Above all, Final Fantasy VII is an experiment in "cinematic storytelling". It is a game and a story, though the two never really come together. This might trouble an unprepared gamer, and I see this as the clear source of the widespread disagreement on FFVII's value as an RPG. Nevertheless, as the game goes on, it is harder and harder to say what is tacked onto what - the game onto the story, or vice versa.
Which doesn't exactly matter, since both aspects of Final Fantasy VII are really quite good, to certain extents. Unfortunately, as this is an obvious experiment, the game does run into some problems.
If I were to rate Final Fantasy VII solely on the merit of its central plot, it would receive an exceptionally high grade. It is the most poignant, captivating story of one man's search for his identity I've seen pulled off not only in an RPG, but within the bounds of conventional literature as well. Unfortunately, it resolves in its entirety by the middle of the second disk, whereas the game goes onto the third.
Furthermore, Final Fantasy VII seems to have trouble balancing its key villains: in the first disk, the player gets several glimpses of Sephiroth, the main antagonist; indeed, most of the story at this point consists of chasing him all over the world. But somewhere on the second disk the focus shifts and Sephiroth is deftly removed from the picture, at least for a while. Shinra, Inc., on the other hand, is the game's antagonistic force, draining the planet of life energy in the wild search for profits.
Nevertheless, the heroes' struggle against this commercial giant lacks drama (most of Shinra's goons are target of the game's somewhat inappropriate humor), and the player never really has much staked on whether Shinra does or does not fall.
Similarly, the game's atmosphere and pacing oscillates between a brooding industrial thriller and generic droll high fantasy. Early on, while the player is still in Midgar, plot twists occur often. Soon, however, the gameplay moves into the outside world, and some of the setting's dark, fascinating originality is sapped away. The longer the game goes on, the more steam the plot looses. Which brings me to a point one might consider controversial: Final Fantasy VII is too long; a third of the game and about half of all dialog is filler - mindless, pointless filler that just makes the game longer and more tedious.
The game's mechanics are simple and surprisingly intuitive. Except for the Limit Breaks, all special attacks and commands in the game are gained through Materia - orbs of crystallized magical energy. In order to be used, Materia must be equipped in slots on weapons and armor. Once equipped, it will alter the character's performance in a variety of ways.
There are seventy-nine species of Materia (sixteen of which are summons) available throughout the game - to be bought, found, won, and sold. Materia comes in five types: magic - which gives the character access to various spells; command - which opens up a new special command - be it "Attack x2" or "Steal"; independent - which influences attributes and provides other constant effects; support - which modifies other equipped Materia - such as the "All" Materia, which gives spells an area effect; and, lastly, summon Materia, which is self-explanatory.
The revolutionary aspect of the Materia system is that it can be equipped on any character, in any order or combination, and be removed or exchanged just as easily.
Nevertheless, the Materia engine is unbalanced, and here's how: as long as it is equipped, Materia gains experience, though it uses a point system different from that of the characters. The crux is that Materia gains experience much more slowly than the characters, and it is necessary to level up Materia in order to coax spells of a higher magnitude from it. And with a veritable deluge of orbs to level up, this task is indeed daunting.
Similarly, few species of Materia maintain a degree of usefulness throughout the game's duration - only a smattering is really vital. Leveling up the rest is a chore. Magic Materia will probably be the first to go: I found little use for elemental and status spells, being content to equip my characters with Materia which allowed them to hit harder and more frequently.
Combat always carries a frenetic air, because it runs in semi-real time. I say semi-real because the counter stops for especially lengthy spells (some of the summons take upwards of two minutes to execute, and not all of them are a joy to watch). Otherwise it runs constantly: when you are selecting commands, items, and spells, you run the risk of being attacked. Fortunately, you can slow the overall pace of combat.
Nevertheless, when fighting I frequently fumbled with the menus - they are narrow and show only a few entries at a time. In the heat of battle, it is especially difficult to select specific targets - the direction buttons are dependent on the camera, and when you attempt to select a party member it will usually display the combatants in profile, concealing one behind the others.
The Active Time Battle also gives rise to several "loop" encounters. For example, early in the game the player may encounter "bloatfloats", which occur in groups of five. Being identical, they take turns in consecution. Coupled with their highly damaging special attack and their tendency of targeting a single character, they become deadly. "Battery Caps" occur in sixes and fry your party with their "Four Laser" attack.
Perhaps the most devious is the loop encounter with the small frogs around Gongaga - when the encounter with them opens, the party is automatically surrounded, preventing escape. Though their attacks deal negligible damage, the frogs constantly use their "Frog Song" attack, turning members of your party into sleeping frogs over and over again, until you are ready to claw at them in fury.
Furthermore, Final Fantasy VII suffers from a dearth of bosses. Indeed, the bulk of the game's combat is random encounters, which occur with variable frequency, sometimes only allowing the gamer a few seconds to regain composure between battles. Gaining Limit Breaks depends on the player's patience - not being much of a fan of repetitive combat, I arrived at the finale several special attacks short.
The graphics in Final Fantasy exist in two extremes: the oft-beautiful (though too dark) hand-drawn backgrounds stand in grave contrast to the angular polygonal character models. And though the heroes themselves don't look too bad, the only way to tell polygonal NPCs from polygonal rocks and trees is to remember that there are none in FFVII's prerendered world (which doesn't help much when you want to find out which way the miners in Bone Village are facing).
A special compliment must be put in for the fluidity with which the game lapses into and out of FMV sequences - it's startling. Combat is where the game really shines - smoke, light, and particle effects astound even today, though the polygons are decidedly gritty. On a separate downside, some of the screens just take too long to run across. Yet, it is realistic to watch your polygonal Cloud become reduced to a little speck on the horizon - but it is hardly entertaining.
Moreover, the game utilizes two different control themes which are used interchangeably - a natural WYSIWYG layout and an isometric one. Early on I frequently got stuck on the scenery. In several places the character will freeze up and skip a few animations, only to resume motion a moment later.
Overall monotony dilutes the impact of the game's better musical pieces. One hears the gloomy overworld theme far too often, and the rest - the quirky Wall Market and Don Corneo themes, the grand oriental piece from Wutai, and the invariably touching Aeris music just aren't memorable in view of the overwhelming routine.
A word must be said for the minigames: they aren't much fun. Most are just ploys to make the acquisition of Gold Points less of a chore. Chocobo racing fades in view of the fact that competition is meaningless - a good, well-fed Chocobo will easily outrace all opponents.
An overall conclusion? I am at a loss to draw one other than this: Final Fantasy is too loose for its own good. It unifies a great deal of interesting concepts, but it drowns them in a sea of monotony. This bud never really blooms, save for in the minds of its countless fans.