Review by Kwing

"Good, but has Obvious Flaws"

INTRODUCTION
After all of the hype surrounding Final Fantasy VII, I figured I had to give it a go. Considering it was released around the same time as Final Fantasy Tactics, my all-time favorite game, I knew it had to be good enough to blot out the fame that Tactics deserved. To put it simply, they are two very different games, and while I recognize the potential of Final Fantasy VII, I also feel like it could be a lot better.

GAMEPLAY - BATTLE
The gameplay is traditional of the Final Fantasy series. You have a party of three in this release, each with health, mana, and a time gauge. The time gauge fills up in real-time depending on how fast you've set the battle speed, and whether or not you've had Slow or Haste cast on your character. When the gauge is full, the character gets a turn. At higher battle speeds, it becomes imperative to make your decisions quickly. Since I'd been getting sick of turn-based battles, I decided to ramp up the battle speed to the maximum, and lo and behold the tedium of turn-based battles subsided almost completely! Well, except for boringly long summons.

The new addition for FFVII is the limit gauge, which allows you to use an exceptionally powerful attack after you've taken enough damage to fill the gauge (the limit gauge is unaffected by healing, however). As you use these abilities, you'll slowly unlock more of them, with the stronger Limit abilities requiring you to take more damage before unleashing the attack.

On a turn, you can attack, use spells, items, etc. to support your party or attack the enemies. You can also attempt to flee if things get too hard. Battles are pretty simple and straightforward, and even for the harder battles I've faced, the outcome of a battle is largely determined by your setup before the battle begins.

GAMEPLAY - EQUIPMENT AND MATERIA
That's about all there is to worry about in battle, but since so much of a battle is determined by your setup, I shall go into that as well, explaining the three elements of an RPG (stats, equipment, and abilities). Your stats are managed in a standard manner (level up and your stats increase, as well through consumable items).

Equipment is divided into three parts: Weapons, which are exclusive to each playable character, armbands, which can be equipped by anyone, and accessories, which can be equipped by anyone also. Weapons and armbands have slots for materia, which are your abilities. While some armbands may have good stats, they may also lack enough slots to make a character useful (more on this later). Finally, accessories either boost a stat or provide some sort of immunity to status ailments (such as Poison). Some will also give you certain statuses, such as Berserk (which a character only able to attack but increases their damage).

Materia are little globes that grant you the ability to use magic in battle. Green materia will let you cast basic magic such as Fire or Cure, red materia will let you use powerful summons, yellow materia allows you to steal from enemies and use other special non-magic abilities, purple materia grants passive effects, and blue materia improves other materia.

It starts off simple, but it gets much more complex. Materia has to be equipped on the equipment of a character for them to use that ability, and once it's equipped, the materia itself will gain experience (called AP) and level up alongside your character! As it levels up, it will grant new abilities, such as Fire leveling up to allow you to cast both Fire and Fire2 (and eventually Fire3). Sometimes the ability growth is alinear, too, such as Restore leveling up to grant access to the spells Cure, Cure2, Regen, and Cure3.

Generally, these materia are equipped independently, but when you find a piece of equipment which allows two materia to be equipped in linked slots, you can use blue materia to buff your other materia. For instance, the blue materia All allows an ability to target all enemies or allies at once. So you could link Fire and All materia in order to deal fire damage to all enemies at once, or Restore and All to heal all party members. However, the All materia has its limits, and can only allow you to target multiple units as many times as its level permits. Level 1 All materia only allows one usage, while mastered All materia allows it many times. Other blue materia may fuse its linked materia to an attack, such as Elemental and Added Effect, which can make your physical attacks elemental or inflict status ailments.

The system itself is ingenious... However, its implementation is not. Sadly, there are only 16 kinds of blue materia (most of them incredibly hard to find), which limits the customizability of your characters. On top of that, the way each piece of blue materia affects the other materia is so predictable and specialized that it's obvious what should be linked to what.

Even if that weren't the case, the game is balanced rather poorly; I think I only lost five times during the whole game. This is because you gain experience at an insanely high rate. I ended up over-leveling because I wanted to grind Gil for some high-quality items, and to find a hidden character who appears as a random encounter. It's way too easy to end up too high of a level, and that makes the game too easy-so easy, in fact, that most of your clever materia setups will be wasted, since you can beat most battles by just spamming melee attacks. Not only that, but replenishing your MP can be tough to do early on in the game, and Ethers which restore it cost a lot of Gil, making you better off just using physical attacks.

The last section, designed to be especially hard, has only one Save Point and tons of enemies inflicting instant death, which for me was more annoying than it was challenging (I only had one accessory to prevent instant death). And as for the boss... Let's just say making you flip-flop from a physical build to a magical build isn't "clever". It's just a good way to give someone one Game Over before they realize what went wrong.

GAMEPLAY - MISC
Battling aside, the game environment is so big and awesome you can't help but have your breath taken away by it. The first section of the game takes place in one city which already feels enormous, until you leave and discover how gigantic the planet is... And later on you gain a submarine and can explore it all over again underwater! The exploration value is pretty cool, although you'll notice that there aren't a whole lot of dungeons to explore and get lost in once you go inside. The sheer size of the map can also make it somewhat difficult to figure out where you're supposed to go, but sadly, once you learn your way around, you'll realize there isn't quite as much to do as you might have thought at first.

Last but not least, this game has tons of minigames in it to spice up the gameplay. There's a real-time strategy game based on military tactics, a motorcycle combat sequence, a shooter sequence at an amusement park, snowboarding, and tons of other stuff. Only a few of these feel tacked on, and in general they help break up the gameplay. You can even go to the amusement park later in the game and replay minigames that were once story-related! Honestly, the minigames in here rule.

Even if it's not an entire game all on its own, there are also lots of missions where you have extra conditions to play with, such as a timer, or having to worry about body temperature in an arctic climate as you run around. These are very nice and harmonious, and really liven up the gameplay.

All in all, I would give the gameplay a solid 8.4/10, due to the fact that it's crafted very well, but did not expand enough or create an environment that encourages the player to play creatively or resourcefully.

STORY
You play as Cloud Strife, a cold and moody mercenary currently working for AVALANCHE, a terrorist organization trying to save the planet by destroying Mako reactors made by Shinra, which drain the planet's energy to convert it into electric power. As the game progresses, you see a lot of character development for all of the characters in your party, as well as interesting metaphysical factoids about the planet.

The storyline is fairly layered, long, and has a lot more than meets the eye. I also think it's cool how the dialogue is different depending on which characters are in your party, which gives you a lot of replay value if you want to see it all.

The plot isn't perfect, however. Much of the game's fighting involves battling against Shinra's personal army, SOLDIER. While the game is trying to make a statement about corporate greed and its ability to control governments, it fails to allow players to draw a relationship between Shinra and real-life situations. The blatancy of Shinra's power is unrealistic, and the only realistic part of their military are the Turks (highly organized units used for black ops and special ops).

In addition to how unrealistic the game's setting is, the main antagonist of the game, Sephiroth, is implemented rather poorly as well. Despite the fact that the game does a good job of showing how powerful he is, showing his background, and making him a very stylish individual, much of the time he seems like a mere plot device to drive Cloud and his party forward through the storyline. His motives are also somewhat transparent in light of the story's context.

Lastly, the ending, while having breathtaking graphics, is otherwise bland and how you would expect it. There are no real twists, just ramped up, predictable "suspense".

Don't get me wrong; the storyline is good. Excellent, even. But you'll have to suspend disbelief in order to enjoy it. I'll also note that while I like the plot, the dialogue itself could be written a bit better, though it's by no means bad. The reason the story is given so much praise is because it caters to its target audience (teen males) more than any other game of its time. I'm not saying that's a bad thing; in fact, I genuinely enjoyed the plotline... But it has caused the story to get a little more praise than it deserves.

Admittedly, I'm a harsh critic when it comes to storylines, so if you enjoyed as much as 10% of the movies released between 2000 and 2010, then you will be impressed by Final Fantasy VII's story.

GRAPHICS
The graphics in this game are pretty spotty. The backgrounds are flat, 2D environments, which 3D characters run around on. The only exception here is the world map, which is rendered in 3D as well. However, the world map's graphics are nothing more than simple shapes with images masked over their surface area. The 2D images, both for indoor backgrounds the world map, look pretty good and give a good sense of where you are. However, for the former, I found it somewhat difficult to read the images themselves. For instance, certain paths or ladders, when shown at the wrong angle, can hide themselves in plain sight pretty well. This is both confusing and frustrating.

So, are the graphics good? Well, sometimes yes and sometimes no. The characters look pretty awful; polygon body parts and inexpressive masks get old fast, look ugly, and make it hard to relate to the characters. However, the 3D-rendered cutscenes look absolutely amazing. The 3D modeling, particle effects, animation, and all around final product look out of this world for a game of its time, and are still extremely impressive. I can't help but be on the fence on how the graphics are when one minute I'm looking at incredibly realistic fireworks and the next I'm looking at someone with a basketball for a head. But compared to Final Fantasy VI, this is a huge jump, and if you want a pretty looking game from this era, I can't urge you more to look into this game.

SOUND
The music for Final Fantasy VII has been hyped up quite a lot. While there are a lot of memorable tunes to be heard while playing, there's also a lot left to be desired. The most well-known songs are easily the best on the soundtrack. Some less well-known ones are good, and others are just plain unremarkable, although I don't think anything in the soundtrack is really BAD. Still, the music is enjoyable, and there are a good half dozen or so that have really stuck with me, which is more than I can say for 80% of video games. One-Winged Angel, the world map theme, and Red XIII's Theme all sound fantastic.

REPLAYABILITY
This game took quite a while for me to beat... Maybe a good 50 hours or so? There are a couple ultra-hard bosses to defeat, too, as well as some ridiculously overpowered items. Getting the best equipment may not be too hard, but getting the best materia and a gold chocobo will take you quite a while. Sadly, the best materia defaults to a very concrete setup, which takes away some of the flair of developing your own style once you've completely mastered everything. If you want to see every different scene and big of dialogue, though, you could probably replay this game around half a dozen times, clocking several hundred hours into it.

FINAL RECOMMENDATION
For a measly $10 on the Playstation Network, I would say this game is a must buy. Not only should it be considered a mandatory play for anyone interested in video game history or culture, but it doesn't have any major weaknesses at any point (though I would argue it doesn't have any major strong points, either). For your money, you get a very, very long game, very pretty graphics, some fun toys to play around with (namely materia and the minigames), memorable music, and a fascinating story.

That being said, I don't think of Final Fantasy VII as being up to the hype it's been given. If you can get this game cheap, go ahead and do so. I think the highest I would pay for this game might be $30... But if you're looking into obtaining this game by more expensive means, I recommend you shift your attention elsewhere. In terms of depth, it isn't as deep as the Magic Circle system from Cladun (which is basically an expansion of the materia system). In terms of story, it's not as moving as Final Fantasy Tactics. In terms of music, it's not as beautifully epic as Half-Minute Hero. In terms of strategy, it's not as involved and seamless as SOCOM: Tactical Strike. BUT... It's still a great game in its own way, and I heavily suggest you pick up a digital copy.


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 12/05/11

Game Release: Final Fantasy VII (US, 06/02/09)


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