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Final Fantasy VII

Year released: 1997
Company: Squaresoft
Genre: Role-Playing

WARNING: As you will notice, the review below is encased in a black table. The reasoning for this is that I will be making several allusions to the game's plot, portions of which people who haven't played the game yet may not want to know ahead of time. When the time comes that I am mentioning some of this delicate information, the text will also be black so as to stay hidden from those who wish to remain, as it were, in the dark. If you've played the game before and thus already know the storyline, you can reveal this text by highlighting it with your mouse.

In other words: Spoilers abound below. Don't highlight the text if you don't want to forfeit the surprise.

I want to make two things abundantly clear as I start my review here: One, this game did much better than I had anticipated. I had feared that this was the Final Fantasy game that finally shrugged off the fantasy. Thankfully, such is not the case. Two, this game did not - I repeat, did not - knock FF3/6 off of its perch as the greatest video game ever. In fact, it fell quite a bit short of that achievement. But falling short of near perfection still means you've got a damn good game in your hands.

So why didn't FF7 pull off the unthinkable and score a 98% or even a perfect score? Well, remember those Encyclopedia Britannica commercials in the late '80s about the guy doing reports for his science classes? In one such commercial, he claims that in one report he'd used so much information from his newfound resource that the teacher actually marked him down for "overkill". That, my dear readers, is the operative word in this review. Overkill. When this game works, it works marvelously, but when it doesn't, it's because the game overexerts itself.

Obviously, the most important element of any RPG is its plotline, and that's where the problems start. The initial conflict is between the designated evil conglomerate ShinRa, whose reactors are sucking up the very life force of the planet; and the Avalanche terrorist group, whose goals are to disassemble ShinRa and return the world back to a time when reactors didn't suck up the very life force of the planet. In the middle of all this is our hero Cloud Strife, a former first-class member of ShinRa's head military force (or so we're initally told) who's now on the other side of the battle. The plot takes dozens of twists and turns from there, with the main villain Sephiroth stepping into the action later on.

The storyline itself is by and large the game's most magnetic quality; you should never play this game before doing anything special, otherwise your mind will be preoccupied with the current dilemma you're at. Still, there are two gaping holes in the story which are never explained. One, why there's the 5-year delay between Sephiroth going berserk and him beginning his quest for world destruction, and two, if Cloud wasn't a first-class Soldier when they returned to Nibelheim, and Tifa never recognized him during the return, why didn't she correct Cloud's telling of the backstory?

I'll come back to the plot later on as it pertains to the gameplay itself, but let's move on to the presentational elements of the game. First of all, grading Visuals is going to be a challenge, since we're talking Playstation here, but I think I can say without too much doubt that FF7 deserves a 5 in this category. The FMV scenes are well put-together and the scenery is splendid, but the world map is very flaky. There are times when you're aboard the airship that the game won't draw the next strip of land until you're practically flying over it. I find that rather sloppy.

When you're talking about the music to this or any other Final Fantasy game, you really only need to mention one name: Nobuo Uematsu. He nails the soundtrack yet again in this installment of the series. You can tell that he's starting to distance himself from the FF standards (the eighth-note battle intro, the victory fanfare, etc.), and once again he melds the themes to the characters into incidental music extremely well. I have a small gripe about the variety of tunes - they tend to default to about a dozen or so different themes in many occasions - but it's not enough for me to even consider dropping a point off of this score.

Play Control, unfortunately, has some major issues. For one thing, it can be kind of a trial to move your character around the overhead areas. Thankfully, the Select button toggles a finger-point to mark your location and red arrows to denote entrances and exits, but the fact remains that sometimes pressing right will move your character north-east, while in other places he'll move south-east. Picking targets during battle is also somewhat of a hassle, since the varying camera angles sometimes hinder your ability to see what you're pointing at.

Let's move back into the plot arena for a moment as we talk about challenge. Much of the story revolves around a mystical substance known as Materia. This Materia comes in all sorts of varieties, allowing your party members to cast certain spells, use certain commands, summon monsters, or other bonuses. Obviously, this is a bit of a modification of FF6's Esper concept. Does it work? In some ways it does; there's much more of a selection of Materia than there was in Espers, and it allows players to have skill in many fields while not making them totally omnipotent. However, it adds yet another thing that players will have to keep tabs on.

That, in effect, is my biggest complaint with this game: in FF6, the difference between being strong enough to beat it and being strong enough to breeze through it was relatively small; you just got everyone to learn Ultima and Life 3, picked up a few Economizers, and you were good to go. In FF7, though, there's a huge investment of time required in order to have an easy go at it. It's not just about raising levels anymore. It's about finding Materia, then mastering it all; raising, racing, and mating chocobos; Earning a reputation at the Battle Arena; and finding and defeating the three Weapons around the World Map. Granted, when you do all this (particulary when you find a specific Summon Materia), you've got the game by and large won, but it'll take you at least 15 or so hours of game time to do even half of this.

Unfortunately, this causes the gameplay to be fairly bloated. It doesn't help that the game takes a while to get going. I thought for a while that the entire game took place in Midgar, since I had been playing for close to 10 hours and nobody ever mentioned anything outside of town. However, when the game gets going, it really gets going. The second half of the first disc and the entire second disc will whoosh by, and you'll have a lot of trouble turning off the deck in this part of the game. But when you get to the third disc, it's back to a grind again.

The plot's interaction with the gameplay also leads to a little bit of frustration. Anyone who's played a Final Fantasy game is probably aware of the Save Points littered around the world. Well, in my case, those things lead to a bit of a problem. You see, there's a save point that appears right before Aeris gets killed, and immediately after that plot point there's a boss battle. If you're unprepared, you'll get a game over, and guess what - you're back to that save point, left to watch that jarring scene again.

I would also like to talk about the ending for a moment. (For the benefit of the oblivious, the rest of the paragraph will be protected.) From everyone I'd talked to, this was the make-or-break part of the game: you either hated it or loved it. Well, I don't hate the ending per se, but I was left fairly disappointed. When I beat FF6, watching Terra recover from her fall and hearing Setzer's theme blare out its heroic melody gave me tingles and a reflexive fist-pump when the cymbals crash. I really felt nothing of the sort in the ending to FF7. And watching a plain credit roll with nothing in the background left me thinking that something was glaringly absent. Oh - and what's with the giggles??

Finally, we have to decide on a Longevity grade for this game, and I think that replaying FF7 would be much akin to rereading War and Peace. As epic a game this is, and as involving the quest is, playing it involves a massive amount of time and effort. I probably will begin a second campaign with this game eventually, but I'll need a long refractory period beforehand, especially since the endgame was not nearly as engaging as the beginning. By the time I had logged 54 hours on this thing, I just wanted it to be over.

With all the bashing that this game is taking, you probably think I'm about to hand this game a 64% or something. Actually, I thought that Final Fantasy VII was a fantastic game. The thing is, the bar has been set incredibly high, and I needed a flawless performance for this title to surpass it. It wasn't flawless, but what counts as major gripes here are fairly forgivable things in other series.

And so, Final Fantasy VII comes out of this review looking relatively clean. It isn't the best game ever made; it's not even the best in the series (since the two are one in the same); but it does a heck of a lot better than I expected.

(Looks back on the review... Hmm... only four comparisons to FF6. Guess I could've done worse.)

Overall Ratings:

Play Control:
Technical Score: 16
Aesthetic Score: 20
Overall Score: 86%