Review by darthjulian

"Believe the hype and experience the best Final Fantasy and one of the greatest games ever made"

In all honesty, "Final Fantasy VII" is an extremely tough game to review. First of all, nearly every single serious video game fan must have played this legendary milestone RPG by now, rendering a recommendation for this game quite useless and superfluous. And then, what could one possibly say about "Final Fantasy VII" that hasn`t been said countless times before? That this game alone single-handedly ended Nintendo`s then undisputed reign over the video game market and helped Sony to claim the no. 1 spot for an entire decade not only Japan, but worldwide? That this game finally helped to increase the popularity of Japanese RPGs outside their home market, paving the way for countless US translations of RPG gems we might not have been able to play otherwise? That this game was a graphical revolution for its time that finally made use of full motion videos in a proper, fun-enhancing way (looking at the offerings of the Sega CD and other failed CD based consoles of the early 90s, you`ll understand why "Final Fantasy VII" was lightyears ahead of these earlier attempts at FMVs)? Of course you all know these facts. Indeed, "Final Fantasy VII" normally wouldn`t even need an introduction at all, as it ranks comfortably among the true legends of video gaming history and will surely be remembered by generations of gamers to come. So, the only question that remains is whether or not the game lives up to the myth, and if it can still manage to entertain us in the year of its 10th anniversary.

Which brings us to the first aspect of the game, the story. Again, the majority of today`s video game fans should know this story by heart, so I`ll try to avoid too many plot details (also in order to avoid spoilers for possible newcomers). In the world of "Final Fantasy VII" - named "Gaia", as evidenced in the entries to the "Compilation of Final Fantasy VII" - the SHINRA company is maintaining its power and influence by misusing and abusing the natural resources of the planet, namely the so called Lifestream, which represents the planet`s energy (there`s more to that concept, of course, which will be explained in the game). By using so called Mako Reactors, SHINRA`s sucking this energy out of the planet in form of a substance called Mako (the condensed and liquid form the planet`s energy takes once it`s sucked out of the planet, as opposed to the ethereal form inside the planet), thus replacing fossil fuels like oil or coal. Being in control of the most important natural resource the planet has to offer, SHINRA has become some sort of the undisputed ruler of the civilized world, and naturally, the company tends to abuse its power, which is being opposed by an underground movement named "Avalanche", a group of rebels who have realized that the further exploitation of the lifestream would eventually lead to the planet`s decay, and therefore, they`re trying to put and end to SHINRA`s tyranny. The game then starts with you being in control of Cloud Strife, a former member of SOLDIER, SHINRA`s elite combat force who has sided with Avalanche and is on his first mission for the group: an attempt to destroy a Mako Reactor in the huge industrial city of Midgar, SHINRA`s capital, if you will.

To reveal more of the story to newcomers would contain too many spoilers, so I`ll leave it at that for now. Of course, you will eventually find out more and more about SHINRA`s doings and join forces with several new members of your party, and the way all this works out in the end is what makes the story in "Final Fantasy VII" one of the best ever told in any video game. First of, we have an endearing cast of characters who have become beloved icons as of today. Cloud Strife, the quiet, guilt-ridden warrior might as well be the most iconic character of the Final Fantasy series and some sort of its "mascot", and his transformation into a more confident human being throughout the game is a prime example of good storytelling and interaction with other characters. And let me tell you, for the most part, they are even better written and displayed than Cloud. Like Barret Wallace, the grumpy leader of Avalanche who becomes Cloud`s first ally (and who bears a striking ressemblance to Mr. T...). Or Tifa Lockhart, Cloud`s gorgeous childhood friend with a tragic past. Or of course Aerith Gainsbrough, a lovely and innocent flower girl living in the slums of Midgar, surrounded by a mysterious past and a significant role for the future. These are the very first characters you are going to meet on your journey, with your party being completed by Red XIII, a lion-like creature with an astounding intellect, Cid Highwind, a passionate pilot with a filthy mouth, Cait Sith, a highly advanced animatronic (?) that is being controlled by a mysterious person (who is going to be revealed eventually, of course), Yuffie Kisaragi, a bubbly and mischievous materia thief from the Asian-seeming city of Wutai and Vincent Valentine, an undead former member of the Turks, SHINRA`s secret service (with Yuffie and Vincent being optional characters, mind you). The way they interact with the main character and each other as well as the revelation of their feelings and their (often tragic) pasts still belong to the most effective examples of storytelling in any RPG, and it is no exaggeration when I say that some of the key scenes involving them were indeed moving - also thanks to the most iconic video game villain of all time: Sephiroth, a character who has probably even more fans than Cloud Strife. His background as well as his actions throughout the game - especially one infamous and legendary scene at the end of CD 1 - are among the greatest moments in video game history, hands down. So, there`s practically nothing wrong with the story in "Final Fantasy VII". The setting is unique and practically begs for further exploration in sequels and spin-offs (which is, ironically, what ultimately happened, with mixed results so far, though), the characters are memorable and likable (some of them really gew on me over the years, especially Aerith, Tifa and Vincent), the twists are surprising (and sometimes, they might even blow you away), the storytelling is on an insurmountable high level - thanks to the high production values - and the key events are breathtaking and touching to an extent that has never been experienced before in a video game...the death of a certain main character (95% of the video game fan base should know who...) certainly brought tears to my eyes when I first witnessed this beautifully visualized but unbelievably heartbreaking moment (thanks to the great musical score as well, but more on that later). I think it speaks for itself when a "mere" video game manages to trigger emotions like this feeling of unbearable sadness within a human being, emotions which are normally relegated to our normal life and in rare cases to literature and cinema (and for the record, I myself experienced a loss similar to the aforementioned death of a main character in real life, so the emotions "Final Fantasy VII" called forth within me are all the more remarkable from my point of view). However, to wrap up this aspect of the game, I cannot help but give a warning: the story in "Final Fantasy VII" is not perfect. Which is not even a fault of the game itself, as the only flaw I could find is merely confined to the awful German translation of the game. Beware, fellow German video game fans, for the German translation Sony created for this masterpiece is a disgusting desecration for the lack of a better term and among the most insulting translation projects for an original game I have ever seen (easily on the same level as the horrid German voice acting for "Metal Gear Solid", so that should give you a clue on how awful the German script really is...). Really, the German translation is so shoddy and unnatural that a majority of the sentences uttered by the characters either make no sense at all or sound completely off and plain weird. So, if possible, try to get the English language version of the game instead. Sure, it`s far from perfect as well, but if you are unable to read Japanese and thus play the original version, this is as close to the real deal as it gets (which makes yearn for a remake even more, just so we could finally get a proper translation). Apart from that region based faux pas, the story is perfect for what it is, and it will take a lot of creativity and talent to beat "Final Fantasy VII" as far as storytelling goes...only few video games have managed to come even close to this one in the first place.

As good as the story may be, the meatiest part in any video game still remains the gameplay, and as for "Final Fantasy VII", it feels a lot like an evolution of "Final Fantasy VI". It doesn`t break any new grounds for the series the way "Final Fantasy X" or "Final Fantasy XII" did, instead it remains faithful to the basics of the series while adding quite some new, intriguing features on its own. The battle system, for example - and without a doubt the most crucial part in any RPG - is largely the same as in its predecessors down to "Final Fantasy IV", retaining the same Active Time Battle System that has become a series trademark. This means that you can see the time it takes for your characters in order to act in form of the ATB gauge, and once the gauge for a character is "full", you may choose his or her next move (of course you can also use items or magic in order to quicken your characters and reduce the time the gauge needs to fill). However, as you select your next move, the battle screen itself does not freeze or pause, patiently waiting for your to come up with a proper command. Instead, enemies can attack you as well, which means that you have to be quick and plan your next moves well in advance. A new feature for the battle system is the Limit Break mode. Every time your characters get hit, their separate Limit Break gauge goes up a little (how much the gauge goes up depends on the amount of damage your character has taken). Once the gauge has reached the max, you may choose a Limit Break attack for your character to execute, ranging from helpful healing spells to devastating special attacks. You can set up the Limit Break attack for your characters in the menu, and as you gain experience points and level up, you might learn a new Limit Break technique, whereas some of them must be found later in the game by meeting certain conditions. The weapon and armor system is the same as in any other RPG, so let`s move on to a new feature, the magic system. In "Final Fantasy VII", magic exists in form of materia, small but powerful little spheres that can either be found in towns and dungeons, gained after a boss battle or bought in a shop. There are several types of materia such as attack materia (spells like fire or ice and its more powerful evolutions), healing materia or summon materia (including good old friends such as Bahamuth, Ifrit and Shiva). Each character can equip these materia according to the materia slots their equipment provides them with, and depending on the number of slots, you can equip the corresponding number of materia. You can also level your materia up, a procedure that is quite easy considering that your materia gain experience points after each battle as well, and they can reach up to level 5. Sadly, though, the game also took over one bad trait of its predecessor: the random encounters. It`s kinda annoying to see that they are still present here, but at least the random encounter rate is rather low and more than bearable. As you can see, the battles play a lot like in the game`s direct predecessor apart from the new tweaks, and the same goes for the usual exploration of the world map (which is huge, if I might add), visiting towns and making your way through dungeons (even though the dungeons seem to be quite small this time around), although these typical aspects are being made unique by the presentation of the game or their design. The really unique part about the gameplay is the insertion of countless mini-games to kill some time with, most of which can be found in the Golden Saucer, although some of them are mandatory in order to beat the game. The variety of these games really is impressive, including a motorcycle chase, a chocobo race and even a small real time strategy scenario. Some of these mini-games might be overly simplistic or even a little difficult to control, but they`re definitely a nice addition to the usual RPG gameplay, and you might want to come back and play these mini-games again after the first time. Last but not least, "Final Fantasy VII" is full of sidequests, secrets and bonus items, and trying to discover all of them would certainly take more than 60 hours on your first playthrough. So, all in all, the gameplay works perfectly in this installment of Final Fantasy, with each aspect serving the fun factor of the game. Fun battles, an interesting magic system, lots of stuff to do outside the main quest and a huge world to explore definitely speak in favor of "Final Fantasy VII", and the culmination of these elements makes the game such a sublime experience.

Ah, and now for the graphics. Well, what can I say? Just take a look at any other PSX game released before "Final Fantasy VII", and you`ll understand what kind of revolution this game has been at the time it hit stores in Japan. Never before have prerendered backgrounds, full 3D battles and Full Motion Videos been combined into such a beautiful mix that finally gave us a good example of what the first PlayStation was capable of. To begin with, the backgrounds in towns and dungeons feature prerendered backgrounds, which means that there are no camera angles for you to adjust, just the angle the scenery is being shown from as well as some camera movements at certain points throughout the game. While the backgrounds astound with their amount of detail, the character models walking around (or rather "on") them come off as rather primitive nowadays. They`re a bit too blocky and cartoonish, lacking the proper details to make them live up to the original character designs, created by none other than Tetsuya Nomura. The world map, on the other hand, is fully 3-dimensional, with a camera you can rotate just as you please, and it looks good enough to make long walks over the world map a pleasant trip - not to mention the fact that there are even PS2 games with worse looking world maps. The same goes for the battle screen, which is again completely 3D, featuring far more realistic looking characters and monsters than during the normal game sequences, and honestly, they`re quite smooth. The spell- and summon effects, however, are the real deal. They`re truly amazing and a treat to look at, being a nice showcase of what potent developers were able to do with the PSX hardware. And now for the unadulterated highlight of the graphics, which Sony wisely chose as a means of advertising the game with as much fanfare and eyecandy as possible. I`m talking about the Full Motion Video Sequences the game features, and for a title of 1997, they`re simply breathtaking in their sheer beauty, brought about by beautiful and (at least back then) highly detailed character models, fast camera movement and action packed scenes, as well as some more somber and even sad ones. Also impressive is the way some of the in-game sequences blend in with the FMVs during certain parts of the game, giving FFVII a more coherent look (even though this method has been vastly improved in the future installments "Final Fantasy VIII" and "Final Fantasy IX"). Sure, the game might look outdated, but for their time, the graphics were top-tier and possibly the best in any video game. Enough said.

With Nobuo Uematsu having returned as the composer, chances were that nothing could possibly go wrong with the soundtrack, and that`s exactly the case here. Each piece of music fits the atmosphere perfectly here, covering all kinds of emotions one could possibly have and corresponding with the aforementioned touching storyline. Especially the death of a main character I mentioned earlier is all the more effective due to the use of a truly saddening musical piece. The battle tracks are, as always, fast paced and a blast to listen to, with the main boss track and the last boss music standing out as the most memorable ones (and naturally, they are among the classic tracks that have received several rearrangements). Trust me, the music will be stuck in your head for weeks/months/years to come. Unfortunately, though, the sound quality is sub-par by modern standards, with the lack of a real orchsetra being all too apparent at times. That`s yet another reason for fans to yearn for a remake of this game, and I can only agree that a remake of "Final Fantasy VII" including a rearranged soundtrack with vastly improved sound quality would be well as the inclusion of voice acting, which is sadly missing in the original, but at least understandable in view of the sheer size of the game and certain hardware limitations. Other than that, the musical score itself ranks among the best in the entire series, and that`s saying a lot considering the constant top-notch quality of the Final Fantasy franchise in that regard.

As you can see, there`s an abundance of sheer genius in all aspects of the game, culminating in what could very well be the best Final Fantasy game of them all - perhaps even the best game of all time, when you consider the emotional impact of the game and how it has moved countless players worldwide. In any case, "Final Fantasy VII" is a true winner in all regards and a prime example for the creativity, imagination and talent Square has put into the majority of their games. If by some twisted coincidence you do not happen to have this game in your collection, let alone even played it, then by all means, go out and buy it, now. "Final Fantasy VII" is essential gaming for each and every video game fan and a must-have for each collection - and an unforgettable journey you must have gone on yourself. So, go ahead on a memorable adventure with Cloud and his friends - an adventure you`ll never forget.

Reviewer's Rating:   5.0 - Flawless

Originally Posted: 09/24/07

Game Release: Final Fantasy VII (EU, 11/17/97)

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