Death and sacrifice are as fundamental to Final Fantasy as chocobos, moogles, and gruff guys named Cid. With the death of a key character at the end of Final Fantasy VII disc one, the series set a heartbreaking trend for many installments that followed. That’ll likely be the same with the upcoming Final Fantasy VII Rebirth, but there’s plenty of evidence within the wider lore to suggest that another central character is destined to perish this time around.
Why’s that? The broader Compilation of Final Fantasy VII (i.e., the original game plus all subsequent spinoff and sequel games, books, and movies) essentially establishes it as necessary if the party wants to truly defeat Sephiroth for good. Everything to support this theory comes right out of the FF7 sequel movie Advent Children and its prequel novel On the Way to a Smile. Even if it winds up being incorrect, its implication on FF7 canon remains hugely important.
Safer Sephiroth is the villain’s final physical form the party faces in FF7, an angelic mutation of Jenova cells controlled by Sephiroth’s consciousness, which has resided within the Lifestream ever since Cloud chucked him down the mining shaft in the Nibelheim Mako reactor.
“He is still…here,” Cloud says before having a seizure that sends his soul hurdling through the air and into a wormhole to what we assume is the metaphysical plane of the Lifestream. There, he defeats Sephiroth in a duel—the final, final battle—before Tifa pulls him back out.
Reading FF7 as a self-contained narrative, we’re to assume that Cloud defeated Sephiroth once and for all, vanquishing his astral form from within the Lifestream. Advent Children, however, retcons this completely. The movie confirms that not only did Sephiroth survive this “final” showdown, but he also persisted after Cloud defeated yet another physical manifestation of his nemesis.
“Stay where you belong…in my memories,” Cloud says after dealing the killing blow in Advent Children.
“I will never be a memory,” Sephiroth replies before dissolving into ash. A more accurate way to phrase this might be, “I will never be just a memory.”
On the Way to a Smile is a collection of short stories detailing what most of FF7’s core cast did in the time between the original game and Advent Children. The “Lifestream Black” and “Lifestream White” sections are easily the most important of the bunch, and they’re told from the perspective of Sephiroth and Aerith from within the Lifestream. These stories shed light on how Aerith was able to influence the Lifestream and Holy after death and also how Sephiroth manifested Advent Children antagonists Kadaj, Loz, and Yazoo as remnants of himself. Sephiroth reconstructs his physical form toward the climax of the movie, and “Lifestream Black” explains how.
On the Way to a Smile emphasizes how vital memory is to the narrative at large. When the average person dies, all of their emotions, knowledge, and memories are dissolved into the cosmic energy that comprises the Lifestream. As an Ancient, or Cetra, Aerith is able to “retain the image of her past self” and perceive that the concept of time functions differently in a sea of memory. This detail is strong evidence that she can influence past versions of herself, like the one that exists in Remake. Sephiroth does not have this luxury.
A toxic memory
“The man could sense the Lifestream trying to erode his spirit, the memories of his former experiences, thoughts, and emotions,” reads one passage. “The man knew that if one could hold onto some core of their spirit, then one could remain a separate entity, independent from the planet’s system. Cloud. The man decided to make Cloud that core.” In an Aerith section, she describes it another way: “he had made his memories of Cloud the core of his being.”
“As long as Cloud remembers me, I can continue to exist,” he thinks. “Within the Lifestream and on the surface. Even if my spirit disseminates, even if just one fragment of a memory courses around the planet, in the end I can count on Cloud’s consciousness to bring me back.”
Whatever little humanity Sephiroth has left is stripped away as he “surrenders his inconsequential memories to the planet,” until all of his existence is wrapped up in a grudge against Cloud. He cannot even recall his own name or face, and is “not able to produce an image of himself.” This may explain why Kadaj, Loz, and Yazoo have Sephiroth’s power and hair color but look totally different.
“As my servants are looking for Mother, if they come across someone who knows me, then from that spirit I can learn of who I once was,” he says. “And with Mother’s further assistance, I can become fully real. Even if there’s something lacking, it doesn’t matter. Cloud will make me complete.”
Because he’s bound to Cloud specifically, he cannot just latch onto somebody else’s memory of Sephiroth. As long as Cloud remembers Sephiroth, then he will always subsist within the Lifestream. That means the only way to truly defeat Sephiroth is for Cloud to die.
A Final Fantasy trend
Given all the emphasis on defying Fate and forging a new Destiny in the Remake story, it seems likely that FF7 Rebirth will more or less follow the general plot of the original. A popular fan theory circulating since Remake argues Aerith will survive beyond the Forgotten City. That’s absolutely plausible, but whether Cloud dies instead of Aerith in that iconic scene or it happens later in the third game, it seems all too inevitable.
Most modern Final Fantasy games eventually see the hero make the ultimate sacrifice. Final Fantasy X ends with the reveal that Tidus was a dream all along, and he fades from existence. All sorts of shenanigans happen to Lightning in the Final Fantasy XIII saga: she’s erased from existence and later slumbers for five centuries in crystal stasis. Both Final Fantasy XV and XVI end with the main protagonist sacrificing themselves to save the world. Final Fantasy has a morbid obsession with killing its darlings, one you can trace all the way back to the earliest days of the series.
Think back to Sephiroth’s words at the end of FF7 Remake, at the Edge of Creation, when he mentions “seven seconds ‘till the end.” Contextually, this suggests Cloud has to make a critical choice in that very moment. But some eagle-eyed theorists have pointed out that in the cutscene where Sephiroth impales Aerith, it takes him exactly seven seconds to descend upon her. Is that the amount of time Cloud has to push her out of the way and take the deadly blow himself?
When the party stands on the precipice heading into FF7 Remake’s final battle against the Whispers, Aerith hesitates; “If we do…we’ll be changing more than fate itself,” she says. “If we succeed…if we win…we’ll be changing ourselves…I guess…maybe, that’s why I hesitated.” Why is she so wishy-washy here? Surely changing her own fate could only be a good thing? Various cryptic lines hint that Remake Aerith has some knowledge of the future. That knowledge could be coming from a version of herself within the Lifestream, as On the Way to a Smile suggests.
Aerith knows that can either preserve the original timeline leading to her death or venture into an unknown future—where someone else may have to die. That would give Aerith’s line in the garden a new double meaning: “Whatever happens, you can’t fall in love with me.” One of them may have to go either way. Either Aerith dies and the cycle repeats, or Cloud dies to finally put an end to Sephiroth for good.
Final Fantasy VII Rebirth launches February 29 for PlayStation 5.
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