(Retro) Review: Final Fantasy VII

Final Fantasy VII was a landmark moment for role-playing games. Its cinematic presentation garnered a lot of newfound interest in the genre, particularly here in the States, even if some of those newcomers left just as quickly on account of, “I didn’t know there was so much reading involved.” Some decried the game for its sparkly look, though, quick to say that we should be paying attention to the game underneath–and not its aesthetics.

I played through a majority of Final Fantasy VII close to its release, but I only recently did a full playthrough–from the opening cinematic to the post-credits scene. Some aspects of the game have aged piss-poorly in the last fifteen years. For some other aspects, perhaps some of my desires and habits as a game player have changed enough that I can no longer hold the same appreciation for them. But brushing away all of that, is there still a good game to be had in Final Fantasy VII?

Yes. Underneath the then-new full-motion video presentation and pre-rendered backgrounds, Square’s first Final Fantasy entry on a Sony console continues the traditions of the franchise. In some respects, it is most certainly an evolution mechanics presented in its predecessor, Final Fantasy VI–for better and for worse.

Final Fantasy VI slowly mixed in the idea that “anyone can do anything”–that is, while all of the characters technically had jobs, many of the characters: were adept at physical combat; could equip almost any weapon; were effective spellcasters; and could learn any magic spell. In Final Fantasy VII, this is even more full-blown. With the exception of one character, anyone you can recruit to your party packs a pretty heavy punch, and everyone seems to be an effective magic user.

This notion is bolstered by the Materia system. Previous entries in the series required that you either purchased magic from shops, or learned it by some means of leveling up–straight up levels in Final Fantasy IV, or by equipping “Espers” and learning via prolonged exposure to them in Final Fantasy VI. Again, the roots of Final Fantasy VI spread out in VII where characters equip stones called “materia”–each stone granting its bearer with magic spells and special abilities. Only this time, once the materia is equipped, that ability, spell, or set becomes instantly available.

Materia grows in strength as you win battles, just like you do. Materia growth is represented most obviously when a new spell becomes available–for instance, the “Recover” materia starts you off with Cure, then eventually it grants you Cure 2, Regen, and Cure 3 in (very) gradual succession. Other more subtle growth traits include increased effectiveness of the Steal command, or increasing the number of times you can cast a Summon spell in battle. If you equip that same grown materia on some other party member, the new bearer instantly has access to those benefits, whether they be a mature spell set or increased abilities.

On the one hand, I like this mechanic as it encourages the player to try different party combinations without fear of having to level-grind just to have newer party members reach parity with incumbents. It also encourages you to experiment with materia linking. There are certain materia which exist solely to provide some added benefits to your equipment and other materia, such as adding a fire damage to a sword or fire resistance to armor. It’s in this way that the game becomes more instantaneously customizable over past iterations of the series. With no fear of destroying a player’s progress, you’re free to play around with different linked materia combinations.

But one thing I’ve always been fond of in Final Fantasy is the idea of a job. Each character plays a special role, and your challenge is to build their abilities and then play them off of each other in the most effective way possible during the more taxing battles and boss encounters. In Final Fantasy VII, characters almost become nothing more than “shells” for materia. Having almost every single ability in the game–abilities that, in the past, were linked to specific jobs–accessible just by equipping some rock is what drives that sensation home. While you can choose to customize your characters in such a way that each one takes a specific role, in my experience I never felt encouraged to do that by the game. Especially because the number of characters in your party has been reduced to three, as opposed to four in previous games (or a whopping five in Final Fantasy IV), it felt more effective to just have “everyone do everything” instead. By some weird mojo, because I didn’t really care about what my characters had to offer individually in battle, I ended up not caring as much about them in the story, either. They were just “there.”

It’s a matter of preference, of course, and at least the characters aren’t complete ciphers. The most distinguishing trait that your protagonists have, mechanically speaking, are Limit Breaks. Think of them as you would in Super Combos in a fighting game: powerful, unique skills that become available when you’ve taken enough damage in battle. Cloud, the game’s central character, generally learns powerful physical attacks, as does his cohort Barret. Another character presents you with a slot machine to determine the strengh of her attacks, and her growth in power rewards you with extra slots for a maximum of eight. Still another character’s Limit Breaks are almost exclusively of the curative variety.

So, there’s just enough differentiation in Final Fantasy VII’s character abilities to make them worth experimenting with. I just wish that either there was more differentiation, or that the customization of your characters was even more granular (two things that were handled in different ways by each of the two immediate follow-ups on Playstation).

Final Fantasy VII does balance out the fact that you can equip a super-powerful Materia on a never-before-used character by requiring you to put quite a bit of time into growing every stone. Materia’s growth is handled by a rudimentary points-and-level system, just like for character growth, except it’s represented in “AP” (not EXP) and Stars (not levels). Without grinding too much, of the multiple tens of Materia I purchased or found, I only brought maybe one or two Materia to full maturity (maximum amount of stars). Granted, RPGs can be grindy affairs by nature. But with 45 hours of game time, not counting most of the optional quests and boss encounters, and with minimal grinding, I felt that the rewards were a touch too meager.

Perhaps it’s because more time than I would have liked were spent on the odd mini-games that broke up the pacing and focus of the main game, some handled in-engine and some with their own, shoddy engines. The former are silly affairs in which you press a face button when prompted so as to stride along in time with a marching band, or to engage in–wait for it–a bitch-slap contest. Some of those which require their own engine include a deep-sea torpedo battle in a submarine, snowboarding, or racing Chocobos. All of these experiences felt rushed and kludgy, and none of these felt fun at all. Final Fantasy VII’s experience as a whole would have been more focused, and as a result, better without them. But in truth, had they been developed more tightly, perhaps I wouldn’t mind them so much.

My qualms, mechanically, are largely preference-based, and aside from the minigames the actual gameplay holds up. Take away the presentation and it’s Square doing what Square does. Add in the presentation, though, and you have a big reason for why the game reached the critical mass of popularity that it does. But you also have a big reason for why the game appears to age incredibly poorly today.

The visual style is inconsistent. Your characters on the map screens, where you traverse the world and smaller environments, are rendered closer to the “super deformed” aesthetic popular in a lot of Japanese media. In battle, their proportions are decidedly human. In most cinematic cut-scenes, they also look more proportionally human–but in a few of them, particularly the ones that blend from gameplay into full-motion video, they are rendered super-deformed again. The quality and detail that goes into certain characters is also inconsistent between some cut-scenes, even if the same body proportions were used. It’s completely all over the place, and you can really tell that this was the first time Square had ever tackled something like this.

Driving that point home is the localization and characterization of the main players: It smacks of, “We’re on a new platform with a more mature audience–let’s make this a ‘mature’ game!” While the core elements of the backstory and plot are actually quite interesting and enjoyable much of the time, the way it all plays out tends to be marred by the dialogue. Square handled the localization in-house, and boy, does it show. There’s some swearing in there, but one man’s “shit” is another man’s “#(@&$”. There’s some individualization in there, but it boils down to the stereotypical, one-dimensional “angry black dude” and the “foul-mouthed (airship) sailor”. In particular, Square’s representation of the “angry black dude” just smacks of ignorance, with the oddest word choice imaginable–for instance, “Shut up!” becomes “Shu’up!” which is a characterization that even carries over to the cleaned-up translation on PC. Most characters stay one-note, and when sensitivity is introduced, it almost feels too forced. (If I’m being dismissive, I’d say that the character that feels most genuinely developed in his short amount of sidestory is a dog, but I have to admit that he’s a pretty damn cool dog.)

Still, the overarching story manages to shine through, and while it can get a little convoluted, it’s a good unique experience on its own. Yes, the world is in danger, and that’s still a cliche in games at large. But the arc that the main character goes through and the fragmented, confused memories he starts piecing together–starting with events that happened before the game–certainly had me wanting to learn more and more with each new bit of information that came out. You learn everything about him with a decent chunk of game left over, though, and the main antagonist then ceases to be interesting, but intrigue at least carries most of the way through. It’s bolstered all the way through by a classic videogame score–much more so than by visuals–that, while at times also sounds inconsistent from an instrumentation standpoint, sports memorable and well-composed melodies that manage to translate well into a less fantastic, more sci-fi setting. (Note: For all of its warts, Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core really does enrich the story experience in this game. If backstory is a priority, and you think you can stand to play through it, I recommend you do so before playing through Final Fantasy VII.)

It’s common to cite Final Fantasy VII as a favorite Final Fantasy game, favorite game overall, “best” game, or what have you. I don’t feel that way–not by a long shot. I’ve also found a surprising amount of poo-poo’ing of Final Fantasy VII, and–while I loudly pick on nits that I acknowledge are mostly the result of personal preference–I don’t actually think it deserves that treatment either. Taken into the context of its release and what I imagine to be the frame of mind of many gamers at the time, I think it’s easy to see why people appreciate it. Coming from the other end, once you let go of the cynicism–a skill I’m still trying to level-up–there’s a very solid, intriguing role-playing experience there. And for the record, if someone were to homebrew a version of it with 16-bit visuals, throw me a bone with materia growth, and fix the minigames, I might have to consider retracting my GINPA.

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