“If everything’s a dream, don’t wake me.”
Final Fantasy VII (1997)
Role Playing Game, Science Fiction, Fantasy
PS1, PC, VC, Mobile…
Since this is the first review, I want to start off on a relative high note, and what a way to start. For many, myself included, Final Fantasy VII was their introduction to an enchanting and unqiue corner of the gaming universe, the JRPG. Though many games in this genre like the Phantasy Star, Dragon Quest, and earlier Final Fantasy games had there way westward before this, none of them made nearly as much of splash as VII did upon its release and in the following years. It’s an important game to a lot of people, and even for me, who only finished it for the first time just a few short years ago, it still carries a great air of nostalgia.
I first played this classic in 2004 in its original 3-disc form on the PS1, though my tiny, 7 year old brain at the time wasn’t really registering the plot or mechanics at all, so I put it down before finishing it and went back to my upteenth playthrough of Spyro: Year of the Dragon (another, perhaps even greater PS1 gem). When I was a lot older, more worldy and conscious of the media I was consuming, I picked up FFVII‘s PC port from Steam in 2012, intent on at least finishing the game once. So I played it. I finished it. Then played it again twice immediately afterwards.
Summing the game up in a single phrase, it word be awe inspiring. Nearly every aspect of the game left me in a state of pure catharsis. The graphics, for an original Play Station title in 1997, along with the in-engine cutscenes, were breathtaking and still hold up to even against more cinematically proficient titles like the Metal Gear Solid series that have come since that time. The characters are (for the most part) an unforgettable cast of eccentric misfits, all forced together to take on what will forever be gaming’s most fabulous villain. The music… (where do I even start). Well we’ve got to pick a place to begin somewhere, so let’s start with the story…
Story and Characters
Final Fantasy VII‘s iconic opening puts player’s in the boots of Cloud Strife, a former ‘SOLDIER’ who aids the terrorist organisation AVALANCHE (yes it must capitalised) in taking down the global megacorporation Shinra to stop them draining the planet’s energy/lifeforce, along with childhood friend Tifa and the gruff, loveable Barret. After one operation goes south, Cloud meets a mysterious flower girl and from then on, the story twists and turns into a world saving plot to stop the superbeing Sephiroth from elimanating all life on the planet.
One of the greatest strengths of FFVII‘s story is that despite it’s accessibility for newcomers not used to traditional JRPG plots, the narrative is never so simple that I could condense it into a short paragraph. A primary component is the introspectiveness at the core of Clouds’s journey. He’s an amnesia suffering, reluctant hero, who uncovers more and more about himself across the course of the game, picking up hints as your party of adventures travels across the world to a wide variety of locations from the industrial city of Midgard to ancient temples in the jungle and icy caves, just to name a few. Cloud’s development and his slowly revealed relationship with antagonist and nemesis Sephiroth is easily the game’s most interesting driving force, at least for the first 2/3 thirds of the game.
Every so often, Cloud will begin to hear voices in his head, taunting him and making him do things he wouldn’t normally even think of. It’s chillingly haunting seeing Cloud lose control and Sephiroth’s terrifying presentation make every moment he’s on screen carry enormous weight and tension, more so than any other villain I’d seen in a game at that point (he would eventually be surpassed by FFVI‘s Kefka, but that’s another review for another time). The game’s writing, despite critiscism for it’s localization upon intial release, is another aspect I consider to be generally solid across the board, clearly and quirkily bringing the required gravitas to moments of importance as well as highlighting the lighter and darker sides of the game’s cast. Speaking of which…
Including main character Cloud, FFVII has up to 9 playable characters, all with their own individual personal plots and quests that interweave into the main narrative. What’s often so great about the cast is their undeniable charm and wit. Coming off of games like Dragon Age Origins and Fallout New Vegas, I didn’t think I’d be able to find such amusing yet insightful banter and exchanges between party members for a long time. I was pleasantly surprised in that regard as FFVII‘s characters are full of life yet harbor there own feelings of loss and sadness to compound with Cloud’s.
The busty Tifa follows Cloud on his journey trying to help bring back his memory, all the while helping AVALANCHE to achieve its goals. Red XIII is a long living, talking, red, cat-like creature captured by Shinra. Final Fantasy regular Cid makes an appearance as a grizzled pilot who is attempting to fly into space after Shinra cut the funding for his rocket program. Barret, AVALANCHE’s leader, is a gruff, aggressive man trying to build a world where his adoptive daughter Marlene can be safe. He is constantly at odds with Cloud, especially early on and has some of games most memorable lines – “Don’t forget that your skinny ass’s workin for AVALANCHE now!”. Barret’s character in the English localisation may have been a point of critiscism in the past, but I personally find his outlandishly silly dialogue to be his highlighting feature, always offering that glimmer of hope for the future in what would otherwise be a very dark, gloomy game. I haven’t even mentioned ninja girl Yuffie or ‘vampire’ like Vincent yet or any of the colourful range of non-playable supporting characters that you encounter on your epic journey across the world of Gaia, but for times sake lets just say nearly every member of the cast felt interesting and convincingly real and relatable despite their ‘box-monster’ appearances in the game’s environments outside battle.
By far the highlight of the game’s cast is Aerith (not Aeris as the game would have you believe – rename her!), the quirky flower girl, who seems to have a strange connection to the planet. Aerith is a special character not only due to her infinitely hopeful naivete but the influence her presence has on the game’s story, characters and overall atmosphere. Aerith has become an iconic character in videogame history, mainly due to one specific, powerful scene that I consider to be gaming’s equivalent to the end of Empire Strikes Back. Despite having been spoiled to this scene beforehand, it still brought a tear to my eye and radically changed my approach and motivation while journeying through the rest of the game. Also she makes Cloud crossdress 😀
You often hear stories from people who played FFVII when it first debuted on the PS1 about how gorgeous the game looked. While by today’s standard’s the character models are often downright ugly and almost look like someone went and made poorly designed block models of Tetsuya Nomura’s original character designs, the models and animations inside of combat fair significantly better, with some of the ‘summon’ and ‘limit break’ animations being so outlandishly flashy that one or two of them take multiple minutes to finish. However, in combination with some meaty sound effects they do lend an excellent sense of weight to attacks in the turn-based combat. Unfortunately, the PS1 version hasn’t held up so well in this regard, thanks to a lot of distracting jagged edges on characters, but this is fortunately rectified by a PC port with 1080p resolution support that should run easily on pretty much any functioning machine out there (the game runs on smartphones as well).
Equal praise from the character and creature designs and animations can also be given to many of the games 2D environments and background designs, which pop with artistic flair. The player character moves across mainly static backgrounds to allow for more detail to be placed within them to make the game feel more immersive. FFVII moved completely away from the medieval style of the first 5 mainline games in the series and almost fully embraced the elements of science-fiction that initially surfaced in FFVI. The city of Midgard is a layered metropolis, covered in pipes pumping the planet’s lifeforce out of it for energy and is a dark, dreary place covered in sewers, slums and portruding Shinra towers. The village of Nibelheim has clear gothic inspirations in the underground gravestones and laboritries of its creepy mansion basement. Gold Saucer is essentially an aerial casino and theme park suspended high in the sky. These are just a few of the impeccably detailed locations that Cloud and his party visit over the course of the game, but each part of the map is feels imposing as you approach it on the overworld map, whether by airship, submarine, land rover, mounted on a chocobo or on foot.
Some of the game’s finest and most impressive moments come in form of its spectacular, jaw-dropping cutscenes which defined the game as the best looking title on the PlayStation when it first released. In the game’s opening scene, the camera pans around the city of Midgard, focusing first on Aerith and then on the train carrying Cloud and AVALANCHE to their first target, before seemlessly transitioning from a pre-rendered cinematic straight into gameplay, an idea executed in this game so well it still impresses me to this day. Despite lacking any voice acting, the game still manages to convincingly display its tone and story, something some directors still sometimes have trouble with today (e.g. Hideo ‘WTF is tone?’ Kojima).
For those who don’t know, the majority of the gameplay in JRPGs revolves around fighting monsters to level up and boost stats, earn money and buy better items and equipment to fight more monsters and enemies to advance the game’s story. Having been developed by Squaresoft, FFVII had the privilege of having a team with a decade’s worth of experience in making highly successful and beloved JRPG’s before it.
The game uses the ‘Active Time Battle’ system where once a time meter is filled up a character may perform an action such as attacking an enemy, using an item, using a skill or magic etc. Defeating enemies in random encounters on the map or in boss battles offers experience points for leveling, gil (the in-game currency) and items with which to upgrade characters. Numerous items and equipment are also available in towns to purchase. One of the key complaints about JRPGs from wide audiences is the amount of repetitive battling required to advance to get to the point where characters are strong enough to advance the story, but FFVII, for me at least, cleanly navigates this ‘grind’ via the ‘materia’ system, which along with numerous other mechanics constantly keeps enemy encounters fresh and exciting, even after 40+ hours of play.
Each mainline entry in the Final Fantasy franchise usually evolves by adding a new mechanic to the standard formula or including mechanics entirely unique to that specific game. FFIII introduced the powerful ‘summons’ attacks to the franchise while FFV had a highly customisable class/job system to experiment with. FFVII has the ‘materia’ system, where speherical coloured orbs found throughout the game can be equiped to characters to give them access to new skills and magical capabilities. Any materia can be equipped to any character as long as that character has any slots left on their equipped armour or weapon. Some materia types can form synergistic combinataions and provide extra bonuses and materia like ‘Steal’ and ‘Enemy Skill’ add more depth to enemy encounters by allowing you steal rare items from enemies and learn their skills to use against them. Many of these items and skills cannot actually be attained anywhere else in the game and are often valuable to have for higher level and endgame encounters.
The ‘Limit Break’ system returns from FFVI and is further expanded upon in this entry. As character’s take damage, their limit metre fills up. When this metre is full, they can unleash a devastatingly powerful attack on the enemy. There are multiple limit breaks to learn and collect for each character, so, along with the materia system, plenty of strategy and experimentation is open to the player. Overall, FFVII‘s combat is very polished, simple enough for the casual player to easily and quickly grasp all of its systems, yet complex enough so that more invested players will be able to spend a long time perfecting there character builds.
Outside of combat, there’s actually quite a lot for players to dig there teeth into. There’s a system for catching and breeding Chocobo, the lovable franchise mascots as well as numerous minigames that initially appear during the story, like a biking action game, an underwater submarine mission and even official chocobo racing, which you can either take part in or gamble your hard earned gil on. The aforementioned floating theme park, Gold Saucer, holds many of these somewhat useful, if entirely passable side distractions. However, despite the novelty of these attractions and the amount of content they add to the overall game, aside from a few high level items, there’s not many tangible rewards to gain in most of these side activities, meaning I mainly avoided them after a few tries of each.
As much as I have sung the praises of FFVII in this review thus far, the positivity of my comments before this point pale in comparison to how I feel about this game’s soundtrack. FFVII has one of my favourite soundtracks from any game, film or TV show ever released. It is the factor that elevates the game above and beyond the normal standard of excellence and gives it a truly magical sense of place and atmosphere. Composer Nobuo Uematsu’s genius truly knows no bounds when comes to creating memorable, beautiful track that excites players for a new enemy encounter, yet can also tug at their heart strings when necessary in important scenes. Classic character and battle themes like “Those Who Fight”, “Ahead on Our Way”, “Fiddle de Chocobo” and “Aerith’s Theme” are all ingrained into my head and heart and are masterpieces in there own right, but the easy highlights for me are the bombastic “One Winged Angel” and Red XIII’s theme “Cosmo Canyon”. I can (and plan to) spend an entire post taling about my favoruite soundtracks, so more about FFVII‘s soundtrack will be discussed then, but for now I’ll just say for now that the chance to listen to this music alone is worth the price of admission for the full game.
FFVII is a game that everyone should play at least once before they die. Even if they don’t like RPGs, they should at least try the experience at least once, if only to experience the magical music and sweeping story with those who have gone before. Even though Square Enix recently announced the aptly titled Final Fantasy VII Remake at E3 2015, that game will likely change many aspects of the original to accomadate for a wider audience, meaning it’ll likely be an entirely new experience even for returning fans like me who’ve done a 100% completion of the original game. Even with the remake, I’d urge people to play the original game first, just for the wondrous experience it could bring you.
Cost: £9.99 (PC – Steam) Money Well Spent
Time: 35-50 hours (single playthrough) Time Well Spent