(First published on Gamepad Magazine, November 18th 2010)
FINAL FANTASY 7 (1997) – SQUARESOFT
I bet that a few of you have looked at the game in question for this review and thought “Oh for gods sake, another FF7 review???”. Indeed this is the case. I will make it clear at this point; I am a massive Final Fantasy fan, and 7 is without doubt one of my favourites. Oddly enough, it was the first RPG I ever played (having previously avoided them for no apparent reason), and I credit it with launching my love of RPG’s. Hopefully the review below will convey why this is the case.
In my humble opinion, Final Fantasy 7 has one of the best plots of any RPG. What starts out as a small bunch of eco-terrorists blowing up reactors in the city of Midgar turns into an epic tale of deception and revenge as we follow the spiky haired protagonist Cloud in his pursuit of his old ally turned enemy Sephiroth (cue screaming fangirls). Along the way you will tackle an evil corporation, become a full time breeder of giant running chickens, fight huge and powerful monsters, and have some time to fit some snowboarding in. Epic indeed.
What makes the story of FF7 brilliant is way that it changes pace and location so quickly and so often that the player is always left in suspense and awe. The characters (one of the best ensemble casts in gaming) all grow and evolve and have their own personal issues to overcome; Cloud (with the single most ridiculously oversized sword in gaming history) is trying to piece together his fabricated past, Barrett (a.k.a Mr T suckas) has a constant vendetta against the Shinra company, Cid is trying to get into space and realise his dreams etc., and their stories are played out over a massive world map full of unique locations, such as the steampunk inspired giant metropolis of Midgar, the delights of the Golden Saucer funfair and the mysterious City Of The Ancients. You come to identify with the cast, and (SPOILER ALERT!!!!!) when Aerith dies at the end of the first disc; you are shocked (and if you had been levelling her up, pretty damn pissed off as well). And be fair, when you played through the game for the first time you had NO IDEA that was going to happen did you? And to balance off against this, we have one of the great antagonists of gaming to focus our struggles against in Sephiroth. Now, he has been ruined in recent years with the mass output of new FF7 media that has come out (i.e Advent Children ‘planet, blah, blah, blah, Jenova, blah, blah, blah), but in the game he is a total badass anti-hero (see Niebelheim) who will stop at nothing to become a god, and it makes the final conflicts with him in the Northern Crater all the more effective as you battle to stop him from reaching his goals. Also, you’ve got to love the Masamune. Its almost impossible to summarise everything in the plot of FF7, it really is one of the games that you have to play to realise just how good it is.
Gameplay wise, FF7 is a rich experience. Its old school Final Fantasy, which means random battles every five seconds and grinding of experience. No change there (which angers many, especially the Random Battles grrrrrrrrrrr), but elsewhere FF7 was a revelation for the series by keeping what was good with the old (such as the Active Battle Timer from FF4-6, summons and gil, tents and shops) and introducing new ways of battling with Limit Breaks (Omnislash FTW!!!) and obtaining skills with the Materia system, where you place different skills in your weapons and armour to use them and level them up. It is a really easy system to master without making you over powerful (like FF8’s Junctioning system would do). It is also worth considering that apart from a few bosses, its not that hard a game to complete, so excessive grinding is not required, allowing you to enjoy the storyline more. Aside from the meat and bones of battling, there’s a lot to like about FF7’s gameplay, as it branched out from RPG’s more than any other in the past. The sidequests are both long and challenging, especially the Chocobo breeding and racing, and there are plenty of distractions at the Gold Saucer and on the ski slopes later on in the game. And if you feel you are up to the challenge FF7 provides three superbosses, two of them with 1,000,000 HP. Defeating them legitimately (i.e. not spamming Mime + Knights Of The Round) is still one of the great challenges of gaming.
If there’s one thing to criticise heavily about FF7 (and people who hate the game consistently point to this), it is the graphics: it has not aged well at all. The characters are very blocky with no facial features and the world map looks very poor. The pre-rendered backgrounds still look very nice however (especially the Golden Saucer), and the 3D battle engine is a welcome departure from the flat screen sprites of the olden days. It is perhaps worth mentioning in light of these criticisms that the game was originally meant to be on the N64 (hence the blocky characters as the N64 did not have the graphical prowess of the Playstation) and that is was the first 3D Final Fantasy which was a revelation for the series, and had to be started somewhere. Fans are still shouting from the rooftops for a full remake on the PS3/Xbox 360, and it is quite impressive that graphics are the only thing that they desire to change for a remake
The Final Fantasy series on the SNES had some cracking music on it (Clash On The Big Bridge from FF5 still sounds fantastic), but with the epic power of MIDI files on disk format allowing longer and more complex works, Nobuo Uematsu went berserk. What he created was a brilliant soundtrack, full of synth instruments that still sounds cool today. Standout tracks include the boss theme, Electric De Chocobo (one of FIVE Chocobo themes in this game alone) and of course Sephiroth’s famous One Winged Angel, one of the first soundbits ever to have voices in it on the Playstation
I admit, there are other parts of this game that have to be faulted. The characters of Yuffie and Cait Sith. The sequence in Cloud’s mind that takes an absolute age to finish. The frustrations of trying to get the right breed of chocobos. Ultimate Weapon flying off everywhere after a few hits of damage. The sheer number of random battles that can occur when you are trying to get from one place to another. To be honest though, you eventually take these complications in your stride and just get on with enjoying the game.
What I have tried to convey in this review is just how much the game impacted upon me as a player. For just one game to completely change my opinion on a genre is a hard thing to do, and FF7 stands as the only game that’s ever been able to do that to me. I still remember vividly what the precise moment was when that happened. After the bike chase in Midgar, I had already played the game much longer than any other story in a game had taken me to complete. And then I saw the World Map for the first time: The huge city of Midgar (where I had expected most of the game to take place) was just a blob on a huge map, and I thought ‘Jesus Christ, there is a whole game and a bit still waiting for me’, and set about conquering the rest of the game in high spirits. It became the RPG by which I measure all other RPG’s that I play, and few have managed to equal it, let alone surpass it in my opinion. It is far from faultless, mainly it hasn’t aged well graphically, but with a story and gameplay this good, who the hell cares? A magnificent game, in my top five of all time, and I cannot recommended it heavily enough