Abbreviated boilerplate! Once again I return to this ongoing series, in which I attempt to play through every game in the Final Fantasy franchise that I can get my hands on, from FF1 through Lightning Returns, and a variety of the spinoffs and other titles not included in the ‘main series’. This list continues to undergo revision, and I seriously considered removing Final Fantasy 9 from it for personal reasons. In addition, no MMO titles will be played. Sorry, folks?
I think all of this is extremely important knowledge, and that the human race will be improved by my research. Let’s move on!
And, actually, let’s give this a little music, shall we? I hear that particular music in my head every time I see an image on the internet of the city of Midgar, or the logo for Final Fantasy VII.
Yes, that’s right. It’s time to talk about Final Fantasy VII.
Version Played: Steam-client PC port, with fun upscaled resolutions!
For those of you who have been following this series from its start, you probably already know that Final Fantasy VI is my favourite game in the series, and that this exercise was very unlikely to topple VI from its stance, astride the Final Fantasy world like a colossus. Despite having rediscovered how much of a bridge VI is between eras of the games, and despite gaining a much deeper and more interesting understanding of the franchise through this play experience… the dominance of VI, at the very least, has not changed. It is keeping this in mind, and knowing some of what must follow, that I want to preface this piece by saying the following: Final Fantasy VII is irrefutably a great game, and I wholeheartedly believe that, no matter what the rest of this article may contain.
What should also be apparent to everyone, already, is the degree to which Final Fantasy VII infected our cultural consciousness. The fact is, the beautiful CGI video sequences and 3-D scenario of Final Fantasy VII make it perhaps the most memorable of any game in the whole series. It is worth noting that on this day, far more games have been released after VII than came before it. I actually find that statement astonishing, now that I consider it. Just imagine how a sequence like the incredible Opera House performance in Final Fantasy VI might have captured our imaginations if it had been given a full CGI treatment on the PSX… or the PS2… or the 360… Incredible, right? (Don’t bring up the ill-executed “Final Fantasy Anthology” collection). Well, while no single sequence in Final Fantasy VII might equal up to the Opera House performance, or Kefka seizing the statues and destroying the world, the truth is lesser sequences are more memorable for many of us (those who exist in both the 2D and 3D era, meaningfully)… and, in many ways, that is the power of Final Fantasy VII.
It has other things to recommend it. Final Fantasy VII follows a large, diverse party. Each character gets to experience complex characterization as things progress, with a couple notable exceptions…. including side quests, some unique abilities, and the powerful and diverse Limit Breaks that really set them apart in mechanical terms. Each character I used in Final Fantasy VII felt very distinct and different… for a while. But unlike a game like Final Fantasy IV, or even VI, where they have absolutely distinct features, many of which come into play every single battle… the primary – non-cosmetic, let’s get real! – differences between characters in Final Fantasy VII deal with their unique Limit Break techniques. Some of those Limit Breaks are incredibly memorable, and will probably come to define the characters of Final Fantasy VII in many ways for you as a player… but you don’t see them every battle, and they don’t establish an identity in the way that “this character can use Steal” does.
This is because the characters in Final Fantasy VII are so customizable. While it is true that Aeris Gainsborough is a better magician and a (far) worse physical attacker than Barrett Wallace… I could make Barrett into a magician if I wanted to. It would involve loading him down with Materia to change his stats, but equipping him that way is a matter of seconds of work. And, if I change my mind later, it will take only seconds to change him back. Final Fantasy VI eventually allowed a player to control the stat growth of each party member by strategic use of Espers, but the changes were a) permanent and b) permanent.
I suspect that this trend – this gameplay quirk – will be significant in the immediate future of Final Fantasy. But we’ll see.
When I see people extol the virtues of Final Fantasy VII, I typically see three big arguments. There’s simply no way to talk about this game independent of the billions of words and millions of hours that have already been spent on it.
1) THE STORY, MAN. I don’t even know if this is legitimately the #1 argument made in favour of Final Fantasy VII, but it’s a common one, and it is compelling. Does Final Fantasy VII’s story plot tightly together, eliminate all holes, answer all questions, etc? No, it sure doesn’t. But that’s not everything. Final Fantasy VII’s storyline (in case you somehow don’t know…) traces the fortunes of a group of people who have decided to resist the oppression of the ShinRa Electric Power Company. ShinRa provides electricity to the world to power all manner of modern conveniences, which they obtain through the harvest of Mako energy. Of course, as we quickly learn, Mako energy is also the literal life energy of the world of Gaia. In condensing that energy into Materia and using it to power TV broadcasts, the ShinRa company is quite possibly destroying the planet. Literally. Of course, it’s not that simple. Sephiroth, the greatest of ShinRa’s genetically engineered warriors (called SOLDIERs, cryptically enough) returns to the great city of Midgar, slaughters many of Shinra’s top personnel, and flees. Much of the rest of the game is spent in the pursuit of Sephiroth, whose objectives are unknown, but are almost assuredly not benevolent.
When things come together, about 75% of the way through the game, we know that Sephiroth has used the ultimate black magic, Meteor. In VII, this magic literally summons a wandering planetoid, diverting its course through space toward Gaia. It will strike the surface, causing incredible damage. Unlike Earth, however, Gaia has a defense mechanism to protect it against such catastrophic damage. The Mako energy – actually called the Lifestream – will be gathered at the spot of the gaping wound caused by Meteor. Sephiroth will stand there, become one with all of the planet’s energy, and become a God. Not a benevolent one.
Heavy stuff, man. And ultimately very satisfying. We don’t need all the ends tied off on this story. We don’t need to see every detail hashed out to the end. And, if you [i]do[/i] want that, there are actually resources available! Such is its popularity, that there is now an actually thing called Compilation Final Fantasy VII. The expanded universe around Final Fantasy VII probes many of its deepest mysteries, expands upon fan-favourite characters, and in general should give you the satisfaction that you desire.
I have not yet decided whether to include any of these Compilation titles in my own quest to explore Final Fantasy’s depths.
2) It was my first Final Fantasy.
This one is more difficult to break down point by point, but it is definitely worth addressing. My first Final Fantasy (that I completed) was VI. I know for a fact that this creates a nostalgic bias on my part toward the game. Now, of course, Final Fantasy VI is universally heralded as excellent, so my opinion has never proved unpopular. But so many people were introduced to the genre by Final Fantasy VII at a ripe, young age that the game’s explosive – and enduring – popularity make total sense.
3) It was the first 3-D game in the franchise.
Let me add on to this that the 3-D combined nicely with the sheer scope of this game, to create something that – at the time – was utterly without precedent. This is another reason why this game’s flaws are less important than its triumphs. They were when it was released, and they still are today. When I played this game for the first time, in my buddy’s basement (he had the PSX before I did), he and I decided to trade off the controller periodically, and counsel each other on game decisions and so on. All of that was fun, but one thing I remember as much as anything else, was how incredible this game looked by the standards of the time. To this day, some people still prefer the sprites and the beautiful hand drawings of games like Final Fantasy VI… but the first time I saw this game, I knew that we were never going back.
Well. That was a load of nostalgia. Let’s talk about the game when looked at through modern sensibilities. I’m going to knock this out in list format.
1) Was it any good?
It sure was. I had a lot of fun playing this one. I enjoyed it enough to explore all of its various nooks and crannies, including breeding the Golden Chocobo, and using the power of Knights of the Round to unseat the mighty Emerald and Ruby WEAPON monsters. I played the shit out of Final Fantasy VII, and it didn’t matter how many times I had played it before.
2) How’s it hold up?
Unfortunately, Final Fantasy VII’s graphics have aged even more poorly than the sprites from early consoles. The nice resolution upscale of the Steam port made the character models look unusually sharp, while the matte backgrounds through most of the game looked fuzzy and out of focus at best. Unfortunately, even ‘sharp’ looking polygonal character models still look crappy compared to modern games. But what do you want? It’s between 17 years since Final Fantasy VII dropped. And, ultimately, it held up well enough for me to sink 50+ hours into it, and defeat the superbosses, so the graphical considerations weren’t so bad.
Of equally important note is that Final Fantasy VII has one of the series’ better soundtracks. While I personally think several games have better battle music – and yes, that includes the widely beloved One-Winged Angel, Final Fantasy VII has a vast soundtrack that includes a number of mood-setting tracks that are simply superb – tracks like Great Warrior, which plays as Red XIII learns the truth about his family legacy. Within the game, it plays only twice to my recollection, but it’s an incredibly compelling track. The same could be said for Launching a Dream Into Space, a theme composed explicitly for flashbacks about the failed Shinra space launch. Considering scope as a major factor, some would argue that VII’s soundtrack is Nobuo Uematsu’s triumph. I’m not sure that I would agree, but I do think that it was squarely at the center of the “golden age” of Square’s music, which ranged from Final Fantasy VI through Final Fantasy VIII.
3) Is Final Fantasy VII really overrated?
It probably depends on whose rating you use as a baseline. The manic Sephiroth fans of the world probably do overrate the game. I think, however, most modern gamers who go far enough back to have played and enjoyed Final Fantasy VII when it was shiny and new have given it the due it deserves, and have come to accept its faults as well.
Well, this piece was probably not exceptionally helpful, since everyone has played the effing game, but thanks as always for reading. Next time, I’ll plunge into the depths of Final Fantasy VIII.