Final Fantasy VII's a weird game to write about. It's a 17-year-old game whose reputation looms large over the genre, and in many ways a generation of gamers. To some, it's an unassailable masterpiece, and a formative childhood experience akin to my memories of playing Ocarina of Time as a 10-year-old; to others, it's the beginning of the all-consuming, belt-buckle-filled Nomurapocalypse that turned the franchise away from their formative childhood experiences with FFIV and FFVI. Ordinarily I'd try to avoid stereotyping the "sides" of an issue, but FFVII is one of those games that seems to inspire hyperbolic opinions. As someone who didn't play a mainline Final Fantasy game until the beginning of 2013 — and as someone who knew very little about FFVII aside from the infamous spoiler — I'd like to think I was better equipped than many to come at FFVII without too much baggage, for better and for worse. I ended up enjoying FFVII more than expected, and quite a bit more than FFVI, which I played the first half of prior to beginning FFVII. I continue to not particularly like the ATB battle system, and the shoddy localization is pretty unforgivable, but Final Fantasy VII's ambition and heart shines through remarkably well 17 years later.
The most prominent characteristic of FFVII — both at the time of its release and now — is its use of pre-rendered art assets. The game very rarely comes up in a modern context without a caveat about how badly its graphics would stand up today. In some ways, those people aren't wrong — the sprite art of games like Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger has aged better in the sense that one could release a game that looked like them today and get away with it — but I also got over the way FFVII looked in a couple of hours, and ended up finding it quite a bit more visually interesting than FFVI. The sheer quantity and density of the art makes for a very lived-in-feeling world. In contrast to the fairly cookie-cutter towns of FFVI, FFVII's towns are full of life and detail. The grainy, artifact-filled CG can be hokey and inconsistent, but it's not horrendous, and is in some cases used to pretty good effect in backgrounds and scene transitions. If you're skeptical, poke around this footage of Mt. Nibel, watch this scene of Bugenhagen explaining the Lifestream, or skip around the sequence in which Cloud and Tifa explore the Lifestream (to be clear, that last one has PC-resolution character models). If you're willing and able to look past the technical constraints of the time, Final Fantasy VII is still a pretty good-looking and visually-interesting game.
The gameplay of FFVII was serviceable, but fairly uninspiring. As I said at the start, I'm not a fan of the ATB system, but FFVII did feel to me like a step up from FFVI. The Limit Break system can lead to some really intense sequences during boss battles, particularly since the biggest boss attacks naturally lead to multiple limit breaks. Being able to jump to the front of the queue with a big attack or clutch heal gave battles a dynamism I generally thought FFVI's lacked. I also think Materia is a much more sane character customization system than Espers. Espers locked me into decisions I didn't always feel like I had the knowledge or inclination to fully grasp, while Materia was non-binding. The Materia system also sidestepped the FFVI problem of having every character burdened with an unmanageably-long list of spells.
At the risk of making a reference that isn't likely to help my case, Materia reminded me of FFXIII's Paradigm system — both rewarded creativity and developing your own approach to battles without feeling too overbearing. I was talking with an FFVII-loving friend yesterday, and it hadn't ever occurred to them to spec a party member as a tank by using a combination of the Cover, Long Range, Counter, and HP Plus Materias. By the end of the game, I had Cid taking every hit for half damage and countering for like 1000 damage, and Yuffie wrecking bosses with 4000-damage Ultima hits while avoiding most of the magic damage that came her way. It felt fucking cool and personalized in a way that I never really got out of FFVI.
It's also very much worth noting that FFVII is a somewhat easier game than FFVI, and that's in my opinion to its credit. Hitting the Floating Continent and finding myself presumably underlevelled killed my momentum in VI, and I never had a moment like that in FFVII. The bosses for the most part presented a solid-but-manageable challenge without any grinding whatsoever on my part. If I'd been seeking out more optional content and not levelling my party equally the game may have been trivially easy, but relative to my playstyle, FFVII's bosses presented a fairly satisfying challenge. Random battles tended to be nothing, but that's a fairly endemic problem with RPGs in general.
I'm having a hard time figuring out what to make of FFVII's story. I think it's fundamentally well-conceived, but some combination of the writing and localization left me pretty confused about some fairly integral story beats and character motivations. It wasn't until I completed the game and did some independent research that I really understood what the deal was with Cloud and Zack. I stumbled across a flashback in the basement of the Shinra Mansion in which Zack was escaping from a holding chamber with Cloud before getting gunned down by soldiers, and I wasn't entirely clear on when this was supposed to have happened and what it was supposed to imply. Was that right before Tifa found Cloud at the train station with no memories? Was the voice in Cloud's mind Sephiroth? I understood enough about what was going on with Cloud to understand the broad strokes of his story, but to this date I couldn't really articulate some pretty important parts of it, and I'm hesitant to research too much until I've watched Advent Children and played/watched Crisis Core.
Similarly, I lost aspects of the overarching plot as the story came to a head. I've only just now realized that there were multiple Weapons (those huge bipedal leviathans), and that they were trying to destroy Midgar in an effort to return energy to the Lifestream in order to stop Meteor. I had a vague sense that the Weapons had something to do with Sephiroth, but as it turns out they were acting in opposition to him. The details of what Holy was, how Aerith casted it, and how it interacted with the Lifestream during the final cinematic were mostly lost on me. I still don't really know what Jenova was. It's likely that some of this confusion was my fault, but considering how shoddy so much of the writing was (to the point where I was regularly spotting straight-up typos and glaring grammatical mistakes), I'm not going to assume full responsibility.
To yet again bang the FFXIII drum, for all of the shit that game's lore gets, I had a way easier time following its plot than I had following VII's. You're telling me "fal'Cie" and "l'Cie" were too much to handle, but VII's "Weapon", "Meteor", "Holy", "Lifestream", "Mako", "Cetra", "Ancients", "Jenova", "Planet" and other assorted mumbo-jumbo and contrivances were totally fine? "Well, your favourite thing is stupid too!" isn't a great defence, but I do think it's worth considering how coherent earlier Final Fantasy stories really were if you're going to argue that the newer entries have gotten too far up their asses.
I found that VII's characters succeeded far more than its overarching plot. The game's smaller core cast allowed the characters breathing room to have their moments, and those moments were generally pretty effective. Cloud ended up being less of a sourpuss amnesiac than I was led to believe; Tifa was a fast favourite, particularly after her and Cloud's scene in the Lifestream; Barrett, setting aside some cringe-worthy black stereotypes (he literally says "yeah boyee" at one point), ended up being a good strongman character with some unexpected emotional depth; Aerith was endearing, but often seemed to endear herself in pretty uncreative and stereotypical ways; Cid's essentially the Han Solo of FFVII, and he pulls it off quite nicely. I unfortunately picked up Yuffie and Vincent close to the end because I didn't realize they were optional characters — I used Yuffie a bunch, played through her optional quest, and came to really like her; I didn't end up using Vincent at all. For as much attention as Aerith gets in discussions about FFVII, I found Tifa and her relationship with Cloud to be a far more interesting one. Cloud's personal character arc, which I think is the most enduring aspect of FFVII, very much revolves around Tifa's; Aerith (understandably) spends most of the game as a static martyr.
Lastly, I can't write about Final Fantasy VII without mentioning the music. I have a lot affinity for FFVI's soundtrack — particularly Terra's theme — but I think FFVII's is a step above. The game boots straight into a goosebump-inducing classic, and carries that momentum straight into the still-awesome opening sequence. The battle theme is solid, and holds up throughout the game. Aerith's theme (and in particular the Midgar Slums church arrangement of it) is one of the most effective examples of character building through music I can recall. To a lesser degree, this Midgar Slums theme helped define the atmosphere of the area and the plight of its people. Words Drowned by Fireworks is so good it managed to make me feel for Cait Sith when he offered to sacrifice himself at the Temple of the Ancients right after he fucked over the party then blackmailed them into letting him join them. Tifa's theme is sweet and melancholic without feeling too saccharine. Cid's theme might be my favourite in the game, and is one of the best "let's fucking finish this!" themes I've heard. It leads nicely into Judgment Day, a similarly-great final dungeon theme
Also, I've got a big soft spot for the the Costa del Sol theme and surf rock Chocobo theme arrangement. Oh, and Yuffie's theme! I can't not mention the hypebossthemes! (If I don't stop now, I'm going to end up describing every track.)
So that's Final Fantasy VII, and one more gaming blind spot covered. Next Square (Enix) stop: Final Fantasy X!