20 years on, Final Fantsy VII is still one of the greatest RPG’s ever made.
Sometime in the mid-2000’s, it became ‘uncool’ to like Final Fantasy VII (at least in the circles I ran in anyway). Maybe it was because for a decade, it had been hailed as one of the best games ever made and considered the yard stick all other RPG’s to be measured against. Perhaps it was the spike in children being christened as ‘Cloud’ or ‘Sephiroth’. It could have been a lot of things – but support for the game waned and a sort of animosity started to build up against it. To some degree, I bought into this animosity. I think it was because half of my friends started to style their hair and clothes on Sephiroth that I purposfully put distance between me and a game that I previously adored… Anyway…
I woke up last week with a deep desire to replay Final Fantasy VII. Maybe it was the realisation that it had been nearly 20 years since I last played it. Or maybe it’s the anticipation of possibly getting to see more of the Remake at E3 2017, but I was compelled to return to Gaia. I downloaded the PS4 re-release and spent 60 hours over the next week reacquainting myself with Cloud, AVALANCHE & Company.
And, 20 years later, it’s still absolutely f**king brilliant.
This isn’t nostalgia talking. This isn’t me fondly remembering a game from my childhood. This is a fresh play through and I am blown away by it all over again – except now, for new reasons.
Let’s talk about the plot, themes and characters for a second. Sure, there are plenty of stereotypes used throughout the game but there’s an equal number of interesting plot threads weaved into a fantastic tapestry. There’s the Late Capitalism with Shinra and the Mako Reactors. There’s the love triangle with Tifa and Aerith (or Aeris if prefer). There’s environmentalism and activism, fighting for causes and losing friends to them. Then there is the huge sweeping main story lines of revenge, re-connection and – of course – saving the world.
One of the great aspects of Final Fantasy VII that I didn’t really appreciate as a youngster is how relate-able Cloud really is and how that’s built into the story line. For example, at the start of the game, out Hero is non too enthusiastic about fighting for the causes of AVALANCHE. Cloud is moody, brooding and he’s only in it for the Pay day. As the game progresses and details start to unravelled about Shinra, Sephiroth and Cloud’s history (as well as his love interests), it gives Cloud (and in turn, the player) more incentive to be interested in the plot. It’s an interesting mirroring of how interested a player is likely to be interested in the narrative at various junctures.
One of the interesting ways that Final Fantasy VII tells its story is through the over exaggerated movements of the low-poly models. Back in 1997, the models didn’t have the ability to have moving facial features. To get the message across to the player that a character was feeling some kind of emotion, they’d wave, shake, scratch their head, flail their arms around, jump up and down or fall down. It’s an interesting way to negate the graphical limitations of the time and works surprisingly well.
On the subject of graphics and visuals, the PS4 version looks lovely because the art style of Final Fantasy VII is pretty timeless. The dark and weird steam punk meets Neo-revolution meets fantasy style hasn’t aged a day and the pre-rendered backgrounds (a technique still used today) are full of details and are well designed to draw your eye to where it needs to be. I also have to mention how inventive and inspired the cut scenes are in Final Fnatasy VII was – the move from pre-rendered backdrops to CGI cutscenes with the 3D models super imposed over the top then a move back to pre-rendered backdrops again is brilliant.
Then there’s the soundtrack. It’s hard to comment on this 20 years later without a flood of nostalgia hitting me. Final Fantasy VII was my first Final Fantasy game and my first encounter with the Victory Fanfare, so this version holds a special place in my heart. Since then, I’ve played every Final Fantasy game from I to Crystal Chronicles, experienced their music and in my opinion, VII has the best over all soundtrack. Composer Nobuo Uematsu was at his absolute best with this soundtrack and the tone and feel matches the game play and art style perfectly.
And as the turn based combat – For me, the Final Fantasy VII turn based combat systems remind me of the FIFA video game series and the phrase “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it”. Much like FIFA and the subtle tweaks they insist on making each year to a near perfect formula, often taking a step backwards in the process, Square Enix meddled with the turn-based combat of Final Fantasy which, in my option, was in its purest form in Final Fantasy VII. Every Final Fantasy with turn-based combat since VII feels like they’re making changes for the sake of it, adding very little to the over all experience and occasionally making it worse in the process.
The combat in Final Fantasy VII wasn’t overtly complicated but still offered a challenge in the time before internet guides and GameFAQ’s. The 11 year-old-me understood just enough about the combat to allow me to finish the game. The 31 year old me went further, taking on the Weapons of the Planet. It’s an accessible but deep combat mechanic that showed the improvements of previous iterations but got convoluted in the subsequent games.
The last thing I have to mention is the iconic villain, Sephiroth. There’s a reason why he’s so loved and I think, among other reasons, it’s to do with how the game introduces him. During the opening few hours of the game, Sephiroth is mention a few times and always as part of a sentence filled with fear or awe. The first time you see Sephiroth in the game, its during a flashback. Cloud fights along side Sephiroth who is wildly over powered. The monsters you fight can easily defeat Cloud but barely even scratch your compatriot. It’s here that the first impression is formed – Sephiroth is an old friend that he has a mysterious origin, is a little unhinged and is powerful, vastly powerful than yourself. That impression lasts a long time.
During the late 90’s, Final Fantasy VII was regarded as one of, if not ‘the’ greatest RPG of all time. Time may have faded that perception as new RPG’s gun for the crown, but having revisited Gaia on a whim, it feels as fresh today as it did 20 years ago. There are so few aspects that I would change or improve about this game that I’ve started to wonder whether the Remake is needed at all. It’s damn-near perfect as it is and still stands up as one of the greatest games ever made.