Review by veggiekid
"Gaming's Crowning Achievement"
In September of 1997 (ah, the 90s), a game was released onto North American shores that was so groundbreaking, so revolutionary that it forever changed the world of video games. It was the first game since (dare I say!) Super Mario Bros. was released almost exactly twelve years previously to truly establish a new standard by which video games should be judged, and in the ten years that have passed since its original release, that standard still sets the bar for video game excellence. Of course, that game is Final Fantasy VII, the greatest video game ever created. Throughout this review I will be making the case for why FF7 is the greatest achievement in video game history, and with each point I will attempt to respond to the critics' detractions. And, due to the massive popularity and hype surrounding this game, the countless accolades it has received, and the simple fact that measuring the greatness of a game is almost entirely subjective, there are quite a few people out there who harshly criticize it. In fact, I can't think of any other title in the video game world that is the subject of such intense debate (and I would submit that that says something about it.) Anyway, no more preamble. On with the show.
With a game so massive in scope, its hard to decide where to begin, but, as I must begin somewhere, I'll start with the game's visuals. There are some who contend that graphics don't matter, especially within the realm of RPGs, and that they are the last factor by which a game should be evaluated, in some transparent effort to seem less superficial. This claim simply isn't true. Video games are a form of multimedia, and encompassed within that is visual media. To argue the graphics of a game are not important is tantamount to saying, Oh, it doesn't matter that the cinematography in that movie was grainy, choppy, and out of focus, and that sometimes half of the actor's face was cut off; it had a really great story and cool music, so it's still awesome! Obviously, this is absurd. Now, I understand that video games are different than movies in that they possess the unique variable of being interactive, and so playability is essential, but graphics are still crucial. Anyway, to get to the point, FF7 delivers big-time in the graphics department. Some disagree, but they are either being disingenuine, or are not old enough to appreciate the game's revolutionary visuals. In 97, those graphics were breathtaking. And it's not simply how good the graphics are in a vacuum; the presentation and how they serve to facilitate gameplay are top-notch, and, for the time, unprecedented. There is a reason some of the images from the game, such as Sephiroth walking away into the flames, or the epic opening panoramic of Midgar, are so legendary. This was the first time that a game came close to approximating a cinematic experience. For those who will cite Resident Evil as being a year older and claim that it has better graphics, let me say this: the main argument is that RE's character models are superior to FF7's, but really, they aren't. They are closer to being in proportion to real life, but this is a matter of style, not of quality. While, yes, being generally shaped more like actual human beings, they are still quite rough and blurry. Also, the visual presentation of the game is not nearly as impressive or dynamic as that of FF7. Don't get me wrong - I love RE. But, while its graphics are impressive for the day, they don't come to par with FF7's. FF7 does not need photo-realistic character models who are proportional to their environments in order to facilitate its gameplay. Thanks to these graphical innovations, the focus of FF7 (and, consequently, most RPGs afterwards) was able to shift from tedious level building while following some inane story, to exploration. The vast new 3D world just begged to be explored. I've heard some complain that a weakness of FF7 is that there are so many things in regards to story or finding materia or whatever that nobody gives you any direction to find, and so you miss out on a lot unless you either stumble on it by luck or someone else tells you about it. Square took a gamble here, and it paid off extremely well. Until this point, RPG worlds were a pain in the ass to explore, simply because maneuvering one's character was often a painstaking process. Also, the worlds looked like crap, and there wasn't anything about them that really made you want to explore, and so the game was based around telling you exactly where to go to advance the story, with the purpose being to level-up your characters. This changed with FF7. For the first time, gamers had a vast, 3D world to explore, and it was no longer a tedious exercise in frustration to do so. Square hoped that players would take the initiative and take full advantage of the 3D world, rotating camera angles on the world map, and ease of character maneuvering to go out on their own and explore every nook and cranny that the world had to offer, and along the way left them little treats and goodies that either help in battle or give more background and insights into the story. And, for the most part, players did. If you don't find these hidden goodies in FF7, its out of laziness, not some deficiency from the game.
The next point I'll address is the sound/music of the game. There isn't really much to talk about; most agree that it has a beautiful musical score, though I did read one critic (either on this site or another one) who complained that there were only, like, 8 songs that just repeated over and over throughout the game. That is interesting, because the soundtrack is four discs with something like 17-20 songs per disc, all of which are found in the game. Maybe it was just an unfortunate typo, and the guy simply dropped a 0 after that 8. Anyway, the songs are good, and the sound effects are generally well done.
Now we come to issues of control/playability. FF7 is an RPG, so game controls are pretty straightforward, and that's the beauty of it. For perhaps the first time in RPG history (its been a very long time since I've played Chrono Trigger, and I can't remember if it had this feature, so I apologize if this is inaccurate), you could move your characters in more than just the four basic directions. And, again thanks to the revolutionary new graphics allowing for more intricately shaped environments, you have pretty much free range of motion for your characters, making things much smoother, much more user-friendly, and (most importantly), much more accessible to a wider audience than any RPG ever before. The commands are easy to execute and the menus are well organized and easy to navigate. I've only heard two complaints about the game's playability/controls, and they both made me laugh because they were both cited as major problems. The first is that, since the confirm' and cancel' commands are assigned to different buttons than one is generally used to (O and X, respectively, rather than the standard X and O), the game is too difficult to play. I'm sorry, I don't mean to insult anyone, but it takes, I don't know, like 30 seconds to adjust to this unique little curveball the game throws at you if you have merely a modicum of intelligence. Or, hey, maybe you could try something novel and read the game manual first, and know it from the get-go. The second critique that someone ranted on forever was that, occasionally, it's difficult to find your character icon on the screen, because of certain camera angles. Here's an easy remedy to that. Push the select button. One little push and a cursor appears above your character's location (yes, even if you have Cloud hidden behind something), as well as arrows indicating the locations of all exits from a particular screen. If you can't figure it out after that, then that's your problem, not the game's. Also, FF7 does an excellent job of breaking up the monotony of playing an RPG. Yes, of course there are the snowboarding and the motorcycle game and the submarine chase, and basically everything else that becomes a mini-game at the Gold Saucer. But its also the little things. Dressing Cloud up in drag. Using your espionage skills to sneak pass the guards in the Shinra HQ. The parade and send-off for Rufus at Junon. Excavating at Bone Village. The list goes on and on. They are miniscule, seemingly insignificant aspects of the game, but they provide relief from the stress of RPG gameplay and actually end up being some of the most memorable parts of the game.
The second aspect of gameplay in an RPG is the battle system, and this is the genius of FF7. FF7 is all about accessibility. That's why it was so hugely successful. You can play this game and get through it without knowing anything more complex than having a magic materia linked with an all materia, and using Limit Breaks whenever you get them. But it offers more for those who want it. The materia system is actually incredibly deep and allows for a great deal of customization that allows any character, with a little work, to become powerful in any aspect you want. Some think this is a bad thing. We simply have a difference in philosophy. Personally, I get sick of the old cliche of having a knight who is powerful physically but sucks with magic, and a mage who can blast someone into oblivion with a spell but would get manhandled by my great-grandmother in a fistfight. I once read that the materia system was a bad idea because it essentially turned characters into materia slots for the purposes of combat. I'm sorry, but I thought the point of characters is to drive the story, not facilitate the combat system. Also, the decreased number of random battles and somewhat quicker pace of the battle system as compared to previous RPGs greatly enhances the flow and pacing of the game, since you're not constantly getting bogged down in interminable random encounters every five steps.
And so now we come to the story. Perhaps to your surprise, I will not assert that FF7 has a remarkably original story. No. It embraces several well-established motifs in the RPG world. The evil empire/government that wants world domination. The crazy bad guy who wants to destroy said world. The love triangle. Et cetera. But guess what? It doesn't matter, because NO story is totally originally or free of any sort of common motif or theme. I challenge anybody to bring forth any story, be it video game, movie, novel, or any other medium, that is totally unique and void of any influence or features that are found elsewhere. And even if you could, I would argue that that story probably sucks. There are reasons some of these things become motifs. They are part of the human experience, the human condition. We can all relate to the struggle against some form of evil. We are all familiar with real life governments engaging in warfare for the sake of expanding their power base. We have all either been in love or thought we were in love at some point in our lives. What is important in a story, and where FF7 excels, is not letting these motifs and themes become too cliche. I won't summarize the story, since, by now, you probably all know it, or at least get the gist even if you haven't played the game. However, I will say that it is a fresh approach to some common features, and, even more impressive, it deals with issues that are relevant in our contemporary world: over industrialization, environmental stewardship, corporate responsibility. It is not set in some dungeons and dragons fantasy world, nor is it set in a Star Wars-esque sci-fi world rife with unbelievable technology and deep space exploration and that sort of thing. It is simply modern. Yes, it an imagined world with imagined features (Lifestream, Mako, chocobos), but for the most part it's a world that very well could be our own. And the characters are also well thought up and brilliantly crafted. Cloud is not ideal - he is real, and though he has flaws, you pull for him to overcome his struggles. Some people complain that character development is focused too much around Cloud, Tifa, and Sephiroth, and that Aeris is only used as a tool to advance the story, and that not enough attention is paid to other characters. While this is not entirely accurate, as Barret and Aeris actually get a considerable amount of development, I don't see this observation as a flaw. That's how a story works, people. There are main characters, that get the brunt of the focus and attention in terms of development, and then there is the supporting cast and other ancillary characters who receive varying degrees of development, but each play an important role at some point in the story. If the game went into as much character development for Yuffie, Red XIII, Cid, Cait Sith, and Vincent as they do for the main players, the story would become so bogged down and unfocused that it would lose its impact. And if development of Cloud, Tifa, Aeris and Barret was sacrificed so that others could get more attention, the story would be too thin. Square found the perfect balance with FF7. And Sephiroth is an amazing villain, because he's not just bad for the sake of being bad. He legitimately believes that he has a right, an obligation, to do what he does in the story. That's why everyone likes him so much as a villain, but hates him as a character. Because he makes you care.
This brings my long-winded review of FF7 to a close. Ultimately, FF7 changed the direction of RPGs forever, as some companies even went out and made blatant rip-offs of the game (Shadow Madness and Legend of Dragoon, anyone?), or at least tried to capitalize on the new market opened up by FF7's unprecedented success. It also raised expectations of how games should be made in terms of presentation and scale. I won't be so extreme as to say that FF7 will always be the greatest game ever - it won't. Eventually a new title will come that sends video games to a new level, though I submit that as technology gets more advanced, this will be harder to do, since it is nearly impossible to duplicate the jump that was made from 16-bit to 32/64-bit gaming. Sure, processors become more powerful and graphics become photo-realistic, but in terms of what can be done with a game, there is not as huge of a difference between the PS2 and PSX or even the PS3 and PSX as there was between the PSX and SNES. Until that day comes, FF7 rightfully deserves the title of the greatest game ever made, and it will continue to live on in the hearts and minds of fans forever.
Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 05/21/07
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