What can I possibly add to the discourse surrounding Final Fantasy VII? It is without a doubt one of the most famous and most well-loved games of all time, and given it is over 20 years old, I’m sure there’s very little new I can say about this. But fuck it! I’m gonna do that anyway because this is my blog and I’ve already happily waffled about old games for 2 years now. Let’s crack on!
Final Fantasy VII (PS1)
Released Jan 1997 | Developed / Published: Squaresoft
Despite the years, Final Fantasy VII’s introduction is still brilliantly built. As the opening notes of the superbly evocative Opening – Bombing Mission ring out we are treated to a swooping shot of the sprawling technopolis of Midgar. A mighty sci-fi city towers up on vast plates, while beneath them squalid slums squat. In the centre the monolithic spire of the Shinra Corporation headquarters looms over all, while on the edges huge reactors spew out glowing energy as they power the city. A train screeches to a halt as it pulls into one of the reactors before a figure leaps down from the top of the train carriage and dispatches the waiting guards. Say hello to our hero, Cloud. He cuts a stoic and aloof figure as he joins Avalanche, an eco-terrorist group committed to destroying the reactors along the edge of Midgar.
Shinra respond in the most lethal and vile ways to Avalanche’s actions. Within a few short hours of gameplay our heroes begin to scratch the surface of their crimes, from kidnapping to conducting horrific experiments on living subjects. Ultimately, Avalanche are forced to escape Midgar and follow Shinra’s trail across the Planet. In the midst of it all looms the figure of Sephiroth, a legendary soldier formerly of the Corporation. Long missing, he resurfaces only to murder Shinra’s president and begin a rampage of revenge. Sephiroth and Shinra are inextricably linked and Avalanche find themselves drawn into an effort to stop both the former warrior and the corporation from destroying the world.
Though it has aged somewhat and was the victim of a notoriously wonky translation, I still maintain that much of Final Fantasy VII’s narrative strength lies in its character writing. Because of its popularity there’s been plenty of media released which features its cast, including sequels, prequels, and even appearances in other franchises, all of which has contributed to the exaggeration of the characters to the point of nonsense. If you’ve only experienced Cloud through additional media, you will likely only have seen him as a brooding moping dolt but it couldn’t be further from his personality in his original appearance. The writing might be a touch awkward but it can’t hide the nuance in his personality; Cloud begins the game as an aloof, even arrogant member of the party, staunchly mercenary and exceedingly confident in his combat skills. As the game progresses however, his insecurities become more apparent and a late-game event tries to tackle the wildly complex issues surrounding his mental health. It’s not perfectly done, but it’s a bold move from a game from 1997, and one I am appreciative of.
The other characters fare equally well, with everyone in the party getting at least some time in the spotlight to highlight and challenge their motivations and mindset. The exploration of Barrett is a particular favourite of mine. He seems to be a gun-toting anti-corporate terrorist at first but is quickly revealed to be a doting father; it’s smartly done, with some sweet moments not just in the dialogue but also in the animation as he sits his daughter on his shoulder while he plans missions. At least one of the two bonus characters, Yuffie, gets some significant time devoted to her to try and address her thieving tendencies, though it’s a shame that the same was not allocated to our other bonus chap, Vincent, who sticks out like a sore thumb.
Final Fantasy VII also has excellent villains. The short-lived President Shinra is a cackling maniac but his son, Rufus, who ascends to the top of the Corporation after his father’s murder, is orders of magnitude more dangerous. He’s cold and calculating; one of his early defining moments is where he recognises the sycophancy of his company’s board and quietly threatens one member into submission over little more than hating his boisterous laughter. I feel like although Sephiroth is also a villain I enjoy very much, there’s little I can talk about without veering into spoilers; suffice it to say he ends up providing a compelling threat, though both his mindset and his plan are reminiscent of other Final Fantasy villains. Some of the spoilers and plot events associated with him are of course well known but that doesn’t rob them of their power by any means, so don’t let knowing about certain events in-game put you off from playing it if you haven’t already.
The game’s combat is very typical of contemporary Final Fantasy titles. VII uses ATB, the system which Square introduced for their JRPGs in the 90s with Final Fantasy IV. As such, battles occur at random and then our party of three each wait for a bar to fill and then take an action. It’s an archaic system, especially for more modern players coming back to discover or replay this game, and I can understand anyone that balks at it. At least the earlier SNES Final Fantasy games had the good grace to have fast animations to make battles exciting and quick; a complaint against Final Fantasy VII that many seem to share is that the leap to 3D graphics came with a need to show off. Because of this, battle animations can be lengthy, and even the beginning of encounters is precipitated by swooping camera angles which are impressive but only serve to lengthen combat. I do like that in the PS4 port at least there are options to alleviate this – by clicking a button, players can toggle on a turbo which makes things run at triple speed, meaning battles can fly by. This is a feature which I’m hugely in favour of; it reduces the grind noticeably and frankly should be an option in any JRPG, which I say even as a staunch fan of the genre. While I think that one is harmless, the PS4 also features two other toggles which some players might take issue with. One option turns off random encounters – not a feature I care for, but some others might be glad of the freedom from grinding – while the other refills your HP, MP and Limit bar. This latter option essentially turns the game’s challenge off, as it more or less entirely prevents your death and gives you access to the best attacks in the game instantaneously. While I’m sure some diehard players will turn their noses up at it, it should be noted that it is entirely optional and while I made no real use of it, I think it offers a significant sense of accessibility to Final Fantasy VII, which can only be a net positive if it allows more people to experience the game.
At the base level all any of your party can do is attack, defend, try to flee or use items – the key to unlocking their potential and to succeeding in Final Fantasy VII is management of the Materia system. Materia are crystals which confer powers upon whoever wields them and by equipping them onto your party members it allows them to learn and use new abilities and spells in battle. Each Materia is tied to a specific spell or ability and its associated line of upgrades; winning battles nets you both exp to level your characters and AP to level up your equipped Materia, and as your Materia level up they can unlock the next tier of spells. For example, Cloud comes equipped with the Bolt Materia, allowing him to cast a lightning spell, but as it levels up he can unlock the more powerful Bolt 2 and 3. A criticism leveled at the Materia system is that it encourages homogenous character design: because any character can equip any Materia it leaves you with a party of broadly blank slates which can be shoehorned into whatever archetype you need, and I think that’s fair. However, I find the system compelling enough to be positive about it; instead I see it as creative and liberating. Though there is no class system as such, each characters’ stats push them towards a particular build, and using Materia lets you augment that; Cloud for example is designed to be a front-line warrior predominantly, but there’s nothing stopping you from equipping him with loads of spell Materia and building a kind of Spellsword version of him.
Part of effective use of Materia is careful management of your equipment. Each weapon and armour available to you comes with a set of sockets in which to slot Materia; sometimes more powerful weapons might have fewer or no slots at all, while some have passive abilities to more efficiently level your Materia. Often these slots are in linked pairs, and this unlocks the most interesting aspect to managing your Materia. When two Materia are placed in a linked pair of sockets, they can affect the other. For example, by pairing a spell with an All Materia, you can cast it on all available targets, rather than just one. The place you pair these Materia also has an impact; if you pair a spell and an Elemental Materia on your weapon, it turns all of your physical attacks into ones of that element, a useful means to deal extra damage on foes weak to it though also capable of backfiring if used against resistant enemies. However, putting that same pair onto your Armour gives you a resistance to that element instead! Discovering the links that can happen between Materia and the effect it has by socketing them in different places is one of the more intricate aspects to the system and mastering it can produce some particularly effective augmentations for your party.
While combat and Materia are the bulk of the gameplay of Final Fantasy VII, it does also have other distractions. I’m not sure exactly why – perhaps an early example of cinematic gameplay, or perhaps just to break up a perceived monotony of battles – but VII has an inordinate amount of weird little minigames. The Gold Saucer is the game’s customary casino world which offers a bunch of side-content, from a battle arena to chocobo racing, but on top of that there is a profusion of tiny pieces of other gameplay, but none of which are expanded upon. There’s a set of treasure hunting minigames, Cloud can go snowboarding, and there’s even a one-off motorbike combat sequence in the early stages of the game. The most extensive of these is the chocobo breeding, which can be a lengthy process but is required to get certain endgame content.
One of Final Fantasy VII’s biggest selling points at the time was its visuals. I maintain that previous Final Fantasy games looked lovely – VI in particular was a fantastic looking SNES game – but VII blows them out of the water, and it acted as a showcase for the graphical power of the PS1. It’s fair to say that nowadays it looks quaint but though it has aged poorly in some respects, I maintain that some aspects of it still look exceptional. Plenty of modern criticism has been targeted towards the character models, which look like Duplo blocks inelegantly stapled together, and I can agree with that. I don’t hate them – they feel kind of stylised to me – but it’s hard to deny that they’re awkwardly blocky. The battle visuals are similar, with the polygonal blocks very clearly visible, and I can understand why that puts some people off. That said, some of the attack animations, particularly those of the summons, are extraordinary. They are long and unskippable, which is not ideal, but my word they look bloody good.
I would extend the same praise to the pre-rendered backgrounds. With the exception of the world map, players find themselves running through a selection of FMV-quality background screens; this helps bring the world of Final Fantasy VII to life in many ways, as small details can play out like steam escaping from mako pipes as you run by. Midgar in particular benefits greatly from this as it’s very easy to become absorbed in its dingy dieselpunk world; one section sees you clamber up a ruined wall and as you crest over the top and see the city stretched out beneath you it’s difficult not to be impressed. It’s kind of a shame when you leave Midgar and find yourself on a plain and unremarkable world map.
Final Fantasy VII’s strengths in its presentation also extend to its soundtrack. Nobuo Uematsu’s work here is second-to-none, and may well be one of his finest ever. While it’s primarily an orchestral score, it uses that as an underpinning set of sounds over which Uematsu allows himself to delve into other genres in order to appropriately accompany the game. Early Midgar tracks, such as Mako Reactor, utilise electronic elements to convey the technological advance of the city, but with a deep doom-laden vibe which communicates the dystopia that Shinra has built. Uematsu also makes use of choral sounds to further create the sense of crushing control which Shinra exerts over Midgar; a perfect example of this comes in the corporation’s theme, where it melds with harsh ringing bells and a militaristic drumbeat. As seems to be becoming a trend, my favourite of the Midgar tracks is the absurdly titled Under the Rotting Pizza, which has the filthiest bassline and a fantastically teasing build up to absolutely nothing yet still manages to carry weight and tension spectacularly.
Other tracks are calmer; Tifa’s Theme for example has a homely and comforting slow melody and it underpins her interactions with Cloud as she tries to ground our protagonist and return him to their shared childhood days instead of allowing him to lose himself in his tough-guy persona. The soundtrack could in general be typified by Uematsu’s willingness to play silly buggers with genre. How else do you explain the presence of surf rock being incorporated into the chocobo theme or a track about oppression that can only be described as post-apocalyptic reggae? Cosmo Canyon brings with a feel of Native American folk and yet the same soundtrack also slaps us with the shady jazz beat of Cait Sith’s Theme. The sheer variety of the score is the best recommendation I can give you; it’s such a journey and I massively recommend it to you.
As you might expect for a game with as storied a reputation as this, certain tracks have all but outgrown it and run into iconic status for the franchise. Let the Battles Begin is one of the franchise’s most well-known battle themes for a reason. Aerith’s Theme is a beautiful piece of music that plays during what might be the single most iconic scene in the entire franchise and underscores it absolutely perfectly. Finally, no discussion of Final Fantasy VII’s music would be complete without a mention of the final boss theme, One-Winged Angel. It remains one the most recognisable pieces of Final Fantasy music ever for its complex evolving rhythm and melody patterns and its marvellously effective use of a choir to convey sheer terror; it rightly crowns the soundtrack.
If Final Fantasy VII has one big problem which plagues it, it’s probably the legacy which it left behind. It’s nearly impossible to go into playing it, especially as a patient gamer, without being acutely aware of its status as being considered one of the best games of all time. The issue that creates is hype. Nothing ruins a game more than going in with too-high expectations and that game not meeting them, and it’s pretty hard for a game to meet the obligation of being a “best of all time” contender. I suspect VII is a victim of its own hype more often than not, but if you’re able to put that aside and play it on its own terms then I personally think it still remains an excellent game. It may be very wonky in places but the mistakes and missteps it makes are those made by being on the cutting edge, and they’re forgivable. It’s no surprise than in the context of its release it was very well-received, and that love for it endures to this day, but speaking as someone who didn’t play it in 1997, and didn’t have that context for it, I personally think it still holds up magnificently. It earns the plaudits it gets, and I wholeheartedly recommend playing it still.
7/7 – TOP TIER. As close to perfect as it gets, a game that surpasses any faults it might have and comes with the highest of recommendations. A must-play.