Written by  :  Oleg Roschin (181570)
Written on  :  Mar 26, 2004
Platform  :  PlayStation
Rating  :  4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars

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Fusion of drama and gameplay

The Good

Final Fantasy VII is probably the most famous Japanese RPG of all times. It helped popularize the genre like no other game before or after it. Western players started paying attention to the odd genre that mixed ancient RPG mechanics with anime-influenced drama. Fan fiction and shrines dedicated to the effeminate antagonist Sephiroth began to flood the internet.

One could argue about this game for hours, but it cannot be denied that Final Fantasy VII gave a tremendous kick to the genre, propelling it into the future - for good and (mostly) for bad. And while the Japanese RPG design philosophy that began to dominate the market under its influence is seen by many - myself included - as dubious and destructive for the genre, the game itself cannot be held responsible for that.

Final Fantasy VII brought to the genre something it had been craving for a long time: cinematic presentation. The contrast between this game's dramatic visuals and everything that was created in the genre before it is instantly noticeable. Square had showed their talent in that field before as well, but this time, they had the technology to help them, and the impact was huge.

The beginning of Final Fantasy VII clearly shows what its designers are capable of. The dramatic intro pulls the player into the game, and then seamlessly "disintegrates" into the gameplay. The game throws the player right into the middle of the events. High-quality pre-rendered backgrounds, different viewing angles instead of the traditional top-down perspective, and gorgeously-looking battles hook the player right away.

But the strength of Final Fantasy VII is that it never focuses only on cinematic presentation. It uses it to enhance the dramatic impact of its narrative, not to reduce interactivity and player input. Unlike so many other games that tried so much to be "movie-like", Final Fantasy VII doesn't sacrifice its gameplay to the new technical means of expression.

In fact, in terms of gameplay it has virtually everything a Japanese RPG is able to offer. Character growth system is interesting and allows plenty of experimentation. Like its predecessor, it contains a wealth of optional quests, two entirely optional characters to seek out and recruit to your party, and a huge amount of secrets scattered around the world. Exploring the "world map" of Final Fantasy VII becomes one of the most enjoyable playing processes in the game. The 3D view creates a sense of wonder and excitement when you experiment with various types of vehicles and chocobos to access areas that seemed out of reach before. Withe the proper means, it becomes possible to explore every corner of the large world. Even underwater areas are fully explorable with a submarine.

The amount and the variety of things to do in Final Fantasy VII makes it a much less linear and richer experience than most other Japanese RPGs. You can take a break from the main story and just explore the world; go and visit the Gold Saucer, a huge entertainment area where you can gain lots of extra items and powerful materia; seek out and fight powerful optional bosses, etc. Monotonous turn-based gameplay routine is frequently interrupted by fun mini-games (there is even a mini-strategy game, where you command a whole army and can place catapults and other weapons in order to defend the top of a mountain); some of them are compulsory, but most (such as chocobo breeding) are completely optional.

The narrative of Final Fantasy VII is very ambitious, involving social, psychological, and even philosophical problems. While the story doesn't always captivate the way it was supposed to do, some moments are positively unforgettable (such as the famous tragic scene in the middle of the game). Thanks to the cinematic presentation, the emotional impact of the narrative is stronger, and the player is brought closer to the heroes than ever before.

Like in the previous Final Fantasy game, the relationships between the characters is the true cornerstone of the narrative. Every character contributes to the story; while the "main arc" involves the usual confrontation with the antagonist and subsequent world-saving, the "meat" of the narrative are undeniably the personal stories of the characters. Nearly each one of them is interesting and believable, helping to tighten the bond between the player and the protagonists.

The setting of Final Fantasy VII is quite interesting. Already Final Fantasy VI was more inclined towards modern setting than traditional medieval fantasy; Final Fantasy VII introduces a full blend of fantasy and sci-fi. It is not just any kind of sci-fi, but a moody, dark, a bit "blade-runneresque" setting complete with a giant city controlled by an evil mega-corporation, advanced biological experiments on human beings and other species, etc. The game also contains other sci-fi-elements, including even a space flight. One could argue that the setting is a stylistic mess, but the truth is that it goes really well with the games' ambitious narrative.

The variety of locations in Final Fantasy VII is a huge step forwards compared to earlier Final Fantasies - mainly because of the superior graphics, but also thanks to the creativity of the designers. This is by far the most interesting and colorful collection of locations in the entire series - starting with Midgar, a huge city where you spend the first, introductory part of the game. Midgar is decidedly the coolest Final Fantasy location ever. Other cities are also very interesting, far from being the generic towns of most RPGs. Particularly inspiring are the mysteriously looking Cosmo Canyon and the "Chinese" Wutai with its pagodas and unique architecture style.

I absolutely love the music in this game. Nobuo Uematsu has written some of his most varied and emotionally engaging pieces for it. I've played so many Japanese RPGs, but Final Fantasy VII is one of the few whose battle music has stuck in my memory.

The Bad

One of the game's weakest aspects is its writing. So many times, when you begin to "emotionally connect" with the interesting characters, one of them utters an awkward, confusing phrase, and your understanding is shattered to pieces. The problem is that while weak writing was somehow endearing in older installments of the series, it becomes more of an issue in this one, since the game's cinematic style puts the focus on the narrative more than ever before, and the players naturally expect more from it. Since Final Fantasy VII is also much more ambitious in its narrative, involving broad sci-fi thematics (such as genetic experiments), rather complex social questions, and even trying to bring across a "message" of sorts (environmentalism etc.), the flaws in the writing obstruct the enjoyment of the narrative more than it was the case in earlier games.

While Final Fantasy VII is really good at enhancing stale Japanese RPG gameplay with all kinds of nifty extras, you have to bear in mind that it's still a rather rigid, limited experience. One can enjoy it for its big heart and its peculiar artistic charm, but it's still a game that largely relies on a decades-old Wizardry-like system, retaining archaic elements such as random enemy encounters and menu-based combat.

The game is also on the easy side, so don't play if you are only looking for a good challenge. Your characters are simply too strong, and with some bonus areas properly explored and powerful weapons or materia obtained, the battles are regularly won without much effort. They are still fun, because there are always so many possibilities to become even stronger and defeat the foes more efficiently, but don't expect anything really demanding here.

The Bottom Line

The success of Final Fantasy VII is not accidental. It gave the genre cinematic treatment that not only helped popularize it, but also greatly enhanced the experience of following a complex, emotional narrative set in a colorful world. Unlike most of the games that it influenced, Final Fantasy VII didn't sacrifice gameplay to this new treatment. On the contrary, it is one of the more open-ended and gameplay-rich Japanese RPGs, with an abundance of secrets and optional things to try out. To many, it's a gateway to the series and the genre; to me, it remains their most proper swan song.