Final Fantasy VII: A Critique of an Icon

Final Fantasy VII has always generated excitement, but it’s getting extra attention lately with the upcoming remake scheduled for… sometime in the future. Whether you’re an old fan eager to read up on the past, or a newer fan who’s heard the buzz behind the remake and wants to know what all the fuss is about, it’s a great time to read up on one of gaming’s most iconic entries.

I have a unique perspective on Final Fantasy VII — I didn’t play it until I was 26, seventeen years after it was released. I grew up loving RPGs but really only had Sega consoles, so I missed out on some of the greats from the 90s. In 2014 I dug into the past and played through Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VI, and Final Fantasy VII for the first time. I liked all three, but FFVII was actually my least favorite of the bunch. Considering it’s one of the most revered games of all time, the experience left me a bit disappointed.

Before I get into my critiques, let me give the obligatory qualifier: Final Fantasy VII is a good game. It’s also had a hugely positive influence on the role-playing genre. It’s probably fair to say that every RPG you’ve enjoyed since 1997 was influenced in some way by FFVII. Cloud and co. paved the way for deeper storylines, bigger budgets, and more mainstream appeal. Classics like Skies of Arcadia, Grandia II, and Final Fantasy X as well as recent games like Dragon Age and Bravely Default were all undoubtedly influenced by PlayStation’s second best selling game (Gran Turismo is first).

There are plenty of reasons to enjoy Final Fantasy VII (you should play it if you haven’t), but expectations are everything. Many still consider it the best RPG ever, and the back of the case has a quote from a gaming magazine plastered on it which calls Final Fantasy VII “…quite possibly the greatest game ever made”.

If you go in expecting “the greatest game ever made” you’re going to be disappointed, even if you’re only expecting the greatest game up through 1997. If you go in expecting an iconic game that pushed the industry forward but has its share of shortfalls, you’ll probably have a much greater appreciation for it in the end. So if you’re thinking about turning back the clock, here are some of pitfalls to be aware of going in.

Final Fantasy VII is rarely criticized, but when it is most of the criticism starts with the graphics; and that’s fair. Graphics are an immediately apparent part of any game, and in terms of appearance Final Fantasy VII has aged like a fine milk. Here’s the bigger problem, though: I don’t even think it looks that great compared to other games from the same era.

The image below shows Cloud from FFVII. Take a good look at it…

If you really squint, this Cloud looks like a person

Cloud’s character model looks pretty terrible. His hands are cubes, his shoes are nearly the same length as his legs, and his forearms are wider than his shoulders. Oh, and that grey backpack he’s wearing, that’s another guy’s head. Not exactly the look of greatness. Not to mention his left shoulder seems to be a black hole of some kind, which I’m assuming is an attempt at a shadow.

In fairness, the game is from 1997, but…

The next image is a screenshot from Shining the Holy Ark, a Sega Saturn game that probably wasn’t well optimized because even Sega’s own programmers probably didn’t understand how Saturn worked. Take a good look at this picture as well…

A reasonable example of what mid-90s games looked like

Apologies in advance for the scrolling back and forth, but look at both screenshots a couple of times. Compare Cloud’s hair to Melody’s (the blonde on the left). Compare Cloud’s clothes to Lisa’s (middle). Compare Cloud’s arms to literally anything in the second picture. It’s not even close; and the kicker: the game in the second photo was released first.

In stark contrast to the characters, the backgrounds in Final Fantasy VII generally look great, even today (the one with the books above isn’t a very good example), but they’re pre-rendered and two dimensional. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s disappointing Square couldn’t do more with the character models given how much of the game is pre-rendered; and the inconsistency between the characters and the backgrounds has a really jarring effect that you never get used to.

More important than appearance is what I’ll call the “style of movement” within the game. Since the backgrounds are two dimensional, the camera can’t follow you as you move around the dungeons (i.e. The camera never moves. Cloud will get bigger if you get close to the camera and smaller if he moves far away). I found this to be the most frustrating aspect of the entire game. It was difficult to figure out what you could walk on, in, or under. Occasionally the game would load a new screen and Cloud would start out behind something, or incredibly far away, or behind something incredibly far away. It’s aggravating to spin the stick every so often to figure out where you are, especially in a game with random encounters. It was never too hard to find your bearings, but it was always annoying enough to drag down the experience — like a mosquito you can hear but can’t see.

The storyline is great. The team at Square went all out to tie as many things together in one game as possible: corruption, love, aliens, environmentalism, mental health, ancient cultures, genetic testing; it’s all there. You’d think it would be an incoherent mess, but it’s kind of… not. It’s like the Avengers movie: it sounds like it would have to be terrible because there’s just too much crammed into it, but it’s awesome. Final Fantasy VII’s story is kind of the same.

The problem is that the complex, multifaceted story is told poorly. The creators didn’t want to spoon feed, so the dialogue is more vague and suggestive than it is in-your-face obvious. That’s fine, it’s actually good… as long as there’s enough dialogue for the player to have a snowball’s chance of knowing what’s going on. But there isn’t, and between the limited dialogue, the so-so translation, and the fact that some pertinent dialogue is hidden in optional locations (how is the Zack Fair story not part of the main dialogue?), the game just doesn’t serve up the story the way it needs to for the player to fully engage in it. If you’re planning on playing, I recommend finding a good story guide so you can understand each part after you play through it.

The sound is kind of dreadful as well. PlayStation was capable of playing back high quality music, but in order to reduce the size of the game Square chose to use MIDI files instead of actual recordings. Because of it, every string “instrument” has a wounded cat quality to it… and there’s a lot of string music in FFVII. It’s a shame, too, because the compositions are really good (look up live or remastered versions of the soundtrack if you’re so inclined). In a way, the music is a microcosm of my view of the game — it could be so great… but great vision is held back by just decent execution.

Final Fantasy VII really is a good game at heart, but in almost every area (appearance, sound, mechanics, story) there’s something holding it back. If you accept its limitations going in then you’ll have a probably have a good time with it. If you go in with visions of “greatest ever”, then you’ll just quibble over everything that doesn’t fit the bill, from legitimate criticisms like the one’s I’ve laid out above to silly things like the cheesy character names.

Mini-rant: Some of the names are a bit heavy handed…Your emotionally troubled main character: Cloud Strife, your childhood friend turned love interest: Tifa Lockhart, the only pilot anywhere: Cid Highwind. I don’t know Sephiroth’s last name, but I’d wager five dollars it’s something like “McBadguy” or “Antagonistburg”.

If you’re a fan of RPGs you should find a way to play Final Fantasy VII, whether it’s a return to Gaia, or your first trip. It’s the most iconic and possibly most influential RPG ever made, and it’s a good game in its own right. There’s a great story hidden in there, a great cast, and classic turn-based combat. Just know the game’s “all time greatness” is probably best reserved for a discussion of its impact on the industry. In terms of gameplay, you’re getting a solid game with great potential, but more than a few blemishes to go with it.

Final Fantasy VII image from TechnoBuffalo

Shining the Holy Ark image from MobyGames