincent is no longer an optional character, the party meets him after an encounter and boss fight with Tseng in the Shinra Mansion basement. The party then crosses Mt. Nibel and heads to Rocket Town, where they meet up with Cid, hoping to get passage across the seas on his plane the Tiny Bronco. Palmer shows up, things go south, and the Tiny Bronco crash lands in Wutai, necessitating that the party complete the quest here (which is also largely as OTL, though Yuffie and Elena have a bit more history now and patch things up somewhat because of their shared ordeal with Don Corneo, the party also discovers that Detective Joe was from Wutai, as you can meet his mother here, and Zack also gets more backstory in Wutai). After the events in Wutai, the Tiny Bronco is converted to a boat, which the party can use to start the quest to the Temple of the Ancients.
And here is where things get VASTLY different from IOTL's game, because once you reach the Gold Saucer, a series of irreversible events are set into motion. Depending on Cloud's affinity with various characters throughout the game, one of three things will happen: Cloud will go out on a date with Tifa, Cloud will go out on a date with Aeris, or Cloud will leave the Gold Saucer and return to North Corel with Barret. The character that Cloud spends the night with will die at the end of Disc One. IOTL, of course, Aeris was killed at the end of Disc One by Sephiroth, one of the most famous and iconic moments in video game history. In TTL's Final Fantasy VII, Tetsuya Nomura and Yoshinori Kitase still wish to kill off a main character to make a statement about death. However, the two men see Final Fantasy VII as a potential repeat of Secret of Mana, an iconic RPG that forever changed how good an RPG could be. WithSecret of Mana's primary iconic aspect being its three different endings, Nomura and Kitase realize that they could still present death as a final event with real tragic gravity while also still allowing the player's actions to determine how that event would play out. The two men thus create a scenario where the entirety of Disc Two is determined by which death the player experiences at the end of Disc One. It's a massive undertaking, creating three different storylines which at times vastly differ, though many elements remain the same throughout the three stories. The result is still considered by fans to be one of the greatest and most tragic moments in video game history, because, even though the player's actions determine which character dies, it still has a sense that it is out of the player's hands. Hidden factors throughout the game determine which character Cloud becomes closest to, and that character is the one who experiences inevitable death. If the player chose to have Cloud bond with the mysterious flower girl Aeris, she meets her tragic death, exactly as she does IOTL (and indeed, about 70 percent of first time players experience Aeris' death path). If Cloud bonds with his childhood friend Tifa (which about 25 percent of first time players have Cloud do), it's Tifa who is killed. And if Cloud bonds with his new war buddy, the gruff but still deep and caring Barret, Barret is the one who is killed (experienced by about 5 percent of first time players). The three paths play out as follows:
Path One: Aeris Dies
This path plays out the closest to OTL, with a few minor differences. After Cloud, under influence by Sephiroth, attacks Aeris at the Temple of the Ancients, she leaves the party and goes to summon Holy at the City of the Ancients, where she is tragically killed by Sephiroth. The party continues on to Icicle Inn, the Great Glacier, and ultimately the Northern Crater, where Cloud gives Sephiroth the Black Materia, allowing him to summon Meteor while Cloud falls into the Lifestream. The few changes from OTL are largely experienced in the Junon sequence after Tifa wakes up, after Tifa and Barret are freed from captivity and the party reassembles, there is a fight with Sapphire Weapon that did not occur in OTL's game. Also, there is an additional quest before the party is able to rejoin Cloud and Tifa in Mideel: another trip to Wutai to complete a final case for Detective Joe, whose mother found some old case files of his relating to Zack and the Midgar-Wutai war, the quest explains Shinra's origins somewhat more and also confirms that Tseng is still alive, which didn't happen in OTL's game. Aside from this, the rest of the game plays out almost entirely as OTL, complete with the final epic battle with Sephiroth inside the Northern Crater (which is somewhat more fleshed out of a dungeon than IOTL, since the game designers weren't rushing it as much) and Aeris summoning the Lifestream from beyond the grave to stop Meteor from destroying the Planet.
Path Two: Tifa Dies
If Cloud has more affinity with Tifa than either Aeris or Barret, he will date her at the Gold Saucer, and at the Temple of the Ancients, Tifa is able to snap Cloud out of Sephiroth's control before he attacks Aeris (instead of Cloud hurting Aeris and Tifa having to knock him out). Aeris remains with the party all the way to the City of the Ancients, where she tells the party that she has to pray for Holy. As IOTL, Sephiroth attempts to have Cloud kill Aeris before she can summon Holy. However, when Sephiroth comes down to stab Aeris, Tifa puts herself in the way and she sustains a mortal wound. However, unlike Aeris, who dies without a single word, Tifa has enough strength to tell Cloud that she always loved him but that Aeris is too important and that Cloud must protect her. The guilt nearly destroys Cloud, who is unable to participate in the Jenova LIFE battle afterward. By the time the group reaches Icicle Inn, Cloud is ready to fight again and is determined to avenge Tifa by defeating Sephiroth. Icicle Inn is a much bigger part of this storyline, with Aeris learning about Professor Gast and her mother. Aeris and Cloud commiserate over their shared losses, and Aeris tries to help Cloud commune with the Lifestream to no avail. The party ventures through the Gaea Cliffs to reach the Northern Crater, though this time, both Cloud and Aeris fall into the Lifestream. Cloud's “vision quest”, which in OTL's game and in the “Aeris Dies” path consisted of Tifa accompanying Cloud through various memories inside the Lifestream, is instead a massive, multi-hour quest where Cloud and Aeris team up with characters like Tifa, Zack, and Detective Joe (who are all playable for this portion of the game) to exorcise the demons of their collective pasts. These quests alternate with the quests undertaken by Barret, Cid, and the other party members, first escaping from Junon and then undertaking the North Corel and Fort Condor quests while Cloud and Aeris explore the Lifestream. The Cloud/Aeris quests culminate in a battle against Jenova-AFTERLIFE, which, after it's defeated, Cloud and Aeris surface admist the destruction of Mideel and the rest of the game plays out largely as IOTL post-Mideel, with Sephiroth as the final boss once again. The ending is somewhat altered, instead of Aeris using the Lifestream to stop Meteor (since she's alive, she's not directly in it and thus unable to stop Meteor alone), Cloud and Aeris join together to commune with the Lifestream, using the spirits of the ancient Cetra along with those of other departed characters, led by Tifa, to guide the Lifestream to stop Meteor.
Path Three: Barret Dies
If Cloud has enough affinity with Barret, he and Barret go to North Corel together, where Heideggar has a large contingent of Shinra troops ready to take out the city for good. The two team up and defeat Heideggar, then Barret interrogates him for information about Shinra, getting him to admit that Cait Sith is a spy controlled by Reeve. The two then return to the Gold Saucer and the Temple of the Ancients plays out as IOTL. However, it's Barret that gets Cloud to snap out of attacking Aeris (calling him a “goddamned fool” and slapping some sense into him) and Aeris again stays with the party up to the City of the Ancients. However, instead of Sephiroth attempting to kill Aeris as in Tifa and Aeris' death paths, Shinra is able to intercept Jenova-LIFE on the way to the city and kill it. A massive group of Shinra troopers storm the city, necessitating a bunch of fights. Ultimately, Barret sacrifices himself to protect Aeris and the rest of the party, dying in a hail of gunfire as Cloud and his horrified friends can only watch. This is the most different path from OTL's game, as Cloud and the party never visit the Northern Crater. Instead, thirsty for revenge, the group raids Midgar early, determined to take out Shinra while most of their army is at the Crater. In the second raid on the Shinra Building (which, like the first, involves a lot of boss fights and mayhem), Aeris discovers a lot about her past while Cloud discovers a good portion of the truth about himself as well. Eventually, after a battle with all four Turks, Cloud and the party meet with Reeve in the President's Office and Reeve reveals that he's been working against Shinra the entire time. While the party is talking with Reeve, however, Shinra has stirred up the WEAPONs at the crater, and one of them, Sapphire Weapon, is headed straight for Midgar. The party battles Sapphire Weapon on the roof of the Shinra Building and then are taken in a helicopter by Reeve back to Kalm, where they regroup and determine the next course of action. Cloud still has the Black Materia, though Jenova-DEATH is still intact and is searching for it. Eventually, Cloud is drawn to Nibelheim once more, where he encounters Sephiroth (Jenova-DEATH) in the basement of the Shinra Building. Though the party defeats Jenova-DEATH, it's just a ploy for Sephiroth to take control of Cloud and force him to deliver the Black Materia to the Crater. Cloud falls into the Lifestream and washes up in Mideel, while Aeris and Tifa stay with him as the party completes various tasks (the Detective Joe quest, a trip to Junon to pick up the Highwind, etc.). Cloud recovers quickly, but when Shinra shows up at Mideel, Cloud is unable to stop them from abducting Aeris and Tifa before the rest of the party can arrive in the Highwind. Hojo is now fully in charge of Shinra and he has taken Aeris and Tifa to an entirely new location to experiment on them, a location Vincent knows extremely well: a large underground research facility deep beneath Junon. The Underwater Reactor quest and this new quest to rescue Aeris and Tifa are combined into one. At the end of the quest, there is a brief sequence where Hojo tries to force Cloud to choose between Aeris and Tifa, but in an extremely moving sequence, Cloud refuses to do so, telling Hojo that both of them are extremely dear to him and that he's not going to lose anyone he cares about again. Tifa and Aeris are both able to free themselves, with Tifa decking Hojo in the face and Aeris blasting Hojo with magic (while saying “this is for my parents!”) before the big multi-stage fight against them. After one more final quest in which a deranged Scarlet attempts to fire the Sister Ray on Cosmo Canyon and the party must go into Midgar a third time to stop her, the final battle with Sephiroth once again takes place as IOTL. The ending sees the biggest change from IOTL. Meteor is still falling on the planet and once again it requires the Lifestream to stop it, however, in this ending, Marlene is able to call out to her father Barret, who, finally at peace with his bloodstained past, is able to compel the Lifestream to stop Meteor.
In all three endings, though Midgar is destroyed, the Planet and humanity ultimately survive and recover. In subsequent materials, the “Aeris Dies” path is confirmed to be the canon path through the game, though many players cite the Tifa and Barret paths as their favorites, and debate about which path is the “best” rages among fans for many years to come.