So here's to the one I never got to play. Some of us missed the bus when SquareSoft made the jump to Play Station. The most I saw of Final Fantasy VII when I was growing up was thirty or so minutes of the opening. Since then, I've heard nothing but rave reviews, but with no Play Station, no game. The fact that a PC version was released at the same time seems to have escaped me. Anyhow... Steam was running a sale on the PC version this past Christmas and I decided it was time to finally sit down and find out what all the flap was about. So here are my thoughts; a decade late and more than a dollar saved.
The first thing I noticed (especially after having just replayed Final Fantasy VI) was the huge leap forward in graphics from previous titles. We not only get a more visually dynamic battle arena, we also get a more subtle medium for story-telling culminating in several extended and well-done cinematics. The polygons are clumsy by today's standards and there are places were the flat, static, 16 bit animation of previous games is aesthetically superior, but the new technology was definitely worth pioneering.
The second point that stood out to me was the decisive choice to pursue a sci-fi aesthetic over a high fantasy aesthetic. This choice has dominated all subsequent games under the main title (as opposed to the Tactics series). I don't know exactly what I think of that. The Final Fantasy games share a distinctive visual style, so perhaps this is an example of things becoming more what they are over time. The style certainly promises to create a singularly striking set of visuals in Final Fantasy XV (if the trailers can be believed).
The third point would be changes in the actual game play. The relatively small amount of equipment each character can use simplifies things a good deal. The large breath of skill, magic, and stat related materia also makes the characters largely blank slates as far as their battle-field performance. I don't know what I think about those two changes. Customizing materia is fun, but I felt that the equipment changes closed off creativity in an area where I liked it and the materia broadened out my choices in a place where I liked limitations. Still, here's the world's smallest violin playing for me... It was something new, and that was fun in itself. Moving on, I noticed a huge proliferation in mini-games and side-quests. These should have enriched the game play, but my little lappy isn't rigged for button-mashing so that they proved a real and persistent frustration in the PC version.
Finally, there's the story itself. While I enjoyed the sweeping epic, I did find it occasionally hard to follow the characters' motivations. It seems that their guiding star is always "whatever Shinra's doing. let's do the opposite". Sometimes, as when Shinra's trying to save the planet and defeat Sephiroth, I was genuinely stumped as to why we didn't all join forces. That could be an issue of information lost when the dialog was translated into English or perhaps I missed a side-quest or two that would have helped. There's also a sense, like in Disney's Atlantis that the designers were caught between wanting to tell a more adult story but having to rely on a younger audience. The game wavers fairly consistently between the adult and Juvenal. Maybe that's appropriate if your main audience are teenagers, but I work with teenagers and they're usually quicker to savage "kiddy-stuff" than I am. Those things aside, I did enjoy the story. The sheer amount of things to discover was enormous and I was constantly kept guessing. Cloud's plotline was engaging and I enjoyed the awkward rivalry between Tifa and Aeris. Barret is also just a fun bloke, and I enjoyed learning his story. Everyone else in the ensemble didn't feel like they had much to offer, but they didn't particularly detract either. Actually, I had some fun watching the Turks and the Shinra leadership work out their own journeys and I would have liked to have seen more of Sephiroth as the most compelling villain of the series so far.
Well, c'est ca. A bit rambling, perhaps, but I wanted to get my thoughts out while they were still fresh (that is within a couple hours of finishing the game). I still have to finish my replay of Ocarina of Time where I'm in the middle of Ganon's palace and shy one bottle. Maybe I can get back to that once summer starts. Until then, it's been fun. If you'd like to share your own thoughts on Final Fantasy VII or the series in general I would really like to hear them -please feel free to leave a comment.