"Remember the good ol’ days before RPGs were cool? Days when you’d be controlling tiny, blocky characters through a game with little story beyond destroying the forces of evil? "
Remember the good ol’ days before RPGs were cool? Days when you’d be controlling tiny, blocky characters through a game with little story beyond destroying the forces of evil?
While there were a few exceptions to that rule, that was what most RPGs were like back in the day of the NES, SNES and Genesis — and even in the early days of the technologically-advanced Playstation. If you liked fighting countless battles to build up characters and traveling aimlessly over vast, non-descript worlds looking for the entrance to the next dungeon, that was all well and good. It worked for me and it seemed to work for a decent number of other players. BUT that formula wasn’t sufficient to make RPGs much more than a niche genre of games in the United States — just look at all the quality titles that never were ported to American shores because companies such as Nintendo simply didn’t feel there was enough of an audience to make it worth their while to do so.
Initially, it looked like the Playstation would follow in the footsteps of those classic systems. Games like Beyond the Beyond and King’s Field made no impact. Revelations: Persona was deep, but didn’t have anything to attract newcomers to the genre. Suikoden combined a short quest with the tedious Pokemon-ish task of collecting a whopping 108 characters, some of whom were hidden quite well. Wild Arms was probably the best of the early bunch, but a lack of marketing combined with ugly combat graphics ensured it would not be a smash mainstream hit.
And then the commercials came. As the autumn of 1997 approached, odds are you saw at least one of them on your television. Awe-inspiring (for the time) cinema scenes detailing what appeared to be a confrontation between a youth with blond, spiky hair and a mysterious man with long, silver hair. A commercial that ended with the silver-haired man turning and walking through a fiery inferno as the words “Final Fantasy VII” appeared on the screen.
That introduction pretty much guaranteed this intriguing new game would be a hit — and it was all that and much more. Names like “Cloud”, “Aeris” and “Sephiroth” became as familiar to the general gaming public as “Mario” and “Link”. Those pretty cinematic scenes attracted hordes of players — an epic story and excellent gameplay engine hooked them. Just like that, RPGs became cool and virtually every company attempted to cash in on their new popularity.
Final Fantasy VII starts off with a bang. Almost as soon as a player starts up an adventure, they are in battle with a pair of soldiers. Win here and immediately enter the game’s first dungeon — a reactor owned by Shinra, a corporation that literally is sucking the life out of the world. Play a little more and you’ll get acquainted with a few of the game’s players including Cloud, the selfish, antisocial mercenary; Tifa, an old friend of Cloud; Barret, the excitable leader of a group that’s fighting Shinra and Aeris, a peace-loving girl rescued by Cloud. Later, as the rag-tag resistance launches an assault on Shinra’s headquarters, the famous villain Sephiroth begins to make his presence felt. Suddenly, the plot shifts from a simple battle between Barret’s Band (known as Avalanche) and Shinra to a triple threat death match with the psychotic Sephiroth threatening to destroy everything both groups have worked toward.
And off you’ll go, across the vast world outside the walls of the Shinra-dominated city of Midgar in a desperate attempt to stop Sephiroth while fighting off not only his minions, but Shinra’s own efforts to put your band of heroes six feet under. While the world of Final Fantasy VII may be plain by today’s standard, it was a work of sheer beauty for 1997 — a world that graphically was leaps and bounds ahead of ANY other RPG. Whether you were walking across a vast plain toward a distant Chocobo farm or partaking in one of countless battles on a 3-D field, it was impossible for me to not be amazed by this game’s appearance.
Fortunately, the game’s intricate character-building system is able to impress nearly as much as the visuals. Initially, Cloud and company are pretty lame and one-dimensional in battle, but things dramatically change as time progresses. By picking up Materia orbs and inserting them into the limited number of slots in a character’s weapon and armor, you are able to have full control over how a character develops. Different orbs give different spells, summons and other abilities — allowing you to create a brutally powerful juggernaut or a master of magic. As you win battles, you can master the abilities each orb stores, allowing you to eventually cast away old Materia in place of new orbs with more powerful abilities. While many Materia orbs are simple to find, a few (such as super-powerful summon Knights of the Round) take a lot of time and effort to obtain.
Materia and the abilities they unlock will be crucial for your team in getting through the many, many battles you’ll be fighting in this game. While most of the frequent random fights are easy to win solely on brute strength, most bosses require a bit more strategy. Guard Scorpion, the first boss of the game, unleashes a brutal counterattack if you pick the wrong time to take a swing at it. Depending on how you start your battle with Lost Number, that beast will eventually become invulnerable to either physical or magical attacks. Virtually everything you do against the optional Emerald and Ruby Weapons will result in those beasts unleashing absolutely devastating attacks on you. And dozens of other bosses also have their own specific strengths and weaknesses which you’ll endeavor to find before they cut your attempt to save the world short.
Get tired of fighting and you’ll be able to take a break in the Gold Saucer (after you’ve paid you initial storyline visit). This amusement park is chock full of minigames from the deceptively tough Battle Arena to the entertaining Chocobo Races to many other diversions. The Chocobo Races are likely to take up a good deal of your time — especially after you also start to breed the little birdies. Breed new and improved variations of the standard Chocobo and you’ll be able to not only win the toughest (and most lucrative) races with ease, but you’ll also be able to access a few hidden caves that cannot be reached in any other way. While the act of breeding the birds becomes quite tedious, you’ll likely forget about that after you’ve obtained some of the treasures that only a Chocobo master is able to snag.
If a bit of tedium in an optional activity was the only flaw with Final Fantasy VII, you could easily say it is as close to perfection as a video game could hope to reach. Sadly, this is not the case. While so many of the aesthetic aspects of this game were dramatically superior to anything else RPG fans had seen, from the dramatic cinema scenes to the beautiful overworld, cities and villages to the rich, vibrant music heard throughout your quest — you’ll eventually realize that FF7 isn’t much better at character development than many of those RPGs that preceded it.
A player who is in the opening hours of the game would look at that last sentence and dismiss it as an outright lie. After all, those opening hours in Midgar and the lands surrounding that city reveal a number of interesting characters. Not only do Cloud, Barret, Tifa, Aeris and Sephiroth all seem much more interesting than characters of games past, but a number of supporting characters make a big impact. Shinra powerhouses Rufus and Reno exhibit a cold, callous nature as they prove willing to wipe out entire sections of Midgar for the sole reason of crushing the rebellion. The horrific actions perpetrated by insane Shinra scientist Hojo (many revealed through assorted flashbacks) seem to serve as a chilling reminder of the potential consequences of putting scientific “advancements” on a pedestal above humanity.
But as the game goes on, that changes. After a certain point, the focus of the plot completely revolves around the relationship and conflict between Cloud and Sephiroth, with most everything else losing all significance. Make no bones about it, Square does a wonderful job of portraying Cloud, who evolves from a self-centered lout into a confused man, unsure of who he is or if his recollection of past events is even the truth. While Sephiroth is much more one-dimensional, taking a “Life screwed me over, so EVERYONE DIES!!!!” attitude, the way he fits into Cloud’s flashbacks gives him a much stronger presence than previous RPG villains. Sephiroth is revealed to be a tortured soul finding out everything he believed in was a lie — a discovery that causes him to undergo a radical change in ideals.
Unfortunately, the rest of the characters fade to a one-dimensional status. Tifa’s purpose is to help Cloud find the truth. Aeris serves to give Cloud a very good reason to continue chasing Sephiroth. After brief moments in the sun, Barret and newer party members Cid and Cait Sith only are able to direct “Go get ‘em, kid!” exclamations toward Cloud. The dog-like Red XIII is a far deeper character than its appearance would lead one to believe, but by the end of the game, it also is a mere afterthought. Optional characters Yuffie and Vincent add little to the plot. Mad scientist Hojo takes the gleefully psychotic persona of FFVI’s Kefka — if that villain held a doctorate in genetic engineering. Shinra foes Rufus, Reno and their subordinates only seem to interfere in your progress for the purpose of....interfering in your progress. Hell, as you get toward the end of the game, you can almost remove the actual dialogue spoken by Reno in a late-game confrontation and replace it with, “Well, we’re here, so let’s fight.....even though we’re not really sure why we are here....or why we’re fighting you again since you’ve beaten all of us repeatedly and will do it again.”
As hinted before, a lot of the optional things and side quests to do in this game just aren’t that much fun. Breeding Chocobos until you obtain the fantastic golden variety might be the most tiresome of these activities, but it’s not the only one that FFVII could do without. Even worse, many of the other optional activities initially are mandatory to advance the plot. You will have to engage in a horrible rendition of a real-time strategy game as part of a mission to preserve the life of a mystical bird atop a mountain at least once. You also will have to partake in an even worse underwater battle against enemy submarines before that adventure becomes another Gold Saucer mini-game. When Final Fantasy VII is concentrating on being a pure role-playing game, it does a great job. When it attempts to branch out into other genres for mini-games or minor parts of the main mission, things just don’t work out so well.
But none of these flaws turn into serious problems and never really progress beyond being annoyances. You only have to endure prolonged exposure to these poorly-designed minigames if you’re one of those players who HAS to do EVERYTHING and by the time most of the supporting characters turn into unexciting and insignificant piles of flesh, odds are you’ll be too excited about witnessing the final confrontation between Cloud and Sephiroth to really even care.
Many people consider Final Fantasy VII to be the best game of all time. Personally, I wouldn’t go that far. As the years have gone by, I’ve played games with better stories, better graphics and better characters. But in the genre of role-playing games, there is no doubt in my mind that FFVII is the most significant game ever released. With a wonderful advertising campaign designed to show how Square was able to take advantage of the Playstation’s processing capabilities — and a game good enough to justify that advertising, FFVII was able to singlehandedly make RPGs appealing to hordes of people who previously looked at them as unattractive and boring — a feat it should be commended for achieving.
Featured community review by overdrive (July 23, 2004)
Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.
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