Square's Final Fantasy series is arguably the most popular console RPG series in the world today (Enix's Dragon Quest series is the only other RPG series that rivals this popularity). The release of Final Fantasy 7 for the Sony Playstation was met with an unprecedented amount of hype and hoopla, and for good reason. Final Fantasy games in the past have all been known for their all-around excellence, upholding high standards in graphics, music composition, storyline, and gameplay. The initial 32-bit installment of the famed series unfortunately does not quite live up to the vast amount of hype generated by its fans and advertising, but proves itself to be an excellent RPG.
The first thing that most gamers will notice about Final Fantasy 7 is the beautiful graphical presentation. The quality of the visuals in FF7 is unprecedented, especially when compared to other RPGs. Like many other RPGs, the world of FF7 is divided into three main area types: the area maps (dungeons, towns, etc.), the world map, and the battle screens.
In the area maps, the backgrounds are beautiful 2D prerendered bitmaps that are leaps and bounds above other RPGs in their level of detail. They are also beautifully colored as well. One of the most memorable area maps to me will always be the grass covered mountain ledges that you climb up in the valley of the fallen star while in pursuit of Sephiroth, the game's main villain. These backgrounds are presented in a variety of angles, and the polygonal characters change their dimensions (i.e. get bigger or smaller) as you move through the backgrounds, thus matching the changes of perspective pretty well. The polygonal characters are also animated very smoothly and display a variety of animations as well in an attempt for more realism.
The world map is perhaps the best world map ever in an RPG. It's in 3D, can undergo free rotation, and has a much higher level of detail than the world maps in any other RPG that comes to mind. In addition, there is more motion here in FF7 than in any other RPG's equivalent screen. For example, waves lap against the shore when you are standing near a beach, and suspension bridges bob up and down as you cross them. You even leave temporary footprints when you cross over snowy areas.
The battle screens are also 3D, and feature polygonal player characters and enemies that display a multitude of attacks. Unlike the world map and the area maps, your characters are not superdeformed; their proportions are actually somewhat realistic (the key word here is "somewhat"). Your characters also have a bit more detail in the battle screens than in the world map or area maps, but the backgrounds in the battle screens are noticeably blockier as well. The perspective also cuts from camera to camera (this feature is not manually controllable), so the player is treated to a variety of camera angles in combat. The most impressive aspects of the battle screens are the spell effects and summon attacks. In FF7, you will summon some big, impressive monsters that animate well and have breathtaking attacks. Even a full year after its US release, FF7's spell effects are still the benchmark that all others are measured against.
Although the spell effects and summon attacks set a new standard for RPG graphics (and video game graphics in general, the CG cut scenes are what truly blew me away. They are beautifully drawn, smoothly animated, and exhibit no noticeable level of graininess. In addition, their insertion into the game is brilliantly planned. In most cases, the transition from gameplay to cut scene is seamless.
Despite possessing the best graphics ever seen in an RPG, FF7 does have some minor graphical flaws. The aforementioned blocky battle screen backgrounds are a noticeable step down from the rest of the graphics in the game. Also, the polygon-based characters in the area maps really stand out from the prerendered backgrounds because the level of detail in the characters is much less than that of the backgrounds. In addition, the polygon-based characters are drawn in a superdeformed style, which is not a bad thing in itself (at least not to me), but negates the effects of some of the attempts at realistic character animation. It looks a bit silly when out-of proportion characters are trying to move like real people do. Also, having 3-D characters on 2D backgrounds sometimes gets confusing; there were multiple occasions where my on-screen character got lost in the background.
Even more important than graphical presentation in an RPG is the storyline. FF7 excels in this department as well. FF7 takes place in a more futuristic setting than past FF games. The storyline revolves around Cloud, a former member of a powerful corporation that exploits the planet for monetary gain and control. In the beginning of the game, Cloud isn't quite sure who he is, and along the way he discovers who he was, who he becomes, and finds a purpose to his life. His interaction with most of the other characters in the game is fleshed out fairly well, and the plot takes some exciting twists. However, the flaws in the storyline are more pronounced than those in the graphics. Some of the characters are very poorly developed, and the plot becomes really awkward towards the end of the game. The ending itself is also a disappointment as well; despite an abundance of well done CG, plot elements (which I consider far more important) are by and large neglected, so a lot of loose ends from the game are completely ignored. Also, the translation quality leaves a lot to be desired; while there are nowhere near as many cases of bad grammar and horrible wording as Final Fantasy Tactics (my translation punching bag), FF7 doesn't make anybody forget the mostly error-free Working Designs, or Ys 1 and 2 for the TG-16 (which, in my opinion, is still unrivaled in its translation quality).
FF7 also exhibits nearly flawless control to go along with its amazing graphical presentation and excellent storyline. Movement of your character in the area maps and world maps is precise and responsive, and while your character walks pretty slow, there is a dash button that enables him to move along at a decent clip. The menu system is as well-designed and easy to navigate as any of the more recent FF games in both the battles and the subscreens, with the cursor moving quickly and precisely as well. The only flaw in control (and it's a really minor one) is that when walking (or running) around, your character sometimes freezes up for a fraction of a second and then subsequently skips a few frames of animation, "jumping" to his new destination and position. This flaw takes away from the precision of character control, but never to a great extent.
FF7 also has great gameplay, though not much of it is innovative at all. As most FF veterans know, battles take place in a turn-based system, with the turns being generated in real time. As mentioned before, there are summon and spell attacks. Unlike past FF games, however, these magical attacks are based on a substance called "materia." In FF7, weapons have varying numbers of slots for different materias. There are many different types of materia. Summon materia allows a character that has it equipped to summon the particular monster that the materia is attuned to (a materia's attenuation is predetermined). Spell materia allows the character who has it equipped to cast spells that the materia is based on. As your characters gain experience points, so does all of the materia that they have equipped. And as the materia goes up in levels, the character equipping it gains access to more powerful spells and/or other benefits in battle.
Another new feature to FF7 is the limit break. Whenever a character takes damage, a special limit meter begins to fill up. When this limit meter is full, the character can execute a powered up attack that usually is much more powerful than his or her standard one. Some limit breaks for some characters heal the party as well. As your characters get stronger, they get access to more powerful limit breaks, too.
There are also a multitude of side quests and mini-games in FF7. The side quests lead to the accumulation of items that are interesting and can aid you (greatly at times), but none are required to finish the game. The mini-games are scattered throughout the game and span many genres, and, while a fun diversion, are nowhere near the quality of the actual game itself or other games of their respective genres.
Everything else in FF7's gameplay is pretty much standard RPG fare, from experience point gathering, interaction with NPCs, and item collection. However, all of it is executed on a higher level than the overwhelming majority of RPGs out there. Still, FF7 has some gameplay flaws. First of all, it's too easy. Seasoned RPG players should have no problem getting through this one without dying a single time, and Sephiroth is possibly the easiest (though also the most impressive graphically) last boss I've ever faced. Also, the materia system takes away from the individuality of the characters, because you can give any character the ability to cast any spell in the game just by giving him that spell's materia. Materia swapping in itself is not a bad thing, but combined with the lack of development of some of the characters, it really does detract from characters' individuality. This point will be of some debate, because many gamers prefer infinitely customizable characters in RPGs, but I personally prefer some individuality to them.
The music in FF7 is very well composed, as one would expect from Nobuo Uematsu, and is fully worthy of the series. A range of varying styles is represented by the profuse soundtrack, but the soundtrack is overall darker and more futuristic than in past FF games. My impression is that the soundtrack isn't quite as consistent in quality as, say, FF5 or FF6, but some of the songs, such as "One-Winged Angel," "Aeris' Theme," and "J-E-N-O-V-A" are among the best that he's ever done.
Sound quality, however, leaves a little to be desired. The sound system used is only slightly improved over that of the SNES FF games, and, when compared to other PS games, is noticeably subpar. However, there are still some bone-chilling sound effects in there, and the overall lack of quality in sound really doesn't detract much from the gaming experience as a whole.
Although FF7 doesn't quite live up to the hype of being the best RPG ever, it still turns out to be an extremely high quality one, and a staple for all RPG fans. If, by some miracle, you haven't played it yet, don't hesitate to pick it up.
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