Final Fantasy VII is a captivating journey with a richly diverse cast of well developed characters, despite its outdated graphics and slightly awkward battle system. In my 40 hours with the game, I became heavily invested in most of the characters and their experiences, and that’s an impressive feature for a near 20-year-old game.
Final Fantasy VII revolves around military veteran, Cloud Strife, and the Eco-terrorist organisation, Avalanche, as they fight to save the Earth from the effects of human destruction. The narrative is a reflection of the game’s context, when the world began to value environmental sustainability and fear the effects of pollution. Midgar’s electronic powerhouse Shinra reflects the fossil fuel obsessed corporations of the 90s.
Even without this, the story is interesting. Each party member is well-developed by backstories and characterisation. They also feel aesthetically different from one another. Cid is an American redneck scientist with hopes of flying and creating the first rocket into space, Barret is one of the few survivors of a village destroyed by Shinra’s scientific advances and has a machine gun for an arm, and Cait Sith is a literal puppet of Shinra struggling to come to terms with his new-found morals working as a spy for the company.
Even the villains and anti-heroes of the game are well developed. Sephiroth’s journey of self-discovery leads him to discover that he is one of the last remaining Ancients like Aerith – a race of enlightened beings who are one with the planet and seek “the promised land” – yet unlike her, develops a sense of hubris believing he must cleanse the planet of the human race. This rich development transforms Sephiroth from just another role-playing game villain hent on world destruction to an environmentalist who believes he can act as divine judgement, punishing those who abandoned mother nature (characterised as Jenova).
The game’s battle system is a hybrid of turn-based strategy found in earlier Final Fantasy games and an active time battle system. Once a player decides a character’s next action, they must wait (the time is illustrated by a bar) until the character is ready to perform the given task. While it is awkward seeing third dimensional models patiently waiting for their enemies to attack them, the mechanic does maintain adrenaline and excitement in battles as the player eagerly waits to see their character complete their given action. This sense of adrenaline is only furthered by the beautifully crafted soundtrack.
The original soundtrack is crafted by one of the genre’s veterans, Nobuo Uematsu. Emotions in a scene are masterfully carried by the music, reinforcing the distopic existential world of Final Fantasy VII. The sense of gloom in the streets of Midgar and the towering industrialised reactors are powerfully brought to life by the eerie and mechanic sounds in Mako Reactor, while The Main Theme captures the constant signs of doomsday and destruction as a meteor slowly crashes into the planet. Each piece is intricately crafted as a masterpiece.
The character animations, while also clearly outdated, fit the overall tone of the game. The short and stubby character models outside of combat (known as ‘chibi’ in Japan) greaten a joke or flaw in a character. The occasional comic scene, such as Cloud and Aerith sneaking into the Don’s Mansion to free Tifa under the guise of human trafficked young girls, is playfully reinforced by their cartoon movements. Characters turn around in an awkward, silent comedy style, despite the game’s overall existential tone.
The character models are more realistically proportioned in combat however, showing third dimensional characters standing and jumping towards the enemy swinging (or firing a ranged attack from) the weapon equipped for that character – a nicely personal and rewarding touch, especially if you invest in the game’s ultimate weapon for each character.
The Materia system also offers another layer of customisation, mixing up the traditional role-playing class system. Players equip their party with coloured materia to grant a character with a new skill or stat increase. Green magic materia give a character the ability to cast a spell (fire, cure, etc), yellow command materia relate to thief based skills (steal, throw, etc), red summon materia allow a character to summon an eidolon, blue support materia are used to enhance magic and pink independent materia provide status bonuses and few defensive skills (cover & counterattack).
Players unlock higher levels of a spell or greater status boost by equipping the chosen materia in battle, levelling it up with the character’s actual lvl. Materia are a fun addition to the role-playing genre, breaking the traditional Final Fantasy jobs and adding a sense of diversity among the party. The player is no longer forced to use a certain character (don’t like Cait Sith? Don’t use him), and can craft their party the way they want.
In my 40 hours with Final Fantasy VII, I found difficulties stopping. Even now after completing the game, reading more on its rich lore and watching the sequel film, Advent Children, I still feel compelled to go back and start anew. Final Fantasy VII is a riveting adventure and an excellent role-playing game, despite its flaws and release preceding several console generations.