Final Fantasy VII is one of the most iconic video games of all time, and as with virtually all popular games of legend, I've never played it. Well, I've tried numerous times -- twice on the original PlayStation, and once or twice more on the PSP -- but never made it past the first disc. I always inevitably got bored with it, or had to put the game down for weeks at a time, and upon returning had no idea what I supposed to be doing. I don't have much fondness for Japanese RPGs, but I've always meant to finish FF7 just to see what the hype was all about.
So I've been playing FF7 on-and-off for the past few weeks (basically during downtime at work), and for the first time ever, I've actually made it past the first disc. For the first time ever, I've actually seen that fabled cutscene where Aeris dies. Since this is such a long game and I'm taking even longer to play it, I figured this was a good point to stop and document some of my initial thoughts and impressions on the game. I may or may not do a final review of the game, if I don't have anything substantial to add to this article, but I wanted to get my thoughts in writing before I forget everything. So here are my initial impressions of Final Phantasy Star VII.
As a fairly typical JRPG, the thing that bothers me most about FF7 is the random encounters. I do not like random encounters. I find them dumb and irritating. You spend 10 seconds trying to walk across a room and then get stuck in a battle screen for 60 seconds, then after another 5-20 seconds of walking, you get stuck in another 60-second long battle. There are frequent times in "dungeons" when you spend more time in the arbitrary battle screen than you do in the actual game space, and it gets to be really irritating when you're just trying to explore for hidden passages, or when you're lost and can't figure out where to go. Random encounters disrupt the flow of gameplay for me and don't always make contextual sense.
All About Random Battles
I like the materia because it allows for classless character customization -- you can pick whatever characters to be in your party and give them whatever skills you want. And with materia leveling up individually, and with me constantly finding new materia, my configuration continues to change throughout the game. It's satisfying balancing equipment based on stats, materia growth rate, and materia slots, and finding the perfect combination of things. On the other hand, it's incredibly annoying whenever a cutscene forcibly removes someone from your party and takes all their materia with them. Sometimes the game is gracious enough to remove all the materia, but it doesn't always do this, and it makes me nervous as hell every time I have to sit through a 10-minute cutscene just to find out if I still have my materia.
It's pleasantly surprising how much variety there is in the gameplay. The last JRPG I played was Dragon Quest VIII, a game in a series known for being the most "typical," and fundamental of JRPGs. That game was pretty straightforward. Final Fantasy VII, on the other hand, mixes a bunch of different gameplay elements together and even features numerous mini-games along the way. Riding the motorcycle down from the Shinra building, snowboarding down a mountain, chocobo racing, the battles at Fort Condor -- these are some of the more prominent mini-games, but the game manages to make interesting gameplay out of ordinary tasks like climbing a mountain or navigating through a snowy blizzard. These moments keep you engaged in what you're doing and make the gameplay feel more satisfying.
It's also nice how many small decisions are present in the story and gameplay. Dragon Quest VIII was entirely straightforward in this department, so I'm liking how often FF7 lets me make decisions that have some kind of small impact on the gameplay and story. Sometimes this happens in the form of dialogue options, leading to different responses from characters or letting a quest branch off in different directions (e.g., when infiltrating the Shinra building). Party composition matters, materia selection matters, exploration matters. There's a lot of optional content as well, and it matters how or when you choose to do it -- there seems to be a ton of stuff in this game, and I sometimes feel like I'm only scratching the surface by playing without a guide.
Final Fantasy Tribute: Robo Voice
I think part of the reason FF7 was such a big thing back in the late 90s was because of some then-unexpected twists on JRPG conventions. I'm speaking, of course, about Aeris. I don't think anyone ever expected her to die -- she was a party member whom you controlled in battle, you spent all that time leveling her up and customizing her equipment/materia, and she was an obvious romance option -- that sort of thing just doesn't happen to those kinds of characters. I know it must have been a powerful, emotional moment for everyone who discovered it, because even though that moment had been spoiled for me long before I ever got to it, I was still touched by it. Having to fight Jenova immediately after, while Aeris' theme song played over top, was especially stirring.
Something that had somehow never been spoiled for me, which I actually found more interesting (perhaps just because it hadn't been spoiled) was Cloud's backstory. It was really clever how the designers made you believe one thing about Cloud and then slowly deconstructed that belief over the course of the game. Sometimes when protagonists have a troubled or mysterious past, the revelation and explanation comes off feeling trite or cliche, but the execution of Cloud's backstory added some tension to the plot and depth to the character. I really liked those moments where you literally lost control of Cloud , where you still maintained control of him but were powerless to stop him from doing something bad. That's something else unexpected for the time which lends the game a lot more personality and distinction.
One thing I find particularly nostalgic about FF7 is the graphics. The late 90s were sort of a golden age for graphics; the technology was good enough to render 3D characters and environments that looked somewhat realistic without being butt-ugly, yet still primitive enough for you to have to fill in the details with your imagination. The 2D, pre-rendered backgrounds will look good for all time, and the sparsely-used, pre-rendered cutscenes looked absolutely fantastic for the time. Of course, in FF7, it's sometimes a bitch to navigate a 3D space rendered in 2D with an eight-directional pad -- I was completely stumped at the start of disc two because I had no idea how to interpret where to go, because the perspective was so weird.
Tifa's Goods -- The best aspect of FF7.
The one semi-major complaint I have with the game is the fact that so much of the plot boils down to "follow Sephiroth" by linearly going to next available town / location. For being such a linear plot in a structured world, there's not always a lot of incentive to push forward, nor are there always compelling justifications for your actions. It often feels like you're just going to the next place because it's the only place you haven't been to, and because you need to do something to advance the plot, not for any specific contextual reason. In that regard, parts of the game sometimes feel like content padding , and I wish the game had a stronger narrative thrust to it, at least in disc one.
In general, I'm enjoying Final Fantasy VII more than I thought I would. Bear in mind this is coming from someone who doesn't like JRPGs very much and has always considered the Final Fantasy series to be overrated. I can definitely see why this game was so popular back in the day. If I get through this one, I might even feel compelled to try IX, or X, or XII, or VI/III, just for some more context within the series.