Final Fantasy VII was a watershed moment for JRPGs in the western world. For a long time they had been considered niche and unpopular as a genre outside of Japan, with SquareEnix choosing to stilt the releases of their flagship series because of it, leading to a renumbering of FF6 to FF3, and FF4 being turned into FF2. Final Fantasy VII would change all of that, and upon its release everybody began to ask where these other titles they’d missed had been hiding.
Whilst its impact on the genre can’t be denied, there are some other things to take into account when looking at Final Fantasy VII. It came on three discs, making it the biggest game released on the Playstation at that point (beaten only by its successor titles’ four discs) and laid the foundations for what would become the cutscene-laden phase of the JRPG that marked the early Playstation era. Games as movies, and not in a horrible laser-disc Mega-CD interactive movie kind of manner. Adverts for Final Fantasy VII aired on television in the evenings after the watershed and played out like trailers to big-budget movies of the time. The hype surrounding the game was understandably huge, with Sony making the most of managing to snatch Nintendo’s long-time exclusive franchise out from under them.
Graphically the game uses 3D rendered models for characters that are overlaid on static backgrounds on a screen-by-screen basis. Some backgrounds are larger than others but few are more than a screen or two in length vertically or horizontally and require little camera panning (which happens automatically). Characters are portrayed as short, squat figures similar to 3D representations of the sprites used in earlier titles and they can look quite comical by today’s standards, but shrink onto a portable screen such as that of the PSP beautifully. In combat backgrounds and characters are both fully rendered in 3D with the graphical style changing to a more proportionate and adult tone. There’s a varied selection of monsters showcasing designs seen in previous games rendered into three dimensions for the first time, as well as some interesting character designs that skew from the Amano-driven fantasy elements of the time. Character portraits in-game are more solid examples of the Manga style that was popular in America at the time thanks to the success of films such as Akira, and a great deal of care has gone into the direction of the fully CG cutscenes. These crop up a little too often by a modern gaming standpoint, halting progression dead in some cases, but for the time they were a technical wonder and a showcase of what the Playstation could do. As mentioned, on a PSP screen these all look glorious, but on a HD screen when played as part of the Playstation classics range on PSN they can look less appealing, with seams showing where 3D character models are knitted together.
Sounds effects work well and carry across many of the noises from Final Fantasy VI and earlier offerings to keep the sense of series long continuity in place, but have been re-recorded to play in better clarity. The music was for the first time created in Midi format, allowing for a greater use of instruments, longer tracks and more depth compared to the limitations of aging hardware and the soundtrack is amazing. Tracks such as Aerith’s theme (Aeris at the time of release here in the UK), Cosmo Canyon and Sephiroth are all instantly recognisable to anybody who has played the game even in passing, and indeed some of these are the most well-known pieces in gaming history. To this day covers, remixes and orchestral variations on them are being released online and for sale on CD/mp3 formats.
The story behind Final Fantasy VII can get a little muddled in comparison to the clearer narratives of earlier titles, and indeed could be considered to have started the ‘bat-shit crazy’ phase of JRPG storylines that would soon follow. It is at its heart the story of Cloud Strife, a former member of the elite force known as SOLDIER that fights for the mega-corporation called Shinra. Cloud has been recruited by childhood friend and love interest Tifa, who has found herself tied up with the freedom fighter group known as Avalanche and at the games outset they are on a bombing mission to blow up a Shinra reactor. Shinra are draining something called Mako energy from the planet, and Avalanche are a form of eco-terrorist movement that believe that doing so is damaging their world beyond repair. Mako is also used to make Materia through which people can use elemental magical spells and in which SOLDIERs are bathed, leaving a golden ring around their iris to mark them apart from regular people. Having Cloud fighting alongside them has made Avalanche bold, but at the outset he’s only there as long as the money lasts and as a favour to Tifa. What happens next brings into play ancient beings, the concept of creation as a giant living entity and themes of identity, family and loss. It is by no means a meagre story, crammed with ideas and philosophies that have kept debates raging to this day. It is however something of a head scratcher on the first play-through and requires several sessions and some time to think on the game before everything becomes apparent to the player. Compared to the simplicity of FF4 and FF6, which share some common elements with this title (4 especially with multiple elements cribbed from that title) this can be seen as a good or bad thing.
Gameplay is pretty stereotypical of the JRPG genre at the time with exploration and turn based combat that still uses the Active Time Battle system first introduced in FF4. Evidently the shift to 3D stifled some of the more creative elements of the game, although a renewed sense of exploration is added now that players can scour locations for hidden rewards or optional plot points. The game is extremely linear with only two occasions where a branching path to the same result is enacted, based entirely on how well you can dress Cloud up in drag and which female cast member (if any) you have been kind to. There’s a far more adult tone this time around however, with sexual themes at the fore. Combat is the least innovative it has been in some time after FF5 and FF6 with characters not having their own classes to speak of, instead using only Limit Breaks that trigger when enough damage has been dealt (seen as rare ‘desperation moves’ in FF6) to differentiate them. Any character can equip and piece of Materia as long as either their weapon or single piece of equipment has a vacant slot for it, which sometimes makes them feel interchangeable. Materia levels up independently through repeated use on a piece by piece basis however, meaning that a ‘Fire’ piece can be upgraded over time to leave Fire 2 and Fire 3 (Fira and Firaga fore series veterans) and can be linked to an ‘All’ piece to target multiple foes. Chaining different pieces together and seeing it mature is satisfying, as is finding a combination to allow a character to attack for times in quick succession. Outside of the main game there are several mini games that play out first as part of the main quest and again later as optional distractions at the games amusement park, the ‘Golden Saucer’. These include snowboarding, riding a motorbike through enemy infested streets, riding a submarine and a rollercoaster shooter among others.
Overall Final Fantasy VII is a great package that is available readily on Playstation Network and on Steam at this time as well of course as being on PSOne if you want the authentic experience. An original PC copy may require some tinkering to get running but is also a fine way to experience the title if you can get used to playing it on the numerical pad (which for some reason is the only control scheme!). It’s a classic JRPG, and rightly so, although over the course of this review I’ve come to realise now little the game did to forward the actual systems of the series compared to the entries around it. Still it made the leap to 3D on a new console, added in the now expected lavishly made cutscenes for which SquareEnix is so well known and told a story unlike anything else at the time. For these reasons alone it is a must-play.