Review by DDJ
"A Detailed Look at Final Fantasy VII's Staying Power"
First of all, this review is not spoiler-free. Final Fantasy VII has been out for 11 years and is still retaining a huge amount of popularity, and this review is an analysis of why it's been so enduring. If you somehow haven't played it, don't read this review.
A review on Final Fantasy VII? Why, that's so original! Why haven't 120 other people already posted reviews on Final Fantasy VII on GameFAQs?
But this particular review is different. Now, 11 years later, Final Fantasy VII has proven that it has withstood the tests of time. To date, it's still played by thousands of people all around the world every year, it has inspired countless spin-offs, and its characters are consistently rated as among the most popular characters of all-time, alongside the likes of Mario and Link, who had dozens of games to build their popularity.
I, personally, first played Final Fantasy VII 7 years ago. It was my first RPG, and to date, it is not my favorite - that title goes to Final Fantasy 9. Yet, on a seemingly yearly basis, I get the urge to play Final Fantasy VII again. Just now I completed my 7th play-through, following a run through the prequel, Crisis Core.
7 years since I first played, and this my 7th play-through of Final Fantasy 7. Sensing a pattern? But with all my previous experience, the answer to one question eluded me: why is Final Fantasy VII so popular, so lasting, so transcendent? Why do so many people still brush aside the Popeye-like character models and visit the world of Midgar and materia once more, 11 years after its creation?
Some people have proposed simple ideas for this. Final Fantasy VII was the first big-budget RPG in 3D. And because of that, Final Fantasy VII was many gamers' first RPG, and so it has a special place in their hearts. Simple, right?
That's not good enough for me. I don't believe for a second that Final Fantasy VII succeeded and lasted so long solely because it came along at the right time, on the right console, with then-cutting edge graphics. Sure, it revolutionized the RPG industry, but if it hadn't, some other game would. But in order to achieve the downright transcendent level of popularity that Final Fantasy VII has tapped, it simply had to be more than that.
So, with that in mind, I set out on my 7th run-through of Final Fantasy VII, keeping a special eye for things that I believe set Final Fantasy VII apart - aspects that games before it didn't do, and aspects that games after it haven't done since - a list of reasons why Final Fantasy VII is Final Fantasy VII.
And my results? I've found twelve things (I know, you were expecting seven) that I feel set Final Fantasy VII apart. Some are advancements that, as the first 3D RPG, it really didn't have to do to enhance its image. Some are plot elements that other games haven't quite been able to capture. Some are inclusions that are generally good for any RPG. And some are simply unquantifiable.
Some are obvious. Some are subtle. Some are major. Some are so small you'll wonder why I even bothered including them here. And some probably never occurred to you, but as soon as you read them you'll realize, "Huh, I guess that was pretty cool." But all, I feel, contributed to Final Fantasy VII becoming as popular as it is today.
Minigames and Sidequests
We'll start with an obvious one. It's something that's often forgotten when you think back on the game, but you'll complete a mini-game or mini-task every hour of the game. From tiny tasks, like the Mayor Domino's password, Rufus's send-off and the Junon parade, to major minigames, like the submarine game and now-famous snowboarding game, there's constant interruption from the typical flow of the game.
This is rather underappreciated, but it's critical to maintaining the quick-feeling flow of the game. The fundamental sequence of run around, battle, run around, battle that comprises the core of most RPGs becomes very mundane after a while. But Final Fantasy VII's incredibly frequent diversions comprise an effective way to break up the monotony.
A close corollary of that is Final Fantasy VII's abundance of sidequests and optional areas. Wutai, Ultimate Weapon, Fort Condor, the Sunken Gelnika and of course, Chocobo Races: these optional areas and tasks provide great diversions from the main quest.
But it's not enough to just have a bunch of sidequests - you must also have...
Sidequests are consistently available
This has always been one of my pet peeves of many games - Final Fantasy VIII especially comes to mind. In so many RPGs, sidequests really aren't feasible - or often even available - until the end. You've completed the entire rest of the plot, all that remains is entering the final dungeon for the final battle, and suddenly you have a whole host of alternatives available. At this point, completing the optional parts can become more of a chore - an ironic situation considering only a few hours earlier you were likely desperate for something to do besides just run through the plot.
Final Fantasy VII somehow captures what other games have missed out on. Wutai, Chocobo Races, Fort Condor: these are all available throughout substantial portions of the game. The player has the option of completing a sidequest when it best suits them (when they've grown a bit bored of the main plot, for example), and is never fully forced to turn away from the main plot to complete one just because it will soon cease to be available.
Part of the reason Final Fantasy VII was able to accomplish this is through the use of the airship, making it easy to travel among the different locations, which brings us to our next point...
Access to the airship for a large portion of the game
I don't mean to nitpick on Final Fantasy VIII since this is a fault of many RPGs, but it in particular comes to mind: in Final Fantasy VIII, when you get the airship, you have two options: do sidequests, or finish the game. No plot progression actually occurs while the airship is in your possession. It's little more than a tool to enable easier exploration of the world, not a tool for accomplishing any plot objectives. And this is the airship's role in many other games as well.
Final Fantasy VII, however, is different. The airship is in your possession for a good third of the game, and it serves as your transportation among several required portions of the plot (after receiving it, you still must go by Mideel, Corel, Fort Condor, Junon, Rocket Town, The City of the Ancients, and Midgar). This may seem somewhat minor, but I feel it adds some crucial entertainment to the game. The need to travel around the entire world (and the ability to fly over it) hammers home the idea that the conflict your characters are in is for the future of the planet, an effect that can never be fully grasped for earth-bound characters. It also cements your characters' status as a real team with a real objective, not a rag-tag collection of misfits that just happens to somehow save the world.
This constant possession of the airship also enables another severely underappreciated aspect of the game...
You actually revisit cities
This has long been a pet peeve of my in RPGs. You're traveling around, you get to a beautifully rendered and vibrant town, you finish the plot portion there... and then you never, ever return. But this is still the formula for most RPGs - you visit each location once and move on. Sometimes you come back for weapons or sidequests, but not for actual plot development.
Final Fantasy VII is the extreme opposite end of the spectrum. Not only do you revisit several places, you actually revisit most places: Midgar, Fort Condor, Junon, Corel, the Gold Saucer, Cosmo Canyon, Rocket Town, the City of the Ancients and Mideel are all visited at least twice within the core plot of the game.
These last two I believe are absolutely critical to what has kept Final Fantasy VII so endearing: it isn't a linear path through a linear plotline. The plotline may be linear, but the pathway taken among it encompasses the whole world multiple times. In the end, instead of recalling cities in the order of their initial visit, you actually recall them by their geographic location because this time, their location actually mattered. You didn't have to just find them once and forget about them. You didn't magically find yourself where the next point in the plot took place. You went about on your own, chasing the plot in what seemed like an independent, non-linear way, even as the plotline was essentially linear.
And this seeming non-linearity (despite the decidedly linear plot) is enhanced even further by another aspect...
The World Map changes
Another underappreciated aspect of the game, but as you progress, items on the world map actually alter their appearance. The Temple of the Ancients disappears into a hole in the ground; Mideel is wiped off the face of the planet; Junon's cannon finds itself transported to Midgar; the rocket in Rocket Town actually takes off; the Weapons leave enormous craters where they land, highlighted by Ultima Weapon's ridiculous destruction of the earth outside Junon; and a shield forms - then disappears - around the Northern Crater.
Why does this matter? To me, these changes really reinforce the idea that what your characters are doing in the game actually matters. This isn't a story that's carved into the framework of an existing world and lives humbly inside it: this is a story that impacts and affects the world, destroying buildings and reforming the ground itself. These are aspects that matter, and people actually react to them, unlike in so many other games where your group is on a quest to save the world, except somehow no one knows about it.
The ability to roam freely and easily, the requirement to revisit places you've already been before, and the constant changes in the World Map (often directly due to your actions), really tie together the Final Fantasy VII planet as a cohesive entity and not just a necessary element for a story to take place on.
An obvious inclusion, but it can't be underestimated. The soundtrack of Final Fantasy VII remains one of the most iconic video game soundtracks of all time (although admittedly, part of that is the popularity of the game as a whole enhancing the popularity of the soundtrack). One-Winged Angel's popularity is well-documented, but the music behind other parts - like the final Jenova battle and Diamond Weapon's attack on Midgar - are fantastic as well.
Perhaps the highlight of the soundtrack comes at the very end, in the closing FMV (or maybe this is simply my favorite part). Here we not only receive perfect music for the desperation as the crater collapses, but Aeris's theme and Tifa's theme are expertly inputted to symbolize the transition from Aeris saving the world to Tifa saving Cloud. It's that type of musical use that pervades the game and makes the soundtrack so memorable - the music doesn't simply set the scene, it connects various parts. Tifa's theme, Aeris's theme, and Jenova's theme all recur throughout the game, drawing connections for the player that they might not pick up on themselves.
Camera movement during battles
Nowadays, this is completely taken for granted: the camera moves around the battlefield to highlight certain characters, certain spells, certain actions. It's a cornerstone of the battle sequence - entire teams exist in game development whose sole objective is to design this camera effectively.
Final Fantasy VII, as the first major 3D RPG, developed this innovation - but they didn't have to. As the first 3D RPG, they could've simply had 3D models of the characters on one side of the screen and 3D models of the enemy on the other, similar to the way classic 2D RPGs display the battlefield. The presence of 3D models for the actions would've made up for the stationary camera, and likely no one would've commented on its absence - it simply would be an innovation left for the next game.
But Final Fantasy VII went above and beyond and developed this new display tactic. They didn't have to - they had enough innovations in the game to more than support it. But they went the extra mile and made the game not just adequate, not just great: they did absolutely everything they could do to make this game perfect. Another example of this is the ability for you to move your own characters during some FMVs, like the entrance to the crater. The incredible FMVs were enough, but they opted to include the functionality to move your character during the FMVs as well. They did absolutely everything that could've been asked of them.
Plot sequences are cohesive
A bit of an outlier compared to the rest of these notes, one thing that can't be said about the Final Fantasy VII plot is that it tends get a little plodding; I've heard dozens of criticisms of Final Fantasy VII (many valid), but never that the plot is too slow or too tedious.
There are many reasons for this, such as a generally interesting plotline, a persistent goal (never just traveling without reason) and frequent movement between locales, but this one is less obvious: the cohesiveness of individual plot sequences goes a long way in helping the plot stay interesting. While there is something to be said for a plot that blends seamlessly among separate locations and events, the trouble with a plot like that is that the game tends to all run together in the player's mind. There's never a sense of progress through the game as there aren't discrete moments of notable change in progression.
Final Fantasy VII, instead, separates different elements of the plot very discretely. There Junon sequence is discrete from the Costa Del Sol sequence; the Corel sequence is discrete from the Gold Saucer sequence. What this does is it gives the player a consistent feeling of progress. There's never a question of "I've played for two hours, and what have I gotten done?" The player feels they're consistently making headway through the plot, and thus the plot does not ever seem slow and plodding.
This has the added benefit of enhancing recall of the game. The human brain can only associate so much together before it begins to become jumbled; it's not able to accurately sort and place the elements of a plot without any 'gaps' in it, be they for travel or some other idle task. The discrete nature of Final Fantasy VII's plot sequences allow them each individually to be easily recalled. The first Junon sequence, for example, has a very clear beginning and end, enhancing the player's ability to recall what happens in between. The absence of these clear beginnings and clear ends makes sort events difficult, a problem for many more games with more 'smooth' plots.
An emotional, sensical, necessary, and initially confusing death
One of the defining moments in RPG history, this one's rather obvious - Aeris's death is likely the most memorable moment of Final Fantasy VII for most of its players. But Aeris was hardly the first fictional character to die, and wasn't even the first RPG character to die (although she's the first major playable character to die). What makes Aeris's death more memorable than any of the deaths that precede it?
It's the perfect combination of multiple plot elements - before, during and after - the sequence that makes it as poignant as it is. First of all, the death is obviously emotional, for a wide variety of reasons. For one, among the members of your party, Aeris is almost the schoolgirl, the child - she's young, innocent and borderline naive. She's the least deserving of death of any of your party members. Her position on the platform enhances this - she's kneeling and praying, completely defenseless. She is a completely innocent victim, with absolutely no level of justice in her death.
Her death is also sensical to the plotline - it's not contrived for shock value, it's not placed in because the developers believed it would enhance the game's popularity; it's actually a sensical piece of the plot. Sephiroth is seeking to summon Meteor and destroy the earth, and Aeris is the only one that can stop him: these are two key pieces to the plot, not add-ons to shine some realism on the death the writers wanted anyway.
But more than the death simply being sensical, it's downright necessary. This point is arguable (and has been argued over the entire course of the game's history), but my interpretation is that Aeris's death was actually necessary for the planet to be saved. Bugenhagen states, "If a soul seeking
Holy reaches the planet, it will appear." To me, that means that Aeris actually had to die and her soul return to the lifestream in order for Holy to be summoned. In effect, Sephiroth killing Aeris is exactly what resulted in Meteor being defeated. It was necessary for the plot, and it was the ultimate in poetic justice: Sephiroth played a part in his own downfall. This idea, to me, is simply beautiful.
But it's not enough to just be that beautiful and perfect - the effect of this poetic justice is enhanced tenfold by a simple idea: you don't initially know what impact her death has. At the time, her death appears to just be an indication of Sephiroth's cruelty, killing a defenseless girl. It's a murder, but nothing more. But as the game goes on, you learn the true impact, the true value that her death had. It's because of her death that the world is saved. It's because Sephiroth murdered her that she was able to reach the planet and summon Holy. But you didn't know that - you don't learn it until long after she's gone. That's sheerly beautiful.
...and the aftermath: the consistent possibility of another death
While Aeris's death is an obvious cornerstone of Final Fantasy VII's popularity, it has an effect that isn't fully appreciated. It used to be a common idea in the entertainment industry that two people never die: a main character, or the dog. It was part of the culture that you knew that the main characters wouldn't die, no matter how much danger they were in. Supporting characters could die, but it was an unspoken tenet that the characters that you could equip and level-up would stay with you.
Aeris changed that, and the shadow of it hangs over the rest of the game. When Tifa is in the gas chamber or when Cloud is lost in himself in Mideel, you can't depend any longer on that unspoken knowledge that they'll be ok. One character has already died, how are you to know another won't? This alteration in the fundamental game dynamic cuts through its initial nature as a dependable, standard game and instantly sets it apart as one in which anything is fair game.
An ambiguous ending
The ultimate gamble for any game, movie, book or show. The ambiguous ending is a very delicate balance: you have to give enough information for the viewer to ask questions, but not so much that someone can figure out the answers. Plus, you have to provide something unexpected: it's not enough to set the entire game up for one question (will Holy stop Meteor?) and then simply not answer it.
Final Fantasy VII hits that balance on the head. The ending sequence provides plenty of information: we know that Holy was effectively summoned, we know that Meteor broke through, and we know the Lifestream started coming out. What we don't know is what happens after that. Does the Lifestream stop Meteor's impact? Or was the Lifestream just gathering to heal the imminent wound?
And just for an additional twist, we do find out that the planet wasn't destroyed altogether: after the credits we see Red XIII with cubs galloping out 500 years later. Questions answered, right? Wrong - as Bugenhagen said, when Holy appears, "Everything will disappear. Perhaps, even, ourselves." While the planet might not be destroyed, it isn't mankind that we see living there - it's Red XIII, a lion. Did Holy wipe humanity off the face of the planet? There's no way of knowing until Advent Children came out.
That wonderfully unquantifiable, indescribable little aspect that we like to call 'charm'. Charm, to me, is the little things throughout the game that a modern game likely wouldn't do, or couldn't do. These are things that simply would've be entertaining viewed in our fully 3D vibrant world that we live in now.
The date sequence, especially the play, comes to mind. A modern game wouldn't be able to capture the simple entertainment from it. Done in full 3D, it would look silly; and with voice actors, it'd be downright awkward. The same can be said for the Honeybee Inn. For Final Fantasy VII, it's suggestive enough for older kids to understand, but innocent enough for younger kids to be blissfully ignorant of what the heck is going on. Could a new game get away with that? I certainly don't think so. Final Fantasy VII is, quite simply, a charming game - and that, to me, is the unquantifiable, subtle aspect that really helps Final Fantasy VII retain an audience with the current generation. Despite its age, it still has things you simply can't find in the modern era of games.
Final Fantasy VII is in and of itself a great game, though it's the discrete, subtle things that it does that has taken it to the transcendent level it has reached. It was in the right place at the right time to be the first 3D RPG, but that isn't the source of its persistent popularity. Final Fantasy VII was a rich combination of new technical features, excellent ideas, and simple inclusions that took the game to its own place in gamers' hearts. There have been many great games since, but none has been able to capture the magic, the perfection, or the charm of Final Fantasy VII.
Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 08/25/08
Game Release: Final Fantasy VII (US, 09/07/97)
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