“Embrace your dreams.”
In an RPG stuffed with plenty of memorable optional content, the death of Zack Fair is arguably Final Fantasy VII’s greatest secret. By visiting the Shinra Mansion’s basement after Cloud & Tifa rejoin the party midway through Disc 2, a series of cutscenes will be triggered detailing how Zack saved Cloud’s life. Experimented on together by Hojo, Zack eventually breaks free from captivity, taking Cloud with him. The two hit the road as fugitives, with Zack doing his damndest to keep a catatonic & psychologically deteriorated Cloud alive. In sight of Midgar, Zack is silently gunned down while Cloud is left to die. Cloud awakens to an already dead Zack and breaks down, putting into perspective just how much Zack influenced Cloud.
Zack was always supposed to be a smaller piece of a larger puzzle. That’s arguably what made him so compelling, to begin with. While he had some narrative presence, Zack is treated as little more than a piece of Cloud’s backstory in-game– albeit an important one. Cloud’s secret flashback in Nibelheim allows us to see what Cloud saw in Zack while putting the SOLDIER front & center without getting in the way of the core plot. More importantly, Zack’s death reinforces Final Fantasy VII’s raw & real depiction of death. A SOLDIER 1st Class competent enough to work alongside the war hero Sephiroth, Zack is quite literally everything Cloud wants to be; but death does not discriminate and Zack does not die a hero, essentially dying alone.
Eight years after the fact, Advent Children– Final Fantasy VII’s cinematic sequel– saw fit to retcon Zack Fair’s death. Instead of Cloud waking up to an already killed Zack, the man now gets to pass on his last will and testament. Advent Children posits that Zack did not die when he was shot, instead surviving long enough to speak with Cloud. Zack passes on his Buster Sword, begging Cloud to become his “living legacy.” While this naturally comes with some uncomfortable implications for Cloud’s arc, the intent in this change seems to be squarely in favor of making Zack come off more heroic.
Yoshinori Kitase– Final Fantasy VII’s director and scenario writer– felt that Zack’s story had been “cooking for 10 years.” Between his appearances in Before Crisis & Last Order, along with his recontextualized death in Advent Children, it’s clear the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII was trying to make the most out of Zack from the get-go. The multimedia sub-series had given the Turks their own game, shined a spotlight on Vincent Valentine, and even expanded upon the original FFVII’s ending. It was only a matter of time before Zack Fair got his chance to shine. Marking the end of the Compilation, Crisis Core takes Final Fantasy VII back to the beginning in a prequel that fundamentally changes how one views the classic RPG.
In specific reference to Crisis Core’s relationship to the greater Final Fantasy VII universe, Kitase clarified that the prequel’s intent was never about “paying tribute to the original, but to create a connection between the original and all the other Compilation titles.” Crisis Core is meant to be a grand recontextualization by design, staying true to Zack’s depiction in the sub-series rather than the original game. At the same time, Crisis Core is also the last entry in a sub-series whose modus operandi was always retconning the source material. Before Crisis had Rufus bankroll AVALANCHE in secret, the aforementioned Advent Children featured Zack passing his legacy to Cloud, and Dirge of Cerberus tucked deep ground underneath all our noses.
It’s not surprising in the slightest that Crisis Core doubles down on the Compilation’s worst qualities, but in doing so, it stands out as the single best effort to come out of the ill-conceived project. Advent Children and Dirge of Cerberus are flawed pieces of media, to begin with, but they ultimately fail because they lack clear identities. The former is trapped as a sequel to a story that ended on a conclusive note, while the latter strays too far from Final Fantasy VII’s tone and themes to feel justified in its existence. More pressingly, Advent Children and Dirge of Cerberus are too intimately attached to their source game to craft an identity of their own within the Compilation. They’re simply not standalone.
Advent Children has its own sense of style but the story is utterly incoherent without prior knowledge of FFVII, while Dirge of Cerberus retconning Vincent Valentine’s backstory falls flat on its face. Wisely, Crisis Core does not attach itself as deeply to Final Fantasy VII. All the right iconography is present– opening on a train, the Bombing Mission theme playing, most instances with Sephiroth & Aerith– but they exist as accessories to the story at large. Thinking of Crisis Core as a prequel to the Compilation, and not solely to Final Fantasy VII specifically, doesn’t fix its narrative problems, but it helps contextualize the game better. In refusing to be a tribute to FFVII, Crisis Core is able to tell a story that– if nothing else– can stand alone while closing the Compilation on a self-contained high.
It goes without saying, but this approach is a double-edged sword. Crisis Core can only ignore Final Fantasy VII so much, and it ends up making a major retcon of its own before all is said & done. Keeping the Compilation in mind makes Crisis Core’s changes easier to stomach, but it does end up changing the past too much for its own good. At the same time, the distance allows for Zack to shine as his own character & his emotionally charged arc is a highlight even if his new death is completely antithetical to the original. Frankly, Crisis Core is a game with as many highs as it has lows, but what keeps it from being just another dead-end entry in the Compilation is a commitment to player control.
Explicitly designed not to be a tribute to Final Fantasy VII, it’s poetic Crisis Core ends up living up to the original game where it matters most. FFVII always made sure to keep the player in control, even for the smaller moments. While Crisis Core tells a very cutscene heavy story, an active effort is made to pace out cutscenes and ensure players can actually engage with the game. Side quests are taken on and triggered exclusively through the menu, and breaks in the story often exist solely to let the players actually play the game. This keeps Crisis Core’s plot and gameplay moving at a pace dictated exclusively by the player. For all its faults, the fact Crisis Core respects player control so much does make it a more compelling experience.
“Use brings about wear, tear and rust, and that’s a real waste.”
All the same, the gameplay loop does require a considerable amount of patience, in large part due to the DMW (Digital Mind Wave) system. Perpetually reeling in the upper left-hand corner, the DMW is a slot machine that affects just about everything in combat– from when Zack levels up, to which Limits he uses. Not only does the DMW spin three slots numbered 1 through 7, characters are added to the slot machine as Zack meets them over the course of the story. Characters met during the main plot offer Zack the ability to trigger Limits. Get three Aeriths in the DMW, and Zack will trigger Healing Wind, with its level calculated by the numbers slotted alongside Aerith. Needless to say, the more characters Zack meets, the more often the DMW will lead to Limits
While this seems to only benefit the player at first glance, the very nature of the DMW means that the flow of combat is constantly interrupted. Along with character Limits, Summon Materia is triggered via the DMW. If a Limit check fails, the slot machine will trigger any Summons Zack has collected, spinning a new version of the DMW. Likewise, there’s Chocobo Mode in the event that the Summon check fails, and Genesis Mode in the event all the checks fail. The DMW is designed to work in the player’s favor as much as possible, whether they want it to or not.
While CG Summon scenes can be skipped, all in-game animations triggered by the DMW need to be watched. This applies just as much to Zack as it does to enemies, resulting in quite a bit of waiting around before any given battle is done. As the DMW only becomes more intrusive with time, this is a system audiences can comfortably decide whether or not they’re into right out the gate. For anyone looking to play a traditional action RPG, the DMW is Crisis Core’s biggest weakness– but it isn’t poorly implemented. It’s understandable why someone wouldn’t want to stick with the gameplay loop, but what the DMW offers is uniquely rewarding and an interesting means of weaponizing the Compilation’s inherently cinematic qualities.
It’s important to note the DMW is designed to reward Zack more often than not. Very rarely will the slot machine offer the player nothing if the Modulating Phase triggers. At the worst of times, Zack’s HP or MP will simply partially restore. Perhaps it’s not worth watching the DMW in action for minor healing, but these unlucky moments are really just present to offset how consistently useful the DMW actually is. Crisis Core demands patience with the understanding that you’ll be rewarded.
More often than not, the DMW will buff Zack’s stats and offer him gameplay bonuses. 666 makes every hit crit, 222 removes MP cost for the rest of the fight, and ##7 allows Zack to endure one mortal blow. As the DMW typically restores HP, MP, and AP, it’s not unusual for Zack’s health pool to actually overflow past his max HP. While a small touch, overflow gives the DMW more personality and ensures it’s never a detriment to the player. In particularly tense situations, the right DMW result can be the difference between life & death. Luck does have its place in games, and it would be a lie to say that the DMW doesn’t make Crisis Core a bit more exciting.
It should be pointed out that while the DMW requires a bit of luck to make the most of, the system isn’t entirely random as evidenced by how Zack levels. Crisis Core doesn’t convey it well, but Zack actually has a hidden experience value. It’s telegraphed in-game that Zack only levels up when the DMW hits a 777, but it’s not specified when exactly the game makes a leveling check. Just like with Limit, Summon, and Chocobo checks, the DMW looks at Zack’s hidden EXP value to determine whether or not he can level up.
If Zack has enough experience, there’s a chance the DMW will land on 777, but there’s no guarantee the DMW will actually trigger a level up when Zack is ready. In that sense, there is a bit of randomness involved. That said, since Crisis Core only checks Max EXP, it’s possible for Zack to level up back to back in the event players were particularly unlucky and failed to get their 777 right away. It seems as though Crisis Core recognizes this to some extent, as it’s not uncommon to get two level ups in a row.
But what indicates how controlled the DMW really comes from the Emotion Gauge. Another hidden value (obscuring information itself a recurring problem of Crisis Core’s,) the Emotion Gauge determines the frequency of the DMW and the quality of buffs. Zack’s Emotions can be manipulated through combat– split into five tiers from Low to Heavenly– but the storyline also uses the DMW as a means of conveying Zack’s feelings at any given time. Certain events in the plot will lead to Zack’s emotions being “heightened,” resulting in the character he’s thinking of appearing more frequently as a Limit. At least narratively, the DMW works when it counts most.
With all this in mind, it’s best to think of Crisis Core as an Action RPG with turn-based sensibilities. When looking at the DMW as the end of a turn or the equivalent of watching a Limit in FFVII (which, let’s be honest, it is,) it’s not that intrusive. There’s a rhythm to how the DMW moves as well, always allowing the player to indulge as Zack a bit before triggering.
It’s generous enough where late game Zacks can plow through random encounters before the DMW can even finish its first reel. At the end of the day, though, it is difficult to ignore the DMW’s inherent flaws. Between the constant interruptions and long animations, it’s a hard system to love the longer Crisis Core goes on. You really need to exercise patience to be able to appreciate the DMW. There’s certainly value in that, but Crisis Core’s lack of in-game context is not a boone. If nothing else, at least the core combat is perfectly smooth.
“This sword is a symbol of our family’s dreams and honor.”
It’s a shame the DMW is so off-putting by design because Crisis Core’s core combat has a simple, addictive quality to it. Zack more or less controls like a basic action RPG protagonist. He has a 4-hit combo, each swing stronger than the last, plus the ability to dodge & block. Actions are selected from an in-battle mini-menu which players customize by equipping Materia. Zack will have access to his Attack and bag of Items by default, but every other command needs to be equipped. Materia can range from recovery magic like Cure, to abilities like Vital Slash, a technique that always crits.
Much like Crisis Core’s PSP sister game, Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep, very little consideration has been given to balancing player customization and it’s by no means difficult to outfit Zack with an especially deadly loadout. Poison and Sleep affect just about everything, the Gravity line of spells rip through large health pools, and Hell Firaga shoots out three powerful fireballs that inflict status ailments on enemies. Command Materia are usually designed to play off of Zack’s minimal swordplay, as well. Jump allows Zack to make use of the classic Dragoon technique, Assault Twister+ is a spin attack with hits enemies twice, and Power Attack is a traditional heavy strike. Along with techniques like Darkness which cast from Zack HP pool, there’s plenty of Mateira variety to experiment with.
Materia Fusion is the cherry on top of the unbalanced sundae. Around the halfway point, Zack will unlock the ability to fuse pieces of Materia together. Later, he can optionally unlock the ability to augment his fusions with items. Regardless of what a player chooses to fuse, the item system allows one to attach potentially enormous stat buffs to Materia. With the right items, it’s possible to eventually fuse a Curaga that gives Zack +999% HP, or a Quake that offers +100 ATK. Of course, getting to that point takes time and patience, but there’s nothing stopping players from diving into the grind as soon as they can. Crisis Core is more than happy to let players break the difficulty curve, which has its benefits and detriments.
Crisis Core is an easy RPG to trivialize, but it also just has a bad difficulty curve, to begin with. As fun, as it is to turn Zack into the God Sephiroth, wishes he could be through Materia Fusion, it’s actually the mission system that breaks the game. As previously mentioned, side quests can be accessed from the menu. So long as Zack is standing on a save point, he can take on missions for Shinra. There are so many side quests in the first batch of missions, those who do them all as soon as they can be in their 20s when they should be pushing level 10, making Zack ferociously over-leveled.
Story missions become a complete joke where Zack is one-shotting everything, and the only way to preserve the difficulty curve is to either stop doing missions altogether (thus missing out on the best Materia and equipment in the game,) or to double down and do them all. Considering Crisis Core’s mentality to side content is “quantity over quality,” binge-playing through missions can get tedious fast. This isn’t to say the missions are poorly designed– none of them really are– but just okay level design spread across 300 missions admittedly loses its luster before even the 100th mission. They’re well suited for short burst gaming (fitting as Crisis Core is a PSP game,) but high random encounters rates and repetitive level design keep them from ever being as engaging as they should.
If nothing else, boss fights are quite memorable. Even when they’re not difficult, bosses often have so much health that they feel like spectacles. Some of the harder, optional bosses can also make you break a sweat. Since bosses have access to their own Limits, it’s important to react accordingly and make sure Zack can heal at any time. There’s nothing more stressful than getting locked in a boss animation, waiting to see if Zack can withstand the hit. Similarly, there’s a thrill to dodge canceling out of spellcasting to avoid an attack. Zack’s dodge is stiff, but snappy, allowing him to get out of danger quickly. Blocking also prevents a generous amount of damage, making up close combat fulfilling for those who can read enemy movements & guard accordingly.
The core combat and the Materia system may shine, but Crisis Core’s poorly explained DMW & inconsistent difficulty curve can make the action RPG a hard sell. In comparison to the rest of the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII, Crisis Core is a masterpiece, but when analyzed amongst the rest of the genre, its oddities naturally make it stand out– and not necessarily in the best of ways. Still, player defined difficulty is never a bad thing and the novelty of relying on a slot machine as an all purpose combat multi-tool is fun in moderation.
When it comes down to it, Crisis Core’s main draw isn’t the combat, it’s the story. Unlike other entries in the Compilation, Crisis Core does make use of control to tell its story. Not as much as Final Fantasy VII did, but to a respectable degree. Mini-games return, and while they’re not amazing, they’re in the spirit of FFVII which is a nice touch. For the Compilation’s final outing, it’s nice to see the story respect the medium it’s a part of. Zack’s no Cloud as far as control goes, but he’s no Vincent either. Zack’s most important moments are conveyed through gameplay, not cutscenes. Against all odds, Zack’s arc features some of the franchise’s most emotionally charged writing. It’s enough to want to make anyone want to overlook Crisis Core’s flaws, but this isn’t just Zack’s story.
“If you are driven to the edge, the game is over.”
Crisis Core ostensibly centers around two story arcs: that of Zack and Sephiroth’s. Their arcs are rounded out by the inclusion of two brand new characters, Angeal Hewley and Genesis Rhapsados. Both 1st Class SOLDIERs, Angeal and Genesis are childhood friends as well as Sephiroth’s closest companions. In contrast to Genesis & Sephiroth’s personal rivalry, Angeal moonlights as Zack’s personal mentor and serves as the first wielder of the iconic Buster Sword– Final Fantasy VII’s signature weapon. Angeal and Genesis are meant to flesh out Zack & Sephiroth’s arcs by existing as foils to them, but they’re ultimately too derivative to serve as serviceable literary foils.
Zack’s relationship with Angeal is clearly meant to parallel Cloud’s relationship with Zack, albeit on a healthier scale. In the same way Zack explained how Cloud was the way he was, Angeal exists to ground Zack’s character with some more context. That’s a fine idea in theory, but the problem is that Angeal’s role in Crisis Core is ultimately no different from Zack’s in Final Fantasy VII. Angeal’s death fundamentally changes Zack in the same way Zack’s changed Cloud. Zack inherits Angeal’s Buster Sword in the same way Cloud inherited Zack’s. Zack takes on Angeal’s mannerisms in the same way Advent Children retconned Cloud into becoming Zack’s living legacy.
Beyond this plot already having been written, there’s little to chew on character-wise as far as Angeal is concerned. Zack wasn’t in much of Final Fantasy VII, but he was memorable enough to inspire his own prequel game years after the fact. Angeal is Zack without any of the personality, put front and center. For all intents and purposes, Angeal’s character is the Buster Sword. It’s the most interesting detail about his character, and arguably has more personality than the man himself. Angeal is Zack’s own Zack, which really undermines their relationship. A pity since Zack’s struggle to make sense of their friendship makes for some good drama.
Sephiroth doesn’t fare any better with Genesis. Their relationship is essentially a mirror to Cloud’s relationship with Sephiroth. In the exact same way, Sephiroth reveals the truth about Cloud’s background, Genesis is retconned into revealing the truth about Sephiroth’s birth. Rather than coming upon the information by himself, Genesis informs Sephiroth directly that JENOVA is his mother. It’s only then that Sephiroth begins spiraling into madness. Sephiroth goes from unmaking himself to letting Genesis break his psyche at face value. The idea of paralleling Sephiroth’s breakdown with Cloud’s is interesting enough, but the problem is that they were already great foils. Cloud painfully faces the lies he’s telling himself to come out a stronger man, while Sephiroth is undone by his own vain understanding of the “truth.”
Making Genesis the messenger of Sephiroth’s madness is likewise Crisis Core’s way of amplifying the tragedy of Sephiroth’s downfall. Sephiroth, like Zack, is forced to watch his friend slip away. Sephiroth is an observer suffering at the hands of a man he considered his best friend. It’s a fine enough story, but it just doesn’t work. There is zero substance to Sephiroth & Genesis’ relationship. Sephiroth having his own Sephiroth is arguably worse than Zack having his own Zack, but the problem here isn’t so much the retconning as it is Genesis himself. Angeal is as flat as they come, but Genesis is a narrative nuisance more often than not.
Genesis’ issues as the main antagonist stem from two key problems: a lack of context and exceptionally weak character writing. In regards to the former, Genesis’ arc centers around the deterioration of his body and his growing hatred of SOLDIER. Discovering that he was experimented on, Genesis deems himself a “monster,” complete with a single wing to prove it. By the time the events of Crisis Core begin, Genesis has already led a mutiny against SOLDIER. Who Genesis was before his deterioration is never delved into, neither is his career at SOLDIER. Zack never knew Genesis beforehand, giving him zero frame of reference for who he is.
It’s only through Angeal and Sephiroth that the player gets a glimpse at Genesis, but virtually all his dialogue is quoted from LOVELESS, an in-universe epic poem that was referenced offhand in Final Fantasy VII. While the idea of shining a spotlight on an in-universe piece of theatre is some great worldbuilding, Genesis basically spends the entire game butchering the text with laughable surface-level analysis. He’ll read from LOVELESS at inopportune times, refusing to give his character any depth. Passages from LOVELESS are often too flowery for their own good, and the melodrama inherent to Genesis can make these sequences almost groan-worthy.
Not helping matters is how superficial Genesis’ self-hate is. He resents the world because he’s a monster– going so far as to murder his parents and slaughter the village he grew up in– but the text never makes clear what being a monster means to Genesis. Anytime he tries to convey why being a monster is bad, the camera simply pans to Genesis’ wing, as if that’s some clear answer. Crisis Core never gets into the inner workings of who he is, or his relationship with the people around him. It isn’t until the very end of the game where Genesis’ motivations are made explicit, and even then Zack can’t help but exclaim how he simply doesn’t understand what Genesis is talking about.
Crisis Core expects audiences to accept Genesis at face value, and to immediately connect with him, but there’s nothing remotely relatable about him. Genesis’ crusade against Shinra lacks weight or context, resulting in a lifeless arc. Beyond that, both Angeal & Genesis are derivative by design and add a cyclical nature to Final Fantasy VII’s narrative that fails to say anything meaningful through metatextual storytelling. While Angeal doesn’t hurt Zack’s character arc, Genesis muddies Sephiroth’s. Even independent of Final Fantasy VII’s depiction of Nibelheim, Genesis’ “big reveal” is one of Crisis Core’s sloppiest moments, with the scene presented with a considerable lack of weight. Genesis is too important to ignore, but he mercifully isn’t the crux of the narrative. What truly defines Crisis Core’s story are the relationships that define Zack Fair.
“Boy oh boy… the price of freedom is steep.”
As the entirety of Crisis Core is framed through the rise and fall of Zack’s career as a 1st Class SOLDIER, it’s only fitting the story explores what being in SOLDIER means for Zack. At the start of the game, he wants nothing more than to be promoted to 1st Class. For Zack, reaching the top tier of SOLDIER means inching one step closer to becoming a hero– his personal dream. Zack’s early idealism promises the adventures of a happy-go-lucky protagonist ready to take on the world, but Zack’s arc is ultimately one of tragedy. Angeal defecting after the first chapter starts to muddy Zack’s perception of SOLDIER, forcing him to find motivation elsewhere.
Zack’s relationship with SOLDIER’s ideology ebbs and flows over the course of the game. Anyone who has played Final Fantasy VII beforehand understands the true nature of SOLDIER, and Crisis Core doesn’t try to downplay that. While there’s a friendly camaraderie amongst the men of SOLDIER, the organization blatantly runs rampant with both corruption and in-house propaganda. Players get to witness Shinra’s doublethink firsthand, all the while Zack follows his orders, fully committed to his life in SOLDIER no matter what.
By the time Angeal dies and Zack inherits the Buster Sword, his relationship with SOLDIER has been totally warped. He takes on Angeal’s personal mantra of SOLDIER honor as a means of raising troop morale, but the somber personality Zack gradually develops over the course of the game indicates that his heart isn’t in SOLDIER anymore. Seeing what Shinra did to Angeal forces Zack to reconsider his allegiances, but Zack Fair doesn’t have the heart of a hero– he’s a soldier. For as much as he has his own ideals and beliefs, Zack doesn’t break away from SOLDIER until it’s too late. He follows all of his order diligently and rarely asks questions out of turn. Zack is just as much a victim of SOLDIER as everyone else. There’s an almost pitiful quality to Zack holding onto his SOLDIER honor even in death– it was truly all he had left.
Along with playing a key role in Cloud’s backstory, Final Fantasy VII established Zack as Aerith’s first love. While the extent of their relationship was never shown, Aerith’s in-game dialogue suggested she had a deep love for him, which Zack’s secret scene confirms was mutual. Advent Children even went so far as to pair Zack and Aerith off together in the afterlife, weaving them a retroactively grand love story that transcends life & death. Playing up Zack and Aerith so much inadvertently downplays the nuance of their relationship, so Crisis Core’s surprising restraint is very much appreciated.
Aerith doesn’t appear all that often, but what few scenes she shares with Zack are more than enough to convey the scope of their love for one another. From the outset, Zack & Aerith have immediate chemistry, and players even get to accompany Aerith on a date in-game. Aerith calls in to check on Zack, she’s often on Zack’s mind, he carries a list of all her wishes in his pocket, and Zack even goes to the effort of making Aerith’s flower wagon for her. Gameplay with Aerith around is always simple, but needing to do boyfriend stuff as Zack makes for some cute set pieces.
While Zack and Aerith have plenty of charming moments throughout the game, their best comes midway through. Following the death of his best friend, Zack visits the Sector 5 Church. As Aerith tends to the flowers, Zack breaks down sobbing until Aerith comes from behind and holds him. There’s minimal dialogue, and the camera doesn’t linger on Zack’s face– all we can hear is Zack’s crying, all we see is Aerith holding him. It’s a powerful display of affection, showing how deep Zack and Aerith’s love runs. Crisis Core never gets more explicit than that, but it never needs to. Of all the scenes to come out of the expanded Compilation, Aerith embracing Zack is arguably the most poignant.
As Zack was primarily contextualized through his relationship with Cloud in Final Fantasy VII, it’s only fitting that Crisis Core dedicates a fair amount of time to fleshing out the bond between these two men. Notably, Cloud & Zack’s relationship is expanded on without Cloud’s presence overwhelming Zack’s arc. For most of the game, Cloud is an unsure farmboy and he acts it. Zack carries himself with so much confidence while Cloud sulks like a normal 16-year-old. Most importantly, Crisis Core remembers Cloud is a dork at heart. Zack calls him a weirdo for refusing to take off his helmet at Nibelheim, and Cloud’s emails to Zack carry such a charming “notice me” energy. After Advent Children made Cloud all dark and dour, his depiction in Crisis Core is a fresh change of pace.
Cloud and Zack build a genuine friendship throughout their interactions, bonding over their home life and their dreams. When the duo accompanies Sephiroth to Nibelheim, they’re so close that Zack is comfortable sharing his with Cloud his growing disdain for SOLDIER. Zack has other friends in SOLDIER– Kunsel and Luxiere– but he’s never close with them the same way he is with Cloud. Crisis Core truly delivers on the promise of Zack’s secret cutscenes, insofar as his relationship with Cloud goes. By the time Zack & Cloud are being hunted by Shinra like dogs, Zack’s unwavering determination to keep Cloud alive is completely earned.
While Nibelheim itself doesn’t fare well from the retcons, Zack and Cloud’s escape from Nibelheim is reenvisioned reasonably well. Genesis has a presence and serves as the game’s final boss (albeit not final set-piece,) but the majority of the final act revolves around Zack desperately trying to get Cloud to safety. Crisis Core even reframes traversal so that Zack is clearing the path for Cloud every time the player enters a new area. It’s the smallest of touches, but it puts into perspective how much Zack is doing for Cloud. The brief moments where they can rest feature Zack monologuing to a silent Cloud, trying to stir his friend back up while clinging to a future that won’t come. Genesis may be an important antagonistic figure, but the meat of the finale is in Zack’s friendship with Cloud.
“Hey, would you say I became a hero?”
Between strong character writing and an emotionally raw performance that sells Zack as a three-dimensional character, Crisis Core ends on a high. With Genesis defeated, Zack and Cloud are ambushed on the outskirts of Midgar by Shinra. Surrounded by infantrymen, Zack takes Cloud to safety and marches towards the final fight of his life. Crisis Core’s grand finale is a genuine battle to the death. No matter what, Zack will die, but players are welcome to survive as long as Zack can hold out. At this point in the story, Zack is worn down physically and emotionally– he’s at his breaking point and the gameplay reflects that.
The longer the final fight goes on, the more the DMW falls apart. Slowly but surely, characters are removed from the roulette and the slot machine stops offering Limits altogether. After cutting through most of Shinra’s army, Zack is left with only Aerith in the DMW. The first phase of the fight is more or less a traditional battle, but killing enough infantrymen will transition to a second phase where Zack goes head to head with the three remaining survivors. What should be an easy fight is tragedy in motion as Zack’s mobility takes a massive hit.
Now limping on the battlefield, Zack can barely lift the Buster Sword. His swings can connect, but they’ll always fail to deal a killing blow. As players are sprayed with bullets, the DMW desperately tries to reel in Aerith. Aerith’s Limit is notably the only one designed to exclusively restore health, Healing Wind. It’s a tease unlike any other, giving any unsuspecting players hope that Zack may live up to his promise of seeing Aerith again. No matter what you do, the DMW will always trigger just a second too late. Right after Zack is shot point blank in the chest, the DMW registers Aerith before fading away one last time.
Of course, it can’t be ignored how extremely superheroic Zack comes off after slaughtering dozens of trained infantrymen. His death in the original Final Fantasy VII was raw and real, to the point where he died without so much as saying a word. Considering the fact Crisis Core is a video game, however, keeping players in complete while Zack dies is a change that’s not totally inappropriate. It’s a shame it’s accompanied by dialogue, but the act of playing out Zack’s death does make the change worth it. Zack’s action-heavy death may not be thematically or narratively in-line with FFVII, but it makes for a climax that could only be experienced in a video game.
If Crisis Core found a way to simply focus on Zack’s relationship with Cloud & Aerith followed by his death, it would actually make for a strong narrative prequel. Crisis Core’s story manages to find a way to stand alone courtesy of Zack– a trait unique to CC in the context of the Compilation. Regardless of how his death contradicts Final Fantasy VII, Zack’s arc is a self-contained tragedy with no greater context needed to appreciate it. In fact, not having context from Final Fantasy VII allows his death to sit all the better. Unattached from the legacy of his character, Crisis Core gives Zack Fair one of the best deaths in the medium.
As if every facet of its design is at odds with itself, Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII is a double-edged Buster Sword. At its best, Crisis Core is an emotionally charged tragedy with a generous amount of player freedom. At its worst, Crisis Core tramples on the themes that defined the original Final Fantasy VII while overindulging to the point of tedium. Between Genesis, Angeal, and the neutering of Sephiroth’s breakdown, it can feel as though the story does more harm than good; but it’s all carried by Zack Fair. From the people who defined him, to the ideals he struggles to embody, Zack is one of Final Fantasy’s finest protagonists.
The tragedy of a young man who dedicates his life to an organization that turns on him makes for a compelling story. Zack’s dream to be a hero is only realized after he abandons SOLDIER and gives his life to save Cloud’s. Zack’s death in Crisis Core is perfect for Crisis Core. It’s antithetical to how Final Fantasy VII depicted death, but keeping players in control until Zack literally drops dead from a gameplay perspective is not only genius, it’s completely in the spirit of how FFVII approached interconnectivity. As messy as it is addictive, and as genuinely heartbreaking as it is sincerely stupid, Crisis Core is the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII at its very best.