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In order to recruit the "secret" character Vincent, you have to solve some puzzles in Nibelheim and the Shinra Mansion. During the first few hours of the game, Cloud relays a story from his past to the rest of the party and this flashback just so happens to occur in Nibelheim and the Shinra Mansion. Convenient!

Is it possible to recruit Vincent during this early flashback, or do you have to wait until after Cosmo Canyon?

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It is not possible to open the door to Vincent's tomb during the Nibelheim flashback. You'll have to wait until you actually arrive in Nibelheim for realsies to recruit Mr. Valentine. (Even if it was possible, hey, it's a flashback, so he wouldn't magically appear anyway!)

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No, you need to be able to fight the mansion boss (the one in the safe) in order to get vincent. Only after that battle can he be recruited, and when you enter the shinra mansion in the flashback you aren't able to fight any enemies or search for the clues to the safe.

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