Love it or hate it, this game made the PlayStation.
Before I get into the game, a little back story:
After Chrono Trigger was released, Squaresoft made the shocking announcement that it would be developing for Sony's PlayStation instead of Nintendo's new 64-bit console. And it's first title for the little grey box would bear its most prestigious name: Final Fantasy. Until Final Fantasy, RPGs hadn't been "system-sellers", that title usually going to mascot platformers or popular arcade ports. But in addition to the attention garnered by that initial announcement, Square spent an unheard of amount on publicity and advertising, and FF7 rocketed to the top of the charts upon its release. After a few weeks of euphoria, the backlash began as gamers realized no, it wasn't the be-all end-all of all games, and it wasn't perfect. Some gamers simply couldn't commit the attention and intelligence required by RPGs, others couldn't deal with the eminently Japanese style of the game. Nevertheless, the game pushed the PlayStation into preeminence and Square all but handed Sony their victory in the 32/64-bit wars.
So, how does the game stack up?
First of all, the entire game is done in the kind of super-deformed anime style that is traditional in Japanese games. Expect wild haircuts, a puzzling mix of sci-fi and fantasy, and some character design that seems equal parts madness and cannabis. As if that were not enough, the styles shift frequently, from the blocky, faceless placeholders you see during overworld navigation to the dark, detailed, Blade Runner-esque battle models. If you're over your head watching Dragonball Z, this might not be the game for you. Personally, I found the styles interesting, and Square somehow manages to take the tired archetypes of "scarred antihero, healing nice girl, talking dog" and make them work.
Also, while later-generation games like Metal Gear Solid played like movies, FF7 plays like a book. Lots of text coming up in blue windows, again, nothing new to anyone who's played Square games on the SNES. You'll be expected to read, and an attention span is a must, because this plot gets deeper and more twisted than anything else on the PSX by about halfway through the first disc. Sony kept it's promise not to censor or alter the material in any way, and you'll get a fair share of PG-13 language and themes in this game. Eat that, Big N!
The labyrinthine story starts out with ex-soldier Cloud Strife helping the guerilla group Avalanche blow up some Mako reactors owned by the government that generate energy at the expense of depleting the planet. It doesn't take long for it to roll out the "Ancients", and from there the plot gets so complicated I will not even attempt to describe it. I liked the story, but again, you may not.
Essentially, the game follows the pattern of:
1. wander around performing tasks and solving puzzles, fighting random enemies for EXP & items
2. find a critical juncture, learn a little bit more about the plot
3. fight a boss
4. learn some more plot, then move to the next area
Once again, nothing unfamiliar to RPG aficionados. The little minigames are entertaining, and some of the puzzles and tasks are downright funny (i.e., sneaking Cloud into a bordello by having him cross-dress).
Like most RPGs, the battles fall into two categories: random battles which occur whilst wandering around the map, or boss battles which yield key items and plot points. The random battle system is high on the Frustration-O-Meter, but Square makes it a bit less painless by giving the battles some incredible graphics that use the PSX's capabilites to the fullest.
The way items and such are handled is fairly straightforward. Each character wields a certain type of weapon (sword, gun, megaphone), and better equipment and armor becomes available the farther you progress into the game. Magic is handled by "Materia", which can be placed in the slots of weapons or armor, and allows characters to use magic and summon spells, and do useful things like steal items, or transform enemies. If one character uses a materia enough, they become proficient in it and can access more powerful spells. Usually the best thing to do is give every character two or three materias to specialize in. The system breaks away from the traditional RPG convention of having one or two weak-ass "magic" characters in the back casting spells while the "fighters" hack away in front. In FF7, every character is customizable based on how you assign the Materia.
Also, during battles, if a character is attacked, their "Limit" gauge goes up. If a character is attacked enough to fill this gauge, they can perform "Limit Break" attacks, definitely the coolest in the game.
It bears repeating that this is an incredibly deep game. There are two characters with fully developed back stories that are not even necessary to meet. This game has more side quests and mini-games (including a racing game, strategy game, and various casino-type stuff) then you can shake a stick at. The "chocobos" of FF fame can be caught and mated to yield different colored Chocobos, that can take you to inaccessible areas of the map and uncover *more* game. Square practically creates an entire world in this game, and it's incredible.
This game has some flaws that don't ruin the game, but keep it from being as good as it could have.
First off, the game gets praise for it's incredible cinemas and battle graphics, which I can understand. But the bulk of the game consists of moving a VERY crude polygon model of your character around interactive 2D backgrounds. Why didn't they keep the battle models?
While Square included a little helper in the American version that puts arrows at the exits of each area, the low resolution of the PSX sometimes makes it downright impossible to tell how to get from point A to point B on the map. In-game navigation can be very frustrating.
Also, even for an RPG, there is a lot of text. Square creates an entire world, but it still has a little to learn about drawing people into it. Not only is there no spoken voice in this game, but the music is almost all MIDI, not Redbook audio. This is almost ten years after Ys on the TurboGrafxCD here people, and I'm still listening to the whines and bleeps of MIDI music in my RPGs? Gah! The music is good enough, but the game can't seem to decide whether it wants to be a 16-bit or a 32-bit title. And you get one, count 'em, one battle theme for every battle except bosses or Chocobos. Doo-doo-doooo-do-doo-doo-dooooo-doo-doo-doo-do-do...
And lastly, here's a tip to all Japanese game designers: BEFORE you release your game, get an American to read your script so we don't have any more of those grammatical fiascos that have become famous over the years. While this is no Metal Gear (The truck have started to move!) the game still finds a way to slip in the occasional "Off course!". All your base are belong to us!
The Bottom Line
Rent this game, and play through the first act or so. If you love it, or even kind of liked it, like I did, get it. But if you absolutely can't stand the style and pace of RPGs, this is not one to break the mold. But this game is the best at what it tries to do.