Retro Review: Final Fantasy VII

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I am here to tell you a confession. A confession that will torture your thoughts by day and poison your dreams by night. Are you seated? Are you comfortable? Then let us begin: it’s the year of our Lord 2018 and I’ve just played through Final Fantasy VII for the first time. I know, I’m a heathen.

Jokes aside, Final Fantasy VII has always felt like a gaping wound in my knowledge of not only the Final Fantasy franchise, but the RPG genre as a whole. Sure, I’ve read the plot synopsis on Wikipedia, seen THAT scene on YouTube, and even watched the animated film “Advent Children”, but I’ve never taken the time to sit down and experience the game for myself until just recently. Despite being two decades late to the club (in my defense, I was only 5 when it released), I figured now would be the perfect time to jot down my thoughts, saying as how it’s all still fresh in my mind.

Originally released in 1997, Final Fantasy VII is widely considered to be one of the most influential and groundbreaking video game releases of all time. For many, it was their first foray into not only the Final Fantasy franchise, but into the RPG genre. With a solid story, likable cast of characters, and an engaging battle system, it’s no surprise that the game hooked players and went on to sell 9.72 million copies. But how does it hold up in 2018? Especially for someone experiencing it for the first time? Well, let’s just say that if I could travel back in time and add to that 9.72 million, I would.

The game opens by introducing players to Midgar, an industrial city under the rule of the Shinra Electric Power Company, a group hellbent on extracting power from the earth with no care for the consequences. You play as Cloud, a newcomer to the eco-terrorist group known as AVALANCHE. This group hates everything about Shinra and the way they abuse the planet for their own gain, leading them to take extreme measure to stop them. The game uses your first mission with AVALANCHE (the bombing of a Shinra energy reactor) to not only introduce the basic mechanics (movement, combat, etc.) but also give you an active introduction to the world and the various powers in play. While the game does eventually open up in a more traditional RPG fashion, the first 5-10 hours (depending on how you play) take place entirely within the walls of Midgar.

Final Fantasy VII is a game that wants you to be invested in its story, and taking a chunk of time in one location to build up that investment pays off. When things get rolling about 10 hours in, it makes you appreciate the preceding hours and how they eased you into this world. Here’s the thing, this game gets pretty crazy in a short amount of time. What starts off as a story about protecting the planet from a power hungry corporation quickly morphs into a tale of celestial beings, human experiments, and a magical realm full of peace and prosperity. There’s also talking stuffed animals, snowboarding, a club full of homoerotic bath buddies, and a guy who looks like a Backstreet Boys reject with a God complex and an oversized sword. This is both the game we needed and deserved in the 90’s.

Like any good RPG, the cast of characters play a vital role. Although Cloud must remain in your party at all times, you can select two other companions to join you on your adventure. The first one you meet is Barret, the foul mouthed leader of AVALANCHE who happens to have a giant gun graphed to his arm. While I chose to keep Barret in my party as often as I could, there’s several other characters who can accompany you. From your childhood friend and martial artist Tifa, to the kleptomaniac ninja Yuffie, or even a giant talking stuffed animal named Cait Sith, your companions are varied in appearance, personality, and skill. One of the things I greatly appreciated was how each character has their own backstory which you get to explore, often through the form of a flashback. This added depth to their character and made me feel more connected to them, which resulted in me wanting to put them in the rotation for my party.

If the story and characters were the appetizers, then the combat would be the main course. If you’ve ever played a turn-based RPG before, then you should know what to expect here. You and your enemies take turns attacking each other until only one side is left. Simple, right? Well, Final Fantasy VII takes this simplicity and has fun with it. Yes, the game is still turn-based, but the addition of the Materia system adds in a whole extra layer of fun that can be as simple or complex as you desire.

Each weapon, armor, or accessory you equip has Materia slots. These slots can be filled with orbs called Materia that grant you different abilities. From elemental attacks like Fire, Lightning, or Ice, to curative magic and stat boosts, there’s a Materia for pretty much everything. What’s so fun about this system is that some pieces of equipment come with slots that are “linked” together, which allows you to combine Materia for bonus effects. For example, a Fire Materia by itself is useful for damaging a single foe, but link it with an All Materia and you can damage every enemy at once. By the late game, you should have amassed a large collection of Materia that can be linked in different ways to essentially break the game. One combination I found let me attack with magic and regain magic points in the process, allowing me to essentially cast my spells for free.

Taking damage in combat will raise your Limit Gauge which, when full, allows you to deal a powerful special attack. These Limits level up over time and unlock newer stronger abilities with even more devastating results. Each character has different Limits which are both powerful and fun to watch, giving more of an incentive to experiment with every member at your disposal. However, those looking to deal even more damage can turn to special Summon Materia, calling on divine beasts and deities to deliver the most powerful attacks in the game. The animations for these Summons can take an absurd amount of time (one goes well over a full minute), but the sheer spectacle of these abilities are an absolute blast. Although there are some pesky enemy abilities to watch out for (mainly those that cause special status effects to you and your party) I found the combat to be very easy to exploit and didn’t have much trouble with the game. Hell, I beat the last boss of the game in just a few turns.

One of the craziest things about this game is the fact that there’s just so much to do in it. If you ever start to feel like you’re growing bored from the story, you can always dip your toes into several different activities. You can snowboard down a dangerous mountain full of obstacles, race giant birds on a long and winding track, shoot hoops in an arcade, or hire a team of excavators to dig for treasure. Unfortunately, while the amount of side content is impressive, not all of it holds up. Some of these activities (especially snowboarding) are clunky, far from intuitive and more frustrating than fun. On the bright side, all of these activities are only actually required to be played once during the story, meaning any further engagement is entirely optional.

One area in which the game doesn’t disappoint is in its stellar soundtrack.  From the calm and refreshing main theme, to stand out tracks like “Jenova” and the infamous “One-Winged Angel” the soundtrack to Final Fantasy VII is full of incredible tunes that have been stuck in my head for days now. While I always appreciate a good gaming soundtrack, this is one of the few times that I’ve looked one up and listened to it while not playing the game.

Lastly, it’s worth noting that I played through the PS4 version of the game, which is a port of the PC edition. While I don’t believe anything has been too drastically altered, the resolution and frame rate appear to be touched up from the original. There’s also the ability to use cheats (refill your health/MP/Limit) and enable x3 speed, which came in handy for some of the longer summon animations. The PS4/PC ports are probably the best way to experience the game today, so if you’re looking to experience it, this is the way to go.

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FINAL VERDICT

Minus a few side activities that haven’t aged well, Final Fantasy VII is still worthy of the critical acclaim garnered over the past 20 years. Its story is engaging, the characters are memorable, and the combat system is extremely fun to tinker with and create devastsating strategies. There’s a great soundtrack to boot, so if you’re a fan of the later installments, or even just RPGs in general, you owe it to yourself to play one of the best classics available.

– Zack Burrows

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