SquareSoft’s seminal JRPG re-defined the genre with its sweeping and epic story, stunning graphics and refined gameplay that ensures it is as playable a classic now as it ever was.
World-building & Story
When an ex-SOLDIER named Cloud Strife takes a job with a terrorist group known as AVALANCHE to blow up one of the Shinra Company’s mako reactors, it begins a journey both through the industrial city of Midgar to Shinra’s headquarters then beyond this to the far reaches of the planet to stop a looming threat.
Final Fantasy VII is one of the first videogames I played which featured a heavy focus on cinematic storytelling and yet even replaying it all these years later, pretty much everything still holds up remarkably well. There’s so many different elements at play – the world itself and the plot that threatens it, the back-story of the main character and the villain, the side-cast and their histories and every single step of the journey along the way – and each one of these is masterfully crafted.
One of Final Fantasy VII’s greatest triumphs is the way it slowly unravels its main story. Things start simply as you reconnect with Cloud’s childhood friend Tifa and help a mysterious flower-selling girl named Aeris, but quickly escalate into a battle against a mega-corporation seemingly hellbent on sucking the life out of the land and turning it into profit. Then things take a turn again as you start a journey across the planet to stop a madman named Sephiroth which acts as a catalyst to slowly figure out the events that occurred in Nibelheim all those years ago – the true reveal holding more weight than I’ve ever seen before in a videogame.
Another thing that Final Fantasy VII does incredibly well is establish atmosphere. Whether it be running through a train graveyard while battling literal ghosts or revisiting Nibelheim which remains mysteriously unchanged despite burning down all those years ago, the game establishing some haunting areas of the kind that you’re likely to remember for years. A particular triumph is Midgar, the industrial city that feels every bit the mix of affluent high-ground and sleezy slums that the plot makes out, yet the calm, meditative and spiritual Cosmo Canyon acts as a stunning polar opposite.
Yet the game isn’t afraid to experiment with tone either – while your journey has times where you’re literally running as a gigantic meteor of doom hangs ominously in the sky, you’ll be encouraged to mix it up by visiting more light-hearted locations. Among these are the Gold Saucer, a literal theme park with attractions such as rollercoasters, shooting galleries and amusement arcades or Wutai, a humorous side-quest involving the ever-amusing side-character Yuffie.
None of this would be worthwhile if the characters themselves weren’t likeable but thankfully Square absolutely nail this too. The main party consists of various characters whose circumstances bring them in contact with the lead AVALANCHE group and each has their own compelling backstory and traits that makes choosing a party of three very difficult – even optional members like Vincent and Yuffie are fully developed. That said, the core focus is very much on Cloud, Tifa and Aeris and the dynamic between them (and their eventual fates) provides some stunning dramatic tension.
Somehow, Final Fantasy VII also manages to fully develop even the most minor of peripheral characters and make them memorable too. Of course, Sephiroth himself is a compelling villain with a completely relatable motive (yet he’s still massively unpredictable and terrifying), but the members of Shinra (whose dynamic slowly shifts over the adventure) are fantastic too – whether it be Heidegger’s offbeat crazy, Rufus’ calculated ruthlessness or Scarlet’s lust for power. Even early on, fleeting interactions with Jessie make her a relatable companion and the wisdom you gain from Bugenhagen later on made me care for him a great deal.
There’s so much more I could go on about – how the environmental message that forms the centre of everything is more relevant now than ever, how the Turks provided comedic villains that I never tired of encountering, how the use of magic is masterfully incorporated into the story etc., but I need to keep this review readable (the point is, there’s so much to love here). Still, it I had to point out one problem it would be the translation – it’s loaded with errors and although this gives it a certain charm, it can be baffling to try and decipher it at times.
Presentation & Sound
Undoubtedly a product of its time, Final Fantasy VII can still certainly stun you with certain aspects of its presentation while other parts retain that low-poly 90’s charm that appeals to a gamer like me.
There’s three major elements to the graphics – the one you’re going to be spending the most time with is the world map exploration and city sections. You’ll control a blocky little 3D model of Cloud who is most notable for his square-hands, unwieldy spiky hair and chunky purple torso – even for the time these models were a little lacking (NPC’s are generally the same) although they animate well enough (i particularly enjoyed Red XIII sitting up and tilting his head in an adorable manner, at odds with his rough fighting style) meaning it’s easy to overlook any flaws.
Conversely, the pre-rendered backgrounds have stood the test of time and manage to look absolutely jaw-dropping even today. Whether it be the blue skies and orange villas of Costa Del Sol, the sweeping houses and sombre tone of Kalm Town or the beautiful serenity and broken floorboards of Aeris’ Church, this is a game that will truly take your breath away. A particular favourite moment of mine was running across abandoned mine tracks at Mt Corel against a stunning sunset – a similar feeling was achieved when you leave Midgar for the first time and catch your breath, only to realise there’s a whole sprawling world map to explore.
The second element of the presentation is the battles, which thankfully feature more realistic character models with even better animations. While the background elements can be a little dull, combat is generally a gorgeous affair thanks to a variety of lovely spell effects (like rainbow-coloured magical barriers popping up and bolts of lightning being called from the sky) but mostly thanks to the beautiful summons. These abilities call in powerful beings to attack with screen-clearing moves – everything from Shiva’s ice blast to Bahamut’s beam piercing the clouds is a sight to behold (and knights of the round is a suitably amazing final skill to unlock).
Limit breaks (special power attacks unique to each character) are also inventive and gorgeous to look at, each one utilising the abilities they have to produce a stunning display (for example, Cid can call on his airship to attack while Barret fires a variety of coloured bullets from his gun). None of these things hold a candle to the cutscenes though – each one is an absolute triumph of art, direction and mood to produce some unbelievably haunting and memorable moments, even if they look a little dated and stiff these days (there are also some really impressive transitions from gameplay to cutscene that help sell the game’s cinematic angle).
While there’s no voice acting here, this actually suits the game very well – you’ll be filling in the blanks about how each person speaks thanks to their speech patterns and the silence is filled with glorious music. Nobuo Uematsu’s work on Final Fantasy VII is the stuff of legends and almost every track here is thematically gorgeous yet incredibly catchy, the type of songs you’ll be putting into your YouTube favourites list extremely quickly.
Gameplay & Content
Final Fantasy VII feels like it straddles the line between the later, more cinematic-focused entries in the franchise and the earlier, more whimsical versions with a heavier gameplay focus to create an end product that is a once in a lifetime type of game.
So at its core, this is an evolution of the traditional Final Fantasy formula that had been transplanted onto the 3D era meaning everything long-time fans would expect to see is here, just a little different. Perspective is one of the game’s most interesting aspects – generally things are seen from a fixed-camera angle which works wonders to highlight the gorgeous backgrounds and helps focus scenes onto certain aspects, but you are given free reign to control the camera at times (most notably on the world map).
Your quest to stop Sephiroth begins in the slums of Midgar and ends in the frosty Northern Crater but you’re going to visit a tonne of locations along the way. Initially, the game seems fairly linear – Midgar is a dense city but you’re funnelled along a straightforward path, however once you escape its confines you’re given a full sprawling world map to explore at your leisure. Traversal methods evolve as you progress too – you’ll start out on foot but eventually can command a buggy and downed aircraft in the sea before receiving a submarine and even an airship which makes going wherever you want a breeze.
Of course, this is still a fifth-generation JRPG which means random encounters are present – the rate can be a little high at times, but nothing too infuriating. Combat generally has three party members (who you can pick out of a squad of nine) and uses the active time battle (ATB) system where each character has an ‘action’ bar which slowly fills and allows them to take an action (i.e. attack, cast a spell or use an item) when it’s full. This allows for strategizing as you’ll likely want to plan ahead and hold onto a turn in anticipation of enemy attacks, while feeling fluid enough that it keeps moving whether you choose to do something or not.
Depth is added through materia which is a fantastic way to allow you to customise your team (who are generally easily interchangeable save for their limit breaks – which is nice as it means you never feel forced to pick a certain character). Materia are balls of crystallised mako that are equipped in weapon and armor slots and allow access to spells (such as fire), summons (such as Odin), commands (such as steal) or support abilities (such as counter attack). Each materia will grow with use but also provides downsides – magic will increase your spellpower but decrease your physical attack, meaning you’ll have to weigh up their usefulness and balance your team.
Combat is therefore an enjoyable affair and boss battles in particular can provide some fantastic opportunities to try out strategies and experiment with how to control your team – the addition of limit breaks (powerful special attacks activated by taking damage) are a nice variable to consider too. With that said, I do find the game a little on the easy side – once you’ve gotten your head around materia, no enemy should really pose a challenge as long as you level as you go and don’t simply run from every battle (optional content is another kettle of fish – I’m still unable to defeat Emerald Weapon).
In between combat you’ll be exploring towns (loaded with their own mini-quests and people to talk to) as well as exploring a variety of dungeons. There’s some minor puzzle solving at times and certain places (namely Temple of the Ancients) did cause me to look at a guide – although generally you’ll find that there’s plenty to explore and see but unless you’re keen on collecting every chest and materia, you can often just continue forward quite easily.
The main way Final Fantasy VII differentiates itself from the games in the series that came both before and after it is in the way it turns nearly every activity into a mini-game. It’s truly remarkable – of course, there are actual focused mini-games like riding a motorbike to help a truck with your allies on escape (slightly wonky hit detection but generally fun), riding a snowboard down a hill (pretty enjoyable) and a tower defence/rts hybrid at Fort Condor (not my cup of tea, but surprisingly in-depth). The most substantial is clearly Chocobo Racing, which allows you to capture, breed and them race the big yellow birds which unlocks some amazing treasures if you put the time in.
What’s impressive is that basically everything else that can be made interactive is – for example, an early challenge is to impress a boxer by squatting which turns into a rhythm mini-game which is harder than you’d think. Giving CPR to a young dolphin trainer, impressing Rufus when in disguise as a Shinra soldier by following commands and feeding kupo nuts to a moogle are just some of the things you’ll do and by allowing you to take part in them, they transform Final Fantasy VII into a far more enjoyable experience.
The other thing the game absolutely nails is the feel of going on an actual journey. The pacing is bang on – the moment of stepping out onto the world map for the first time is stunning and the rate at which you slowly discover new locations and means of transport is spot on. From uncovering the history of the planet in Cosmo Canyon to visiting an abandoned space project in Rocket Town, I never knew what was around the next corner but was kept constantly engaged regardless.
Throw in a tonne of optional content – bosses, side-quests, whole areas you might never come across, battle arenas etc. and this is an incredibly meaty package. There are even two whole characters you may never encounter that feel like key party members but can be missing from the ending if you’re not careful, which is something incredible that you’d rarely seen in a modern title. It may only take around 30 hours to see the ending if you play well, but thanks to the sea of optional content you’ll feel motivated to keep pushing forward.
Final Fantasy VII truly is the full package and is just as good now on Vita as it ever was – make sure this is a classic you relive again (or for the first time if you’ve never played it before).
Truly a once in a generation kind of experience, Final Fantasy VII is a Japanese role-playing game that redefined the genre and for good reason. Its cinematic story is among the best in the gaming medium and is filled with memorable characters, its graphics retain an effortless charm despite its age and its gameplay retains a perfect balance between old and new. You owe it to yourself to give this one a try and I truly believe it’s one of the finest videogames ever created.