FINAL FANTASY VII REBIRTH: Flashback to the flashback part 2 - Fall of a Hero

Director Naoki Hamaguchi explains what went into making Sephiroth playable, Cloud’s improved combat skills, and recreating one of the most iconic scenes in gaming.
By Duncan Heaney

Welcome back to our deep dive into FINAL FANTASY VII REBIRTH’s iconic Nibelheim incident!

We recently sat down with the game’s Director, Naoki Hamaguchi, to explore this beloved part of the game. Previously, we looked at how the team rebuilt the village of Nibelheim and gave it more life than ever before. You can check that out here if you missed it:

Today, we explore the rest of the flashback up to the iconic scene where a fallen Sephiroth disappears into the flames of the village. Hamaguchi-san talked us through the journey to the reactor and beyond, but we started by discussing Cloud and the future one-winged angel himself…

A close up of Sephiroth

SOLDIER First Class

Unlike the original FINAL FANTASY VII, this new game gives you full control of Sephiroth in battle - and as you’d expect he feels every bit the experienced SOLDIER he is. From the start of development, the team knew they wanted to let players control the character.

Director Naoki Hamaguchi says: “The way Sephiroth appears in the Nibelheim incident is one of the most famous parts of the original game, and we know that many players had wondered how it would be done in the Remake series.

I think that when you consider what people would want to see, and perhaps even what they’d expect, it would be disappointing if you didn’t get to play as Sephiroth in battle. So, making him playable was a natural decision.

Cloud and Sephiroth brandishing their swords

Of course, Sephiroth appears in the opening sections of the game - in fact he’s one of the first characters you control in combat. That means the developers had a lot to consider about how they designed his moveset.

Bear in mind, this is essentially first part of the game, so we felt we needed a character who was easy to control,” says Hamaguchi-san. “You should be able to use him fairly intuitively, without even watching a tutorial or seeing anything - he should just feel good.

But ease of use wasn’t enough. Sephiroth is meant to be the best of the best - as Cloud himself says in the game, “He was in a different league to the rest of us.” That meant that the team faced the challenge of getting that across in the gameplay.

Hamaguchi-san says: “He had to feel strong. We had to give the impression that was fighting on another level to Cloud, so we made his moves really powerful and also very flashy to convey his much greater strength and experience.

Cloud blocking a fiend in FINAL FANTASY VII REBIRTH

The strife of Cloud

Of course, Sephiroth doesn’t do all the fighting. As you ascend up the mountain, an enthusiastic Cloud takes the lead. But fans of the original game may notice that he seems more powerful and effective than he was in the original game’s flashback.

As it turns out, this was a conscious decision. “Making Cloud more capable was done deliberately,” explains Hamaguchi-san. “People who have played the original FINAL FANTASY VII story understand that the version of Cloud who appears in that scene is not entirely the character that people know.

He’s misremembering certain aspects, and you can see that in the way he talks, the way he acts, his body language…

Cloud using fire magic

If you’ve played the original game, you know why this is the case, but the Hamaguchi-san and the team wanted to signal to new players that something is amiss.

People who don’t know the story should pick this stuff up - we definitely want to communicate to them that this doesn’t seem quite right. Why is he behaving so differently to the Cloud we know from FINAL FANTASY VII REMAKE, for example?

That dissonance wasn’t limited to the cutscenes though - in fact, it’s why the character feels stronger than he is in the original. Hamaguchi-san explains:

We made some deliberate choices in terms of presentation, but we also wanted to reflect it through gameplay too. He is deliberately much stronger than fans may remember because it’s not just Cloud’s strength.

Clearly, we’re dancing rather inelegantly around spoilers here, so Hamaguchi sums it up:

Everything was done to make it feel paradoxical - like this isn’t the character you remember. And it was intended to communicate what’s happening in Cloud’s mental state.

Suck it up, SOLDIER!

Cloud and Sephiroth’s journey to the reactor takes them through an abandoned Shinra facility. Amidst the monsters, the team also has to deal with additional hazards like a toxic mako gas leak. In order to progress and unlock the lift, Cloud must suck up the gas and make the area safe to traverse.

There are various reasons we put interactive obstacles or mechanics like the gas extractors in the game,” says Hamaguchi-san. “Sometimes it can be to give the player a puzzle or a challenge that’s outside normal gameplay. That helps them think in a different way.

"With the gas extractors, however, it was more about giving players a hands-on experience of the world itself. To get them to interact in a way that helps them get a secondary look at the lore or setting of the game.

Cloud using a Mako Extractor in FINAL FANTASY VII REBIRTH

This short section sees Cloud push a large machine, which inhales the pockets of gas - something added to convey important information to the player.

Hamaguchi-san says: “This section of the flashback sets up how mako is dangerous to the human body and what type of company Shinra is. For example, before it was abandoned, the employees would have to use these type of safety mechanisms to lower the gas level to where it’s safe to work.

By letting players suck up the gas themselves, it directly shows what kind of substance mako is and what Shinra is like. It throws them into the world much deeper than if we just told them about it because they get to touch and experience it themselves.

It’s only a short section, but even a brief mechanic like using the extractor required significant effort from the team. Hamaguchi-san says:

We put in a lot of work to make the act of sucking up the gas feel satisfying. We had lots of different tests in terms of the visual effects, the sound, the level of vibration and so on. It took a lot of polishing in order to get right.

"In fact, this section originally had a lot more gas coming out than the final game. There were six points on the ground that you had to clean up - and it was this way for most of development. Then, about two weeks from final master, I was looking at it and thought, ‘it might be stressful if the player had to such up so many,’ so I knocked it down to three!

The Materia Guardian unleashed

After the rope bridge leading to the reactor snaps, our heroes plummet into the raging river below. In addition to a regrettable loss of a companion, it also forces them to take a diversion through the mountain.

This leads them into a cave full of natural materia and ultimately a creature that protects it: the Materia Guardian. People who played the original game may recognize it as the Materia Keeper - a fiend that appears much further on in the story. So, why bring this boss forward into the flashback?

Hamaguchi explains: “We felt that to make that a nicely balanced section in terms of gameplay, we needed a boss fight at the end of it. That meant we had to make a decision: do we create a new enemy type, or is there something we could bring back from the original FINAL FANTASY VII?

We very quickly realized that we wanted something from the original because it would delight fans to see something recognizable as the first boss.

As we looked through the Mt. Nibel area, we felt like the Materia Keeper - or Materia Guardian as it’s named now - was the only real option, even though it originally appeared later in the game.

"It worked so well thematically - you have the reactor where mako is processed, and the lifespring before that, so the idea of a creature that protects the lifestream from intruders felt like a really great option.

Sephiroth attacking the Materia Guardian

For the team it felt like a logical choice but were some caveats - particularly when you consider the game that had come before: FINAL FANTASY VII REMAKE.

We did have concerns,” admits Hamaguchi-san. “The first boss of REMAKE was the Scorpion Sentinel, and even though the Materia Guardian is a living creature rather than a mech, they do look quite similar. They’ve both got that arachnoid or insectoid body, for example.

To get around those comparisons, we made a lot of effort to ensure that even if it looked similar visually, the new boss felt very different to the Scorpion Sentinel.

Cloud dealing a finishing blow to the Materia Guardian

Boss logic

With the enemy decided, the team set to work at making it a fun battle. It was an important fight to get right because the Materia Guardian is the first boss you face in the game - and that means it has a lot to do.

Hamaguchi-san says: “A good first boss works as an opportunity to really test the player on everything they’ve learned so far.

The idea is that you have various battles that lead up to the boss, and they tutorialize you on the different battle mechanics, and the different things your characters can do. Then, you get an opportunity to try them all out.

As an example, the Materia Guardian puts you in different situations and encourages you to use the different mechanics to get out of them.

There are parts of the fight where the boss climbs on the ceiling. That encourages the use of the enhanced aerial movement that characters have and helps players to familiarize themselves with these new abilities. Or there are times where the Materia Guardian restrains a character, encouraging you to switch to the other and free them.

Cloud and Sephiroth unleashing a Synergy Ability

But as well giving players a test, the Materia Guardian also provides lessons of its own: Hamaguchi-san says: “We use the Materia Keeper to introduce the Synergy Abilities, where two characters can fight together - in this case Cloud and Sephiroth.

Placing that lesson within the first boss makes for a really memorable moment for players, as they realize what this new system can do. It also gives them the motivation to really dig into Synergy Skills and Abilities from Chapter 2 onwards, when they can use in other battles.

Sephiroth standing next to a door marked 'JENOVA'

Mother’s Day

When Cloud and Sephiroth arrive at the reactor, they make a startling discovery - one that seems to throw Sephiroth for a loop. Upon their return to Nibelheim, the silver-haired SOLDIER locks himself in the Shinra Manor, where he pores over tome after tome.

I think this is one of the moments I’m proudest of in the whole flashback,” says Hamaguchi-san. “That scene where you see Sephiroth reading through all the old books and documents and coming to the conclusion that he was created from Jenova.

This whole sequence shows the changes in Sephiroth, so it’s really important. The way it was portrayed had to be perfect - and we worked really hard to ensure that it was.

One thing that the team wanted to achieve was a far more naturalistic feeling than the original. Hamaguchi-san says: “There were moments in the mansion in original game that always looked a little comical to me. For example, there’s a moment later in the story where Sephiroth flies up into the air, spins around and flies through a corridor!

So, getting everything to feel more natural in FINAL FANTASY VII REBIRTH was important to me.

The inside of the Shinra Mansion in FINAL FANTASY VII REBIRTH

House renovations

The Shinra Manor is a particularly memorable location in the original game, and it’s been recreated in extreme detail in FINAL FANTASY VII REBIRTH. However, the team did discover that they would have to make some changes from the original design. For example, you now descend into the basement via an elevator, rather than with a spiral staircase.

We did actually try to make the spiral staircase and incorporate it into the game,” recalls Hamaguchi-san. “The problem was that it just didn’t feel right.

When we tried to do it at the realistic scale of the building, it become very steep and very narrow. When you tried to go down it, the camera flew everywhere - it just felt really odd!

"We tried out a few things, but ultimately thought that if we were to go with realistic proportions, it just doesn’t work. That’s why we ultimately made the decision to switch to using the elevator.

Cloud standing in front of the door to Vincent Valentine's room

The basement of the Shinra Manor was also given special attention - particularly given that a rather popular character is power-napping down there.

We paid quite a bit of attention to the door to Vincent Valentine’s room,” says Hamaguchi-san. “People who have played the original game know that he’s resting there, and we wanted to draw attention to that - make it obvious where that door is.

I think it’s a fun moment for fans to try to interact with the door and see it’s locked, because they know who’s in there. It builds anticipation for later!

That moment

When Cloud revisits Sephiroth in the mansion, he finds a changed man. After a brief altercation, which doesn’t go well for poor Cloud, Sephiroth leaves the mansion. What happens next is one of the most famous scenes in gaming - as Sephiroth burns Nibelheim to the ground and walks into the flames.

This is such an iconic scene, and it was the major focus of that section of the game,” says Hamaguchi-san. “Everything we did was to make sure we could depict that scene where Sephiroth disappears into the flames in the most dramatic way possible.

One of the key decisions that the team made was that this section would be playable - although that wasn’t always planned. Hamaguchi-san says:

When we got the first draft of the script from (Story and Scenario) Kazushige Nojima, the whole sequence of events, from Sephiroth discovering who he is, through to when he disappears into the flames, was done as cutscenes. And to be honest, it would have worked on a certain level.

But what we really wanted to achieve was that feeling that Cloud, or the player, is desperately pursuing Sephiroth into the flames. To create that kind of emotional reaction.

That’s why we added extra scenes of Cloud desperately, painfully going through the burning village, worrying about his mother and her safety while still keeping an eye on Sephiroth.

By making it all playable, I do think it elicits the right feeling we wanted for the scene - it does have emotional impact.

The shot of Sephiroth disappearing into the flickering flames remains as affecting as ever - a testament to the care and attention that the team has put into the Nibelheim incident - and FINAL FANTASY VII REBIRTH as a whole.

You can experience it all for yourselves in the full game - available now for PS5.

Alternatively, if you want to try before you buy, a free demo is available. It allows you to play through a large part of the Nibelheim incident, including all the scenes discussed in this series, and also freely explore a part of the Junon region.

Many thanks to Hamaguchi-san for sharing his insight with us. We hope you enjoy the series and the game - be sure to check the Square Enix Blog regularly for more articles about FINAL FANTASY VII REBIRTH, as well as other Square Enix games.

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