A look back at Final Fantasy VII and its influence on RPGs
Final Fantasy VII is acclaimed as one of the high-water marks of the role-playing genre. Many gamers, particularly RPG fans, have played through this game not once but a multitude of times. I downloaded the game off of the Playstation Network and played through it one more time on my PSP to assess how the game has aged.
The very first thing that I noticed about the game was the chasm between how well the audio design and soundtrack have aged versus how poorly the graphics have. It becomes clearly apparent that sprites have aged far better than polygons when comparing this game to an older, sprite-based games in the series such as Final Fantasy VI. Sprites carried a certain charm to them, and remain tolerable despite their lack of beauty. Polygons, for lack of a better description, just look strange and ugly. Their blockiness represents a human character far more poorly than even a sprite can. To compare it to Hollywood, sprites are like Disney cartoon of the '70s, while polygons are like the bad special effects of the '80s. The audio, however, has aged gracefully. Nobuo Uematsu's score has always been perfect for the game, and I remembered how fond I was of it the first time around immediately upon starting the game again.
Final Fantasy VII, to me, was the beginning of Square's "hit-or-miss" character design specifically regarding western gamers. As a western gamer, I just can't see the appeal in a character like Cait Sith. While the majority of the characters still have good levels of depth and development, Cait Sith is a worthless entity who brings absolutely nothing to the game. He's a quirky stuffed toy injected into the game to please a culture that I just can't understand. Square Enix has continued down this path even further in future games, particularly in Final Fantasy XII, which saw two children as the main protagonists. Yuck. But there are some game-savers here. Cloud is such a deep and human character that it's worth playing through the game just to witness his growth. Sephiroth's villainy hasn't shown age, either. He's still one of the best gaming villains in history, a title well earned.
It's obvious what to expect from the gameplay. This game is purely old school JRPG. It doesn't bother me, as it's a type of game that I once had a huge affinity for. I can jump back into the more slowly-paced, turn-based battle systems any time and still enjoy it. To others, it may be a bit more tedious. This is especially true regarding random battles. As an old-school JRPG player, random battles are familiar to me and sort of a necessary evil. To others, the tedium may be intolerable. It's difficult for me to be objective enough to say.
I've always loved the materia system. It's my favorite form of character development in any Final Fantasy game, and it holds up. Growing your materia through the management of your weapons is so much fun, and the high-level materia such as Slash-All and Double Cut really make you feel like one powerful SOB toward the end portion of the game. Reaching the next level of these magical orbs is so rewarding.
The main complaint that I have about the game is an issue that never seemed to bother me before. The control of Cloud through the various pre-rendered areas is absolutely atrocious. Pressing up on the directional pad will sometimes cause him to go left or right, and pressing right or left on the pad will sometimes cause him to go down. There's no clear indication of when this will happen -- It's unique to each area. This becomes particularly annoying in areas where random battles occur. Very often I'd find myself doubling back due to this, and fighting far more random battles than I actually had to.
I wouldn't be able to conclude this without mentioning the cutscenes and minigames. The idea of rewarding players with a CGI cutscene during certain parts of the game was a fresh, new concept at the time of the game's release. Seeing Square flew their graphical prowess was mind-blowing, and the cutscenes were unlike anything in video games at the time. They truly were rewarding, and I remember being so impressed that I recorded them on a VHS tape for later playback. The minigames were also groundbreaking, but have aged poorly. Bad control plagues many of them, specifically the motorcycle and snowboarding games. But the inclusion of these changed the genre for years -- The lack of minigames in a post-Final Fantasy VII JRPG was a strange omission.
Final Fantasy VII has got its problems. In some cases, it's aged beautifully and become the historically powerful title that gamers expected it to be upon its release. Final Fantasy VII brought RPGs as a whole into the mainstream. Without Final Fantasy VII, games like Mass Effect 2 and Fallout 3 may never have been developed at all. The graphics and control, however, will be nearly unbearable to any gamer going back in time to play this game for the first time.
The Good: Materia system is still as rewarding as ever. Cloud is deep and interesting main character, and Sephiroth mirrors him as a superb villain. Nobuo Uematsu's score has aged like a fine wine. Huge impact on the RPG genre is undeniable, and the $10 price point on PSN makes it well worth a purchase.
The Bad:Polygonal graphics are ugly and have not aged well. Control in prerendered areas is unforgivably bad. Characters like Caith Sith fall flat with western audiences. Random battles get annoying.
Final Verdict:Like an old painting, Final Fantasy VII continues to be historically relevant and is worth seeing and experiencing if only to recognize the influence it had on present day gaming. But the paint has aged, and the artwork is unfortunately not quite as vibrant and stunning as it once was.
4 out of 5 stars.