Final Fantasy VII

   When released, Final Fantasy VII was, if nothing else, something new under the role-playing game sun. It was a gamble for Square: a new kind of RPG, making heavy use of rendered backgrounds and full-motion video, it was a drastic change from the conventional wisdom that graphics didn't matter in an RPG. They backed up the already-large production budget with the most extensive advertising campaign featuring ads in such mainstream venues as Rolling Stone, MTV, and even Playboy. Fortunately, the gamble paid off: FF VII turned out to be one of the most influential RPGs ever.

   "Influential," however, does not always translate to "loved." Widely hailed at the time of its release, the backlash began soon after. Critics inveighed against every aspect of the game, from the sample quality of the music to the occasionally dodgy translation to, sometimes, the graphic brilliance.

   To be sure, Final Fantasy VII had its good and bad points. It wasn't a perfect game by any standards, but it remains one of the most important for several reasons.

 Cloud's alsume sord
That's not a phallic symbol, mate ...

   Any discussion of FF VII has to start with the graphics, which are even now unsurpassed in an RPG. "Popeye people" aside, the backgrounds, battle scenes, and especially the FMV scenes are breathtaking in their beauty. Square gave the development staff an unprecedented $45 million budget, and it's immediately apparent where the money went when the video scenes appear. FF VII set a new standard for RPGs in presentation, making previous games look like text adventures in comparison. Some have complained that the abundance of cut-scenes and FMV make it seem more like a movie meant to be viewed than a game meant to be played, but it is eminently watchable, unlike some nodding-sprite-fests of RPGs past.

Great Guns!
... this is a phallic symbol!

   The gameplay is also novel, if a little of a letdown after the character-specific character classes and abilities of FFIV and VI. Still, the materia system is useful in that it let you make characters the way you wanted to, which adds a degree of customizability not seen since FFV's job system. It also makes less obviously useful characters better in battle. "Healer" characters like Aeris were relatively useless in previous games until someone needed healing, but in FF VII it's possible to load her up with Command materia to make sure she always has something to do, like stealing an item or manipulating an enemy. Plus, the ability to create your own "type" of weapons and armor with Elemental and Added Effect materia is a welcome change. In other games, when you got elemental items like the Icebrand or Poison Axe, they were nice, but got outdated after a while. The materia system lets you keep the weapon or armor "type" through all of your equipment, if you so desire. Coming up with your own materia combos is an important and fun part of the game.

   Though the characters might not have the individual abilities of past Final Fantasies, they retain the unique personalities and quirks that Square is known for. Though usually cited as an example of bad translation, characters like Barrett managed to transcend their stereotypes and become interesting variations within an archetype, instead of succumbing to a cliche. Other, "hidden" characters didn't get much in the way of a backstory, but their characterizations were precise--Yuffie was the annoying one, Vincent was the cool one. The translation, though dotted with errors, is for the first time uncensored, thanks to the new partnership with Sony. This helps immensely in understanding the characters' motivations and giving the player fuller ideas of the characters' nature.

   This is important, considering the story is one of the most ambitious Square ever attempted. The past has as much bearing on the quest at hand as the present, which is complicated by he disparate and conflicting memories held by different characters. The conflicting stories lead to a Rashomon-like unfurling of the truth, bit by bit, as the false details and memories are slowly eliminated. The moment when everything is finally revealed explains lots of things that seemed strange before, but suddenly make sense, like Tifa's odd behavior, Cloud's eerie flashbacks, and the existence of a single, paradoxical photograph.

Cloudzilla is coming out of the sea! Aaaaaah!

   That's just half the story. The other part, which is even more memorable and striking, is the mystery of Aeris, who is unexpectedly slaughtered by Sephiroth halfway through the game. While in the party, Aeris seemed to have known more than she let on, and a large part of he quest is discovering what happened in the Ancient Capital. Aeris's death affects the party heavily, and the savagery of her murder affects the player as well. Her death has more far-reaching consequences for the planet, which ultimately becomes the main goal of your journey. One of the most remarkable things about the story in general is the way Hironobu Sakaguchi lets it all unfold. The player isn't told everything as it happens, and there are remarkably few "nighttime exposition scenes." Characters keep their own counsel and don't reveal everything they know, which is both more realistic and more fun than the running commentary of other RPGs.

   Unfortunately, FF VII isn't all good points. The aforementioned translation does have grammar and spelling problems in some places; the most notable and cringe-worthy are "This guy are sick" and the ever-popular "Off course!" While not as game-wrecking as some claim ("Off course!" happens in a mini-game, not a major event), they also can't be ignored. Giving mouths to the main character models would have helped a lot with body language in the non-FMV scenes. The music itself is on every count excellent, with the most stunning overworld theme Uematsu's ever produced, but the sample quality is a throwback to SNES-era games, which shouldn't happen on a 32-bit platform. Backstory and characterization, while solid, is usually somewhat shallow, as in the case of Tifa and Cait Sith. With only nine characters to choose from, this shouldn't have been a problem for the scenario writers. And with only nine characters, it couldn't have been too much of a chore to come up with individual character abilities for each one. Limit breaks like Cait Sith's slot and most of Aeris' status-based powers come close, but other than that the characters are largely interchangeable. All other things being equal, Cloud with a Long Range materia is Barrett.

   Even while pointing these things out, though, the detractors of the game usually admit that its huge success paved the way for smaller, more traditional RPGs to do well in America. Without a wide audience that understands what a traditional role-playing game is, games like Xenogears, Tales of Destiny, and Lunar suffer. In the end, Square's gamble was profitable not only for them, but for lovers of RPGs everywhere.

Retrospective by Nich Maragos.
Final Fantasy VII
Developer Square
Publisher Sony
Genre Traditional RPG
Medium CD (3)
Platform PlayStation
Released 09.07.97
Walkthrough, Enemy Skills list, Chocobo guides, Dating guide, Weapon guide, Script
194 screenshots / 44 movies
14 character designs, 14 Amano sketches, and 10 CG renders
Packaging and merchandise