GameSpite Journal 11 | Final Fantasy VII


Squaresoft/Sony | PlayStation | Sept. 7, 1997

If Albert Einstein were to ask us to visualize video games as a vast rubber sheet, Final Fantasy VII would be one of those enormous weights bending it out of shape and causing all surrounding objects to roll toward it for the power of its sheer mass and gravity. It is not the most important game of all time, but it’s certainly a doozy. You know. Historically speaking. It played a huge part in awakening American console gamers to the appeal of the RPG genre, and its near-seamless integration of real-time gameplay and pre-rendered cut scenes represented a major landmark in dragging the medium out of the early ’90s FMV doldrums. Rather than try to overlay some rudimentary form of interactivity atop badly filmed Super 8 footage crammed down into a grainy thumbnail, FFVII employed the PlayStation’s pseudo-playback capabilities and some very clever (not to mention expensive) computer-rendered imagery to craft an illusion that the game action flowed smoothly into the cartoon-like cinematic events. Perhaps more importantly, it did all of this in the service of a game that wasn’t simply an exercise in Simon-for-psychics predictive button-pressing. Final Fantasy VII was the true seventh chapter of a long-running console RPG series, and the spectacle of its visual presentation didn’t compromise its sense of scale in the least. It was every bit the epic that its predecessors had been.

Unfortunately, Final Fantasy VII is the farthest thing from a perfect game. It’s not even great. It was admirably ambitious, but all that remains now is a complete mess of a game that tripped over its feet more often than not. The Final Fantasy series has a habit of being all over the place, and in fairness FFVII isn’t nearly the broken disaster that Final Fantasy II was. But it’s certainly far from ideal.

Consider:

The interface suffers from the excessively flashy dungeon designs; anyone whose game has to include an optional cursor to point out where your character is located on screen needs to take a step back and say, “Maybe we should rethink how we’ve laid out these maps.”

The story is an almost incomprehensible mess. The blame for this rests in large part with the localization, which wavers between witty and embarrassing, apparently depending on whether that part was edited internally at Square or by its contractors.

Graphically, the game has not aged well at all. Its static backgrounds are not only confusing, but also garish, limited in function, and lacking a truly unifying visual style beyond “kitchen sink Toy Story-era renders with some dithered Photoshop effects.” The characters are depicted in several different forms throughout the game with no seeming logic behind their presentation; in battle they’re lanky, while outside they’re stumpy midgets with giant blocks for hands. In cutscenes, they vary between high-quality renditions of their in-game models and what passed for “realistic” in 1997 -- gawky, artificial, with an emphasis on all the wrong details. (Tifa’s hyperactive boob-bounce in key cut scenes is especially painful to watch.) Logistically, this was an unavoidable artifact of the game’s evolving production processes; born at the cusp of serious CG as a medium, FFVII’s cut scene production was spread across several studios. Understandable as this may be, it’s jarring to see the game suddenly jump from the semi-realistic models to comical midget versions during what are meant to be crucial plot junctures.

The music varies between brilliant and droningly dull. The four-disc soundtrack represented composer Nobuo Uematsu’s most demanding project to date, and at times his talent seems to have been stretched to the breaking point. The harsh metallic quality of the music could ostensibly be explained away as as symbol of evil megacorporation Shinra’s technological oppression, but that doesn’t explain why more rustic lands like Cosmo Canyon and Wutai use the same cold, grating sample quality as well.

Worst of all, FFVII commands almost suffocating mindshare. Its financial success holds Square in its thrall, and the right-time-right-place timing of its release has helped ensure it looms large in the collective memory of gamers. Millions of young nerds were just coming to discover video games through PlayStation in 1997, and even older players were accustomed to simple sprites or hollow full-motion games. For both groups, FFVII’s was a revelatory debut. For many people, FFVII’s characters, world, and play mechanics didn’t just demonstrate the potential of what a video game could be, they defined it. And that definition came to mean “Expansive skill systems at the expense of depth; flashy graphics at the expense of performance and playability; narrative complexity at the expense of compelling characters and coherent storytelling.”

In short, Final Fantasy VII pushed the genre—and gaming!—but also mired it down in many ways. Whatever charms it once offered have long since been overshadowed by its failings and datedness. It was a waypoint in gaming, not an end in itself.

But upon reflection....

Every game should start as well as Final Fantasy VII.

I’m not just talking about its famous intro, although that long camera zoom out of Midgar and back in again, bookended with a glimpse of Aeris and cross-cuts of the train with which the sequence eventually ends, remains a genuine high-water mark of the medium. The impact those three minutes of video (which melted so smoothly into the actual game itself) had on the gamer’s mind back in 1997 is the achievement for which every in-game event director presumably aspires to achieve. Few succeed.

In fact, I’m surprised in replaying FFVII to realize just how much of the game still resonates with me—the memory of how staggering it seemed in the context of its debut lingers strongly. When I last played FFVII, back at the end of the PlayStation era, all I could see was how its sequels, successors, and would-be usurpers had surpassed it. Now what I see is how artfully crafted it was. The flaws remain, but they don’t stand out nearly as much as they used to. I wonder if that’s because FFVII was such a brazen attempt to create something new. You don’t see a lot of that in games anymore, and when you do it’s almost never connected to such a sizable budget.

I suppose that’s a part of what made FFVII one of those right-time-right-place creations, though. It arrived in an era where game development budgets were beginning to balloon, but hadn’t yet grown so massive that the only key to success was dispassionately crafting a focus-tested “blockbuster.” On the contrary, gamers demanded newer and more dazzling experiences in the late ’90s. The rapid advancements game hardware experienced—including the ability to render polygons in sufficient numbers to make 3D graphics possible, but hardly limited to that one feature—made revolutions of both design and visuals a matter of course. Final Fantasy VII caught the attention of gamers everywhere because it was more graphically sophisticated than any game before it, and those visual improvements transformed what was essentially a straight follow-up to the previous chapter of the series into something that felt far grander than its Super NES predecessors. And yet, it didn’t bankrupt the studio that created it. No, it turned them into a powerhouse.

And it all began so wonderfully. The opening hours of Final Fantasy VII are a near-flawless example of how to establish cast, setting, and play mechanics without compromising the game, without slowing things down with needless tutorials, or without condescending to the player. From the rolling opening in which the heroes literally leap out of the opening movie and into action to the explosive escape from the city of Midgar, Final Fantasy VII’s first act remains unsurpassed within the annals of game history.

People remember the game’s grand moments—the explosions, the deaths, the fires. They recall the thrill of leaping directly from the title screen into a brazen terrorist act that results in a blast ripping through the streets of the megalopolis of Midgar. They can think back and visualize an entire section of the city collapsing to crush the slums below, presumably killing hundreds of thousands, as the architect of that act gazes down at the chaos from high above, the strains of opera music filling the air. They recollect Sephiroth’s murderous smile as he gazes up through the flames of Nibelheim. And the part about Aeris dying at the villain’s hands, of course. Those may be the big setpieces, and they may make FFVII memorable, but they’re not what makes FFVII powerful.

The real masterstrokes of FFVII come in the quiet moments: The events between the shocks, explosions, and crazy revelations. Seeing a team of heroes play party to a terrorist bombing that cripples the city and leaves untold numbers of citizen injured and possibly dead is blood-chilling in retrospect, but it’s not the blast that sets the mood. It’s the somber theme that plays afterward as protagonist Cloud Strife steps into the damaged city streets, surrounded by panicked people. It’s a moment shared on a subway tram as lovestruck guerrilla Jessie shows Cloud the city map while the camera pulls out to reveal the immensity of Midgar compared to the train car skirting along its underside. It’s two people tentatively sharing their memories in the decaying remnants of a surreal children’s playground.

Midgar may well be the most thoughtfully designed location ever to appear in an RPG outside of, perhaps, Neverwinter. Where most RPG locales are simply waypoints, Midgar is heart of its world. The story begins there, and even once the team travels afar, they return to it on several occasions. Motivations shift, villains are murdered and supplanted by more wicked threats, and the scale of the adventure constantly grows. Yet Midgar remains the fulcrum around which the story revolves, and even FFVII’s enigmatic finale returns there hundreds of years later to show Red XIII and his impossible progeny baying at its ruins. Within the confines of Midgar, FFVII is a game defined by purpose and substance.

The problem with FFVII is that eventually it moves beyond Midgar, and in doing so moves beyond its exquisite beginning to degenerate into a far less coherent tale. The game’s development history originally began as something far more grounded in the real world than the final product—the tale of a New York City detective—and these origins leave their telltale traces in FFVII’s uneven structure. The Midgar sequences are tightly plotted, packed with characterization, and tease a number of interesting plot developments.

Within Midgar, players meet the wry, cynical Cloud and his associates in eco-terrorist group Avalanche; watch the callous executive team behind corporate global power Shinra in action; learn of the heroic missing Soldier elite Sephiroth; witness Midgar’s literally stratified society of haves and have-nots; and steal a brief glimpse of an unearthly creature called Jenova that bears unexplained connections to Cloud, his newfound lady friend Aeris, the hyper-intelligent feline Red XIII, and the seemingly less-dead-than-advertised Sephiroth. All of this in about seven or eight hours of play time, which also includes numerous chances to interact with Midgar’s citizenry, the infiltration of a crime-connected bordello, an assault on Shinra headquarters, and a daring escape down the side of the building and along the highway to the city’s edge. Within these events, the player is given plenty of opportunities to master the combat system with hardly any hand-holding; on the contrary, one of the few in-combat tutorial attempts is so awkwardly translated that it seemingly dispenses counter-productive advice by advising players to attack a foe at the wrong time.

Rather than scraping the player over a bed of tedious how-tos, systems like the Materia-based magic system are simply eased in naturally. Cloud, the purported seasoned expert, begins the game with the only set of Materia in the party, making its combat utility perfectly evident from the start. And if you want a rundown of how the game systems work, that’s available at several points throughout the game -- but instead of being told how to do his job as a retired elite warrior, Cloud instead presents these game tutorials as advice to admiring fans. It’s a clever touch that ties the tutorial concept into one of the core narrative conceits in a simple, elegant fashion.

And Cloud, it should be noted, is an interesting character. He tends to be viewed through the lens of Compilation of Final Fantasy VII spin-offs and subsequent Cloud-likes such as Squall Leonheart, which has led to a general perception that he was originally a dour, joyless soul. Nothing could be further from the truth; Cloud is in fact witty, sardonic, and not afraid to crack a joke. Just as Aeris is hardly the virginal saint the FFVII fan base canonizes her as -- she was, after all, the one who had the idea to dress Cloud in drag in order to break into a whorehouse -- Cloud isn’t a morose killjoy. As the plot advances and starts to buckle under its own weight, his psyche does become correspondingly fragmented. But to call him an emo whiner is missing the point; Cloud’s personal journey is that of a man having his identity and self-perception slowly stripped away by circumstance and revelation. He enters the story brimming with cocky confidence, and as events call his memories and point of view into doubt, he gradually is forced to recognize the truth behind his façade: He’s a second-stringer, a failure so mentally devastated by Shinra’s psychic torture that he wholly assumed another man’s persona.

Unfortunately, most of this truth is hidden behind wholly optional events. Unless you take the time to investigate an out-of-the-way corner of an optional, confusing, and frequently frustrating portion of the game, Cloud remains a complete enigma. It’s only through spending time in the seeming dead-end of Nibelheim’s crumbling Shinra mansion that you see Cloud’s true past: His time as a captive in Shinra’s lab, his near-catatonic escape with the help of his personal idol Zack, and Zack’s ultimate death and symbolic passing of the massive Buster Sword to Cloud. It’s all too easy to miss this key flashback. Idiotic filler sequences like the Gold Saucer and Barret’s nonsensical backstory are forced upon the player, but the Rosetta Stone to the main character’s past is as easily overlooked as the meaningless Wutai side excursion.

This is symbolic of FFVII’s primary problem: It’s just too damn big. I don’t think Square had the courage to create an RPG set in a single city at the time, so the world beyond Midgar feels tacked on to fill the requisite need for an overworld and other places. This is framed as the pursuit of Sephiroth, who ultimately turns out to be a red herring since Sephiroth is actually long-dead (at Cloud’s hands, no less). The pursuit mainly serves to stretch the plot tissue-thin across a planet whose role in the story is largely inconsequential. The few key locations germane to the plot, such as Rocket Town and the Temple of the Ancients, would have worked just as well as adjuncts to the city (in much the same way that Nibelheim is). But because Final Fantasy means “world maps” to most people (just listen to the angry squawking about Final Fantasy XIII), the dev team created a world map and proceeded to fill it with irrelevant nonsense that diminishes the brilliance of the Midgar sequences. FFVII is filled with contradictory information and muddled story points, and it’s probably no coincidence that the narrative grows more confusing and less coherent the further you travel from Midgar.

That’s the downside to taking chances, I suppose. FFVII is amazing because of all it did to redefine the concept of “role-playing game,” but it’s also terrible because of the ways it failed to realize its ambitions. Outside of the core cast of Cloud, Tifa, and Aeris, the characters come off as flat and ill-defined outside their obligatory side story sequences. The clumsy, primitive mini-games—from performing CPR to waging war in a submarine—feel tacked-on rather than brilliant extensions of the core game.

Perhaps worst of all, the essence of combat ultimately reduces each character to a bunch of Materia slots and turns the Materia itself into the real party members. Each combatant offers only negligible differences in abilities; mainly, this amounts to a few characters being able to hit distant enemies with melee attacks in a small number of gimmick battles that physically separate the party and their opponents. Otherwise, everyone has access to the same skills and spells by equipping Materia, which can be freely interchanged even after it levels up. As with many of the Final Fantasy games of the era, combat isn’t exactly difficult to begin with, and there’s rarely much need for real strategy despite the presence of so many status and buff/debuff spells. Material further homogenizes an already flimsy system, and only a few superfluous super-battles require any real exploitation of the combat mechanics. Meanwhile, summoned monsters have been made as common as any spell and are practically an instant win button if you’re willing to relinquish control of the game for the time it takes for their improbably extended summon animations to play out.

FFVII tries at times to do interesting things in combat, even providing narrative at times: The battles with Shinra’s Turks enforcers carry on the tradition of comical recurring foes established by Gilgamesh and Ultros, and the first encounter with the Midgar Zolem is an almost guaranteed wipeout made all the more meaningful when you discover that Sephiroth was able to murder and impale one of the creatures with what one assumes was casual contempt. The final battle breaks the party into teams, and its sequential progression offers up a tantalizing glimpse of the truth behind Sephiroth’s actions across the adventure: At the peak of his power, he appears to be little more than Jenova’s puppet. Compilation retcons notwithstanding, minor details like this demonstrate the craft and thought invested into FFVII’s best moments.

In the end, though, those best moments share board with just as many deeply flawed ones. It has a perfect start, and it ends well; the showcase finale that at last pits Cloud alone against Sephiroth is impossible to lose, but by that point the player is so eager to put the villain down for the count that they don’t really mind. Disappointingly, though, the parts in between are all over the place. For every hilarious decision to take the secret route up the Shinra building (you climb 60+ flights of stairs, floor by floor, and the party bitches about it the whole way), there’s an embarrassing slap fight between Tifa and Scarlet. Aeris’ heart-rending murder is diminished by Cait Sith’s “sacrifice.” The breadth of combat options is undermined by the battle system’s shallowness. The ambitious presentation is derailed by clunkily dated video quality and hilarious reversions to midget character designs at inappropriate times.

Final Fantasy VII can be forgiven many of its shortcomings for its vintage and its sheer ambition. And the failings of its unwanted sequels in no way impugn the quality of the original work. It’s a stretch to call FFVII a masterpiece; it fails at too many essentials that were well-established even in 1997, with the least challenging and substantial combat mechanics seen in the entire series, and the plot spends half its time padding itself out when it would be twice as compelling if it were half as long. Yet in FFVII lurks a blazing spirit of ambition and intention, a fiery passion to innovate that far too few games demonstrate these days. If the industry is to latch onto anything about FFVII as worthy of imitation, it should be that, not the silly weapons or cool outfits and hairstyles.


By Jeremy Parish? | May 31, 2012 | Previous: Eternal Sonata | Next: Final Fantasy VIII