There is no denying its impact, but 15 years will date any game.
- Solid JRPG gameplay elements with the materia system
- Limit Breaks drastically change battle strategies
- Long adventure that spans three discs
- In-battle graphics look quite good
- Music is excellent, as usual
- Has some genuinely memorable story moments (leaving Midgar, Golden Chocobo, etc.)
- Lots of side-stuff to do before the end of the game
- Barret is a massive stereotype but is still awesome
- Everything aside from the battle graphics looks hideous
- Dialogue between characters is stilted and very poor
- Story starts off strong and quickly devolves into a convoluted, meaningless mess
- Materia system is clever, but there isn't much differentiating the characters save Limit Breaks
- Sephiroth is a lame villain. There, I said it.
- Square-Enix used this as an excuse to make a bajillion crappy spin-off games
Still love the simple title screen
There is no doubt in anyone's mind the impact Final Fantasy VII had on the industry, in multiple facets. First off, it came out on the Sony Playstation, a new contender to the console market that opted to use CD-ROMs over the usual cartridges, and people were seriously wondering if it could contend with the highly advertised Nintendo 64. Second, the JRPG market hadn't exactly been nonexistent in the US, but it certainly wasn't pushing copies as much as it does now. Lastly, it ushered in a new era of something we now are trying to ween out of our games: the cutscene.
Final Fantasy VII's achievements cannot be understated. For many, this was their first introduction to a JRPG (or an RPG altogether), their first time seeing a full-3D video game on a console, and their first exposure to a game with a long, epic storyline. I'm certain it is for this reason that people look back on this game with extreme fondness, and why Square-Enix is more than willing to capitalize on that fondness by releasing a billion spin-off games to rake in the cash, as well as a movie and who knows what else they currently have in store.
In a world fresh off pixel art, this certainly turned heads
But this isn't a review of the game in 1997. It's 2012, and the Final Fantasy series has doubled in its entries (more so if you count X-2 and XIII-2). After all these years, has this game really stood the test of time? Does the Soldier from Midgar still have the same emotional resonance as he did nearly fifteen years ago?
Well....yes and no. Let's take a look.
And kill the first scorpion boss...guy.
The story starts off with a bang. Cloud and Barret are part of a rebel group called AVALANCHE (yes, all caps, Barret must have had Caps Lock on when he typed up the name) who are convinced the Shinra corporation are using Mako reactors to suck up energy from the planet, essentially killing it. And when I say this I actually mean only Barret cares, because Cloud seems just along for the ride. An Ex-Soldier, an elite military force of Shinra, Cloud essentially has defected but for unknown reasons. He just sort of showed up at the mixer, I guess, and got roped into blowing up a reactor. It's a long while before you really understand what's going on, but whatever; mystery or something.
Anyway, probably because their attempt at environmentalism involves essentially being douchebag terrorists, eventually AVALANCHE gets worked up good and they find out their real enemy is Sephiroth, a trench-coat wearing crazy with a sword almost as absurdly large as Cloud's. It seems Shinra, along with killing the planet, also did a bunch of wild experiments with Jenova (which looks oddly like "Jehovah," which I'm certain isn't a coincidence), some alien thing that has magic, essentially. Sephiroth was made from Jenovah's cells...or something? Anyway he's pissed and now he wants to blow up the planet (ironic, considering you were blowing stuff up to save the planet at the beginning. Or at least I think that's ironic. I don't know.), so naturally you have to stop him. Cloud also has some sort of relationship with Sephiroth (no, not like that) that he can't remember fully, which he also has to come to terms with over the course of the game.
This is how the game actually looks. The sharper screenshots are up-rezed emulator versions.
While the story certainly has quite a few twists and turns, it seems to play fast and loose with nearly every aspect involved. Cloud's backstory is intentionally long and convoluted, but the game doesn't really know how to present information in the correct order for you to completely understand it. The same goes for Sephiroth and Jenova; there seems to be a lot here, but the story seems to like to drip with ambiguity so much that when it finally starts making reveals, it feels too little, too late. Yes, I know fans could easily chew me out because they know every aspect of this story in detail, and it's worth noting I've played this game no less than four times, watched the movie, played awful Dirge of Cerberous, and read wikis trying to better explain it. I get it now, but my first run there was no way I fully understood it. The story is a convoluted mess, one that revels in its confusion all the way up to the weird, goofy-looking final boss fight.
Compared to the tight stories of Final Fantasy VI, and even Final Fantasy IV, Final Fantasy VII's "convoluted by design" approach just comes off as bad storytelling. It keeps you in the dark about the important things for so long, often I'd watch entire cutscenes thinking "Wait, I'm supposed to be understanding this, right? Yes? How is Sephiroth in that orb thing when I'm pretty sure he just killed Aeris? Wait, is that a clone? So Cloud is a clone? How does that make sense? How will Sephiroth destroying the earth bring Jenova back? And isn't she already back; I fought her like five times and she has her own battle theme!"
Barret actually sums up Final Fantasy VII's story pretty well during a cutscene late in the game. "I've been here since the beginning, and I still don't know what the hell's going on!"
Cloud needed a lobotomy to piece the finer details of this story together.
This isn't helped by the fact the translation is piss-poor overall. While I appreciate the characterization of certain people (Barret, despite being a stereotype, certainly has a unique flavor of dialect, as does Cid), most of it just muddles about for text box after text box. Again, the story is playing fast and loose, getting right of tight, cognitive narrative for a more melodramatic and wordy approach. People often point to this as the radical shift in the Final Fantasy formula, and I'd have to agree. There's less "Fantasy" here, and the lightheartedness of the previous games is completely abandoned. Instead we have moping characters, long bouts of expository and melodramatic dialogue (including a whole flashback after you leave Midgar that's something like a 30-45 minute infodump flashback that later turns out to be an inaccurate memory. Gee, thanks for wasting my time), and a plodding, plodding plot. I'm not saying these games didn't have melodrama before; Final Fantasy IV was full of it, and even Final Fantasy VI had its share, but this was when Square started loving it's melodrama more than it loved creating concise, realistic characters. And again, paired with that translation, the whole thing reads like a bloated mess written by children.
And before I get hatemail, seriously consider this game's story, all its "finer points" and all. You probably are glazing over massive chunks of text you just skip through now to get to the "good parts." Having recently replayed this game, I can tell you it's really wordy, and not in a good way. And somehow, despite all these words, they still don't nail anything down solid until the third disc at least. It's poor writing, people. I'm sorry to ruin your memories.
Pictured: Fifteen year old spoiler.
While I'm killing sacred cows and burning all my bridges, I'd like to address one thing that's bugged me for years: the reaction people had to Aeris' (or "Aerith," if you are a Japanese purist) death. Whenever anybody makes a list of the most "shocking twists" or "scenes that would make you cry," this always seems to cap out as #1 for some inexplicable reason. People have said hundreds of times before this isn't the first JRPG where a prominent character dies (Final Fantasy VI and IV off 'em like no tomorrow), but since this was a lot of people's first JRPG (and first story-driven gaming experience), I guess it had an impact.
I do not get it.
I played Final Fantasy VII after IX, so maybe I'm jut tainted, but I had literally no reaction when Aeris was killed. This is probably because as a charater she's stupidly bland. The love triangle in this game is something recent young adult novels are doing in spades (just swap the genders around), and anime has been doing forever. Both Tifa and Aeris are massive character archetypes, with Tifa being the "childhood friend" you obviously inevitably go for, and Aeris is the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" with a touch of that "Virgin Innocence" everybody seems to get off on. Both these characters have no depth to their characters, but Aeris is especially annoying. She never takes anything seriously, is constantly flirty but never deliberate enough to know if she actually is taking this relationship seriously, and because of that she comes off as annoying. When she died I was actually glad, because now at last Cloud would finally realize that Tifa was the girl for him (even though her personality was just as wooden, at least she wasn't an naive idiot about it all).
So yes, it was shocking because it came out of nowhere, but I had no emotional character resonance. If you want a death to be impactful, there has to be some like for a character's personality rather than having her cater to the lowest common denominator (which Aeris does perfectly, being that anime dream girl fitting the Manic Pixie Dream Girl stereotype so popular amongst us lonely nerdy folk). Aeris was playing you, guys. Playing your lonely selves back in 1997. Most of you are now married or at least have experienced a serious relationship, and if you go back and play this game, really paying attention, you'll realize Aeris is nothing more than fluffy pandering. She isn't the type of girl you'd want a serious relationship, and so her death was never impactful for me.
That was a long tangent. Let's talk about something else.
So the story isn't fantastic but it works enough to progress the game forward, so what about the game itself? It's your standard JRPG fare at it's core: you wait for your active time meter to fill up, pick an option from a menu, and watch as your character executes it. We are down to three party members at a time now (down from four in FFVI and five in FFIV), meaning it's simpler, but they do throw a few key changes into the mix.
The first is Limit Breaks. Technically Final Fantasy VI had these, but they only happened when you were at critical health and popped out randomly, and since that game wasn't particularly difficult you probably didn't see any of them. In Final Fantasy VII, every time you are hit your "Limit" gauge rises, eventually filling up. When it does Attack is replaced with LIMIT (in rainbow colors!) and you can execute a special power move. The more you use Limits the more you unlock, getting to higher tiers (which means the gauge takes longer to fill but the attacks are much better) until you finally get an ultimate one that just murders everything dead instantly. Awesome.
The Limit Breaks change things up because technically you can save them. While you can't "Attack," you can use magic or any other abilities (and as you can see from the screenshot above, you can have a lot equipped), so if you get one just before a boss you can save it rather than waste it on weaklings. It's a minor tactical change, but a cool one. They also look really awesome when you execute them, so that's a bonus.
Battles are fast paced like Final Fantasy VI, which is appreciated considering how much the series slowed down in games that followed.
But the big pull is obviously the Materia system, which is now pretty much famous in its application. Rather than learn magic spells or abilities (or having them inherent to certain characters or classes like all previous Final Fantasy games), Final Fantasy VII says "Screw it, make your own character classes" and gives you all the parts to do so. Want to make a battle-mage? You can. Want all your characters to double as healers (a good tactic, FYI)? You can do that too.
Essentially every weapon and accessory you equip (and that's all you equip; gone are the long lists of armor, relics, and accessories from Final Fantasy VI) has a set number of "slots." In these you can equip Materia like "Fire" or "Heal" or "Steal," giving your character these abilities. A neat trick is that some Materia slots are linked, meaning if you put a Heal and All together you can cast healing spells on your whole party (rather then just having the option normally with a Cure spell). It's too bad they didn't go nuts with this (and make it so if you mixed "Fire" and "Ice" you could cast a duel spell or something), but like the streamlined item system they were clearly trying to keep it simpler for a wider audience, which is fine.
AP: It's like XP, but for your magic rocks.
It's a cool system in one respect, but in others it is lacking. Materia levels up when its equipped, which is how you learn new spells, but it does it very slowly. If you don't realize this is going on and swap out a materia for an "identical" one, you'll be basically starting over with your leveling, which means you should be buying all the materia up at the beginning and then never buying any ever again or else you'll have to start the leveling process over with each new piece. It would have been nice if all materia's XP/Level was shared across all types (ex: if you had a Lv 2 Heal, all Heal materia you bought from then on out would be level 2), but that might have made the game easier than it already is so...whatever.
The other problem is it removes all character uniqueness. In the other Final Fantasy games (especially IV and VI), each character felt unique and personalized because they had their own unique move (or set of moves in IV's case) that only they could use. This helped build characterization in the battles, because you knew Edgar was the machine guy because he had a move called "Machines" that nobody else did, and Locke was the thief because he had "Steal." In Final Fantasy VII, there is no character uniqueness. You can swap your heavy attacker to a mage with just a few materia swaps. You can give somebody all your Command materia so they have the biggest battle menu in the history of the world (again, that one screenshot). Your options are increased, but at the cost of that subtle characterization. And while there are a few stat differences between characters early on, they are so small there's no reason to just pick whomever you want to do whatever regardless of what the game wants. Characters are no longer unique in battle (except Limit Breaks), which I feel is a weakness of this system.
I think that's an appropriately named Limit Break based on the character.
The game also has a dodgy difficulty curve, and by that I mean it's really easy until it isn't. The game requires a rather hearty amount of grinding, which it will gladly give you due to its insane random encounter rate. Bosses can be difficult but rarely require any strategy, with the whole "Don't attack when they are in counter mode!" usually being the only level of "depth" to them. It's just mash away until you win, which feels tedious (or turns into you waiting for a Limit Break). I breezed through most of the game, but I'd get weirdly stuck in some places. I wish I could remember them off the top of my head, but just know the difficulty spikes up and down, and during the rest of the time this game is a cakewalk. Again, it's really easy until it isn't.
Battles are fast, thank goodness, with minimal loading (I really have to give Square props for that. They did well optimizing the load times on their first disc-based release) and nothing too flashy except the stupidly-long summons (another thing Final Fantasy VII "pioneered" for the series). The 3D allows for dramatic camera pans, which is fantastic, and adds a lot to the battle presentation. Again, nothing too awful, but it does fall into the "oh boy, another battle where I mash X" curse of JRPGS.
Not going to lie: this game looks pretty awful.
Graphically this game looks pretty damn hideous. Character's proportions are way wonky when you are running around,with massive hands and the weird skinny joints (I'm guessing because it made them easier to animate that way?), and their faces and legs look also wonky (I like Cloud's purple clown pants, though). They anime decently, but the lack of any facial expressions (something that did so very well in Final Fantasy VI) makes them seem stiff and unemotive, especially with the new free camera angle able to zoom in for close shots. Backgrounds are all pre-rendered and looked ok back in the day, but now their insanely low resolution really shows, with pixelation and blurryness the name of the game.
Battle graphics do much better, though they are still very blocky. However, after thirty hours of watching puppet Cloud with his clown pants prancing about the world with his skinny arms and noseless and mouthless face, I'll take those battle graphics anyday. Pity they couldn't put those in the main game. It's hard to take your story seriously when all the melodrama is being delivered by what looks like Chinese bootlegged action figures.
The cutscenes were a big deal in 1997, and one of the big pushing points of the game. They look ok now, which is a testament to Square's graphic designers, but when they start moving things look bad. The animations are stiff and janky, with only select parts of bodies moving, and again: put in contrast with both the battle graphics and the much worse world sprites, there's a massive disconnect. I think this disconnect really hurts the narrative, but that might just be me.
Uematsu does well this time around, though not as good as previous iterations.
The music is reasonably solid throughout, with a few standout tracks (like the one above) using piano and music box to have emotional resonance. The game certainly has a "feel" to it that makes it so you can recognize any song from the game after only having heard a few, which does good in unifying things. The main melody also tends to pop up in other tracks (it does in Anxious Heart above; can you catch it?) which is a clever unifying touch as well.
It isn't orchestrated, which considering the CD capabilities of the Playstation is a bit of a shame. I also think whatever midi mixer Uematsu used for this game isn't as good as the one on the SNES, but that's personal preference. I liked a lot of the songs in Final Fantasy VII, I just don't like the majority of them. That's contrasted to Final Fantasy IV, where I loved most of the songs, and Final Fantasy VI, where I challenge you to find a single bad one. So it does well and is still a memorable sound, but it isn't the best.
You knew I'd talk about this. Time to burn more bridges.
I'd also like to point out that I am so damn sick of One-Winged Angel I want to claw at my ears every time I hear it. Look, I get it. The fact it had vocals totally blew you away. You didn't see that coming because you were used to the SNES's chipset that didn't allow for that kind of thing. I understand. It surprised me too. But come on; the music aside from the vocals isn't particularly enthralling (I like the previous song, Birth of a God much better in terms of a battle song, and even Jenova Absolute is more tension building) and we've used it to death by this point. Dancing Mad blows this thing completely out of the water in terms of sheer epicness anyway.
I'm not saying it's a bad song. It freaked me out when I was fighting Sephiroth for the last time too. It's just...old. But Sephiroth does have that totally bonkers summon at the end that destroys the solar system, so I guess all my complaints are moot.
Skip to 3:00 for some insane fun.
As it stands, Final Fantasy VII is a fine game, it just isn't a particularly great one. Yes, I know it has a legacy and yes, I know it was many people's first JRPG experience and it totally blew your minds. But I was a rather entrenched fan for a while (and I still really enjoy the game), but after re-playing it recently I came to realize that this game is seriously flawed, and these issues are even more noticeable fifteen years later. It will still hold a special place in my heart and I will still recommend fans of JRPGs play it, if only to know their roots, but as for being the "best game ever" (or even the best Final Fantasy game), I'd say it's a long shot away from it.
Still, it's only $10 on the Playstation Store now, which is a pretty sweet deal. It also doesn't have anything that makes it unplayable or overly frustrating (like most old games tend to do), so it still plays fine from a modern standpoint. Just don't expect an earth-shattering revelation if this is your first time digging in, because it's an old game, and it shows.
A relic from history, which now earns itself three out of five stars.