Final Fantasy VII
A steaming locomotive comes to a grinding halt within a colossal Shinra Mako Reactor. As Cloud Strife – ex-SOLDIER extraordinaire – flips off the roof of one of its many carriages, he not only marks the beginning of an epic quest for truth and discovery, but sows the seeds of an incredible legacy to follow. I know you know what the deal with Final Fantasy VII is; it is perhaps the most influential RPG ever, and nearly every J-RPG to follow owes a lot to this much-loved gaming masterpiece. At the time of its release, Final Fantasy VII (FF7) broke new grounds with respect to graphics (3D), sound (CD-quality), story (epic) and gameplay (huge game, huge customisation). But does it stand the ravaging test of time? Although Cloud and his fellow eco-warriors may not look as phat as current-day heroes (box-fists and all), Hironobu Sakaguchi’s original blockbuster is still one of the finest, most captivating and refined RPG experiences ever.
RPG virgin? Fear not!We appreciate that Japanese RPGs are still relatively niche and don’t appeal to everyone – the pacing can be very slow, the plot is usually extremely focal and there’s almost always a lot of mandatory level grinding. However, FF7 was the first JRPG to really make an impact in the west, and for many this was an introduction to the genre (and remains the high point to date), and as such is as likeable and user-friendly as pretty much any other example you could find.
For those unfamiliar with the Final Fantasy series (where have you been!), you needn’t worry about starting with the seventh game in the series, as like many [most?] JRPGs each chapter is standalone and is largely unrelated to its predecessors (bar a few recurring themes). The world of Final Fantasy can feel a little twee at times, with its Manga-esque character designs, colourful, cuddly creatures and likeable, bizarre mini-games; however, if you’re prepared to give this awesome game a chance you’ll find a gameworld more intricate and involving and a plot more developed than just about all other games out there, as well as enough entertainment to keep you occupied for dozens and dozens of hours. (Terence Gage)The journey to save the world humbly begins in the decrepit slum region of the massive metropolis known as Midgar. As the story unfolds, the party of freedom fighters will be making their way across entire continents as they seek to put an end to the destructive ways of the badass man-in-black, Sephiroth. As they travel across beautiful pre-rendered backdrops which perfectly capture the moodiness of their locales, they’ll also encounter the familiar, random “whooshes” that serve as a brief prelude to the series’ staple (quasi) turn-based battles. Here, your selected trio will duke it out with countless villains and fiends in a series of physical and magical exchanges that look as stunning as much as they hurt.
Deep strategic plays are required if you hope to make it out of the frequent tussles relatively unscathed. Attaching refined, energy-spewing gems called Materia to your weapons and other gear grants access to dozens of awesome abilities, from electrifying lightning bolts to the power to summon an incredibly sexy ice goddess who can throw out a wave of frozen death. As you trade blows, you’ll need to balance supporting your team-mates with restorative or status-enhancing magic, and pacifying the opposition so that they cannot do likewise. Take too many direct hits and you’ll be knocking at Death’s door, but at the same time you’ll build up enough rage to trigger limit breaks: breathtaking displays of kung-fu, swordsmanship or all-out magical obliteration. Traditionally, Final Fantasy games have offered increasing levels of depth with their battle systems, and FF7 is no different; tearing apart the relentless scoundrels that dare to show themselves at your doorstep is complex, yet intuitive, and immensely satisfying all throughout the thirty-plus hour long haul.
The cast and plotRarely has a game’s cast been so well-developed or fondly-remembered as our group of heroic Avalanche rebels here. Each bring their own influence and personality to the story – the interaction and balance between the characters is faultless, and even elective pair Vincent Valentine and Yuffie Kisaragi bring a surprising amount of depth and character to the proceedings. All have their reasons for joining Avalanche on their quest, and there is a remarkable collection of developed back-stories for our cast. But it’s really with troubled protagonist Cloud and tragic heroine Aeris where the plot comes into its own and the black and white proceedings soon become a mottled grey.
Of course, you really can’t talk about the cast and plot in FF7 without mentioning the eponymous villain, Sephiroth. Surely the most revered foe in gaming history; he is the very definition of a cool, insane, murderous bastard. A former member of SOLDIER and a product of horrific and dark experiments, Sephiroth begins a mission to destroy Shinra, but very quickly indeed the plot develops more twists and turns than a bowlful of tagliatelle.
Perhaps it would be untrue to call the plot ‘perfect’, but no other game – RPG or otherwise – has come closer. For anyone who has yet to experience this masterpiece, I can’t recommend it firmly enough. (Terence Gage)In between the compelling narrative and the exciting, fast-paced (if a bit too frequent) battles lies a trove of mini-games and even more side-quests. The Golden Saucer – a theme park of sorts – houses a challenging battle arena, a chocobo racing tournament, and an arm wrestling simulator among other things. Outside of this entertainment hub, Cloud will also engage in adrenaline-fuelled motorbike chases (with his trusty Buster Sword in hand!), a spot of chocobo breeding for racing and/or self-exploration purposes, and the crazy-stylish sport that is snowboarding. (This mini-game has also since been retooled as a complete cellphone game.) FF7 was the first mainstream J-RPG to break through to the masses living in the Western world and while some may say that the audio-visual side of things was the key reason it finally got some attention, I beg to differ; the sheer amount of quality content evident throughout is what made it such a hit with the common gamer.
Even now, I still go back to replay sections of FF7, whether it be to rip apart the over-powered optional bosses (i.e. the incredible Weapons), engage in one of the many minigames, relive the touching, memorable story, or listen to the wonderful eclectic soundtrack comprised of many a powerful, moving melody (Aeris’ Theme; Overworld Theme), more than a few virtuosic, con brio flurries (Fighting; Still More Fighting), and how could I forget the rousing finale that is One-Winged Angel. As you may gather, reminiscing about it all just ain’t enough for me! And I’m positive that millions of others, the world over, share the exact same sentiments. (Currently, many fans are praying for a full-blown, high-definition remake as the tech-demo of E3 2005 teased.)
Without a doubt, FF7 is one of the top Final Fantasy games out there. It is also one of the best RPG adventures of all time. While it isn’t perfect by any means – the frequent battles, confusing progression, slightly cumbersome controls, and numerous plot-holes (covered eventually by the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII titles) spring to mind – it’s still a rock-solid work of art. Is it over-rated? Yeah, it is – but only because fan-boys have blown up its magnificence to unrealistic proportions in retaliation against anti-Squaresoft rebels; that, and because Cloud and Sephiroth are considered to be godly icons that would kick anyone else’s butts on any given day of the year, even though their troubled/insane demeanours would suggest otherwise. If you’re any kind of RPG-nut, you’ve probably already played and completed FF7, wasting several days of your life in the process of logging in countless hours of exploration, side-questing, random battles or just chilling with the trove of mini-games available. If you haven’t yet experienced what millions of others already have (since that glorious day in 1997 – yes, a whole decade ago now!), FF7 truly is a fantasy well worth (re)playing. Do try it.