I’m finally finished with Final Fantasy VII, just in time for the 10th anniversary of its North American release. It’s an important and well-loved game and this was my second time through the entire game. In my review below I’ve tried to be as objective and fair as possible about this classic game. So how does it hold up for its 10th birthday?

Story

FFVII has a huge and sometimes confusing story. It sprawls across three discs and is filled with love, sadness, revenge and betrayal. What immediately stands out about the game are its characters. With the transition to the Playstation, Square kept the emphasis on a large cast of interesting characters that had worked so well for them in Final Fantasy VI. Cloud, Aeris and Sephiroth are almost iconic in RPG history. Every character had hints of greater depth and an interesting backstory. Some of this was force-fed to you but other character secrets, and even entire characters, were hidden and left for you to find by exploring.

I generally liked the characters and found them intriguing. I wanted to know more about them and the game was set up to reveal information about them bit by bit as it progressed. Cloud was mysterious but clearly grew during the game as did Barret, Tifa and the others. I thought killing Aeris early in the game was a masterstroke. They had set her up as such an innocent and likable person and to take her out of the game so unexpectedly served to crystallize the remainder of the game. I really think the game was at it’s best after Aeris’ death. And I remember the first time through thinking that if she’d died then I really couldn’t be sure other characters would make it through to the end. It added to the tension and focused my hate for Sephiroth.

And what a great set of villains FF7 had. At the start of the game you thought you were just going to be fighting Shinra and its minions the entire time. As you followed the trail of blood in the Shinra headquarters, you began to realize that they weren’t nearly as important as Sephiroth. He served as the perfect foil for the game: certainly evil and ruthless but almost sympathetic as you learned about his history and how he came to be. He’s a popular villain and for good reason.

I also loved the setting. While it was a shift away from a pure fantasy setting, I thought the combination of the industrial and magical worked great and continued the same trend that was present in Final Fantasy VI.

My only complaint about the story in FF7 is that it can be almost too complex. There’s a line between mysterious and intriguing on the one side and muddled and confusing on the other. FF7 crossed the line a couple of times. The whole Zack subplot was weird and seemed unnecessary. The relationship of Jenova and Sephiroth was revealed bit by bit but still was confusing to me. There were times I felt I needed to take notes so I could remember who everyone was and how they were related. Dr. Gast was related to Aeris how? Vincent’s lover was Sephiroth’s father? Hojo experimented on Cloud and Zack? Relatively minor characters who were often mentioned for just a couple of lines apparently had major roles to play and little of this was made clear. It was easier to see the big picture during a replay but the first time through I was pretty confused.

Though unnecessarily confusing, Final Fantasy VII had a great cast and a deep, involving plot. I give FF7’s story an 8 out of 10.

Presentation

Final Fantasy VII was a great showcase for the power of disc-based consoles in general, and the Playstation in particular. The game looked so good at the time that it’s hard to fully appreciate now in our era of high-definition graphics. Transitioning to polygonal characters on rendered backgrounds gave the game a distinctive and modern look that was stunning compared to its 2D contemporaries. Square had mastered the ability to animate and make believable characters from its sprite-based games and there was some concern that polygons would be a step backward. I think that was unfounded. The simple but distinctive look of each of the characters, their animations and expressions worked well and set a standard for future Final Fantasy games.

As did the inclusion of full-motion video. This was apparently one of the deal-breakers between Square and Nintendo and it’s hard to imagine a Final Fantasy game now without stunning full-motion visuals. The FMV’s in FF7, especially the opening movie, announced that Square was doing something different with its role-playing games. It clearly took their games in a more cinematic direction. While the FMV’s look a bit rough today and could probably be replicated in real-time by an Xbox 360 or Playstation 3, at the time they were gorgeous. I remember playing the game partly to see what the next movie would be. Also notable were the many times the game would seamlessly transition from FMV to rendered background, again perfectly demonstrated by the opening as the train pulls up and Cloud gets out and suddenly you realize he is now playable. It served to further blur the line between movie and game.

Final Fantasy VII has one of my favorite video game scores. Uematsu’s soundtrack is varied, frequently amazing and full of hooks that dig his songs into your brain. I can’t count the number of times the last month or two that I’ve found myself humming Aeris’ theme or the overworld theme. They help to set the mood and punctuate the developments in the story. I really can’t think of any complaints about the music other than the annoying scene in Junon where Cloud is in disguise with the Shinra troops and the music just goes on and on endlessly repeating the same irritating theme. That easily fades into the background though and the rest of the music is perfect.

One valid criticism of FF7 is the translation, which was frankly awful. Some lines (and they tended to be Barret’s) were so clumsy they were cringe-inducing. Square could have done a much better job here as it really did distract from the game and often distanced me from the characters. To their credit, they made good translations a priority for their games after FF7.

Final Fantasy VII is often criticized for emphasizing style over substance. It was and still is a gorgeous game and gets a much-deserved 9 out of 10 for presentation.

Gameplay

Final Fantasy VII was a very fun game to play with just a few exceptions. The game really does restrict you in the beginning: you only have limited areas you can visit, your characters don’t have any really interesting abilities and this doesn’t really change until several hours into the game. Once you get out of Midgar and to the overworld map things open up a bit but the game doesn’t really shine until later.

I liked the materia system. The ability to make any character a tank or a healer or a thief was nice and it let me strategize how I wanted to play the game. Levelling-up materia and gaining new abilities was an important hook that propelled me to keep playing. Once I had Cure 2 I just had to have Regen and I’d keep fighting random battles until I did. Along with the limit break system, the materia system kept things moving forward. I always felt that there was going to be something cool and interesting if I kept playing and that gave the game a very addictive quality.

The mini-games were hit-or-miss for me. If I never again have to figure out the correct sequence of button presses to get Tifa out of the gas chamber I’ll die a happy man. Others were similarly irritating and often I just wanted to move on with the game. There were some cool and optional parts of the game such as the chocobo breeding and racing and the battle arena. Knowing each character had ultimate weapons and limit breaks that were out there somewhere made things intriguing.

So much of the game almost requires a strategy guide in hand while you play. I mostly played through the first time with no help and only on a replay did I realize how much I missed. This is a good and bad thing as it definitely lends the game some replay value but can also be frustrating for those that don’t want to replay a game that takes over 40 hours to finish.

Battles were fun. I felt like I had a lot of options in any battle ranging from regular attacks to spells to limit breaks to summons to stealing things to setting up counter-attack materia and elemental attack combinations. I like having choices available and there were a lot of different ways to defeat both regular enemies as well as the bosses. The random battles seemed to happen frequently enough to keep things interesting but not so often that I was frustrated.

Overall I give Final Fantasy VII’s gameplay an excellent 9 out of 10.

Summary

I really liked Final Fantasy VII. While it has its faults, it managed to continue the same gameplay strengths from its 16-bit days and combine them with a set of outstanding visuals, a great soundtrack and a fun story. It justly deserves its status as a landmark game.

Final score: 8.8 out of 10

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