Final Fantasy VII Reader Review
Those three notes play. Iconic, instantly recognisable. As soon as those three little chimes sound, you know you're playing Final Fantasy VII.
Back in 1997 when Final Fantasy VII (henceforth referred to as FFVII) was first released to the world, I was far too young to be playing such a game. At the time, I was learning the intricacies of getting Mario to jump on the head of a Goomba, or passing the N64 controller to my Dad every time a frightening boss appeared in
As such, I only played this classic, genre-defining gem of a title recently after downloading it to my PSP. I came into it with mixed expectations; on the one hand I had recently played (and loved) FFXIII, my first forray into the franchise, and so I was greatly anticipating playing another title in the series. But on the other hand, it's a 14 year old game. People rave about it but I had thought it to be nostalgia viewed through rose tinted glasses.
Fortunately, my fears were unfounded. Final Fantasy VII is an absolute masterclass of an RPG deserving of all the praise it gets, and one whose influences can still be seen running strong even today. There is a reason FFVII made RPGs popular with the mainstream, selling a staggering seven million copies at a time when gaming wasn't nearly as commonplace as it is today.
Final Fantasy VII deviated from the fantasy/industrial/light sci-fi settings of its predeccessors, instead crafting a world of hardcore cyberpunk combined with magic and those idiosyncratic Japanese elements only developers like Square can bring to a game. Set on a world simply known as 'the Planet,' FFVII's universe is as deep and intricate as they come, fleshed out further by the numerous spin-offs that have arisen since the original.
A mega-corporation named Shinra Incorporated has discovered a way of converting the Planet's 'lifestream' into 'mako energy.' Stay with me here. You see, the Planet in FFVII is essentially alive. And all living things upon it are connected by a flowing force known as the lifestream; all life is born from the lifestream, and upon death all life returns to the lifestream. Thus a delicate balance of equilibrium keeps the Planet in a state of flux, a delicate state Shinra Inc. is threatening to destroy.
By converting this lifestream energy to electricity through their mako reactors, Shinra is draining the Planet of its life. But the populace doesn't care. Their lifestyles have never been better; everyone has steady, affordable energy. It's a none-too-subtle analogy for how we are destroying are own planet through over-abstraction of fossil fuels and other finite resources, but one which works rather well.
As a result of this monopoly Shinra has on the population of the Planet, it is essentially the governing force of the world. In true cyberpunk fashion that would make [i]Blade Runner[/i] proud, the corporation has succeeded the government as ruler, with its president essentially acting as king. In order to keep the peace and protect from the threats to the people, Shinra has its own private army, and within that army an elite band of genetically enhanced warriors; SOLDIER. These adept warriors, their very blood enfused with powerful mako energy, are unmatched in their skill.
Cloud Strife, the protagonist of FFVII, is one of these SOLDIERs. Well, an ex-SOLDIER, to be precise. When the game begins we don't know why he is an ex-SOLDIER; all we know is that he is now a mercenary, and he's been hired by a group of radical eco-terrorists known as AVALANCE who want to stop Shinra from destroying the Planet but perhaps go about it in the wrong way.
I know, FFVII likes its capital letters. They don't stand for anything, but they look cool... be fair, it was the 90s. Back to the point, it is here FFVII begins. AVALANCE has hijacked a train bound for one of the Mako reactors of the capital city, Midgar. Amongst the hijackers are Cloud, a girl from his past who recommended him for the job, Tifa, and their leader, a Mr. T look-and-act-alike by the name of Barret. He has a gun in place of a right hand, so you instantly know he's badass.
The train grinds to a halt, and you alight. Shinra troops rush out to meet you, but of course they're no match for you; you're ex-SOLDIER, 1st class might I add.
It is here that you're introduced to FFVII's battle system, perhaps the most in-depth battle system to ever grace the Final Fantasy series. The ATB (active time battle) system returns from FFVI, ensuring you can never just sit on your laurels; whilst you have to wait for a bar to fill up before you character can attack, time flows constantly -- you're not just trading attacks. So you have to be speedy when selecting attacks, magics or items to use lest you allow the enemy to get a few hits in before your one.
Replacing the traditional magic system is 'Materia,' essentially condensed Mako energy (remember, formed from the essence of the lifestream) which allows you to tap into the power of the Planet and essentially cast spells. There are only two types of people in the world who could come up with this stuff; those ridiculously high on cocaine and the Japanese. Regardless, the materia system is very complex and to delve into it in depth would take up a considerable portion of this review -- just know that it adds another heavy layer to the Final Fantasy battling system, one difficult to master but incredibly enjoyable to experiment with once you do.
You've got nine characters comprising the cast of FFVII; a step back from FFVI's thirteen. However, this lesser number means each gets a more fleshed out backstory, and the animation provided by the PSone outclasses the SNES' sprites considerably. Every character in FFVII I liked, and when the time for that death arrives, I wager you'll tear up a bit.
However, despite how capitalist and evil Shinra Inc. is, they're not the main antagonist of FFVII although they are a major one. The main antagonist comes in the form of Sephiroth. Now, this guy has got a deep and dark backstory. Another ex-SOLDIER and the result of some very heavy genetic modifications unlike those the other SOLDIERs received, Sephiroth was once Shinra's poster-boy. A hero beloved by all; guys wanted to be him, girls wanted to be with him, etc etc. Unmatched in combat, Sephiroth was a source of fear to all Shinra's enemies.
But of course, it didn't last. One of FFVII's central themes is the damages that tampering with nature can bring about, and Sephiroth personifies this theme very well. A few years before the story of the game begins, Sephiroth went insane and burnt an entire town before fleeing; he hasn't been seen since. As we find out later, his story is intrinsically tied to that of Cloud, and between them is the strongest protagonist-antagonist connection in the entire series. Sephiroth makes for a very imposing villain, and by the end of the first disc you'll feel a burning desire to plunge Cloud's ridiculously over-sized sword into his chest.
Then you realise it's not as simple as black-and-white, and that Sephiroth is just as much a victim as anyone else in the story, driven insane by powers outside of his control.
We get the feeling something isn't quite right with Cloud. He's a very cold character, the typical emo-type and unfortunately has served as the template for practically every Square Enix character since, but back when FFVII released, his was quite an original character. He can't quite remember his past for some reason, and along the road are some very surprising and innovative twists that I did not see coming.
The rest of the cast all have their own daemons too, and throughout the course of the game they'll all come to terms with them in their own way.
As I said earlier, the universe of Final Fantasy VII is a complex one, perhaps the most complex in the entire franchise. But the storytelling is told gracefully throughout the course of the game so you never feel lost, and aside from an occassionally dodgy translation ("this guy are hurt" being a painful example) FFVII's story is top-class, engrossing from beginning to end and it makes you wonder why most games these days have such awful stories when a game from 1997 could weave such an enthralling yarn.
So the story has aged well and will probably remain timeless, even if a few elements such as black suits and sunglasses, over-sized weapons and motorbike chases were only truly cool in the 90s.
But one aspect of the game which has aged poorly is the graphics. Now, that's not to say FFVII is an ugly game. The art direction is inspired and compared to earlier titles, it's impressive. At the time, FFVII was the absolute peak of graphical capabilities, pushing the technology further than it had ever gone. And even now, it ocassionally wows. The CGI sequences are rather blocky and texture-less, looking much like the CGI in [i]Babylon 5[/i] but still are not painful to watch. Thankfully the backgrounds of the game are pre-rendered, meaning that although static they do look quite nice even if they do juxtapose quite heavy with the basic and cubic character models.
Still, keeping in mind it is a 14 year old game and the fact that the art direction and set pieces are quite lovely and unique, Final Fantasy VII is not a bad looking game. Just don't go in expecting anything awe-inspiring.
Luckily, the music still holds up. Some of the best tracks composed by the legendary composer Nobuo Uematsu ever are in FFVII, with notable ones being the music which plays in the opening, the battle theme, the one which plays alongside that death, J-E-N-O-V-A and of course, the chilling and grandiose music that serves as Sephiroth's theme; One Winged Angel. Whilst unfortunately some of the sound comes out a little tinny due to the compression which was needed on the PSone, for the most part FFVII provides a stirring OST and one of the best I've heard in gaming.
It's difficult to summarise Final Fantasy VII in a review because it is such a rich and deep game. I myself spent about 50 hours playing, and I didn't even do most of the side-quests. The game provides a sprawling world map which genuinely feels huge and like a real world as opposed to the rather generic sprite worlds in previous Final Fantasies. To go any deeper into the amazing story would be to spoil it too much, and if you ever do decide to play this game I wouldn't want to rob any of the experience away from you.
As far as RPGs go, you can do a lot, lot worse than Final Fantasy VII. The prospect of the menu-based battle system may seem a little off-putting if you've never played a Japanese RPG before, but once you get to grips with it you'll soon find yourself enjoying formulating strategies amongst your party of three to take down the monsters and other foes which roam the Planet. Featuring one of the best stories in gaming as well as some of the most beautiful music Uematsu has ever crafted, as well as a strong ensemble of characters and unique aesthetics which you can't really find anywhere else, Final Fantasy VII is a game any self-respecting gamer should play, even if it's just to see what all the fuss is about.
Final Fantasy VII is downloadable now on PSN for £7.99/$9.99, playable on both PSP and PS3. It's a small price of pay for such a major piece of gaming history, and worth every penny.