Dirge of Cerberus promised to be more Final Fantasy 7, and what could go wrong with that? Turns out the answer is “everything”. I mean, more Final Fantasy 7, right? Well what would you like more of, Goggle Bob of 1997?
1. More development for beloved characters!
As mentioned in the article itself, on my most recent replay of Final Fantasy 7, I tried to stick to what I consider the “main” party, which is primarily Cloud (well, duh), Tifa, Barret, and Aeris (where available). On previous runs of Final Fantasy 7, I had a tendency to lean on characters like Cait Sith and Vincent because I found their mechanics (and, frankly, graphics) interesting. Tifa is fun an’ all, but she’s nothing next to an eternally combusting puppy dog. When you leave the B-Team out of the party, though, their occasional character moments seem almost… surprising. But not the good kind of surprising. Cait Sith’s initial betrayal at the Golden Saucer would have a lot more impact if I had been reminded of his presence in the gang maybe even once before he started robbing me, and then the exact same thing happens with Yuffie right around the same time. This is a detriment to FF7’s party, as the rest of the party looks moderately brain damaged for immediately re-accepting thieves and traitors back into AVALANCHE. It makes sense if Yuffie was the only reason everyone survived Jenova’s latest assault, but it’s a lot harder to believe if she was benched from the moment she joined (after an attempted robbery), and hasn’t done a thing since.
This was an issue that was corrected in later Final Fantasy games (Zell and Kimahri are both characters that come to mind as pretty much never actually being part of my party, but at least maintain a presence throughout the game), but that left the “optional” cast of Final Fantasy 7 shivering out in the cold (uh, literally at Icicle Mountain, don’t wear shorts in a blizzard, Yuffie) after their adventure ended. Oh, Reeve, there was so much we could have learned from you!
This was the strongest case with Vincent Valentine, Final Fantasy 7’s second hidden character. While Final Fantasy 6 had a couple of hidden characters that were various degrees of “mute”, Final Fantasy 7 went ahead and made its hidden characters actual characters, with Yuffie the ninja genki girl, and Vincent Valentine, the silent, brooding type with a tragic past and the ability to transform into monsters. Really, coming off of Chrono Trigger, it seemed like Square was trying to ape the popularity of Magus with another anti-hero that spoke exclusively in ellipses, but, like CT, this was likely a narrative cheat to account for a character that may or may not be present. Since Vincent (or Magus) can’t say anything earthshaking after their possible joining, why not just make the character stoic and almost mute? The audience will fill in the blanks!
Bad news: Final Fantasy 7’s audience, like all fandoms, demanded details for everybody. Dirge of Cerberus’s plot seems designed to fill in those gaps, complete with a sort of inverted cast: Vincent is the prime main character, Yuffie is practically his sidekick, and Reeve/Cait Sith seems to fill the early mentor role previously occupied by Barret. Meanwhile, the old main cast (Cloud, Tifa, Barret) are little more than cameo characters, and I don’t think we even get a peek at Aeris chilling in the afterlife. So, finally, we get to see these characters and their full backstories and… oh, it’s terrible.
Alright, I’m being a little rough here, but, basically, instead of revealing new facets of these characters, everything just got turned up to eleven. Vincent is stoic and brooding to the point that he just comes off as a self-obsessed dick. Yuffie has become a ninja version of early Sailor Moon… which isn’t so great when you consider that Sailor Moon was, technically, an eighth grader. And Reeve… I don’t have a clue what’s going on there. I think he has a split personality? Like, Cait Sith is part of his brain… and… Scottish for some reason? I really have no idea what’s happening, just that, as ever, Reeve is a well-meaning administrator and Cait Sith is the remote muscle.
Lucrecia, Vincent’s ex-girlfriend and the mother of Sephiroth, probably gets it the worst. Lucrecia was little more than a few dialogue boxes in the original Final Fantasy 7, but now she becomes simultaneously a mad scientist researching ancient eldritch horrors and a (revisionist) Aeris-level saint. Aw, she spent so long trying to make a near-dead Vincent better with proto-materia (that phrase, in no way, makes any sense) and Chaos genes and oh yeah, this is all tangentially related to a Weapon that is capable of destroying the world. And I’m not usually one to comment on fashion, but her lab coat/heels combo is one of the most ridiculous outfits I’ve ever seen outside of “sexy scientist” fetish costumes that I’m not admitting to owning.
2. More new characters!
Oh, Lord, what is happening here?
I take it back, that is the most ridiculous outfit possible for “female scientist”. No, I don’t care that her backstory explains how many harsh realities she’s had to triumph over to get to whatever that outfit is supposed to convey, that is just… good God, how did anyone think that was okay?
The rest of the new characters aren’t quite as ridiculous, but still just a parade of lazy tropes. There’s angry strongman, goth revenger, angry sword girl, and bishy dual wielding original character do not steal. Come to think of it, the unimaginably named Weiss is Sephiroth, but with fluffier hair and, instead of one, big sword, he’s got two smaller swords.
This is not how you add to a vibrant world already filled with toyasauruses and inexplicably hovering old men. This is Organization 13 all over again (or maybe a prelude? How do the releases line up?), a bunch of dudes that look cool and interesting in preview materials, but have all the substance of an anorexic ghost. Nero looks cool and your imagination races with all the possibilities of why he’s like that and does he have some relationship with Vincent or Lucrecia or… oh, wait, he’s just really into his Livejournal and got into a freak shaving accident at Hot Topic.
Worst of all is Shelke the Transparent (no relation to the Netflix series). Shelke, right off the bat, is that horrid “I’m legal but I look like a nine year old” archetype that seems to have been making the rounds in Japan for the last decade. Shelke, at least, isn’t completely sexualized (besides wearing what amounts to a future catsuit for the entire game), but her plot is some kind of Star Trek: The Next Generation rejected plot nonsense. Aw, she’s a science experiment like Vincent, and lost her emotions, but an inexplicable cyber/psychic connection with Lucrecia causes her emotions to reawaken, and, oh, Chaos, what is this emotion humans call… wuv? It’s a storyline that’s pulpy and obvious from its introduction, but the game stretches the razor thin premise from start to finish, so by the time Shelke finally finds love and… wait… did Vincent just ride off into the sunset with a nine year old quasi-clone of his ex?
3. More action!
Final Fantasy 7 opened a lot of doors for Squaresoft, and before The Spirits Within slammed that door shut, it seemed like Squaresoft was capable of making any kind of game, from fighter to shooter to whatever Brave Fencer Musashi was supposed to be. Food eating sim? Anyway, as Ehregeiz already proved, the Final Fantasy 7 cast was more than capable of existing in a more dynamic, less simulating environment like a Fighting Game, so why not pop over into the action world? And while we’re at it, let’s throw Vincent into that action role, as his arsenal and ludicrously spiked shoes should adapt well to running and gunning. It didn’t have to be the next Metal Gear or Contra, but it’d be neat to see a beloved character running around and actually, you know, running.
Oh, how naïve we were.
The Square-Enix that made Dirge of Cerberus was not the Squaresoft that made Einhänder, though. The Squaresoft that could lovingly craft a game in an “unfamiliar” genre was long gone, and what we got was a hot mess. It wasn’t unplayable, but the lazy mixing of JRPG and Action game elements was a detriment to everyone involved. Items, money, and experience are all things to be properly maintained across the game, but their distribution is miserly at best, and, while it’s theoretically a good thing to reward an expert player with more prizes than a more haphazard player, in practice it means that an amateur player is forced to grind against the same stupid areas repeatedly in order to accumulate enough doodads to survive later stages. And it certainly doesn’t help that you can trade EXP for money. Want to know the advantages of forgoing a level up for enough cash to purchase a new weapon? So do I! The choice isn’t the bad thing here, it’s that the player has no indication what choice is even being made. What’s more valuable: a potion that restores health, or having more health in the first place? It’s a question for the ages, and Dirge offers no answers.
This wouldn’t be such a pain if the action segment of the game was just a tweak better. The double jumping, general run, and shooting segments aren’t bad, they just feel kind of floaty and… off. Vincent can rarely clear so much as a guardrail with his double jump, so that jump feels more vestigial than an actual viable maneuver. Opponents have a tendency to soak bullets until the final blow, so gunning an enemy down feels as weightless and divorced from the player as choosing a Fight command and watching Cloud swing a sword (I’d rank Chrono Trigger’s Crono’s critical hit sound effect as more weighty than Vincent’s titular pistols). And it’s fairly often that Vincent himself is beset by enemy bullets… but you wouldn’t know it if your health wasn’t draining, because Vincent reacts more like he’s simply standing in the way of a strong breeze (that will eventually cause him to bleed out). It adds up to a tremendously low adrenaline experience: you are in danger, you are mowing down opponents, but it doesn’t feel right, so it’s very easy to quit and seek a game that actually reacts to your input.
Dirge of Cerberus, in every conceivable way, feels like a JRPG that is just trying on Action game pants, but nothing fits right. Maybe if you try the next size up? No, now you look like a clown…
4. More Serious!
Final Fantasy 7 was great, but what if it was a serious piece of literary work, like Xenogears?
5. More Weapons!
Alright, there’s a lot of cool stuff in Final Fantasy 7, but I can’t be alone in thinking the coolest thing in FF7 not wearing a trenchcoat is the concept of the Weapons. They’re Godzilla-sized creatures of all shapes and sizes (huge to gigantic), and their variety was rivaled only by their destructive payloads. It’s a rare game that gives you your choice of mammoth, world-obliterating monsters, and considering that Emerald and Ruby Weapon occupy the “first super boss” status for a lot of people, it seems only natural that a Final Fantasy 7 sequel would expand on that particular point.
But, once again, Dirge sticks the landing, and Omega Weapon, the true, final Weapon is unleashed. Rather than being a simple, force of nature monster created by the very planet you’re sworn to protect (basically the universe’s worst personnel screw up, ever), Omega Weapon has a complicated backstory involving a planet that is, at best, really confused. Omega Weapon was created to drag the Lifestream off planet, with Chaos (yes, what was simply Vincent’s final limit break in FF7) as a harbinger who… kills whatever is left? But there’s a proto-materia, and its purpose is to work as a remote control for both entities, because there’s no chance that could go horribly wrong. In the end, this whole train wreck is solved by Vincent transforming into a “controlled” Chaos, and slashing a reawakened Omega Weapon into oblivion (or at least some kind of extra celestial body).
But did you see what happened there? Vincent took down an entire planet threatening weapon by himself. Yes, he had the power-up of proto-materia and Chaos control, but any hedgehog could pull that off, and now Vincent… is more powerful than most of the planet? I know the Final Fantasy 7 world is one where whoever is holding the MASTER Knights of the Round materia can rule the universe, but it seems more than a little… reductive when Vincent can beat back a city-sized threat with his damn limit break.
This is, in a nut shell, Dirge of Cerberus’s greatest failure: in trying to expand the world of Final Fantasy 7, everything got smaller. Vincent is just a brooding sad sack. Yuffie is always going to be an immature wannabe. Reeve might have a psychological disorder. Final Fantasy villains are immortal. Weapons are exactly as strong as your party. It takes everything that everyone imagined about Final Fantasy 7 and makes it… less.
So, good job, Dirge of Cerberus, you gave 1997 Goggle Bob exactly what he wanted, and proved exactly why I should never have wanted such a thing.
FGC #179 Dirge of Cerberus -Final Fantasy VII-
- System: Playstation 2. I wouldn’t hold your breath expecting a HD rerelease of this one, though. Aw, who am I kidding? Square knows where their butter is churned, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to replay this one in the future.
- Number of Players: Did you know there was a multiplayer mode in the original Japanese release, but it was dropped for the American release? It’s true! It had its own storyline and everything. Can you imagine just how bad it had to be to be completely dropped from the Western release?
- Importable: In a weird way, the Japanese Dirge of Cerberus is a completely different, even worse game. Aside from the multiplayer change, there’s also the fact that the camera is even more inappropriately positioned behind Vincent, and Vincent moves even slower when “running” around bullet-riddled corridors. And his double jump is a mere single jump… which may explain why none of the environments react to the fact that Vincent should be able to vault a knee-high pile of rubble.
- What color is your parachute: Alright, I know I mocked them during the article, but I am a complete sucker for clearly defined, color-based groups. I realize it’s basically character design mad libs (Man is angry, likes the color blue, uses ice elemental attacks, and his weapon is a railgun), but I fall for it every time. See also: Kingdom Hearts, Bleach, and the War of the Light from Green Lantern comics.
- Barrett? Barely any Barrett. I guess his new super power is that he possesses a driver’s license.
- Did you know? The original concept for Vincent Valentine was a (X-Files) Mulder-esque conspiracy nut that could take pictures of cryptids and then transform into their forms, possibly without knowledge of the transformation afterwards. This is kind of an amazing idea for a character, and I’m downright surprised it hasn’t been recycled in some fashion for another Square project (and if I’m forgetting some obvious parallel somewhere, let me know). As it is, aside from the whole “lotta effort to go into a hidden character thing”, Proto-Vincent was dropped because the original plan was to have him transformed for overworld/dungeon/town scenes, and not just battles. That would require a lot of modeling that’s just not happening.
- Would I play again: Nah. I put a surprising amount of time into this at its release, and unless there are some major gameplay overhauls for a rerelease, I’m not doing that again. I swear I was playing it just to fulfill some sort of misplaced Final Fantasy 7 “obligation”, and I’ve since learned that video game franchises love me even if I don’t play their maligned younger siblings.
What’s next? I’m tired of all this moving forward jazz, let’s go back to the very beginning. Well, not the very beginning, but at least far enough back that Cloud still has his brain… for the moment. Please look forward to it!