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Thursday, October 27, 2016

Final Fantasy VII

A breakout title which made Sony and Squaresoft into household names and helped to carry gaming as a whole into a new era, turning games from relatively simple diversions into big-budget blockbusters.  But does this game-changer stand the test of time, or is this one experience that's best left in our memories?

Final Fantasy VII is the first game I can remember being marketed as something much bigger than a mere video game.  As the commercials of the time put it, this a major motion picture in video game form, full of amazing special effects and a cast of thousands.  While marketing does tend to exaggerate claims of grandiosity, especially in the realm of video gaming, Final Fantasy VII's developers certainly did their best to live up to the hype.  This was not a typical RPG set in a world of tile-based movement and static backdrops; instead, the game's protagonists were now leaping across rooftops,fighting bad guys atop trains, and even taking part in high-speed chases down the highway as armed troops pursued their getaway truck.  All in a plethora of environments and set pieces that not only drew inspiration from mythology and Tolkien-styled fantasy, but from works like Blade Runner, Shadowrun and Mad Max.  While not the first game to blend elements of action and science fiction into the JRPG genre, it was certainly the most successful attempt at it to that date; the Playstation's capability for high resolution prerendered backgrounds and full motion video helped bring the game's world to life in a way not seen on earlier systems, and even the in-battle characters upped the ante by being fully animated 3D models instead of the simple, static sprites of earlier Final Fantasy games.  Some battles even used elaborate setpieces to give the game a more fast-paced, action-driven feel; from fighting atop trains to a battle with a war machine atop two elevators descending the side of a skyscraper.  The game definitely succeeded in providing a new flair to the RPG genre, which until this point had been largely viewed as relatively slow-paced and methodical.

Final Fantasy VII's new focus on visual flair proved to be a mixed bag, however, as with it came a drastic change in the RPG paradigm, particularly for Square.  Final Fantasy's customizable characters, challenging active-turn gameplay and distinct high fantasy settings became more and more muddied with new mechanics of varying quality and many more modern elements in their design.  The franchise's class system that divided characters into the familiar fantasy archetypes (Fighter, Thief, Mage, Cleric, etc) was now totally cast aside, with any familiar Final Fantasy abilities now relegated to "Materia", small orbs that can be placed into slots in a character's equipment in order to grant them new spells and commands, and with materia orbs leveling up independently of the characters themselves and able to be freely exchanged between characters at any time.  While this does allow the player to change up their strategies on the fly, it also renders the playable cast more or less indistinct from one another.  They attempted to offset this by having Materia carry advantages and disadvantages; magic Materia tends to lower the character's attack power and maximum HP, for example, while physical skill Materia boost their speed or vitality stats.  However, I don't think they went far enough with this idea; drawbacks for Materia tend to be minimal at best (losing 2% of your HP and one point of attack per materia isn't much of a deterrent, even in large quantities) and you don't really gain enough benefit from having a "pure" Mage, Thief, Fighter, etc. character to make it a strategy worth pursuing.

The Materia system does have at least one interesting twist, though: Materia effects can be combined with one another in linked slots to provide extra benefits.  For example, combining the Double Cut Materia (which allows more than one attack per turn) with the MP Absorb Materia causes physical attacks to absorb MP from enemies, while combining a Restore Materia with an All will cause restorative spells to affect the entire party a set number of times per battle (depending on All's level), rather than simply targeting one person.  This was an interesting idea that had the potential to add strategy where the Materia system subtracted it elsewhere, but sadly they also don't use it to great enough effect; the game's overall low difficulty ensures that only the toughest of optional bosses requires any strategy along these lines.

Another controversial change to the gameplay comes in the Limit Break system.  Each character has a "Limit" gauge that gradually fills as they take damage, and once it is full, they can unleash a "Limit Break", a powerful attack that does substantial damage to one or all enemies on the field or boosts their party in some way.  These vary from character to character; while most simply play an animation that boosts the party or attacks an enemy (or enemies), others play out as something of minigames, such as Tifa's Reels that determine how many attacks she can string together in a combo, or Cait Sith's slots that have a number of randomized effects from healing the party to casting a random summon at no cost.  These definitely add to the action-oriented feel of the game, but also detract from its gameplay; as limits tend to be extremely powerful, it's a viable strategy to simply wait for tougher enemies to damage the party enough, then quickly end the fight with a barrage of Limit Breaks.

In short, Final Fantasy VII's design definitely doesn't showcase the series at its best; it feels unbalanced in many respects, seemingly just wanting to get the "obligatory" RPG dungeons and boss battles out of the way as quickly as possible in order to push its story and action scenes.  We've already established that they excelled with the latter, but the underlying storyline of Final Fantasy VII doesn't succeed on quite the same level.  Like Final Fantasy VI before it, VII's story feels like an amalgamation of half-baked ideas, taking the player on a whirlwind tour of comedy, horror, action and psychological themed elements, which only further gets compounded by the game's disparate science-fiction fantasy setting.  Unlike VI, though, they actually take the time to build upon some of these ideas and shape them into something fresh, interesting and compelling.  The game's strongest components in my eyes were its aspects of psychological horror and its unreliable narrator.  In addition to plenty of unsettling imagery, bizarre monster designs (both mythological and products of mad science) and surreal scenes, both the game's main protagonist and antagonist draw much of their motives from their troubled pasts, with the former in particular being tormented by his memories that seem to directly contradict actual, confirmable events.  Without saying too much, this builds up to a pretty interesting twist toward the end of the game that ultimately makes Cloud one of the best-defined, as well as most intriguingly flawed, protagonists in the entirety of the franchise.  And to me at least, it single-handedly makes the game worth playing at least once.

The psychological aspects of the characters and story are undoubtedly the game's strongest element, with the visual aesthetics and cyberpunk-fantasy setting providing a unique and distinct feel for the era.  But as any RPG/anime/manga fan can tell you, the game's design and themes also proved to be a double-edged sword on the whole; in the years following Final Fantasy VII's  success, it seemed that nearly every franchise out there attempted to copy elements of VII's design.  This resulted in a lot - and let me emphasize, a lot -  of angsty protagonists with crazy hairstyles and shady pasts fighting against evil corporations and Biblical-themed antagonists, usually wielding gigantic, impractical weapons as they did so.  From King of Fighters to Inuyasha to Trigun to Fullmetal Alchemist to several other copycats within the RPG genre (Shadow Madness, Shadow Hearts, Grandia II and Star Ocean 3 just to name a few), it seems like everyone wanted a piece of the Final Fantasy VII pie.  This has largely died off in recent days, but the media of the late 90s and much of the 2000s were thoroughly saturated with these elements, which only served to diminish Final Fantasy VII's uniqueness and severely dampen its lasting appeal.  Final Fantasy VII, perhaps moreso than any other RPG, stands as proof that fame and distinction come hand-in-hand with the risk of your ideas being copied time and again to the point of becoming insufferable cliches.

For these reasons, as well as its divisive change-up in style and gameplay, Final Fantasy VII was a standout game in its time that doesn't hold up nearly as well today.  However, I do think it's worth playing through at least once, if only to experience a historical landmark in gaming and to appreciate the elements it does well.  Just try to view it from the perspective of its era, when many of its ideas were still fresh and hadn't yet been run into the ground by a slew of copycats or diminished by increasingly mediocre sequels that continued to up the ante for visuals while giving almost no thought to their scripts or gameplay.

Developer: Squaresoft
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Platform: Playstation, Playstation 3/Portable/Vita (Downloadable), Playstation 4, PC, iOS, Android
Released: 1998, 2015, 2016
Recommended version: All versions of the game are more or less the same, but the recent Switch and PS4 releases add in a few "cheat" functions that allow the player to triple the game's animation speeds, skip random encounters or activate a God Mode that instantly restores their health and fills the Limit bar.  This allows those only interested in the story to make their way through the game, and those interested in the gameplay to speed up the more tedious grinding aspects and lengthy spell animations.  So for both the more casual and die-hard gamer, those are the ones I recommend.

Tags: JRPG, Science Fantasy, Customizable Characters, Disturbing Themes, ATB-Like, Random Encounters, Combat Minigames, Optional Minigames, Long Animations, Unskippable Cutscenes, No Saving in Dungeons, Mid-Length Campaign, Cinematic Experience, Great Music, Missables

Review by spoonshiro © 2016