Every gamer thirsty for new exciting games fears the summer draught. Yes it is mid-June and the gaming stores have well and truly dried up and the release schedule is a barren wasteland devoid of any real moisture at all. Needless to say with much time to kill in this summer holiday my mouth was dry (ok, I’ll stop torturing this metaphor now). After taking Max Payne 3 for a short run and deciding that it was not at all my cup of tea (one sentence review: (I found the story dull, the characters unlikeable, the gameplay run-of-the-mill and needlessly frustrating) I began sifting through my old games collection to see if there was a game amongst the rubble that I could alleviate my boredom for the afternoon. That’s when I stumbled across my old PSOne games, and with them my two favourite games of all time: Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy IX. I decided that since I had never finished this game without abusing glitches (I used a glitch to get infinite megalixers for the final boss), it was time, now that I am older and wiser, to take on this game and truly dominate it.
Before I begin the review proper, a little background. Final Fantasy VII, released 1997, was a huge leap forward for Squaresoft’s (pre-Enix merger) flagship franchise bringing the epic role playing game into three dimensions for the first time on Sony’s Playstation, departing from Nintendo in favour of the increased memory capacity on the compact disc format. The game was also a step out of the series’ safety zone, departing from the tried and tested Tolkien-esque medieval style world, in favour of an almost futuristic steampunk aesthetic. With this drastically new format came the oppertunity to create a cinematic experience on a scale of which had never been seen before. Tetsuya Nomura, series veteran took on the role of character design for the first time as his manga style fit the 3D format. This game was also the first of the series to spawn multiple spin-off games and even a sequel film that tied up the aftermath of the game’s ending and gave fans the chance to see the cast and world of Final Fantasy VII in full CGI with voice acting. Other notable entries in the “Compilation of Final Fantasy VII” are “Crisis Core” a prequel starring Zack, which featured unique combat and a moving story, and “Before Crisis” an episodic mobile phone app available only in Japan that ran for several years. VII was the first in the series to boast full motion video cutscenes to mark significant turning points in the sweeping storyline and with this came some of the most memorable moments in the series, and hell, in gaming.
In terms of gameplay structure VII was not vastly different from previous entries to the series, the gamer was placed in the shoes of Cloud Strife, a galiant hero who must assemble a rag-tag team of unlikely heroes to embark on a quest, that would eventually decide the fate of the world they inhabit. The player explored pre-rendered environments, along the way collecting treasure and fighting monsters and formidable bosses. The 3-D playstation one sprites these days look very crude and will be a turn-off to many modern gamers. The battle system is turn-based, like most Final Fantasy games. When the player engaged in a battle, he or she was transported to a full 3-D environment in which they could see the characters of your 3-man party fight with their unique weapons or use fantastical magic or summon spells. The animations are extremley impressive for their time, this is also evident in the powerful Limit Break moves, one-shot attacks that would see the player inflict massive damage after his or her Limit gauge built up from taking in battle damage. The characters would gain levels through experience just like the other Final Fantasy games, however in this game building a balanced to party was a much more open ended affair due to the Materia system. In VII skills, magic spells, summons and just about every other battle command were assigned to character’s through energy-filled orbs known as Materia (this ties into the story, which I will get to later) and the materia would develop independantly of the character who was using it meaning that you could freely switch skills between characters, leaving it up to you how you organized your party, as apposed to previous games that would have characters already in preset roles. You could also equip, weapons, armour and an accessory to each character. the key to succeeding in Final Fantasy VII’s battle system was building a balanced team that could adapt to different opponents. This system had it’s flaws too, sometimes the story would dictate that you must use a character that you had previously not used, leaving this character underlevelled, unequipped and unprepared for the battles ahead. Fortunatley, these moments are few and far between and you will usually be able to make it through the situation, albeit more awkwardly than you would like.
But the real reason Final Fantasy VII connected with me and continues to be regarded as the best in the series by many fans is the story. The story took place in a world in which a tangible river of lifeblood flows through the earth, flowing through the planet and through it’s inhabitants. This energy known as the Lifrestream is the basis for the epic tale that unfolds. A corperation known as the Shinra Electric Power Company uses the lifestream to power their technologically advanced city of Midgar. Players assumed the role of Cloud Strife, a powerful mercenary who is recruited to a rebel faction known as Avalanche, who’s mission is to take down the Shinra to stop them from harming the planet any further. The game places the player immediatley in a moral grey area, to some Avalanche are freedom fighters, to others, they are terrorists. As the story continues each character’s motivations become clear and each of the colourful characters has their own backstory that is interesting and gives them a believable motivation for wanting to risk their lives in the battle against evil (with the possible exception of Yuffie). Final Fantasy VII featured a captivating cast of characters along with the hero, Cloud. Barret, the hotheaded leader of Avalanche and the first major black character in the Final Fantasy series. Tifa, a beautiful martial artist and Cloud’s childhood friend. Aerith a kind and serene young woman, who is also the last serviving of the Ancient race, The Cetra. Red XIII, real name Nanaki, a talking wolf-like creature, who is also the last of his own race. Cid, the recurring name appears this time in the form of a chain-smoking, foul-mouthed, and downright badass engineer who is the proud owner of the game’s airship, The Highwind. Cait Sith, a Shinra spy who eventually dedicates himself to helping Cloud and friends save the world. Yuffie, a spunky ninja girl who may or may not be joining you on your journey just to steal your materia. And finally Vincent, a mysterious vampire-like character and former member of the Turks, experimented on by the evil scientist Hojo.
VII was the first Final Fantasy game to explore themes of scientific experimentation on humans, nature vs. technology and the afterlife. Later in the game the true threat to the planet is revealed to be Sephiroth, one of the most frightening villains to appear in the series. Sephiroth is portrayed as a ruthless and brutal killer, of Joker-level insanity, in the pursuit of power and destruction to avenge the terrible experiments that created him. The story can seem rather bonkers from the outside especially when you consider the whole “super powered alien woman” plot twist (you have to play the game) but the game ties together all these bizarre plot threads in a way that no other game has. The only criticism I have is that there is such a rich mythology built up, it is at times hard to keep up with all the different plot threads that lead us to this point, even I as someone who has played the game multiple times and also all the spin-offs had found myself slightly confused at times.
VII was a groundbreaking entry to the Final Fantasy series and it is easy to see why it is still regarded today as the best Final Fantasy to date. While the game does feel dated today 15 years on (the blocky PS1 sprites and poor translation could be seen by some modern gamers as a barrier of entry) it still holds up well, providing an epic and moving experience that is truly unique and may just help you understand how the series became the gaming juggernaut it is today.
“Alright everyone, let’s mosey!”