The arrival of Sony’s PlayStation was an event that would forever change the world of gaming, more than anyone could have predicted. Beating off competition from industry veterans Sega and Nintendo, Sony managed a mighty coup de grace with its very first outing, and established itself as king of the gaming market. Not bad, but this feat wasn’t down to the PS1 alone; it was also down to the games, and one in particular could arguably be the most important PS1 release of all time. That game is Final Fantasy VII.
RPGs have an almost fanatical fanbase, although this army of gamers was not always a strong as it is now. While the stereotypical zit-laden, spectacle-sporting youths may have happily made the move from the tabletop to the computer screen, the genre was struggling to really penetrate the mainstream market, and RPGs were rarely viewed as killer apps or potential high end money spinners. That would change with Square’s PS1 debut, and Final Fantasy VII brutally broke the mould, melted it down, and made a new one that would be used time and again by many future developers.
FFVII takes place in a unique part-fantasy, part-sci-fi world where technology is everywhere, but magic (called Materia) is also abundant. A huge, mega corporation called Shinra Inc. holds the reigns of governmental rule, and provides the majority of the world’s power by mining for a substance called Mako, found deep within the planet. Midgar, a huge cyberpunk-style city is the HQ of Shinra, and is where the game begins.
Players take on the role of Cloud Strife, the game’s spiky-haired protagonist. Cloud was previously a member of SOLDIER, Shinra’s elite military branch, but as the game begins has left the employ of his old unit and is working with a rebel faction called Avalanche, who believe Shinra is killing the planet by draining all the Mako. Think Greenpeace with guns and magic and you’re partway there.
After a simple mission, and a romp through the city of Midgar, in which you meet your first few allies, as well as Aries, a major figure in the game, you’re set free into the wide world, and are quickly engulfed in a plot-branching, twist-ridden saga that ends up with Cloud and Co. having to save the entire world from one of the greatest villains in gaming – the silver-topped Sephiroth, another ex-SOLDIER, and a man with serious issues, especially with his ‘Mother’.
FFVII was a revolution at the time of its release, for many reasons. It manages to use the power of the PS1 to create a truly impressive and engaging world. It mixes pre-rendered locations with super-deformed 3D sprites (which are more detailed and human-looking in the battle sections) and splices in FMV clips that morph seamlessly into the real-time action. This is most famously evident in the very opening scene where the fly-by view of Midgar pans down to a train pulling into a station, and Cloud and friends jump out and into action, with no cut in proceedings. Very slick.
The game is huge, both in scale and in depth. The world contains multiple continents, with plenty of towns, settlements and locations to visit, and aside from the main quest (which is epic in its own right) there are tons of side quests and optional extras to pursue, with a plethora of secrets to be found, including the infamous ‘Knights of the Round’ Summon magic. There’s even a theme park of sorts, complete with a roller coaster, all manner of mini games, a haunted hotel and the Chocobo races, where you can enter your own Chocobo in order to win prizes. For those of you who don’t know, Chocobos are Final Fantasy’s alternative to horses, except they look like giant birds – well, it is a Japanese game, after all.
Summoning is another highlight of the game. Special magic can be found that makes it possible to summon mighty god-like allies into battle. These deities arrive in an impressive manner, unleash some kind of ultra-powerful attack or useful support spell, and then leave, and not only provide players with some great eye candy, but can turn the tide of battle in an instant. The secret, hard to find summons can help even more, such as Hades’ status-changing assault that can seriously debilitate your foes and Bahamut’s laser-from-orbit mega attack. The aforementioned Knights of the Round is the most powerful summon of all, and deals massive damage to any foe in the game.
The Materia magic system is truly impressive too, and rather than simply finding fire or ice attacks and the like, every piece of Materia can be powered up and also combined with others to extend its usefulness. For example, combine a double-attack Materia with a powerful summon and you’ll be able to call upon the powerful ally twice in a single go. Using the ‘Final Attack’ Materia (which let’s you perform an action as you die), and attaching it to the Phoenix summon (which revives party members and heals them), can bring you back from the dead with a bang – nice. This kind of flexibility and ability to discover new tricks enhances the gameplay massively, and few games following FFVII have touched this well designed system.
Battles are turn-based, and characters alternate to attack and perform actions, as do the enemy, although time ticks by as well, so enemies will attack again if you take too long making your tactical decisions. Square’s signature difficulty curve is apparent in the battles, with things starting off easy enough, but quickly taking a turn for the difficult, with some of the later bosses offering a seriously hard challenge, and some of the secret bosses, like Emerald and Ruby WEAPON being nigh on impossible for all but the most hardcore FFVII players.
But, even with all of the excellent gameplay elements and innovations, FFVII’s most important, and strongest aspect is nothing to do with technology, but simply the story and characters. Square has penned a fantastic story, and while the main plot begins as a simple, save the world affair, along the way it evolves into much, much more. This is a game where, despite having no audible speech or the luxury of facial animations and realistic body movements, really makes you care for the characters. As you progress, each character is explored more and more, much like a long-running TV show, and you begin to relate to them. They all have an interesting back-story, and all contribute to the whole experience. Of course, Cloud is the most in-depth character, and has a very disturbed history, which flows through the entire game. And who could ever forget one, if not, THE most shocking and moving scene in video game history – the death of Aries by Sephiroth’s hand? Killing off a major, and fully developed character mid way through the game is simply unheard of, and serves as a great way of building up the players resolve to bring down Sephiroth. A true stroke of genius.
It’s for all of these reasons and more that Final Fantasy VII is firmly entrenched in DoG’s hall of fame. As a game, it’s an incredible piece of entertainment that has a profound effect of the player long after the credits roll, and as an industry entity, it’s largely responsible not only for the rise of the PlayStation, but also for popularising the RPG in the Western market. It’s been cloned many, many, many times since (with new offspring still hatching even today), and the series itself has seen many sequels, but none have managed to better this legendary game, and in all likelihood, in this humble writer’s opinion, no one ever will.