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Monday, 27 April 2015

Final Fantasy VII - Retrospective Review


Final Fantasy VII is arguably the most influential Japanese RPG ever made. It’s the release that pushed the genre closer to the mainstream, opening it up to a whole new cadre of players that had never given a thought to trying out the nerdy combat of a Dungeons & Dragons style role-playing game.

Its place in gaming history is very clear, not only did it open up the J-RPG genre outside of Japan, its success was crucial in the early days of the original PlayStation. Final Fantasy jumping ship to Sony’s new grey box was easily one of their biggest coups, and, while it probably wasn’t the sole reason that the PlayStation went on to be a success, it was definitely instrumental.

All that being said, it’s easy to see why people heap praise on Final Fantasy VII; it was a gigantic success story, it elevated a niche genre to new heights and bolstered a fledgling console. But all this eclipses the game itself; was it actually a good game? How good was it once you remove all the political factors that surrounded its release?

Well, let’s put it politely. Final Fantasy VII has not aged well.

It’s rather funny, actually. My first experience with the Final Fantasy series came with the seventh instalment. My parents bought it for me, along with number eight, after a friend of mine bombarded me with how good it was. And I enjoyed it, partly because, like a lot of the fans of the game, I had nothing to compare it to. I hadn’t played the other instalments at the time, nor had I played any J-RPG for that matter. Six year old me had no frame of reference, nothing to put it up against, similar to a lot of people that loved this game.

Having said that, there was always a niggling feeling for me, that the game wasn’t as good as everyone made it out to be. It was enjoyable, sure, but I quickly found myself sinking more time into Final Fantasy VIII and, later on, Final Fantasy IX when it was released. Seven didn’t have the magic for me, which others described. And that was back in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, when my list of RPGs was very slim.

Going back to the game over a decade and a half later, and having played a lot more games, I’m more confident now why I think Final Fantasy VII isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Midgar – The Introduction


First off, something that I think deserves unanimous praise; that opening. Final Fantasy VII’s opening is perfect. It drops us right into the action after that epic FMV sequence. It’s fast paced, exciting, and eases us into the game’s mechanics organically, without being too on the nose.

It all works however, because of how well paced it is. The opening doesn’t let up, it’s not chaotic, but simply leaps from point to point. The fights with the guards. Who are we? Cloud, some kind of mercenary. Holy cow, a mechanical scorpion! Good thing we’ve got Mr T. with a machinegun arm to back us up. Right, so this is how I use magic. Shinra? They’re the bad guys; evil corporation, cyberpunk city, understood.  

It’s an effective opening, one that blends the story and the mechanics together cohesively.

All of this works though, because of Midgar itself. If there’s one thing that Final Fantasy VII nails, along with the overall opening, it’s the game’s primary city. A hulking industrial slum full of squalor. It’s a massive contrast to the typical Tolkien fantasy tropes, not to mention Japan’s own propensity to stuff RPGs with goggle-eyed cutesy characters and asinine humour. Final Fantasy VII says no to all of that; a fantasy game can still be a fantasy game yet do things very differently.

I can’t stress how good the opening few hours of the game are. We have an interesting group of characters, a great setting that’s genuinely interesting to explore, and a villain in the form of the Shinra Corporation.

Then, the story leaves Midgar…and the game goes with it. Leaving Midgar is the single biggest mistake that Final Fantasy VII makes. It takes its most interesting location and simply forgets about it, instead we’re left to wander through Kalm, a dull, whimsical town that could come from just about any fantasy game ever made.

 Sephi-who? – Our Main Villain


If the game’s biggest mistake is removing its most interesting setting, its second biggest mistake is its villain. Sephiroth is stupid. There, I said it. Not only is he stupid, he makes for the most uninteresting bad guy you could imagine. Throughout the game we’re bombarded with information about him; he’s some super soldier, blah, blah, blah, Jenova experiment, blah, blah, lifestream. In reality, he’s a cackling evil-doer in a black cape. A walking talking cliché who compensates with the world’s biggest katana (that also looks absurdly impractical).

What’s worse, he’s introduced after we’ve just been shown a much more interesting villain for the past five or so hours; the Shinra Corporation. We’ve seen what these guys are capable of, just look at Midgar. Look what they’ve done to Aeris, Red XIII, Jessie, Biggs and Wedge; we have a solid reason for hating these folks. Sephiroth? All we know is that Cloud doesn’t like him and he’s just killed the head of Shinra, which, if anything, would have been a plus in my book.

And the best part about it all. The game never bothers to make Sephiroth do anything else that’s interesting. Sure, we get the flashback in Kalm, showing the guy go on a murder spree through Nibelheim, but other than that he spends the entirety of the game stuck in a crater, brooding, as he attempts to take over the world.

You know what the solution should have been? Have Sephiroth be the Darth Vader to Shinra’s Empire. That would have worked. I have no problem with Sephiroth as a character necessarily (although I, frankly, never saw the great appeal), but he simply doesn’t work as a big villain. His motivations and goals are bland, silly and clichéd and come seemingly out of nowhere when they’re first introduced.

Pacing


After the events in Midgar, Final Fantasy VII’s story telling and world building just start to slide. Granted, maybe part of this is down to the game’s less than stellar English translation, but I don’t think that some rough dialogue can account for the game’s shockingly poor pacing following those initial few hours.

After leaving Kalm, the game obeys a very simple, predictable pattern. Go here, trigger conversation, and go to the next place. Why? Because Sephiroth or something. It’s dull, predictable and many moments lack any connection; with the resulting story sequences feeling very bitty and episodic.

This happens repeatedly for the next however many hours it takes you to complete the game. 
Compare this to the Midgar section, where each objective developed organically. Cloud helps Avalanche destroy the reactor, this forces the group to have to split up after being attacked by Shinra’s robots, so he meets Aeris, creating a different pace both to the story and to the game’s combat. Cloud and Aeris then find that Tifa is stuck in Don Corneo’s mansion, teaming up with her, and so on.

There’s a steadily developing story for those first few hours that’s then thrown out the window once you reach the map screen. From then on, Cloud has some vague mission to chase down Sephiroth (who we’ve never even seen at this point) and the others fall right in behind him.

Plot Twists – Dun, Dun, Dun!!!


Final Fantasy VII regularly leans on dramatic plot twists in order to continue our interest in the story. Aeris’ death is one of the most talked about events in any Final Fantasy game, and granted, it probably was rather shocking to have one your characters permanently killed off, even if it wasn’t the first time that a Final Fantasy game had done this.

With this game though, the plot twists keep coming, some being declared like they’re part of a soap opera. Hojo, that creepy scientist? He’s actually Sephiroth’s father! Cue, dramatic musical sting and a gif of a shocked cat.

The most bizarre twist however comes when Cloud discovers his origins. I say twist but it should really be “twists”. Plural. The game actually flips the story one way, then flips it back the other. Let me explain.

From the get go it’s clear that Cloud isn’t all he’s made himself out to be. Upon arriving at the Mako Reactor in the game’s first sequence, he grips his head, seemingly in pain, as a voice starts to speak to him. It’s a weird plot point that’s lightly touched on as the game progresses, and the most we can deduce at this point is that it has something to do with Sephiroth.

Alarm bells start ringing when we first encounter Sephiroth at Nibelheim mansion. When he turns to face Cloud, we discover that he doesn’t recognize him. It’s a little odd that he doesn’t recognize his former colleague but is perhaps best summed up with “Sephiroth has lost it”.

Later on however, we discover that all those weird moments were hinting at something more sinister. Cloud is, in fact, not who thinks he is. His flashback in Nibelheim is not his own memory but an artificial one, as he takes on the personality and memories of his friend Zack, who served in SOLDIER.

This for me is where Final Fantasy VII could have taken the leap and gone for something interesting. The character you’ve been playing? He’s a husk; a shell made from an experiment, with artificial memories placed in his head to make him think he’s someone else. It’s a great way to undermine the traditional destined hero story; you’re not a blonde haired, blue eyed superman ready to save humankind but a science experiment gone wrong.

It’d be a great way for the player to sympathize with Sephiroth too. Don’t forget, he goes mad after discovering who he really is, and by having the player go through the same experience via Cloud it would have given the Cloud/Sephiroth dynamic some much needed weight that was otherwise missing from the story. This would have given much greater strength to Sephiroth as villain, and made him much more compelling.

Instead, Final Fantasy VII does something a little weirder. After revealing Cloud’s origins we later learn that we were wrong again. It becomes a double twist. Cloud was at Nibelheim but he wasn’t where he initially thought he was. He never joined SOLDIER and instead was forced to enrol as a regular security guard. He was at Nibelheim, albeit as one of the masked Shinra guards left to guard Tifa outside of the Mako reactor.

This is where Final Fantasy VII fails with its plot twists. This second twist effectively undoes everything that the first one revealed. Cloud is back to being a safe predictable hero that came from humble beginnings and goes on to do great things. Sure, he’s a little messed up and thought he was someone else, but his past isn’t as unsettling as it’s initially made out to be.

What this does, coincidentally, is undermine a lot of the other character relationships, namely Tifa’s. Earlier on in the game it’s hinted that she effectively “made” Cloud believe he was Cloud because she wanted to believe that the person she knew was still alive. It’s an incredibly disturbing moment during the flashback sequence in the Lifestream when it’s hinted that she effectively lies to “Cloud” about who he is, so she can believe that the person she loves is still alive.

I understand that one of the big problems when talking about Final Fantasy VII’s weird story is that the English translation is pretty poor. That being said I doubt the core plot points aren’t all that different in the Japanese version, so I’d argue that these criticisms still stand.

Too Many Villains


I’ve covered the game’s confusing, twisty middle section, and I’ve already discussed, briefly, why Sephiroth is an underwhelming main antagonist, now we’re going discuss another problem: too many villains. This comes to a head during the game’s climax, around three quarters of the way through the game.

Final Fantasy VII has too many villains and this, in part, is down to Sephiroth once again. By the middle of disc two we actually have three, three major players for the chief bad guy and the game can’t handle balancing all of them. Here they are:

Sephiroth & Jenova: These get lumped together since they’re effectively one and the same and are working towards the same goal. I’ve already explained why they’re dull and uninteresting so I won’t repeat myself. Although, it should be stressed, in the game’s eyes these would be our main villain(s) and the story should reflect that by focusing on them/having them do things. Not sitting in a crater.

Shinra Corporation: The Shinra Corporation never actually leave the story, strictly speaking. Instead, they linger around like inept Team Rocket villains throughout the middle of the game, with “Gha, ha, ha” and “Kha, ha, ha” (Heidegger and Scarlet) turning into a comedy duo.

I’ve said it before, but I think the way Shinra are handled in the later sections of the game are one of the biggest failings of Final Fantasy VII. Remember, for the opening section in Midgar these were straight up the most intimidating group we’d seen, responsible for all of Midgar’s, and the world’s, problems. They were straight up bad. Hell, listen to their theme tune, it screams evil (and is one of the best records on the soundtrack, for what it’s worth).

The Weapons: Two bad guys wasn’t enough. To be fair the Weapons are effectively a “neutral party”, being summoned by the planet in order to protect it. Their role in the story though just seems to add more convolution that wasn’t needed. Several of them aren’t even accounted for the in the original version of the game, having been added later on as a pair of “super bosses” for the international release.

This is too much for one game to handle and the story eventually has to jettison both the Weapons and Shinra, so that it can get back to focusing on Sephiroth in the Northern Crater in order to wrap things up. To the game’s credit, I can see where it was going with the Weapons, even if they’re introduction to the story is rather clunky. The Weapon attack on Junon harbour is admittedly rather impressive and it’s clearly a straight up homage to classic Godzilla movies. 

Take a look:


This also fits with one of the game’s core themes: the environment. Godzilla has regularly been used as social commentary on the natural world and by having several of the Weapons go toe to toe with the Shinra Corporation, we see this conflict of “Environment vs. Business” in bold letters. It’s clumsily handled, sure, because we have to quickly tie up both the Weapons and Shinra arcs as quickly as possible. In short, I think the Weapons are a casualty of being in the wrong game, not that they’re a terrible idea in their own right.

Of course, you know by now what my solution would have been. Drop Sephiroth and Jenova, keep Shinra as the main villain, and then introduce the Weapons as an added complication halfway through the game. They work because they’re not strictly evil, just the planet’s way of protecting itself from the damage wrought by big business, but Cloud and the others still have to fight them in order to protect themselves.

Ending – Not Enough Time


Final Fantasy VII’s ending is rushed and poorly handled. After defeating Sephiroth we’re treated to a big cut-scene which shows Cloud and the others escaping the Northern Crater. Afterwards, we witness Meteor crash into the planet and come into contact with Holy: the planet fights to save itself.

Then the game ends.

What happened to Cloud and the others? *Shrug* the game never tells us. We see what’s clearly meant to be Red XIII, years later, looking at the overgrown remnants of Midgar, but that gives us very little closure about the characters. Did they survive? What did they do? What about Aeris? None of this is explained.

I’ve heard from several places, despite not having the original interviews on hand, that Squaresoft were forced to rush Final Fantasy VII out the door in the later stages of development. This was (possibly) due to Sony wanting the game out in time to boost the sales of the PlayStation. This is an unfortunate reality of a lot of games and I think when you consider this in light of the ending, you see that the game suffered because of it.

Aeris’ death and role sort of just drifts out of the game. Apparently, there’s a long-running theory amongst some fans that the game developers originally intended for Aeris to return near the end of the game, in some form or other, in order to fight Sephiroth and/or defend the planet from Meteor. I think this is plausible, and would have perhaps given the game a greater sense of closure, which, in its original state is incredibly lacking.

Conversely, this article by Gek Siong Low, charting the development history of Final Fantasy VII, shows that it there were several late additions to the game. One was actually Tifa, along with the death of Aeris. The other big addition? You guessed it, Sephiroth.

Final Fantasy VII is a game that’s scope continued to expand even late into development, and I’d argue this essentially why the story seems so scattered after those first few hours in Midgar.

Gameplay


I’ve discussed the story and writing up until now, so it’s time to move over to the gameplay. I wouldn’t normally do such a deep focus on a game’s narrative and then artificially divide it up from the gameplay like this, but, given the importance that the story holds to this game, I thought it was necessary to go fairly in-depth, especially given that I was criticising it so much.

Final Fantasy VII’s core system is based around materia. It’s an elegantly designed mechanic that allows you to tweak and edit each character’s combat abilities in a flexible manner, without being strained by specific job roles and skill limitations. Overall, I’d say that it’s a great system, primarily because it gets that perfect balance between being effortlessly easy and simple to use, even when you begin combining materias, whilst also having enough depth that there’s room to experiment.

No, any weakness in Final Fantasy VII’s combat doesn’t come from the materia system, but from everything surrounding it. The basic random encounters in the game are incredibly easy for the most part, and there’s very little need to alter or customise your materia load-outs in order to counter particular enemy strategies.

Compare this to many of the Shin Megami Tensei games. Here, your general party set-up is constantly put under new challenges. If three of your party members are weak to fire, that will eventually come back to bite you in the ass. No question.

In contrast Final Fantasy VII has most random encounters simply come down to bashing the opponent in as quickly as possible with physical attacks. There’s very little tactical diversity to combat, and even bosses obey a similar pattern. Sure, boss fights might have you doing a little prep work; casting Haste, Barrier and so on, but the core structure is still there and you rarely have to deviate from it.

Even worse is the ridiculous imbalance of magic in this Final Fantasy. The materia system, more than anything else, dictates what spells each of your party members can cast. Plug them with multiple spell material and they’ll have a diverse selection of magic, and be better at casting it, but their physical attributes such as strength and maximum hit points will suffer as a result.

It’s a shame that magic is godawful, then.

No, really, it is. It’s expensive to cast, in terms of the MP required to fuel it, which again, forces players to resort to bashing the physical attack command, and there’s very little reward for exploiting weaknesses and such. The most I’ve ever casted magic in Final Fantasy VII is during the first boss fight with Guard Scorpion, as it’s weak to Cloud’s lightning spell. After that, the only spells I cast with any regularity are Regen and Cure.

Even worse, magic is made obsolete by the Enemy Skill material, the game’s equivalent of Blue Magic. Many of the skills learned from enemies are vastly superior to those you learn from other materia. Big Guard is a better Time and Barrier materia rolled into one. Beta, Trine, Magic Breath and Aqualung are stronger elemental spells that have the advantage of hitting all enemies without have an “All” materia hooked up to them. White Wind even gives you a Cure-All with less fuss. Better yet, it offers all these skills without having any negative impact on your characters statistics.

Square made a perfectly good game mechanic, based around customising your characters, and then stuck it on top of a combat system that doesn’t in anyway need it. If that wasn’t enough, you’ve got a materia that makes most of the others terrible by comparison, provided you carry out a minor bit of busy work in order to unlock the skills.

And that’s my major issue with the overall gameplay; it requires very little thought or planning. Sure, there’s some decisions to be had about who you use and what their initial set-up is, but once you’ve got it down you’re rarely forced to engage with or question it. Games are essentially about a series of choices and decisions, and Final Fantasy VII’s combat doesn’t pose nearly enough satisfying questions.

Looking back at my most recent playthrough of the game I was shocked at how underwhelming it was. It’s considered a milestone in terms of Japanese-RPGs, but this is more, like I said earlier, for commercial reasons and childhood nostalgia than anything the game particularly does. It lavished high production values on a game genre that had never really bothered with high production values. It brought the story to the fore but then couldn’t decide on a story to tell.

I consider Final Fantasy VII a flawed masterpiece, rather than a bad game. Midgar, Shinra, and the game’s art design for those first few hours are incredible and I’d love for a game to just focus on that aspect and run with it. Even the soundtrack, bar a few duds, is a high point in a series that’s always had great sound design.

There’s a great game here, that’s locked away in some bad design decisions and poor writing. Final Fantasy VII is always remembered for what it was, primarily to a host of ‘90s children that had never played a game like it before.

If only we'd stayed in Midgar...

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