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‘Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII’— The Single Worst Spin-Off

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“And so the hound weaves his final chapter in this tale of life.” 

Final Fantasy VII is considered one of the greatest video games of all time, and for good reason. The 1997 RPG offered a gripping, emotional story with themes rooted in our political & environmental reality. At the center of it all was an incredibly strong core cast who all developed over the course of the journey, but what lent FFVII its title of masterpiece was the control central to the experience. Players were not an audience, but part of the game’s world. Cloud’s journey of self-discovery is even contextualized through control, with the player losing access to their protagonist when he’s at his most unsure of himself. Final Fantasy VII crafts a story that is best told in the video game format, something the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII cannot abide by virtue of its conception. 

Yoshinori Kitase always intended for the Compilation to be a multimedia sub-series, with no plans to make a traditional RPG in the vein of Final Fantasy VII. Before Crisis– an episodic cellphone game– and Advent Children– a feature-length animated film– exemplified Kitase’s sentiment loud & clear. Where the former served as a prequel setting up and recontextualizing key events in FFVII proper, the latter was a direct sequel. Advent Children set a precedent for poor follow-ups, failing to understand what exactly made the original story click. Beyond control, that is. 

One consistent problem within the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII is the sub-series’ inability to pay respect to its source game’s themes. FFVII notably tackled death in a way that was chillingly real, forcing the audience to face the reality of a life-ending with no drama, no fanfare. Themes of environmentalism and class weren’t subtle, but they were rooted in problems plaguing the real world, conveyed in a manner that reflected society on the cusp of a new millennium. Final Fantasy VII was relatable in a way most pieces of media truly aren’t. With few exceptions, the Compilation loses all semblance of tact, valuing surface-level entertainment over thematic or narrative cohesion. 

But to be fair, surface-level entertainment is what the Compilation goes for more often than not. That doesn’t excuse how poorly the Compilation “expands” on its source material, but it’s an important distinction to make. Advent Children may fundamentally misunderstand how Final Fantasy VII uses death, but the film features strong fight choreography, and Cloud’s new Fusion Sword basically begs for gameplay. It wouldn’t have fixed its thematic & narrative problems, but Advent Children might have benefitted from being an action game instead, something Dirge of Cerberus could have been a response to. 

Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII was not the first game in the Compilation, but it was the first to be released on a home console, serving as the first video game sequel to FFVII. Due to Kitase’s love of shooters at the time, Square Enix was set on making a gun based action game even before they formally announced Dirge of Cerberus’ title and premise. As a result, they toyed with many different ideas for the protagonist, at one point considering Barret Wallace as the lead. Ultimately, the role of the main character went to the one-party member in Final Fantasy VII who would benefit most from it– Vincent Valentine.

Alongside Yuffie Kisaragi, Vincent was one of two secret party members present in Final Fantasy VII. As revealed in Final Fantasy VII 10th Anniversary Ultimania (Revised Edition,) time constraints were so tight, Vincent was almost cut from the game entirely. While the dev team couldn’t give Vincent the same treatment as Yuffie (optional albeit with meaty side quests,) he did make it into the final game as a secret character present in the basement of Shinra Mansion. Having been added so late into development, Vincent naturally has next to no plot presence, but his role in Final Fantasy VII’s backstory positions him as quite an important observer. 

Although little is revealed about Vincent’s past as a Turk, ancillary dialogue dives into the relationship between him and Hojo– Final Fantasy VII’s resident mad scientist and arguable chief antagonist. Bringing Vincent to the fight against Hojo will result in the two briefly referencing their past. Similarly, Vincent and Tifa will discuss the burning of Nibelheim together if they’re both in the party during the final dungeon. As Vincent was the most silent of FFVII’s party members (by virtue of his late addition and stand-offish presence,) these brief moments of personality are really all fans had to go on to get a sense of who Vincent was. To the script’s credit, an admirable job is done at giving Vincent some semblance of depth. 

Vincent was added so late into development, the character lacks even a single side quest. What he does have, though, is a secret cutscene. A hidden waterfall can be found at the end of Disc 2 by diving underwater and finding a secret alcove. If Vincent is in the party, he’ll be reunited with Lucrecia, a scientific colleague of Hojo’s, his implied lover, and the explicit mother of Sephiroth. With next to no dialogue, the following scenes depict Vincent’s history with Lucrecia. Assigned to the Shinra Mansion as a Turk, the two formed some kind of connection that Lucrecia ended up severing. An embrace with Hojo suggests the two were lovers, with Vincent content to watch from afar so long as she’s happy. 

As Lucrecia falls pregnant, Hojo chooses to experiment on their son, Sephiroth, with Vincent objecting. Lucrecia is seemingly racked by guilt over this, an implied victim of Hojo’s abuse, while Vincent is unceremoniously shot when confronting the scientist– becoming another of Hojo’s experiments. Psychologically broken, both Vincent and Lucrecia choose to seal themselves away as penance. Vincent for the sin of watching as Hojo abused Lucrecia, and Lucrecia for failing to prevent her son from be experimented on. Given that there’s little to no dialogue during this sequence, much of what actually happens is up to interpretation. In turn, it’s entirely possible to read Lucrecia as compliant with Hojo’s experiments. It’s tonally more appropriate that she isn’t, but there’s no really getting around the ambiguity given how late Vincent was added into development. 

All the same, it’s exactly this which made Vincent interesting. Final Fantasy VII couldn’t offer audiences his full backstory, but what glimpses we got were quite powerful. Lucrecia’s Waterfall can almost be viewed as a short story about abuse, giving an otherwise substanceless character considerable depth. A sequel story starring Vincent only makes sense with this in mind, and an action game was the perfect genre. Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII redefined Vincent Valentine and the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII, adding new details that fundamentally change how one views Vincent, Lucrecia, & the Hojo of it all. And it ain’t pretty. 

A third person shooter with RPG elements, Dirge of Cerberus is blatantly torn between two genres. On one hand, it’s painfully clear the dev team wanted to make a pure shooting game. On the other hand, it’s just as clear how little confidence they had in the final product. Quite literally, actually. Development was so stifled that the team drastically reworked the game for its international release. This wasn’t just a small update either, with the Japanese release resembling an (albeit near release) Early Alpha game in a modern context. 

The team was so unsatisfied with the Japanese release, that the online mode which arguably defined the game domestically was gutted out, Easy mode was replaced with a harder difficulty, the field of view was scaled back so players could better see their surroundings, and Vincent was given a double jump along with the ability to shoot mid-air, plus a dash to replace his lackluster dodge roll. It’s certainly not unusual for Square Enix to rework content for their international releases, but Dirge of Cerberus is mechanically jarring between regions. 

Despite being a video game, it’s best to look at Dirge of Cerberus as a sequel to Advent Children, not Final Fantasy VII. Not only does the story tonally and thematically resemble AC’s, DoC as a game simply doesn’t value what FFVII valued– at least not on the same scale. Vincent lacks a relationship with control (& therefore the player) like Cloud did, and the story is told almost exclusively through cutscenes, seldom through gameplay. Considering how entertaining Advent Children’s action was, this shouldn’t be so damning. Even with a localization designed to make the game better, Dirge of Cerberus suffers from some of the blandest game design Square Enix has produced. 

Gunplay is controlled with the left stick moving Vincent and the right stick moving the camera/reticle. R1 brings up the gun reticle, otherwise Vincent will default to melee attacks with Square. Aiming itself is divided into three settings (Manual, Semi-Automatic, and Automatic,) and is snappy enough on Semi-Auto. Unfortunately, brain-dead enemy AI on all difficulties and generous ammo kill the difficulty curve right out the gate. There’s no need to conserve ammunition, and dying is a complete slap on the wrist. In fact, the only way to grind for EXP or Gil is to keep getting Game Overs. 

One would expect that if Square Enix was going to deliver on anything with Dirge of Cerberus, it would be through the RPG side of things. Tragically, DoC’s leveling system is an utter disaster. Vincent will gain experience by killing enemies, but the EXP won’t actually register until Vincent dies or the Chapter ends. There, players must choose between keeping the experience they earned, or converting it all to Gil. Since Vincent’s guns are directly powered by upgrading, Gil is actually incredibly important in the game, more so than EXP. But this isn’t something the game conveys well, with any competent players doomed to Game Over grind for Gil if they keep eating EXP. It’s a system designed to ensure struggling players are always making progress, but at the expense of anyone halfway decent at the game. 

This wouldn’t be as big a problem if stages were simply paced better. Dirge of Cerberus’ structure is astronomically bad. Divided into 12 Chapters, there is no regard whatsoever for chapter length. Certain missions will only last for a few minutes, while others will push an hour across multiple unique set pieces. Chapter 5 features Vincent in the sewers, a Cait Sith stealth segment, and Vincent exploring Shinra Mansion before capping off with a boss fight. There is three chapters worth of content here, but it’s all jammed into Chapter 5. Since players can’t cash their EXP until the end of a chapter, there’s zero sense of progression going from the sewers to the mansion as Vincent. 

What makes this all worse is the pick and choose nature of the system. Going for so long without progression isn’t fun in an RPG, but it’s all or nothing with Gil and EXP. If Vincent chooses EXP, that means no Gil for upgrades. If Vincent chooses Gil, that means no EXP for stats. Gil is eventually more important than experience, but Dirge of Cerberus’ difficulty curve is designed around Vincent’s level. It isn’t rewarding picking an option and watching the other remain bone dry, nor is striking a balance at all reasonable. Savvy players will likely stop leveling in the 10s once they realize how insane the bonuses for gun upgrades are. Even then, they’re so expensive that players will likely be tempted to kill themselves to grind. 

The ones who can withstand the mediocre level design that is. Laughably imaginative set pieces– WRO’s unimaginative headquarters, sewers, an ugly part of Midgar, an uglier part of Midgar, and a very poorly recreated area from FFVII– make Dirge of Cerberus look like some knockoff movie game, not the sequel to one of the greatest RPGs ever made. Shinra Mansion, in particular, is an embarrassment, with almost all of its scenery and furniture swapped out in favor of generic crates. It’s as if the stage was specifically designed to rip all the charm out of Final Fantasy VII

As far as art direction goes, this is probably the worst looking entry in the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII. DoC doubles down on Advent Children’s grit, but with none of the all-black class that defined AC’s aesthetic. The majority of stages are visually muddy, with enemies blending into the background and poor lighting obscuring what was once a colorful universe. To Dirge’s credit, there are quite a few secrets to find in each stage, embracing the pursuit of optional content that made Final Fantasy VII so appealing. They don’t make stages any better (arguably worse in some instances!) but it’s done in the spirit of the original. 

Bland level design is nothing without bland enemy design to round it out. Enemies will occasionally appear on screen before they’re actually ready for gameplay, potentially resulting in players wasting ammo on enemies who can’t & won’t die. In some cases, the game will even show the damage being dealt with enemies simply tanking every bullet until players trigger them for real. It’s never not extremely annoying, but what’s arguably more baffling is enemies ignoring Vincent so long as he runs by them. One of the safest tactics in the game is running straight into gunfire, turning around, and unloading on baddies. 

It’s really a good thing Dirge of Cerberus has a great soundtrack because boss fights would have nothing going for them otherwise. The intensity of Arms of Shinra is wasted on bosses like “Helicopter Vincent Can Comfortably Shoot From Far Away” and “Airplane Vincent Can Comfortably Shoot From Far Away,” but it never fails to get the blood pumping. The battles against the game’s core antagonists do offer more involved gameplay– actually requiring hand to hand combat in some instances– but Vincent’s international double jump & dash make avoiding damage extremely easy. All these battles do is put into perspective how poorly designed DoC is. Vincent doesn’t control well enough for melee combat (unable to lock hits into enemies,) shooting is braindead even on Manual, and ammo & items mean nothing since everything is replenished on a Game Over (while the player keeps any EXP or Gil.)

If only the gameplay were the worst of it. While gunplay isn’t that great, it’s passable enough and can make for mindless, albeit inevitably tedious, entertainment. Unfortunately, it’s very hard to enjoy Dirge even at its best due to an incredibly bad cutscene to gameplay ratio. Final Fantasy VII told its story through gameplay more often than not. Any interrupted stretches of the story through cutscenes were naturally momentous, begging the audience’s attention after so much gameplay. Dirge of Cerberus has the opposite effect, breaking up the gameplay so often that it’s hard to remain engaged with the plot. There are nearly 4 hours of cutscenes present, and this is a game that can very easily be beaten in 8 hours. On a first playthrough, the average player will spend nearly half the game watching terribly directed cutscenes. 

While the short campaign length makes cutscenes come off all the worse, Vincent’s gun customization is blatantly designed with a longer game in mind. By Chapter 12, anyone who doesn’t stop to grind will most certainly lack the funds needed to bring the better guns to the finale. Upgrades require so much Gil that one has to assume they’re intended to run through the harder difficulties after finishing the story. It’s a pity progression is so lackluster on all fronts because gun customization, while extremely basic, is a novel way of keeping gameplay fresh. Vincent has access to different guns, accessories, and Materia. 

There’s little depth to the system, but it’s arguably the one thing about the game that actually works– if only because it calls upon active player control. More often than not, Dirge of Cerberus rips control away from Vincent. His most characteristic moments don’t happen in-game like they did with Cloud (the Dragon fight, nearly killing Aerith, the final battle,) with the story making an active effort to tell an emotionally cinematic story about Vincent’s past. The story ends up trying into FFVII’s theme of death with even less tact than AC. Trying to make clear that all life will inevitably end, Omega, another WEAPON in FFVII‘s line-up, is introduced as a harbinger of the end. 

Not only is this just a tired concept in the Compilation’s universe, but Omega is also an awful representation of death, lacking even a modicum of the depth Jenova has as a thematic villain. Final Fantasy VII made the end of life feel tangible, real, and inevitable. Party members die without being able to say goodbye, and the main cast actually fails in their goal by not preventing Meteor. Jenova is a genuine danger who must be stopped. Omega is a nuisance with no screen presence. Dirge of Cerberus wants to approach death with the same maturity as its source game, but it abandons the realism needed to convey its message properly. It’s bad enough that Lucrecia is now a computer ghost who can interact with Vincent seemingly whenever, but it turns out Hojo was able to keep himself alive, further spitting in the face of how FFVII depicted death. 

Hojo ends up being the main antagonist, taking advantage of a long-forgotten initiative by President Shinra– Deepground. Frankly, the fact Hojo is back at all should be mind-numbing, but it’s far from the worst story beat. Underneath Midgar, President Shinra stowed away the Tsviets, supersoldiers who wreak havoc on the surface by the time Dirge of Cerberus’ story starts. Audiences are expected to believe that all throughout Final Fantasy VII, supersoldiers were lurking underneath the slums (the lowest point in Midgar to the point of never getting sun.) Worse is that the plot makes no real effort at trying to link the Tsviets’ motivations to the original game’s themes of class. The mere notion of Deepground obliterates any realism Midgar had, but the Tsviets could have easily been a commentary on extreme poverty and the violence that can ensue as a result, paralleling AVALANCHE– but that would require Dirge of Cerberus to be well written. 

The Tsviets are boring antagonists that are a part of a boring plot, but, like Hojo, they’re surprisingly not the biggest blights on the script. That honor, unfortunately, belongs to Vincent and Lucrecia. To call it “character” assassination would suggest these two had especially defined characters to assassinate, but Dirge of Cerberus just doesn’t bring their arcs anywhere good. If anything, all their scenes chip away at the mysticism that surrounded their relationship. Vincent and Lucrecia’s backstory is poorly written, poorly plotted, and just downright baffling– taking everything that made Vincent’s character interesting and massacring it to pieces.

There were a lot of blank spots in Lucrecia’s Waterfall, but DoC fills in the gaps with some truly moronic writing. It turns out that Lucrecia worked alongside Vincent’s father (also a scientist,) before accidentally causing his death. Vincent, now a Turk, is assigned to work for Lucrecia unaware that she killed his father. Vincent eventually finds out and rather than confronting the situation, Lucrecia becomes exceptionally cruel towards him, sending dangerously mixed signals and effectively sealing Vincent’s fate. Every scene with Lucrecia involves her apologizing while emotionally contradicting herself the entire time– torn between Vincent and Hojo and Vincent’s father and science and her baby. There is no consistency in what she values, who she cares about, or what motivates her. 

Any subtext that could suggest abuse by Hojo’s part is downplayed, making Lucrecia a consensual part of Sephiroth’s experiments. Vincent not only becomes a character with less agency, but DoC bafflingly justifies it, destroying Vincent’s arc– why would he feel like he couldn’t save Lucrecia when she now wants to experiment on her son and blatantly doesn’t have feelings for Vincent? Vincent simply lets Lucrecia and Hojo treat him like garbage, doing nothing. There’s still an interesting story about abuse in here somewhere, but Dirge of Cerberus sure as hell doesn’t tell it and this makes for a pathetic recontextualization of Vincent’s backstory.

The script seems to recognize this to some extent as Lucrecia isn’t Vincent’s love interest, but that leads to a far worse problem: Shelke. A 19-year-old girl with the body of a 10-year-old, Shelke has the face of an adult woman and warms up to Vincent over the course of the game. The feeling is mutual and Vincent literally sees Lucrecia in her by the end of the story, suggesting his feelings for Lucrecia have jumped over to Shelke. Every scene between Vincent and Shelke is horrifically creepy, and the physical contrast between them is not appreciated whatsoever. That cutscenes go out of their way to sexualize Shelke makes her presence significantly worse. Vincent enters Dirge of Cerberus one of Final Fantasy’s coolest characters and exits one of the most pedophilic. It says a lot that Vincent Valentine was more compelling when he was less developed.

Advent Children isn’t good, but at least it’s an entertaining film. Its themes of death are handled poorly, but clocking in at 2 hours keeps the story focused enough where AC can’t do that much damage in the grand scheme of things. Dirge of Cerberus is at its very best just okay, and at its worst an exercise in frustration that puts into perspective why the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII was such a poor idea. Vincent is a retroactively worse character, and his relationship with Lucrecia is muddied within the Compilation itself. Nothing in DoC invalidates Final Fantasy VII or prevents it from being experienced as the standalone RPG it always was, but it’s a miracle Dirge wasn’t a dirge for the Compilation– killing it on the spot. More a victim of flat out bad game design than troubled development, Dirge of Cerberus is Final Fantasy VII at its absolute worst. 

An avid-lover of all things Metal Gear Solid, Devil May Cry, and The Legend of Zelda, Renan spends most of his time passionately raving about Dragon Ball and thinking about how to apply Marxist theory to whatever video game he's currently playing.

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Milòn

    May 16, 2020 at 5:38 am

    Final fantasy VII has a great story, and its a very decent engineered game, but it doesn’t unleashes the potential of the hardware, Its a game tht as been seen from very long with the muddy crystals of BIAS. While DOC is by no means a master piece, is a game tailored for the hardware, a fun game, and it’s a great game for fans of the Saga. DOC story is not mediocre: it’s a good story. DOC us crafted with all three objectives with care from part of the developer. It did it’s job. But for many of us the peak of the franchise came with FFVIII a game with zero improvisations, which can’t be said the same of FFVII.

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