Late to the Game: Final Fantasy VII

on January 17, 2016 12:00 PM

“Late to the Game” is our editorial series looking back at classic titles through today’s lens, and reflecting on their influence and legacy from the perspective of those playing them for the first time.

In anticipation of the upcoming Final Fantasy VII Remake, we’re focusing our attention on the original PSone-era classic, Final Fantasy VII. For more on our “Late to the Game” installments on the series, you can click here to check out everything from Metal Gear Solidto Half-Lifeand beyond – for now though, we’re heading back to Midgar…

Final Fantasy and I have a funny history. It’s one of those series that I could pretty much hear many of my friends swear by: aside from those that were already either devoted JRPG fiends or massive fans of Final Fantasy games in general. And yet, the series has never quite been my cup of tea: I’ve tried numerous times, but the games just never caught my curiosity growing up.

That being said, Final Fantasy VII is a game that I knew I had to play. Much like playing through Metal Gear Solid for the first time a few years ago, it’s truly one of those few select games that transcends a generation is something a bit “more”: something like Metal Gear SolidThe Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and more. It’s a timeless classic.

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Yet, I could just never get into any of the titles. I’m certainly not a huge JRPG player in general, for a variety of reasons: mainly because they’re often huge time commitments that can run dozens, upon dozens of hours in length (speaking on behalf of my current backlog, which is probably 90% RPGs at this point), and because turn-based combat, while fun, is a little slow compared to some of the faster paced experiences I tend to enjoy in Western or action-RPGs, like Kingdom Hearts or titles of The Elder Scrolls/Fallout ilk.

Going through (and finishing) Final Fantasy VII has been in the making for me for oh…roughly 20 years or so? Probably a lot longer than I’d like to admit: I tried about two or three times as a kid (with an original copy on PSone) to dive into Final Fantasy VII, but could never muster up the time (or energy) to get past the game’s opening segments. For years, I pretty much kept my game save stuck in Midgar.

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With the recent footage and developments surrounding the upcoming Final Fantasy VII Remake and aided by a renewed sense of curiosity, I knew it was time to finally go in and see what I had been missing for the past two decades or so, and thanks to an extended holiday break, I jumped back in to the game fresh and determined to see it through to the end.

Originally released for the PSone in 1997, Final Fantasy VII in particular has quite a legacy it has left in the years since its release. As one of the PlayStation’s marquee titles in the 1990s and a hugely popular entry in the Final Fantasy series, FFVII puts players into the role of the spiky-haired, ludicrously large sword-wielding hero Cloud Strife, that quickly becomes entangled in the struggle between an ecoterrorist organization AVALANCHE and the Shinra Electric Power Company, which is quickly on the verge of depleting the Planet’s life and resources.

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Previous JRPGs always tended to lose me at the very beginning: whether through often protracted openings or a familiar plot setup (small-town young boy/girl sets off on an adventure chosen by destiny), Final Fantasy VII in particular struck me with its opening, which kicks off with the extremely memorable bombing mission in Midgar. From there, Final Fantasy VII starts at full throttle and never really lets up, hooking me in with the attempt to end Shinra and giving me a first glimpse at the detailed, clockwork world of Midgar.

Final Fantasy VII is by no means a short game: my final in-game tally tracked somewhere around the 30-hour mark at completion, though with tons of side quests available it’s a game that easily could have players sinking in at least double that. However, even nearly 30 hours in through completing the game, the game’s opening is still the most memorable experience to me: having Cloud and Barret fighting Shinra soldiers side-by-side, with the game’s thrilling battle music playing in the background: the opening chapters of the game certainly didn’t lose their impact compared to playing the game for the first time nearly 20 years ago.

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With the imminent Final Fantasy VII Remake on the horizon (at some point…), going through the game in full for the first time certainly kept that perspective in mind for me as I went past the memorable opening of Midgar, and well into many of the game’s iconic scenes and sections. What will translate and how it will be brought over to the current generation is certainly left to be seen (aside from last year’s reveal trailer and the brief gameplay footage at PlayStation Experience), but as it stands, what surprised me most is how Final Fantasy VII still plays remarkably well for a nearly two-decade old title.

More often than not, attempting to play an older title nowadays can be a hit or miss experience. While nostalgia and viewing a game we loved as a kid with rose-colored glasses can be a rewarding, fun experience, games in particular age way more harshly than other forms of media like books, movies, etc. The prospects of playing a older classic like Final Fantasy VII was one I certainly expected to have some rough edges, but more often than not it was quite surprising to see that, aside from the obvious graphical changes that we’ve seen in subsequent games, the art direction, style, and character of Final Fantasy VII still kept me engaged and excited to play it.

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Having played through the PSone Classics version of the title on PS Vita, obviously the title can’t hold a candle next to the years of innovation and technical change that have come since its debut – seeing the beautiful, nearly photorealistic rendering of Cloud Strife in the upcoming remake (or even his recent appearance in Super Smash Bros.) makes his original interpretation seem almost laughable, with weird proportioned arms and his comically spiky hair.

Obviously the characters models of Final Fantasy VII have seen better days back in the PSone era, yet the pre-rendered environments still held up surprisingly-well, and contributed to some of my most enjoyable moments with the game. The remake is obviously going to add quite more depth and interactivity by virtue of its fully-rendered, 3D environments, though exploring the nook and crannies of Final Fantasy VII‘s environments still held some surprises and fun, whether it was figuring out the best way to cross an environment or in discovering hidden treasure chests and secrets waiting to be discovered.

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In many ways, the environments themselves added just as much character to the game as much as its iconic cast, whether it was in the steampunk-esque towers and buildings of Midgar, the neon-lit Wall Market, or the haunting (yet beautiful) remnants of the Forgotten City. Given that much of my memory of Final Fantasy VII revolves around the opening chapters in Midgar, the rest of the game often caught me off-guard with its depth and variety of environments and areas, and while Midgar and those other areas are probably the most memorable to me, the rest of the game’s aesthetic and areas quickly became just as iconic during my playthrough.

Of course, the characters and moments of Final Fantasy VII are still probably among why the game has endeared so long as one of the most popular entries in the series, even (at this point) with having half of the game’s biggest moments (spoiler alert: Aeris dies) been spoiled for me years prior. They’re moments that are pretty much common knowledge at this point in the lexicon of gaming history, and even with that foresight of having known some of the game’s bigger plot points, the fact it was still able to provide some other surprises in many ways is a testament to the game’s “classic” status.

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Even though Aeris’s death is clearly the game’s biggest, most impactful moment (and if you didn’t already know her fate…hate to break it to you), other moments in the story certainly keep the guessing or weren’t what I was expecting at all: the tumultuous love-triangle between Cloud, Tifa, and Aeris, Cloud’s realizations of his past and identity, the struggles against the infamous Sephiroth, and the game’s unexpected focus on environmentalism and saving the world from corporate greed and corruption.

Final Fantasy VII certainly hits some emotional beats aside from hard-hitting death and heartbreak, and while characters like Cloud, Barret, Sephiroth, Tifa, and Aeris are the core of the story, the game certainly opens up later on to be a bit more of an ensemble piece with the introduction of side characters that end up holding their own in the story as well, such as Red XIII and Cait Sith.

From the backstory of Red XIII explored in Cosmo Canyon to taking control of Cid in the later portions of the game, the main story’s focus on some of the more prominent characters didn’t fully take away from the side characters that I grew just as much to enjoy. That dedication to giving players a range of fleshed-out, will-developed characters even made me appreciating the several points in FFVII forced players to use characters in their party they may not normally use, giving me ample reasons (and motivation) to use other characters beyond the normal three I would have used otherwise (pretty much combinations of Cloud, Barret, and then either Aeris or Red XIII).

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Even when Final Fantasy VII hits players hard with some pretty heavy and emotional themes, the game never fully delves in to complete doom and gloom and retains a sense of fun and light-heartedness, with plenty of moments that caught me wildly off-guard such as the wacky snowboarding mini-game, and of course the infamous cross-dressing scene with the gang attempting to infiltrate the mansion of the womanizing Don Corneo, with Cloud dressing up as a woman to gain entry. While some of the more suggestive undertones of the scene will be interesting to see how they are translated to a more “gritty” and “realistic” take in the upcoming remake, it was at least a pleasant surprise to see that FFVII has plenty of more comical moments in between its most emotional, heart-wrenching beats.

Of course, the story, characters, environments, and presentation of Final Fantasy VII wouldn’t add up to much without a solid gameplay foundation, and even nearly twenty years removed from the game being revolutionary to many from its initial release, the classic turn-based combat of FFVII still kept me gripped in a lot of ways that many RPGs (and specifically JRPGs) often lose me in their opening hours.

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While I enjoy the strategy that comes with turn-based combat in JRPGs, the sometimes slow speed and constant string of enemy encounters are probably the biggest aspects that often keep me away from playing JRPGs more than my usual “once-in-a-blue-moon” phase of playing games, but Final Fantasy VII‘s more active, time-based combat kept me excited by (almost) every battle.

Given the years that have passed since its original release, playing Final Fantasy VII certainly showed just how much of the game’s primary mechanics became the backbone of the later JRPGs that I’ve loved (including one of my personal favorites, Golden Sun). Where most JRPGs I’ve played usually had four characters, the limitation of three party members in Final Fantasy VII certainly kept me thinking just a bit more strategically about how to approach each battle: which combinations of characters to use, what the best equipment and Materia to use is, what placement on the battlefield they should be put in, and more.

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Most JRPGs that I’ve previously played had pretty defined traits and characteristics for each party member: the usual archetypes of the damage dealer, the tank, the rogue, the buffer/debuffer, the healer, etc. However, Final Fantasy VII certainly seemed to provide a little more flexibility and customization, and while certain characters still obviously fall into some of those archetypes (Cloud, Aeris, etc.), the Materia system in particular really made me feel like I had a bit more control over how I wanted to play each character, and play against their expectations in some interesting, unique ways.

Sure, I could have gone with Barret as more of a long-range, damage-dealing brute, but what about if I equip him with healing spells? Or maybe Tifa or Aeris with a focus on powerful magic spells? Even though Final Fantasy VII still retains (and pretty much shaped for later titles to come) the classic structure of a JRPG combat system, the Materia system offered so many ways that I enjoyed getting to experiment and spec out my characters, giving them wider ranges of abilities and skillsets to toy with.

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All that said, the fact that I completed Final Fantasy VII altogether was well worth the experience. From the iconic, thrilling opening to the intense (and pretty frigging difficult) final battles against Sephiroth, with the exhilarating “One-Winged Angel” blaring in the background, this title in particular is probably one of the more embarrassing titles that I’ve ever had to admit to not finish. Classics like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Metal Gear Solid will forever be known for their important, distinctive contributions to the landscape of gaming, and in particular Final Fantasy VII is one that helped bring awareness, respect, and widespread popularity to an entire genre in the West – all the more reason that I’m plenty curious to see what the upcoming remake of the title will bring (and in many cases, what it won’t with its numerous changes and revisions).

I’m pretty late on coming in to Final Fantasy VII at this point, with the struggles of Cloud, Tifa, Aeris, Barret, and the rest of the game’s cast surely engrained into the hearts and minds of gamers for nearly two decades at this point. While I probably won’t be binging on the rest of the series as a result of finishing it (the only other title I have an interest in playing being Final Fantasy X), playing through Final Fantasy VII gave me so many moments that I expected given their iconic role in gaming’s history: but I didn’t care all that much. They were still just as fun and exciting to experience now, and while I’m probably not going to become a Final Fantasy convert (or to the world of JRPGs as a whole), Final Fantasy VII has at least made me a believer.

 /  Features Editor
Ryan is the Features Editor at DualShockers, with over five years' experience in the world of video games culture and writing. He holds a BA in English & Cinema from Binghamton University, and lives in New York City.