Review by EDDY555

"Good evening! I suspect you may have heard of this game."

GameFAQs users recently voted Final Fantasy VII the greatest game of all time, a miserably predictable but “it could have been a lot worse” outcome for the contest. This game is popular on a global scale and even wrinkly gasbags that shove Zimmer-frames about for a living must have heard vague mentioning of the Final Fantasy franchise. People make a fuss about proclamations that FFVII is the best game ever, but there's no hiding from the fact that something's got to be. And if somebody picks FFVII to be their favourite, we can whinge via our keyboards, but there's really nothing we can do about it. And personally, I wouldn't whinge about it anyway, seeing as, to me, FFVII is quite the achievement!

The earth-shattering storyline revolves around Cloud Strife, a guy who initially works for the evil industrial firm Shinra's private army, SOLDIER. Shinra runs Midgar, the wealthiest city in the world, installing a mayor as a puppet to retain a fake democracy, when the real big boss is a tyrannical dictator, President Shrina, who sits up in his tower all day devising military tactics and authorising sick biological experiments. Shinra's bread and butter are Mako Reactors, special power plants dotted around Midgar, which suck up delicate resources and make a fortune. However, this Mako energy is rare and vital to the Planet's survival.

After Cloud quits SOLDIER he becomes a mercenary for hire. His childhood buddy Tifa invites him to join an eco-terrorist group called AVALANCHE, who wish to “liberate” the planet by blowing up Mako Reactors. AVALANCHE wants Shinra out of business; likewise, Shinra is determined to crush rebel factions like tiny ants to maintain control over the ignorant masses, who live in run-down slums throughout the different sectors of Midgar.

At first, Cloud is only interested in the money. The leader of AVALANCHE, Barret, is very cagey about having an arrogant and big-headed ex-SOLDIER in the group. But as events take their course Cloud develops into a heroic, selfless figure. As you proceed further, you will meet a plethora of characters that are happy to join the fight, each with their own unique personalities, philosophies and mysterious pasts; plenty of goodies, but a couple of wicked villains also. Ultimately, it occurs to the party that Shinra is only a minor threat compared with the real crisis for the Planet. Legendary warrior Sephiroth, once a vicious but essentially reasonable person, has his mind warped and hatches a master plan that will plunge everyone into peril. But there is more to our troubled Cloud than meets the eye. Are Cloud and Sephiroth connected at all?

If that sounds odd and confusing, it's because FFVII…is odd and confusing. The heart of FFVII is Cloud, but there are so many sub-plots, sub-sub-plots, twists and counter-twists that, certainly by the end of Disc 2, you're wondering if anything coherent is going on at all. And why not? If you can get your head round this beast, you will get many thinking periods out of it, say, on an otherwise empty bus or something. The story is alternately brilliant and boggling, as fans remain stumped by its finer points 7 years on, and it has an ending that a lot of people don't like. Unless you've got a guidebook at your side, it's doubtful that you'll fully understand proceedings until you dedicate your brain to the game. When gaming, a unique medium, can control your train of thought, you know you've stumbled across an absolutely fascinating example, one that should set a standard.

FFVII, like your archetypal Japanese RPG, is a random battle RPG, which means you don't just initiate the fights yourself; the computer chooses for you. Thankfully, the “fight every few steps” fashion of some of the pre-PSX instalments has been dropped and the encounter rate is very reasonable. There are people out there who just aren't stirred by random battling, and that's them, but personally I like the air of suspense created by it: when your party is in a fix, you're not sure whether you'll make it to the next Save Point or expire beforehand.

The battle system involves Materias, which are spheres of crystallised Mako energy that come in a variety of colours and categories. There is green “Magic” Materia, yellow “Command” Materia, red “Summon” Materia, blue “Support” Materia and purple “Independent” Materia. Green contains magic spells, yellow adds a new battle command, red contains summon monsters, blue gives the user a unique ability on one of their red, yellow or green Materias when you combine two and purple enhances a character stat (like HP +10%) or changes the laws of the battle environment (i.e. increases the random encounter rate). Characters must insert Materias into the slots on their weapons and armour to inherit their knowledge. For example, if Cloud wanted to heal the party you could put attach a green “Restore” Materia to his sword and he would gain the ability to cast curative magic on lone characters. Furthermore, by linking the “Restore” Materia up with a Support Materia called “All” in a double slot, Cloud could then cast curative magic on everyone at once! This is about as a simple a Materia blend as you'll stumble upon in FFVII, as there are some incredibly intricate ones that can be made, especially later in the game, that are difficult to fathom and can make a single action do thousands upon thousands of damage points, steal an item *and* grant your characters a full recovery. Dozens of evil combos are possible.

An average run through the game should take 30-60 hours on your first try without a walkthrough, allowing for side-tracking and getting lost here and there. Once one chapter has ended in a town or dungeon, the characters will hint at where something interesting might go down next, but, especially when you get vehicles (land, sea or air), FFVII is rarely linear and backtracking to a previous area or doing a spot of the old reconnaissance first might reveal a light mini-quest that gives you a chance to put your feet up. You can mess about on an arcade-game-within-a-game for a few minutes (downhill snowboarding, a motorcycle chase, submarine warfare…), raise Chocobos from newborn babies to racing champions, teach your characters some new abilities or go in search of a secret item for a change, which in turn will benefit your party no end. The steps needed to fulfil your objectives are often quite undemanding and delightful, so you never feel like Square are ordering you about, you have plenty of freedom. And that's a typical feature of a good RPG.

Graphically, the game looks excellent. I much prefer the FFVII cast, small and adorable, as opposed to the tall and boring morons adapted by Square in FFVIII. Although blocky, mouthless and sporting notorious hairstyles, the character models in open play are unquestionably charming and, when Cloud stares up at the sky putting on his cocky pose it gets you every time. In battles, the details are a lot more precise on both heads and bodies, so you can make out the expressions on your character's faces, the dirt on their clothes and their accessories too, such as Cid's cigarette and scarf. The overall clearer graphics in the battles fit well with the stunning special effects, such as the emerald sparkle of an Ultima spell, or the flaming beast Ifrit setting all your enemies ablaze. FFVII was nothing short of spectacular in 1997 and still looks impressive in 2004. It remains one of the best-looking games of the past generation; even the Big N barely touched it with their so-called “extremely powerful” 64 console, especially when it came to the very cinematic movie sequences. If the battle graphics were nice, these just blew us away! They made Sony fans all over the Western and Eastern hemispheres cream themselves.

FFVII deserves additional praise for its fabulous musical score, composed by the ever-reliable Nobuo Uematsu. Wait, not fabulous – faultless. Uematsu was able to really have some fun with his first Final Fantasy on CD and cook up dozens of awesome synthesised tracks. Final Fantasies are dark, action-packed epics with sentimental interludes (although the latter are not always to the point of cheesiness), and Uematsu excels at scores which feature emotional, throbbing songs that highlight the intensity of the situation. Seeing as his entire career has been consistently inimitable, even people who've never heard of Uematsu, yet have played bits of the Nintendo Final Fantasies, will think “hey, it's that same guy” when playing FFVII. And somehow, they'll know that they're right.

You're welcome to play FFVII all the way through as many times as you want. As far as a good RPG story goes the first experience of its grandeur is always the most absorbing, but subsequently revisit this sprawling universe and you're bound to be treated to new revelations, cameos, eye-openers and skeletons in the cupboard, which can each add oodles of intrigue to the FFVII melting pot.

There are those that are prepared to simply say “Final Fantasy VII is the greatest game ever made”. Shock-horror, not everyone who thinks this is a “fanboy”. To be honest, I don't even know what a fanboy is. Rather, I do, but I don't want to, as it's a nonsensical label. Approaching FFVII objectively, it is very hard to find anything glaringly wrong with it, at all. You can kind of see why FFVII is the solitary reason for mainstream RPG popularity in the West. The worldwide RPG craze was not a meagre novelty among the public, nor was it a “flavour of the week”; it was destined to happen and last forever, and FFVII kicked us off. When Square employees sat down and designed the game, they naturally wanted to create a work of art. The relevance here relates to how well they did everything they did. In theory, if a game does everything it sets out to do without slipping up, it is, in a word, perfect. Is FFVII perfect?

Well, while FFVII doesn't *safely* embrace the “Greatest Game Ever” title, boy, it's in the running for it. A worthy contender, it's probably the most important game of the nineties (moreover, it's top quality stuff!). So prepare to be completely bowled over by a company at the peak of their enormous collective talent, yet if you're not a true believer, for God's sake, play FFVII impartially next time, as you must at least have a valid opinion of it.

Reviewer's Rating:   5.0 - Flawless

Originally Posted: 08/04/04

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