Generations will remember.
When new consoles are born, gamers are eager for the next game that defines a generation. For the PlayStation 3, The Last of Us could fill those shoes; for the PS2, Final Fantasy X. On the PlayStation (and later PC), Final Fantasy VII was that game. Fans of RPGs hadn’t experienced the visual fidelity quite like Final Fantasy VII’s cinematics and battle scenes, and the story, while not the first of its kind, was recognized for its successes in just about every aspect. For the record, I’m not suggesting Final Fantasy VII was the pioneer of the RPG; it happened to exist at the perfect moment. The real question, however, is whether the once king of RPGs can still stand on its own today. For this particular review, I’ll be using the PC version (which has been slightly modified recently for HD visuals, trophies/achievements, and script).
Final Fantasy VII is the story of Cloud Strife. As an ex member of SOLDIER, the Shin-Ra Corporation’s elite military police, Cloud joins up with his childhood friend Tifa and acquaintance Barrett in the vigilante/terrorist group Avalanche. Since the Shin-Ra Corporation has been utilizing Mako energy via its Mako reactors, Avalanche seeks to cease its depletion of natural resources and pollution of the environment. Not all goes to plan, however, as Cloud is separated after an almost botched bombing run. In his descent from the upper plate of Midgar into the slums, he meets Aeris, the flower girl he bumped into in the game’s inception. As the lengthy prologue of Final Fantasy VII concludes with Cloud and Co. fleeing Midgar to pursue the mysterious and allegedly deadly Sephiroth, the huge world of Final Fantasy VII truly opens up.
From the eyes of an RPG enthusiast, Final Fantasy VII boasts a repertoire of features that most present day RPGs lack – though it wasn’t completely unique to RPGs of its time. Excluding the terrific Tales of… series, Bioware games, and The Witcher, along with a few stray gems, many RPGs (specifically JRPGs) consist of drawn or slightly animated characters plastered against the screen with dialogue boxes below. Travel is generally restricted to moving an icon across a map, and the freedom to explore is nearly nonexistent. Linearity is the name of the game today, and most RPGs tend to bank on a great story and enjoyable battle system than the Triple Crown of RPGs. Unfortunately, this tendency has really been brought about by the juggernauts of Square-Enix, whose Final Fantasy XIII, a fair success, fell in to the habit of presenting a linear tale. NISAmerica and the likes have likewise followed suit, offering up some excellent games (and some not so much) that still suffer from confinement.
Gameplay in Final Fantasy VII sees you controlling Cloud (for the majority of the game, anyway), a polygonal set of blocks, as he makes his way through the pre-rendered cities and towns of Gaia and its world map. Controls are simple, as either X or, in my personal PC setup, the number pad enter key, interacts with objects. Holding circle or the num. pad 0 allows Cloud to run, and it also backs out of the menu screen, which is opened with triangle. In combat, which is your very standard turn based ATB setup (Active Time Battle, where your action bar fills up alongside the enemy’s), you choose your actions with the directional buttons or num. pad arrow keys, and use the interact button to enforce your actions.
Combat really doesn’t differentiate itself from the Final Fantasy games that came before. Nothing is really new here outside of the addition of 3D and pre-rendered settings and materia, which I’ll get into later. Essentially, in combat, you have the choice to attack, use magic or a skill, or summon a godlike entity. Outside of combat, you can collect various materia, solidified forms of Mako, to equip to your weapons and armor. Each piece of gear you obtain has built in materia slots with varying features. Materia levels up, and in doing so allows Cloud & Co. to use more iterations of each spell and, after maxing out, creates a replica materia. There are five categories (or colors) of materia: Summon, Magic, Command, Support, and Independent. Each category offers different abilities or skills to use in order to enhance your combat prowess.
Visuals in Final Fantasy VII were both impressive and questionable for its time. The polygonal blocks of Cloud and his friends were as ugly then as they are now – and equally as comical. In battle and cinematics, however, Final Fantasy VII outshined just about any other title for the PlayStation, excluding Final Fantasy VIII and IX. The pre-rendered visuals of the scenery is, perhaps, what has truly solidified this game in my heart. I’m a sucker for pre-rendered settings, which most PlayStation RPGs utilized (one of my biggest sources of video game nostalgia). Some of the scenes in this game will never leave my mind.
But the one aspect of Final Fantasy VII that I’ll never forget is its incredible soundtrack. Mastermind composer Nobuo Uematsu pieced together some of the most memorable and beautiful soundtrack songs of all time. Final Fantasy VII is not my favorite Nobuo Uematsu soundtrack, but it definitely is my most memorable. The power of the composition, upon the caress of my ears, conjures the images, the iconic moments, of Final Fantasy VII. For me, there aren’t many other soundtracks that fit their respective games nearly as well as Final Fantasy VII; and the piano soundtrack is outstanding.
Still, what makes Final Fantasy VII such a significant piece of video game literature and history is its ability to tackle strong thematic obstacles. With its improved scripting (for those unfamiliar, Final Fantasy VII had some of the worst translation errors speckled through the dialogue), gamers are able to take the philosophy behind Final Fantasy VII seriously; gone are the “He are sick” days; in are the questions of the morality of Avalanche, the consequences of Shin-Ra, and the social issues at hand.
I won’t make a case for Final Fantasy VII to be the ‘greatest game of all time’ like some may. Personally, it’s not even my favorite. But when you examine Final Fantasy VII as a complete game, it holds more than most recent RPGs while boasting an outstanding soundtrack, gameplay that works as intended (perfectly), and beautifully pre-rendered scenery. The overall experience – especially the polished version that just re-re-released on PC and PS4 – is one that remains intact, if not improved, from its original release.