Looking Back on… Final Fantasy VII (Sony Playstation)

Final Fantasy VII
Genre: Role Playing Game
Developer: Squaresoft
Publisher: SCEA
Release Date: 8/31/97 (So here’s a fun thing I haven’t really posted anywhere else: the review I wrote as my application to write for IP Games/DHGF almost a decade ago now. It’s… not great at this point, but it’s fun and considering that it gave me the chance to do all kinds of cool things I wouldn’t have done otherwise, I consider it historically significant at least.)

It’s kind of weird to be playing a Final Fantasy game on any system other than one with the Nintendo name on it. I should admit, I’ve been something of a fan of the games since FF 1 was released back in 1990 on the NES. (This is kind of a fallacy, in that I didn’t play the original Final Fantasy until years after the fact, and in point of fact, Final Fantasy III/VI was my first actual exposure to the series. It’s correct in that I liked the first two games when I played them, but incorrect in that it presents the idea that I played them when they came out, which isn’t even close to true, as I was an SMS kid growing up.) Two SNES titles (as well as a handful of Gameboy games) later, and here we are, facing down the correctly numbered sequel to one of the best RPG’s ever made (that being FF3/6; though I still like Phantasy Star 4 better, I have to give credit where it’s due) (Still true; Final Fantasy VI is almost certainly the very best traditional JRPG ever made, but I still like Phantasy Star IV better because it pays off the franchise storyline well and I like the characters a whole lot. It also kind of pays off the romantic subplot from Phantasy Star II to a point, which is neat, and I wish that the Sega Classics franchise had lasted long enough for PSIV to see a re-release, if only because I’d have paid actual money to see that come to the US. As it is we have a fan translation of the first game, with the sequel being worked on now, so that’s something at least. Maybe someday Sega will finish the series off with a proper remake, but maybe someday I’ll win the lottery, because of the two, that one is the more likely possibility.) on the PSX. I had high hopes as I brought it home and popped it into my system, but I had the utmost faith that Squaresoft would once again deliver the goods with yet another highly entertaining RPG.

Well… not exactly.

1.) Story

The story is easily the most hurtful thing about this game. I’ve seen it mentioned elsewhere that the story of FFVII is “Immense” and “Colossal”. (I think I was pulling those observations out of my ass.) I suppose that’s true… it’s “Immense”-ly boring and a “Colossal” waste of time and effort. (Naiiiiled it.) After the efforts I’ve seen from not only Square, but also from Sega, Konami, and Sony themselves (by that I mean Wild Arms, not Beyond the Beyond… ugh) (Which I eventually wrote about in Playing the Lame, so you can call that foreshadowing if nothing else.) in this regard, it just seems so ludicrous to have to slog through a story that is as weak and convoluted as this.

In short: Your main character is one Cloud Strife, he of large hair and even larger swords. Cloud is part of an organization called AVALANCHE (you have to write it that way or it doesn’t work), whose sole modus operandi is to fight the horrible acts committed by the Shinra corporation, of whom Cloud was a member until recently. (The one thing I kind of love about FFVII is that they spend like the first ten hours of the game making AVALANCHE a thing, then Cloud meets Aeris and the whole plot kind of derails to become about something BIGGER and MORE IMPORTANT, which is fine, but it makes you wonder why we spent so much time establishing a freedom fighting organization that won’t matter worth a shit in another ten hours. Economy of storytelling helps a lot in hundred hour long games.) At first, Cloud is a member of the group only because of the promise of financial gains, but as the storyline progresses, he comes to truly understand and appreciate the plight of AVALANCHE, and he finds true love and blah blah blah more clichés than a Disney movie. (Well no, he comes to appreciate the plight of Tifa and Barrett. AVALANCHE stops being a thing fairly early on, for several reasons, unless you want to call Cloud and his party AVALANCHE, and the game doesn’t seem especially interested in doing so.)

The thing is, clichés can work, if the writing is solid. Here, it’s not. The characterization is weak; three of the four “main” characters either come off as unbelievable, of dubious motivations, or just limp and uninteresting. (Specifically, Cloud’s motivations and mental state needed an additional game and a standalone movie to really help them make anything approaching sense, Tifa’s motivations can be summed up as “I love Cloud, but I was brainwashed to love Cloud, but I love Cloud anyway, even though he was brainwashed into loving Aeris and doesn’t seem to give a shit about me until the end of Advent Children, maybe,” and Aeris needed Crisis Core to give her a personality because you couldn’t describe her character in more than two sentences without a lot of assumptions or ass-pulls. Only Barrett has a clearly defined motive, mental state and character arc that makes sense in the game, and he’s essentially a non-factor in all of the other media after FFVII.) Characters like Cait Sith, Vincent, and Yuffie have dubious motivations for joining the group, and even by the end of the game, you really have no idea who these characters are, or why you should give a damn about them. (Which is almost certainly why they appeared in Dirge of Cerberus, since we knew so little about them that the creators could devote an entire game to their character arcs knowing any story developments would be new to us, since few, if any, existed. So of course that game ended up proving that these characters had no plotlines to speak of because their character arcs kind of sucked a dick.) Only a handful of the characters have any sort of logical storytelling, and since they’re all basically secondary to the main story, they do little to bring the story together. (Red XIII seemed to have something to go off of, for example, so of course we’ve never revisited his character ever again in a side story since.)

Oh yes, and let’s not forget Sephiroth, a bad guy who is not only more interesting than any member of your own party, but also has more logical motivations for his actions than anyone else in the game. Sigh. (The one thing that I actively hate about Sephiroth as a character, when boiled down to a base level, is this: the only reasons we’re given to hate him are that he killed a character with no personality to speak of and because he wants to end a world we have little investment in. In the first point, Aeris’ entire character arc exists around Cloud, and her actual personality is nil; taking the game on its own merits, because you can’t assume that Square knew they were going to make more properties in this universe, Aeris is a cipher, so Sephiroth killing her means… what, he killed nobody? Who cares? Further, the world is mostly bullshit; by the point where Cloud realizes dude wants to end the world, even if we don’t know why, all we know about it is that the world is mostly blank or full of assholes. Sure, Sephiroth burns down a town, but it’s not like we had anything approaching an actual connection to the town. It’s a cheap tactic; burn down a town and OOOH WE HATE YOU BECAUSE YOU’RE EVIL but it’s not like there were any real reasons for it. It’s generic evil. Meanwhile, Sephiroth himself is sympathetic as fuck; he’s a science experiment, made by an evil father out of the cells of a quasi-Elder God… thing, driven mad by the revelation, who simply wants to become a God possibly or possibly not because mommy “made” him do it. He’d be an amazing heel antagonist if the game had given more effort toward making Cloud sympathetic and making the world seem truly worth saving, but the game relies on the belief that the player will sympathize with the protagonist because he’s the protagonist. In other words, it doesn’t do the work.

Oh, and if you’re one of those people who’s showing up to say “Fuck you, you only hate Final Fantasy VII because it’s cool to do that now,” bitch I wrote this a decade ago, and I’ve held these beliefs since about 1998, I hated Final Fantasy VII before hating Final Fantasy VII was cool. You heard me, I’m a fucking Final Fantasy VII hating hipster. Come at me bro.)

The storyline is also highly convoluted; people do things for unfathomable reasons, are given stupid explanations for their actions, and everyone accepts these explanations and moves on with their lives. (Specifically, the whole “Cloud was brainwashed into pretending he was Zack because something something Jeonva Cells, and he then used these powers to brainwash Tifa because something something Jenova Cells,” never really resonated, because “magical MacGuffin powers,” aren’t a substitute for good storytelling. I’ll believe that Tifa always kind of loved Cloud if you show your work, but while the childhood stuff is handled well, Cloud’s return implies he brainwashed her into giving a shit about him, and everything about their romance afterward is honestly really just disheartening and weird.) We never really understand why any member of the storyline “love triangle” likes any other, because the characters never really mesh well together. (Square Enix eventually explained that Cloud loves Aeris because Zack’s memories of her imprinted on him, so that’s an explanation, but at the time it was hard to swallow unless you love enigmatic girls with no discernible personality traits. They’ve also tried to imply that Cloud and Aeris eventually fell in love “for realsies,” but I’m not sure how you could; Cloud was a gigantic dickass of the highest caliber for hours in-game, and Aeris has no personality to speak of beyond “being mysterious and a little weird,” so it’s not like they had anything in common besides Zack. The Tifa romance subplot was contrived, but at least it ended with implied sex and the possibility of something happening; Advent Children picks up with Cloud having abandoned Tifa because he’s still obsessed over a dead girl he didn’t even really love, and ends with the most half-assed “hope for the future,” dialogue imaginable. Oh and its creators have gone out of their way to try and make the Tifa romance fucked while still allowing for an Aeris romance, even though Aeris is dead and all, so if I didn’t hate FFVII before all of the back-pedaling fan wank, I sure as shit would’ve hated it afterward.) It’s difficult to believe that the characters would forgive other members as often as often as they are required to, either. And, of course, there’s the death scene we’re treated to about halfway through the game that is simultaneously unneeded, solely in the game for shock value, and utterly lame in its execution. (First rule of thumb for RPG death scenes: make resurrection impossible and show your work. A sword through the guts in a game where characters have been literally shot is a stupid-ass way to die. You want a good RPG death? Vay. The bad guys poison a character while the bridge he’s on is collapsing with an assassin’s arrow, and he then falls to his death afterward. Mortal wound, poison, death fall and the body is gone so we can’t even try to resurrect him. That’s a fucking final death. Phantasy Star II and IV also handle this well, with the former insisting “you can’t clone this character, they’ve been literally deleted from the system,” and the latter insisting “they were poisoned with evil magic we literally cannot cure.” It’s not hard, guys, just show your fucking work.)

In short, you’ve seen better stories before.

Story Rating: 2/10 (I really fucking hate this plot, but it had a couple moments that saved it from a 1. Final Fantasy X, on the other hand? “Your main character didn’t exist and that guy over there was dead the whole game.” Now that’s a 1/10.)

2.) Graphics

Wow.

Seriously. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out where the most effort in FFVII went: the presentation. The graphics are far and away amazing, and as you play through the game, you get the distinct impression that Square put a massive amount of effort into every single place your characters can go, from the squalid ghetto your characters live in to the gaudy Gold Saucer, as each radiates its own unique life and charm. (That’s been a common trend, honestly, since FFVII; the games always look amazing relative to their time.)

This is not to say everything is perfect… the normal character models clip infrequently, and the background graphics look very nice, but occasionally come off as being too flamboyant or tacky (the aforementioned Gold Saucer is a primary example of this), even when that’s the exact intention. (Yeah, that’s always been one of the problems with pre-rendered visuals; since they’re static you don’t exactly know how they’ll come across and occasionally levels look weird because of it. Parasite Eve and Resident Evil had the same issue, honestly.) The battle graphics, however, make up for this, as they are appropriately clean and flashy when they need to be. Overall, I’ve never seen anything really like this before, and FFVII, even with its imperfections, not only blows away older games, but also anything on the PSX I’ve seen to this point. (Oh, right; this was supposed to have been written as if I’d been reviewing it at the time it came out, not as if I was reviewing it at the moment I actually was. That actually creates something of an odd paradox, come to think of it, because I didn’t actually finish the game when it came out; I became sour on it towards the end of the game because of the plot and didn’t end up finishing it until a year or so after the fact, just to do it, so technically I don’t know what I would’ve said at the time. Also I was eighteen so that review would’ve been trash.)

The CGI intermissions, however, are far and away the most impressive thing in the game, and I dare say the most impressive thing I’ve seen in a video game to date. They’re sharp and clean, and don’t pixelate like video captures from Sega CD and 3DO were prone to do. They’re all very slick and well rendered, and they add to the presentation immensely. (A lot of people blame FFVII for the inundation of cutscenes in RPG’s we saw for years afterward, but looking back on it now, it was surprisingly conservative with its talking head sequences and cutscenes. In reality, it was how well they were received that caused the wave of cutscenes in RPG’s, to the point where Final Fantasy VIII ended up being exactly that experience, oddly enough.)

Graphics Rating: 9/10

3.) Sound

If you’ve ever played a Final Fantasy game, you know what to expect here, and FFVII easily meets those expectations. The music is heavily orchestrated this time around, as opposed to the MIDI goodness from previous games, so it sounds absolutely amazing. I don’t know if I’d be willing to listen to it on the drive to work, but it’s absolutely appropriate in the game, and sounds very good overall. (No argument here; you know what you’re getting with a Square/Squeenix soundtrack.)

The in game sound effects are also fairly appropriate; swords hitting things sound like swords hitting things, I suppose you can’t ask for much more than that. The only notable thing here is that there’s no voice acting to speak of, which isn’t really a bad thing… after Resident Evil on the PSX and Lunar on the Sega CD, I think I could go the rest of my life without a single voice acted game ever again. (Eh, Lunar was okay for its time. Square took a long time to get on-board with voice work, though, which I think was probably because they realized that it’d be hard to rename the protagonist with fully voiced stories. They managed it in Final Fantasy X in the most depersonalized way possible, but Bioware and Atlus have done a much better job of it overall, pound for pound.) Still, in this day and age, it seems kind of lazy to leave something like that out of a CD based game, so if that matters to you, knock a point off of the score.

Sound Rating: 8/10

4.) Control/Gameplay

There’s not too much I can say about the controls here… moving your characters around on the map and in towns/dungeons is a snap, combat controls are responsive, and you’re never struggling with the controller at any point to make the game do what you want. Menus are easy to operate, and your characters’ Materia is easy to change around at any point.

Speaking of Materia… FFVII offers two unique elements this time around; Limit Breaks, which are basically high-power attacks that your characters can use once they’ve taken/dished out enough abuse, and Materia, which are stones the characters can equip on armor and weapons to modify their stats, cast spells, and more. (Limit Breaks show up in games now and again even now, though under different names, and are still a useful tool when implemented effectively, in that boss-killing emergency tool sort of way. I fucking love the Materia system here, though, and it’s annoying as hell that Square Enix won’t really go back and do it again in the same way because it was so badass.) The Limit Break system works well enough… you can’t do them too often, and they’re powerful enough that they can easily be a lifesaver in desperate situations. The Materia system, on the other hand, is actually very well designed, and offers a large amount of customization. You can put together a lot of different and interesting combinations of Materia, which will probably carry your interest long after your interest in the story has waned. (Seriously, I cannot stress enough how great the Materia system was. At this point we were still using pre-defined character rolls to dictate how characters worked in party, so the death of Aeris, as the only true healer was fucking bullshit in theory. In practice though, you could equip healing Materia to anyone so it hardly mattered. To be fair, Final Fantasy VI did some aspects of it better by letting characters learn spells from the Materia so everyone could learn every spell, because that was fun in a “grind to make everyone death incarnate” way, but FFVII did it better in a game balance sort of way.)

The only real condemnations I can bring against the game are the feature where the game highlights all exits from the zone, and the active time battles (basically, everyone goes when they are ready to go, instead of battle being dictated into turns). On one hand, the highlighting of the zone points is a necessity, because the in-game backgrounds are often confusing as hell. On the other, this takes out any sort of exploration the game might have had otherwise. (Necessary evil when you’re trading up 2D dungeons with clear paths for 3D dungeons with pre-rendered backgrounds and locked cameras, sadly.) As for the active time battles… the fact that there’s no real time to plan things out can be disconcerting to players who aren’t used to this sort of play system. Of course, if you’ve played a FF game before, you’ve already had your chance to decide if you like this or not. (Yeah, that one’s really a matter of personal opinion; either you like turn-based combat or you don’t, honestly.)

Control/Gameplay Rating: 7/10

5.) Replayability

The first time you play through the game, it will take around 40 hours. Assuming you do everything the game has to do (and there is a lot; hidden bosses, spells, summons, weapons and armor are scattered all across the game world), tack on another 10-20. Once you’ve completed the game and seen all there is to see, that’s it; you are given nothing new on successive playthroughs. (This was long before the days of things like New Game Plus or extra dungeons and such; the first game I can really remember offering stuff like that was Persona, and even then outside of picking a different last character to be in your party during the plot, the actual “extra” content was left in Japan. Back then, RPG’s were just done when you finished them, sadly.) The interesting Materia system isn’t so interesting as to carry the game beyond its poor story and slightly above average combat system… so unfortunately, after you’ve completed the game, there’s honestly no real reason to go back to it. (And yet, people clamor for a remake.)

Replayability Rating: 2/10

6.) Balance

FFVII is about as well balanced as an RPG can be. Enemies consistently rise in level as you explore different locations, and I never felt as though I needed to spend any sort or time leveling up before I tackled a dungeon or boss. (Emerald and Ruby weapon notwithstanding of course.) Granted, you’re pretty much going to have to munchkin like crazy to beat the two hidden bosses in the game, but otherwise the game is fairly well balanced across the board, and unless you’re spending hours and hours leveling, it does manage to provide a fair challenge throughout the game.

Balance Rating: 8/10

7.) Originality

Well, the storyline is mostly cliches and rehashes from previous RPG’s, so strike that. (Half of the game is basically Final Fantasy VI all over again, also.) The game world is interesting, but we’ve seen the medieval/technological crossbreed many times before (most recently in FF3/6 and the above-mentioned PS4), so strike that. To be honest, the only really original things in this game are the Materia system (which itself is based on the FF3/6 Materia system), the Limit Break system, (Which several games have ripped off since, but that wouldn’t be a known factor at this point.) and the overall presentation of the game (other RPG’s have used cinematic intermissions to advance the story, but never as frequently, or to as much effect). (“As frequently” implies that there were a lot of cutscenes, but again, that’s not so; it’s a case where we’re saying, “Lunar had like ten cutscenes, and half of them were kind of ehh, while FFVII had twenty, which were mostly well-used.” Meanwhile FFVIII had like fifty and half of them sucked.) That said, FFVII ends up being the video game equivalent of a ham and cheese sandwich from a four star restaurant: sure, the bread is amazing, and the ham is succulent and juicy… but it’s still a damn ham and cheese sandwich.

Okay, I’m hungry. I’ll be right back. (That joke never gets old. Never.)

Originality Rating: 3/10

8.) Addictiveness

… okay, I’m back.

Whether or not you get addicted to this game depends solely on whether or not you can get past the facts that 1.) you’ve played this game before, and 2.) the storyline is weak. (Apropos of nothing, I’d love to set up an experiment of some kind where we basically have a person who’s never played FFVI or FFVII but has played a bunch of the best JRPG’s from modern times play them, just to see how much different their perspective is on those games when they’ve played some of the best ever from the genre first. I have no idea how it’d end up, but it’d be interesting to see if I’m just super-picky or if spending my whole life prior to playing this game reading shitloads of fiction books made me expect better than what the game had to offer.) Assuming you can get past these two issues (or even appreciate them), you’ll find a solid combat system and a decent amount of control over the development and abilities of your characters. If you’re a heavy RPG player, though, it’s doubtful that you’ll find anything here to keep your interest that you haven’t seen somewhere else.

Addictiveness Rating: 4/10

9.) Appeal Factor
I’m not exactly sure who this is supposed to appeal to… old-school RPG fans will have seen everything this game has to offer outside of the pretty graphics, and FF fans will be disappointed by how much better of a game FF3/6 was. (Writing a review like this with the expectation that it was supposed to be in a vacuum was kind of weird, because I had to pretend that I didn’t know that there are people in the world who have claimed, with a straight face, that FFVII is basically the logical evolution of FFVI like that’s not pants-shittingly insane. I hold very few truly strong opinions of video games, but if you’re legitimately of the belief that FFVII is a better game than FFVI for any reason besides “pretty graphics,” you legitimately make me achingly angry.) I have to imagine that unless you’re totally new to the RPG genre (or a hardcore Squaresoft fanboy), there really isn’t much here to appeal to you. On the other hand, for the casual gamer, this is a simple, balanced introduction to the RPG genre, and might open the door to better games. (Suikoden as an example.)

Appeal Rating: 4/10

10.) Miscellaneous

I know I said I thought the presentation of the game was top notch, but I’m not so sure I want to see something like this ever again. The game seems to rely heavily on its minigames and cinematics and such instead of delivering an actual compelling game, and I’m not too fond of that. (I think the “cinematics,” line was a throwaway line to endear the IP staff to my piece, since I don’t think they were oppressive at this point. The minigames, though, I agree with. There were a good amount of them and I don’t think they were really needed.) Also, I didn’t really dig the spirituality/science fiction vibe they were going for here… both elements seemed a bit heavy-handed, and seemed to take something away from the experience. (Which is funny because most people seem to agree with that; while fans of the games tend to come out in force over the weird-ass Lifestream subplot in this release, when Square tried to get that over as an actual plotline in The Spirits Within, movie critics shit all over it. It’s kind of weird to realize that video game critics tend to love Final Fantasy VII and its associated plot points/media, but when you hand it to someone who works in another medium they dump all over it.) Overall, I just didn’t find a lot to enjoy here, though your mileage may vary.

Miscellaneous Rating: 4/10

The Scores:
Story: 2/10
Graphics: 9/10
Sound: 8/10
Control/Gameplay: 7/10
Replayability: 2/10
Balance: 8/10
Originality: 3/10
Addictiveness: 4/10
Appeal: 4/10
Miscellaneous: 4/10

Overall Score: 5.1/10
Final Score: 50 % (Average). (I still agree with that score, honestly. Very pretty, sounds good, plays fine, but I have no desire to ever play it again. For reference FFVI is probably an 8-9, and FFX is probably a 4 or lower.)

The Inside Pulse:
All of the pretty graphics and awesome presentation in the world don’t make for a good game, and sadly, Final Fantasy VII proves that rule. More style than substance, and in serious need of a re-write, FFVII suggests that Square should go back to the drawing board for the next Final Fantasy game. (Well, they did, just not in a way that anyone really wanted…)

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