The release of Final Fantasy VII in 1997 was a watershed moment for both Square and the role-playing game genre as a whole, forever changing the status quo moving forward. After the previous six games had seen a release on Nintendo platforms, this marked the first time (of many) that Square’s flagship series would be passing over the Big N, and with that change came a massive stylistic shift to the game itself. Ditching the tired swords-and-sorcery tropes that the previous games had harped on for years, Final Fantasy VII broke new ground by telling a dark and engrossing tale set in a Blade Runner-esque futuristic setting. It’s safe to say that we’re still feeling the effects of Final Fantasy VII’s influence even in the RPGs of today’s platforms, but the real question is this: how well does this stalwart classic hold up today?
Final Fantasy VII follows the adventures of everyone’s favourite angsty, spiky-haired protagonist, Cloud Strife, a former SOLDIER now working with a terrorist organization to hit back at a megacorporation that’s slowly sucking the life out of their dying planet. Despite Cloud’s murky past, which he himself is unsure of, things are progressing relatively well in this small resistance campaign, but as the hours roll by and new players are brought into the fold, the gradually widening narrative reveals a much larger story at play that ultimately stems from the complex relationship that exists between Cloud and Sephiroth, the main villain. This is a story about the real dangers of late-stage capitalism and climate change, about the consequences of war and the sacrifices that must be made for the greater good. Despite the often campy and awkward dialogue, it’s a story that remains eerily relevant in the modern age.
Assuming you haven’t already spoiled most of it by this point and will be experiencing it for the first time, the story is sure to keep you engaged for most of its 40-ish hour run; this is a tale that’s packed with plenty of plot twists and turns, and most of the main characters in your party are well-written and have believable dimension to them. Plus, despite the brooding and mature storytelling, there’s plenty of lighthearted content here to keep things from becoming too dour, such as a memorable sequence (which would definitely not fly in a modern game release) in which Cloud dresses up as a woman and enters the in-universe equivalent of a brothel to chase after a friend who disappeared inside. Just when it feels like a bit too much of a downer, Final Fantasy VII demonstrates a remarkable ability to turn the tone around at the drop of a hat if need be, making for an adventure that’s as unpredictable as it is enrapturing.
Though Final Fantasy VII is notoriously linear compared to some past entries, it still remains unabashedly an old-school Final Fantasy game, with random encounters, turn-based battles, and the ATB system all being par for the course here. As one would expect, the random encounter rate is tediously overbearing in many portions, but it can be helpfully offset by a modern feature Square worked into the re-release in which clicking down the left stick triples the speed of the whole game, turning those glacial, repetitive encounters against mook enemies into blink-and-you-miss-it blitzkriegs. It really can’t be highlighted enough how much of a difference this simple addition makes to one’s enjoyment of Final Fantasy VII, and while it ultimately stands as a band-aid for a design-based issue, it’s an effective one that helps to gloss over some of the creakier aspects of a two-decades-old game.
When in combat, the classic battle system of Final Fantasy is present and correct, in which each character on screen has an ‘action bar’ that, once filled, allows them to attack, cast magic, or perform any other such actions. Even today, this ATB battle system proves to be a remarkably creative way of side-stepping the monotony of a turn-based battle system without losing the spirit and structure of one; it demands your constant attention and decision-making by applying that continuous pressure to make a quick choice, while also keeping things simple and straightforward.
New to Final Fantasy VII (at the time) is also the ‘Limit Break’ system, which adds a nice incentive for taking hefty beatings from your foes. Every attack a character endures will fill up that character’s limit gauge a little bit more, and once it’s full, they can then unleash a powerful skill that can turn the tide of the battle significantly – such as how Aeris can cast a party-wide healing spell, or Cloud can unleash his iconic Omnislash attack. It’s admittedly not very complex, but the Limit Break system adds a little bit of variety to battles that can otherwise become repetitive with time.
With all this being said, the combat of Final Fantasy VII nowadays does create something of a ‘been there, done that’ feeling which can’t be easily dismissed; it’s the sort of thing that’s aged gracefully, but it’s certainly aged. Next to other, more modern RPGs, it’s tough to not be put off by the antiquated combat design of Final Fantasy VII, but those of you who don’t want to deal with combat can just as easily disable random encounters entirely or instantly buff all characters to max stats and steamroll over all opposition.
For those of you that wish to play through the game as it was designed, there’s plenty of depth to the ‘Materia” system that governs character growth. Eschewing the popular jobs system of past games, Final Fantasy VII makes all its characters basically classless, with equippable Materia dictating their role in a fight. Materia act as skills that are attached to the armour and items your characters equip, and certain Materiae equipped on the same piece of equipment will create synergistic buffs, such as how a multiplier Materia will allow you to cast an offensive spell that hits all enemies instead of just one. Materia can be swapped between party members at will and level-up independently from the characters that wield them, which makes for a customization experience that gives you surprising control over what each party member can contribute to battle. The Materia system feels a bit surface level in many ways, but the real strength here is simply the fun of swapping up character roles every now and then for a change of pace in battle flow.
As an early PlayStation title, Final Fantasy VII released right at the peak of that time when everyone in the industry was trying to figure out how to make good games in 3D, and it unfortunately shows. Even compared to Final Fantasy IX, which released a few years later on the same console, Final Fantasy VII is a rather ugly game to behold, as lumpy character models with Popeye-like anatomies saunter around the grainy, pre-rendered backgrounds. To be fair, the backgrounds themselves aren’t half bad, featuring plenty of atmospheric, detailed environments that do a great job of setting the tone; the issue is how much they clash with the 3D models, which stick out like a sore thumb. Though it becomes easier to look past the disparity between the backgrounds and character models as you invest more hours into Final Fantasy VII, it’s still all too common to lose track of exactly what your character can or can’t interact with on any given screen. There’s a reason that pre-rendered backgrounds have been left firmly in the past for video games, and Final Fantasy VII stands as an example of why.
Luckily, the soundtrack has lost none of the charm or effect that it had back in the day, and it stands as a testament to the skill of legendary composer Nobuo Uematsu. Final Fantasy VII has a soundtrack as wide-ranging as that of a film, with each track acting as an excellent tone-setter for the often-emotional events that unfold. Whether it be the warm, guitar-laden lullaby of the village of Kalm, or the iconic, menacing dirge of the opening sequence, Final Fantasy VII’s music is sure to capture your imagination and help drive the narrative forward in ways that the visuals can’t quite manage.
Final Fantasy VII is the sort of game that speaks for itself, a touchstone of game design that played a large role in setting the standard of RPGs for years to come. It goes without saying that you should give Final Fantasy VII a shot if you consider yourself to be a fan of RPGs, as this is an experience unlike any other in many ways. With that being said, it’s also the sort of thing that has since been surpassed in almost every manner by games that took the concepts it introduced and expanded upon them in plenty of new and more interesting ways. Final Fantasy VII is a relic of its time, but that doesn’t mean it’s to be respected any less; if you can look past the obviously antiquated elements, this is a well-paced, engaging RPG that’s still fun to play today – it’s more than worthy of your time.