Does this gaming classic still old up 23 years later?
Release Date: January 31, 1997
Rating: T (Language, suggestive themes, violence)
Is it fair to review games over two decades old? Haven’t our standards changed too much? Well, some of them have. It is certainly easier to dazzle with pretty graphics these days than it is to write worthwhile dialogue, or program-satisfying mechanics (Bioware’s recent Anthem comes to mind). That all being said, Final Fantasy VII, the Square Enix classic from 1997, manages to marry all three of these elements despite its age.
The most impressive part of Final Fantasy VII is that it isn’t ugly. Yes, it is definitely old, and you can guess the decade it was made in simply by the juxtaposition of polygon characters on fuzzy photograph-like backgrounds. The game is saved, however, by the beauty of these backgrounds; sometimes shockingly detailed interior environments, other times painterly visions of otherworldly locations, and dark re-imaginings of modernity.
The characters themselves look passable, however, the true aspect to be appreciated is the volume of animations assigned to them. Each enemy looks different, has multiple attacks, and displays specific animations to accompany whatever they’re doing. The same goes for all party members as well; each character has their own set of attack animations not only according to their skill set, but also when it comes to magic, which everyone can use. Animated cut-scenes are few and far between, but they are highly stylized and mercifully short. While there are some long dialogue sections, the technology simply did not allow for the visual drama of the modern Final Fantasy games. You can decide if that’s a good thing or not.
It’s not just the animation that’s satisfying in combat though; it takes time to show, but Final Fantasy VII’s combat is strategic and very skill-based. However, it is not necessarily fighting that you have to be good at, it’s actually stat management; Final Fantasy VII’s combat system basically allows the player to assign any ability to any character. Little balls of energy called Materia, which can be equipped to either weapons or armor, are meant to encourage the player to try as many different play styles as they’d like.
This system can either be a power-trip or completely frustrating, as the game isn’t exactly clear on what abilities mean. In other words, you could be missing out on a powerful stat booster or ability that, at first glance, looks like a meaningless jumble of abbreviations and numbers. Don’t be too hard on the game for this though, as much of this information is lost in translation. Luckily, we live in the age of information currently, so I recommend looking at a build guide if you do not have the twenty-odd hours needed to simply get acquainted with the depths of this excellent turn-based combat system. Though be warned, random encounters abound – it is an older generation Final Fantasy, after all.
Despite the relative simplicity of character appearance, Final Fantasy VII doesn’t skimp on writing in the slightest. Cheeky humor, a modern-ish dystopia setting, and a growing sense of awe pervades the story. You pick up in the middle of an ongoing mission as Cloud Strife, a mercenary with a past and a bad attitude. Eventually joined by a host of charming polygons, I was surprised at the real sense of camaraderie between the main characters. Relationships change, even sometimes taking into consideration indirect player input.
Iconic scenarios like a drag dress-up sequence, and the painfully bright stint in the Golden Saucer, are just two examples of the sheer fearlessness and grandiosity of Final Fantasy VII’s story. It is a testament to how simplicity in something like graphical capability can allow for creativity in other areas. The result of that mindset is a plot more like a poem than a video game. The story spins from political commentary to philosophical science fiction, dipping into cosmic horror, entrancing you with epic tragedy and bowing out to thunderous applause as the fires of the finale burn gloriously in your eyes.
Of course, Nobuo Uematsu’s masterful soundtrack plays over everything, with the combat tracks being, in my humble opinion, some of his best work (and he has quite the repertoire). Mr. Uematsu’s tempos pair perfectly with the story, which, like combat, starts slow and simple, biding its time and eventually escalating to meteoric proportions.
I played this game mostly out of respect, wanting to finish it before the remake came out on April 10, 2020. Now I wonder if anything will be able to live up to it. That’s the curse of quality, you get spoiled. A gleaming gem of a goal for the remake and an eternal standard for all other works in its genre, Final Fantasy VII is one of the finest video games I have ever had the privilege of experiencing.
Final Verdict: 10/10
Words by Morgan Gustafson
*Unless otherwise noted, screenshots provided by Morgan Gustafson.