Review by Denouement

"As long as we try, maybe things change, perhaps it's a fantasy"

This is the rare magnum opus of a game that comes along but once a year or so. All the superlatives that have been assigned to Final Fantasy VII over the years by its fans are truly deserved; the perfectionist attention to detail and the beautiful simplicity of the story truly surpass all but a few other games--not only in the genre of role-playing, but in the broadest possible spectrum of video gaming.

Final Fantasy VII--FFVII, as it is called by those who have played through it dozens of times--carries with it a legacy of greatness that comes not only from the success of this game on the Playstation, but from the excellence associated with the brand ''Final Fantasy.'' This brand is one of the biggest in gaming and Square has been careful up to this point not to taint it, especially in the short time they have been selling it in the United States. Fans can be confident that, whatever their feelings about the story or characters, they will enjoy the graphics, music, and gameplay a Final Fantasy game will offer.

You begin in a dark, polluted city called Midgar, where the vast majority of the population live in trash filled slums. The rich few in Midgar even deprive them of sunlight, by living in luxury on a huge plate suspended above the ground. These elite are the bosses of the company that rules Midgar: Shin-Ra, Inc. The hero, Cloud Strife, is a blade-for-hire, who goes to work for the underground terrorist group Avalanche. Avalanche is not pure evil in the way we might view terrorism now; but their goal, to stop Shin-Ra from ravaging the planet’s environment in their lust for Mako energy resources, causes them to lose sight of the plight of the people in the city. The leaders of Avalanche are Barret Wallace, a huge man with a gun grafted to his arm, and the beautiful Tifa Lockheart, whom Cloud remembers from his past.

Over three game discs, Final Fantasy VII chronicles the struggle of these three and the other allies the acquire as they journey against the overwhelming might of Shin-Ra and its SOLDIER forces, and, eventually, against an even darker opponent who seeks not only material domination, but spiritual domination of the world. But this is just a backdrop for the real story--Cloud’s quest to unlock the twisted memories of his past and uncover who he really is. The gameplay is so good that many players will be tempted to mash the confirm button and fly through the long story scenes in which Cloud tries to unlock his past, but the true meat of the game’s story lies here.

Of course, the battle to save the world cannot be ignored. After all, how could Cloud unlock his past if the evil Sephiroth dominated his mind? To combat the powers that oppose you, fate has endowed your party with both powerful weapons and potent magic. Each of the nine playable characters is an expert in a different type of weapon, and as the game progresses, will discover better and better equipment: armor as well as weapons. However, equipment also serves another purpose in FFVII.

The job system, which determined the magic skills a character could use in previous incarnations of the series, is gone, replaced by a new concept, Materia. These powerful orbs attach to special slots in a character’s equipment and allow him to access unique skills and magic, depending on the specific type of Materia equipped. There are many varieties of orb: Magic Materia like Fire, Ice, Lightning, Cure and Ultima; Skill Materia like Steal and Throw; and Summon Materia including old stalwarts Ifrit and Shiva. The only limitation to a character’s skills is the number of Materia slots he has on his equipment. Different combinations of material can also be paired to pull off particular tactical effects, allowing for a broad degree of strategy in planning your fights, especially as Cloud and company face the most difficult challenge battles. The crux of the Materia system is: any character can wield any ability. The limiting job system has been completely eliminated; while this offers a nice degree of flexibility, it deprives the characters of a certain individual style. As one scrolls through battle menus, often hurrying to keep up with the pace of enemy attacks, there is little need to pay attention to which command you are assigning to which individual.

This is somewhat compensated for by the addition of Limit Breaks: powerful techniques distinctive to each party member. They can only be used at certain times; as Cloud or Barret takes damage from the enemy, he builds up anger in a Limit Gauge, and when it is full, he can release his rage with a Limit Break. It adds a third factor to battles along with your physical and magical attacks. The actual battles run quite smoothly, and exist in nice 3-D environments. The camera constantly moves to accentuate the fast-paced action of the battles. The overworld map is also three-dimensional, and you can rotate the camera to enjoy the full splendor of the land around you, but all other areas feature Cloud’s sprite moving against a flat background which has quasi-depth but lack true three-dimensionality. Still, some of these locations are quite breathtaking: the plaza in front of the towering Shinra building, a flower garden inside an abandoned church, alien caves deep within the final dungeon.

However well done random encounters are, they have a tendency to become repetitive, but FFVII has no lack of sidequests and minigames to keep you distracted. Most of the sidequests are efforts to unlock special areas where powerful weapons or material can be found. Also, while every character gains new Limit Breaks naturally, acquiring their final and best Limit usually involves a sidequest. There are also some entertaining minigames; most appear once to further the plot, but can then be replayed to the heart’s delight at the Gold Saucer casino. Included are motorcycle, submarine, and snowboarding games. The artifice required to fit them in the story is evident (“Oh? A mountain? Well, good thing I’ve been carrying my trusty snowboard for the past five thousand miles!”) but they are still quite engaging.

As Final Fantasy moved from the SNES to the Playstation, Square’s ability to create FMV cutscenes was put to full use. These scenes are beautiful enough that you will find yourself on the edge of your seat when you hear the CD drive whirring to load up a buffer for an upcoming movie. Later games in the series have perhaps relied too much on FMVs, but Square uses them perfectly in FFVII. Where it fits into the story, matters are left in your hands, but events where control would be unfeasible, such as a huge artillery battle, are depicted with stunning flair. Equally stirring is the music. The character and area themes, the battle music

Many have called Final Fantasy VII the greatest video game of all time. Clearly, I believe, it represents the peak of Square’s achievements in this series of games. However, its ranking in the annals of gaming is irrelevant: even separated from its FF predecessors and successors, this is still a truly remarkable game. Despite being fairly old, it is still widely available in stores, so don’t feel it’s too late. If you own a Playstation, depriving yourself of this experience would be an inexcusable mistake.

Reviewer's Rating:   5.0 - Flawless

Originally Posted: 01/20/03, Updated 04/10/03

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