vague_optimism's Final Fantasy VII (PlayStation) review

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Dude, I was rockin' big swords before big swords were COOL man...

When the original Playstation was being released amidst tons of hype, it had a number of launch titles that were widely toted, one of the most influential of which was Final Fantasy VII. 
The newest installment of an already classic franchise that had been featured on Nintendo and Super Nintendo before, Final Fantasy VII was the first final fantasy game to feature fully 3D gameplay and combat as well as cut scenes and video sequences. The game starts off in Midgar, a grimy, rather unpleasant city where the wealthy upper crust of society is separated (literally) on a higher level from the slums below. The main cast is part of a resistance group that seeks to bring down the military power (Shinra) that currently commands the city, the newest member of which is Cloud, a mysterious, quiet young man who was once a soldier in Shinra. Also in the group are the brawler Tifa and gun-arm-toting badass Barret.  As is typical for a Final Fantasy plot, the cast soon discovers that the individuals they are fighting against are simply part of a much larger conspiracy involving the spiritual energy of the earth, mad science, alien DNA, spiritual ancestors, and a scary powerful badass named Sephiroth.
Final Fantasy VII was released amidst a great deal of hype and critical acclaim and is considered by many to be one of the best games in the franchise (and even one of the best RPGs) of all time. The evolving, memorable storyline takes players through a great number of interesting and unique environs, from the glitzy Las Vegas-esque pleasure palace of the Golden Saucer to quaint villages, desert prisons, foreboding ancient cities and beautiful tribal mountains.  Moreover, each party character is unique with their own backgrounds and motivations and plot twists, including the beautiful and soft-spoken Aeris, the bizarre loud-mouth Cait Sith, the adventurous, stalwart Cid, and the tortured, stoic Red XIII. There are also two secret characters: Yuffie (a young ninja-thief with a love for materia) and Vincent (a tortured soul with a dark past of his own) who can be unlocked through exploration and whose backgrounds can also be explored should the player wish to go through the trouble of doing so. Replete with plot developments and at least one Rosebud-esque twist that will forever be remembered in the annals of gaming, Final Fantasy VII starts strong, sustains interest throughout, and ends with a satisfying conclusion (which later was extended into the rather good Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children and an ill-fated shooter starring Vincent as the lead character).
Gameplay in Final Fantasy VII uses a materia system where each character's weapons and armor comes with slots that can contain one or more magic orbs that imparts spells. Each orb has its own pool of XP that increases as it is used, allowing it to intensify its magical effects or grant access to even more abilities inherent in the materia itself.  Green materia creates the most basic magic damage and healing effects that are common to the Final Fantasy franchise; Red materia summons creatures that attack the whole field but can only be used once an encounter; Yellow materia features unique powers like stealing items from enemies or copying enemy powers that are used against you for future use. Blue materia is the unique, "augment" materia: Some equipment has two materia slots that are connected by a bridge. By putting a blue materia into a bridge slot, it changes the effect of the materia that it is attached to, so, for example, one could have a fire materia that does a fire attack against a single enemy when used, but if one adds an "All" materia to it, each time it is used it attacks the whole field. It's a very rewarding system that features a number of secret, hidden materias that can only be found by working through the game's chocobo breeding and racing system to get special chocobo breeds that can run over mountains or across oceans.
The world map is interesting in that, as the player's modes of transportation develop, you can access more and more disparate locations that might otherwise be inaccessible, including isolated islands and even the depths of the ocean. By the time you get to the third disc and you are free to tool around the world however you wish, you really feel like you've earned the sense of freedom that you have to go back and visit old locations and the satisfying ability to explore the hidden places in the world and hunt for rare monsters, unique items, and hidden locations.
The music is truly memorable: Each location has its own musical score which, though a little twangy because of the compression and the synthesized instruments, is evocative and even years after the fact can elicit a thrill of nostalgia. 
Indeed, the worst one could say about Final Fantasy VII is that its graphics have not aged well over the years. The character models--particularly on the map screen--look like off-brand lego toys with their blocky appendages and almost featureless faces. Nevertheless, Final Fantasy VII remains one of my favorite RPGs of all time, right up there with Final Fantasy VI and--even though it makes me want to rip my hair off at times--Final Fantasy Tactics. If you can overlook the visuals, I think you'll find yourself playing a moving, diverse, and satisfying RPG that will stay with you for years to come.

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