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Cloud's entire Final Fantasy 7 timeline explained

You think you know Cloud Strife. Former SOLDIER 1st Class. Tifa's childhood sweetheart. Sephiroth's best buddy, and later, his number one foe. A confident warrior with a heart of gold. An independent, strong-willed hero who thinks — and acts — for himself.

You don't know Cloud Strife. Not the real Cloud Strife, anyway. If you've only played the beginning of Final Fantasy 7, if you only recognize the character from his appearances in games like Kingdom Hearts and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, or if you're planning to meet him for the first time in Final Fantasy 7 Remake, which only covers the very beginning of the Final Fantasy 7 saga, then you've been misled. Cloud isn't any of the things that he says he is. Not even close.

Confused? You're not alone. Heck, it takes two-thirds of Final Fantasy 7 for Cloud himself to figure out what's going on. Thankfully, we've sorted it all out. This is Cloud's real story, laid out from start to finish. Read on, but be careful: chances are, there are a few big surprises (and spoilers) in store.

Jenova arrives

Cloud's story starts 2,000 years before he was born. At the time, the Planet was occupied by a race called the Cetra (later known as the Ancients), who had a special connection to the Lifestream, a mysterious force composed of both the Planet's essence and the souls of every creature who lived on it.

One day, an alien called Jenova crashed into the Planet on a meteor, creating a massive crater at the North Pole and unleashing a plague that decimated the Cetra. With their survival in question, the Cetra and Planet fought back. The Lifestream surged, healing the Planet's wound. Meanwhile, the last remaining Cetra banded together and sealed Jenova away, ending its threat.

The peace didn't last. Over time, the Cetra evolved into humans and learned how to tap into the Lifestream's power, which they called Mako energy. A giant corporation called Shinra used this technology to control of the Planet. As their knowledge grew, Shinra scientists found Jenova hidden away. Misidentifying the creature as an Ancient, the scientists harvested Jenova's genetic material for their own experiments, with the goal of bringing the Cetra back to life.

Just a young boy in Nibelheim

As a child in the small village of Nibelheim, Cloud Strife lived an ordinary, if lonely, life. Unlike the other children, Cloud was serious and brooding, and he didn't have many friends, although he did have a crush on his pretty neighbor, Tifa Lockheart. Still, the two weren't close, and their paths rarely crossed.

That changed shortly after Tifa's mother passed away and the girl, distraught, went to look for her on the neighboring Mt. Nibel. Cloud followed Tifa and was there when Tifa tripped and fell. Cloud caught Tifa and saved her life, but Tifa was hurt in the accident. Tifa recovered, but the town's adults blamed Cloud for the injury and forbade him from hanging out with her.

Cloud became angry and started getting into fights with his peers. Years passed. At age 14, Cloud learned about Sephiroth, the star member of SOLDIER, Shinra's elite fighting force. He was smitten. In an attempt to prove his worth to Tifa and others, Cloud vowed to join SOLDIER. Shortly before he left Nibelheim, Cloud met with Tifa at the town's water tower, where he vowed to always protect her. Then, he left, hoping to find glory elsewhere.

Life at Shinra

Cloud never joined SOLDIER. 

He tried, of course, but SOLDIER only accepted the best of the best. Despite what you might've heard, Cloud didn't make the cut. Instead, Cloud ended up serving as an anonymous grunt in Shinra's all-encompassing military regime. Still, it wasn't all bad. While on a mission, Cloud and other Shinra forces crash-landed in Modeoheim. There, Cloud met SOLDIER 1st Class Zack Fair, a young man from Gongaga. Cloud and Zack bonded over their common small town upbringing and quickly became friends.

Together, Cloud and Zack fought against a rogue member of SOLDIER named Genesis Rhapsodos and later defended the city Junon from the same. Cloud did well for himself on his own, too. He made a name for himself as a talented swordsman, especially for a mere infantryman. He met his hero, Sephiroth, who told Cloud that his mother was named Jenova. Unfortunately, Cloud's success didn't last. Five years after joining Shinra, Cloud was forced to return to Nibelheim. That's where everything went wrong.

A secret homecoming

Cloud didn't expect to return to Nibelheim so soon, but when Shinra charged Cloud, Zack, and Sephiroth with investigating Mt. Nibel's malfunctioning Mako reactor, he had no choice. Ashamed that he had failed to join SOLDIER, Cloud hid his face during the mission, keeping his identity concealed from Tifa and the other townsfolk.

With Tifa as their guide, Cloud, Zack, and Sephiroth climbed Mt. Nibel and entered the reactor. Inside, they learned why the reactor was malfunctioning: Shinra's lead scientist, Professor Hojo, had filled the reactor's purification tanks with human bodies, which Mako energy transformed into monsters. That wasn't the only shocking discovery, either. Behind a door labeled Jenova, the Shinra soldiers found an effigy in the shape of an angel. Jenova's body was locked inside.

It was all too much for Sephiroth, who began to question his true nature. Was he really a regular person, or was he, like the monsters in the reactor, the result of a scientific experiment? Slowly, Sephiroth began to lose faith in Shinra. He had many questions — and, as it turns out, he didn't like the answers.

The Nibelheim Incident

Upon returning to town, Sephiroth locked himself in Nibelheim's Shinra Mansion and began reading the research materials in the house's basement lab. That's when he learned the truth: he was an experiment. When Sephiroth was still in the womb, he was injected with Jenova cells as part of Shinra's effort to create a new Ancient, one who would supposedly lead the company to the Cetra's fabled Mako-rich "Promised Land."

Sephiroth snapped. Mistakenly assuming that the treatment made him an Ancient, Sephiroth declared war on humanity and pledged allegiance to Jenova, his "mother." He burned Nibelheim to the ground, killed Cloud's mother, and murdered Tifa's father. As Sephiroth tried to retrieve Jenova's body from the Mt. Nibel reactor, Tifa and Zack tried to stop him. Both were grievously wounded.

It was Cloud who saved the day. Taking Zack's Buster Sword in hand, Cloud confronted an unsuspecting Sephiroth and stabbed him in the back. Cloud moved Tifa to safety, then the battle continued. During the fight, Sephiroth skewered Cloud with his sword, Masamune, but Cloud fought back. Using Masamune as a level, Cloud flung Sephiroth into the Lifestream below the reactor, presumably killing him.

If only it were that easy.

One cover-up and two failed experiments

In the aftermath, Shinra gathered up Nibelheim's surviving residents (aside from Tifa, who was rescued and taken to Shinra's capital, Midgar, by her martial arts instructor) and rebuilt the town, hiding Sephiroth's betrayal from the public. Both Sephiroth and Zack were declared dead. As for Cloud? Nobody really cared.

The truth was a little different. Unbeknownst to Shinra, Sephiroth's spirit survived in the Lifestream, where it absorbed the Ancients' knowledge and plotted its next move. Meanwhile, Zack, Cloud, and the other survivors were injected with Jenova cells. Shinra's premiere super-soldier was missing, after all, and Shinra needed a new enforcer if it was going to maintain control of the planet. By flooding normal people with Jenova's genetic material, Shinra hoped to produce Sephiroth "clones" that could take the SOLDIER's place.

Zack's body rejected the treatment — members of SOLDIER underwent a similar process when they joined the force, and it didn't work twice — while Cloud contracted a severe case of Mako poisoning. Hojo declared both Cloud and Zack failures and locked them away in cryogenic sleeping tubes in the Shinra Mansion's basement. For the next four years, that where they stayed.

Carrying on Zack's memory — a little too literally

After years of captivity, Zack escaped confinement. He quickly freed Cloud as well. Unfortunately, Cloud was in bad shape. Thanks to Mako poisoning and lingering trauma from Nibelheim's destruction, Cloud's mind and body were broken, and he was left in a near-catatonic state. 

It didn't matter. Zack was a hero, and heroes don't leave their friends behind. Zack replaced Cloud's Mako-soaked clothes with a SOLDIER uniform, then carted his despondent body around the world for the better part of a year. Along the way, Zack told Cloud stories about his life. He shared his plans for the future, which included working as a mercenary in Midgar, and invited Cloud to join him. Cloud didn't take part in the battle, but he was there when Zack defeated his own archnemesis, a rogue SOLDIER named Genesis.

And then, just outside of Midgar, Zack was gunned down by Shinra soldiers. With his dying breath, Zack entrusted Cloud with his Buster Sword and made Cloud promise to carry on his legacy. But Cloud's mind wasn't healed yet, so watching his best friend die was too much for him. In his delirious state, Cloud combined Zack's memories with his own. Convinced that he was a former member of SOLDIER — and with no memory of Zack or his sacrifice — Cloud stumbled into Midgar alone.

From company man to freedom fighter

Tifa found Cloud near death at the train station underneath Midgar's Sector 7. She recognized him instantly, and took him back to her bar, 7th Heaven, to recover. There, Cloud met Tifa's friend Barret Wallace, leader of the eco-terrorist group AVALANCHE. Convinced (rightly) that Shinra's Mako reactors were killing the planet, Barret and his crew fought against Shinra's forces, using 7th Heaven as their home base.

Working as a mercenary, Cloud joined AVALANCHE and helped Barret destroy the Sector 1 reactor, killing thousands of civilians in the process. While working with AVALANCHE, Cloud also met a young woman named Aerith, who grew flowers in the Sector 5 slums.

Shinra didn't take the attacks lightly. When Cloud and AVALANCHE launched a mission to blow up the Sector 5 reactor, they found Shinra waiting for them. As the conflict escalated, Shinra decided to drop the plate holding Midgar's upper city on Sector 7, hoping to crush 7th Heaven and the AVALANCHE fighters. Finally, Shinra operatives kidnapped Aerith. Cloud had no choice but to take the fight to them.

A familiar face returns

Aerith wasn't just another girl. She was the last surviving Ancient, and as such was very, very important to Shinra. When Cloud, Tifa, and Barret infiltrated Shinra HQ to rescue Aerith, however, they made a shocking discovery: someone had beat them there.

While our heroes fought off Shinra's forces, Jenova's remains, guided by Sephiroth's spirit, took Sephiroth's form and broke out of their confinement cell, then laid waste to everyone in their path. Jenova slaughtered Shinra soldiers, and murdered Shinra's president with Sephiroth's signature sword, Masamune. By the time that Cloud, Tifa, Barret, and their new companion Red XIII discovered the massacre, it was too late. "Sephiroth" had come and gone, leaving chaos in his wake.

Cloud and his friends escaped Midgar and retreated to the nearby town of Kalm, where Cloud told the party his story — albeit a tainted one, which combined Zack's biography with his own. After some discussion, the group decided to follow "Sephiroth" and tracked him across the Planet, picking up fellow adventurers Cid Highwind, Yuffie Kisaragi, Vincent Valentine, and Cait Sith along the way.

Everything falls apart

Cloud eventually figured out Sephiroth's plan. By casting a spell called Meteor, Sephiroth wanted to create a global catastrophe. When Meteor hit, the Lifestream would surge to repair the damage. Sephiroth planned to be there when it happened so that he could absorb the Lifestream's energy and turn himself into a god.

Thankfully, Cloud managed to get the key to casting Meteor, the Black Materia, before Sephiroth. Unfortunately, Cloud had a secret: he'd been hearing voices, and he'd been losing control of his actions. Sephiroth, still in the Lifestream, used Jenova to control Cloud's actions. Chasing Sephiroth across the Planet wasn't even Cloud's idea. It was part of the long-theorized "Reunion," in which all of Jenova's disparate parts tried to join together. Cloud, infused with Jenova cells, was little more than a puppet.

Things got even worse. Sephiroth manipulated Cloud's Jenova cells and forced Cloud to hand over the Black Materia. When Aerith prayed to summon Holy, the only spell that could counter Meteor, Jenova (still wearing Sephiroth's face) killed her. Cloud had a breakdown. Sephiroth summoned Meteor. In the chaos Cloud fell into the Lifestream, disappearing.

In other words, things looked very, very grim.

The truth revealed at last

The party found Cloud in Mideel, a town famous for its proximity to the Lifestream. Thanks to a severe case of Mako poisoning and his second mental break, Cloud was catatonic when he emerged from the Lifestream. Tifa stayed by his side to nurse him back to health, while the rest of the team focused on stopping Shinra, Sephiroth, and Meteor.

The Planet had other designs. In response to Meteor, the Planet revived its biological defense system, a series of creatures known as Weapons who fought on the Planet's behalf. When one of the Weapons attacked Mideel, the ground cracked open, and both Tifa and Cloud fell into the Lifestream.

There, Tifa helped Cloud explore his subconscious and put his broken psyche back together. Cloud realized that he'd never actually joined SOLDIER. He remembered Zack (and Zack's sacrifice), and came to grips with the fact that he was just a supporting player during the Nibelheim Incident. As a result, Cloud accepted who he really was, breaking free from Jenova's control in the process. When he emerged from the Lifestream, he was ready to face Sephiroth and settle the score for good.

Meteorfall

Despite Cloud and Shinra's best efforts, Sephiroth proved near-unstoppable, leaving Cloud without any other options. In order to free Holy, stop Meteor, and save the Planet, Cloud needed to get Sephiroth out of the way. With his allies by his side, Cloud stormed the Northern Crater, where Sephiroth was hiding, and sent the villain back to the Lifestream. A one-on-one duel of wills followed. Cloud emerged victorious.

It wasn't enough. Meteor struck. While Aerith was successful in summoning Holy, the magic wasn't strong enough to hold Meteor back. Suddenly, with Aerith's spirit guiding the way, the Lifestream emerged from the earth and clashed with Meteor, bathing the Planet in a blinding light.

In the end, Meteor was destroyed, but at a great cost. Midgar was completely destroyed. Other towns suffered a significant amount of damage. People who came into direct contact with the Lifestream contracted a fatal illness that became known as Geostigma. Meanwhile, Sephiroth wasn't really gone. Once again, his spirit rested in the Lifestream, where he plotted his revenge.

Domestic peace

For Cloud, the end of Meteor meant settling down — for a little while. Cloud moved to Edge, a new city that sprung up on the border of Midgar's ruins, with Tifa. Tifa opened a new 7th Heaven, while Cloud founded his own business, the Strife Delivery Service. Together, the couple adopted Barret's foster daughter, Marlene, and took in a young orphan named Denzel, who suffered from Geostigma.

For a while, Cloud lived peacefully, although ruin was just around the corner. Cloud couldn't forgive himself for Zack and Aerith's deaths. Despite Tifa's obvious interest, he had a hard time opening up to her, and refused to commit to a real relationship. Meanwhile, Geostigma continued to spread. Despite Cloud's best efforts, he couldn't find a cure.

That was bad enough when Denzel had the disease, but when Cloud himself fell ill, he lost all hope. If Cloud couldn't take care of himself, how could he take care of his newfound family? And so, he left. Cloud moved to Aerith's old church in the Midgar slums, planning to live alone. He would've, too, if Sephiroth hadn't made an unexpected return.

The Advent Children strike back

If Sephiroth underestimated Cloud before, he didn't now. From the Lifestream, Sephiroth created three "remnants" of his will who took physical form on the Planet and worked to bring about his resurrection. Dubbed Kadaj, Loz, and Yazoo, the three fair-haired men roamed the world, searching for Jenova's final remains.

Naturally, Cloud got involved, especially after the remnants kidnapped Denzel and other children infected by Geostigma. See, Geostigma came from the Jenova cells stuck in the Lifestream. When someone caught Geostigma, they were actually infected by Jenova. The remnants activated the children's reunion instinct, and used the kids to track Jenova's cells. In Edge, Kadaj absorbs what's left of Jenova and transforms into Sephiroth, newly reborn.

During the final battle between Cloud and Sephiroth, Cloud won, ending Sephiroth once and for all. In the aftermath, Aeirth sent a healing rain to the Planet from the Lifestream, wiping away Geostigma. Zack and Aerith's spirits visited Cloud and forgave him. Cloud, realizing that he's not alone after all, rejoined his friends.

Leading the charge against Deepground

At this point, Cloud's arc is over. He's found peace. He's moved on. And yet, the Final Fantasy 7 timeline has one more job in store for him. Dirge of Cerberus is Vincent Valentine's story, not Cloud Strife's, but Cloud still has an important, if small, role to play.

Dirge of Cerberus focuses on Vincent's fight against Deepground, a SOLDIER squadron who was trapped under Midgar for three years after Meteor fell. Secretly led by Professor Hojo, who's taken up residence in someone else's body, Deepground wants to summon Omega, the seventh and final Weapon. In order to do that, Deepground plans to massacre as many people as it can, tricking the Planet into thinking another cataclysmic event has begun.

It's Vincent's job to stop Deepground, and during the game Cloud stops by for a quick assist. When Vincent and the World Regenesis Organization, the group responsible for rebuilding the world after Meteorfall, face off against Deepground and Omega in Midgar, Cloud leads the attack on Midgar's generators in an effort to reduce Omega's power. Everything else? That's up to Vincent.