It’s impossible for me to overstate my hype for Final Fantasy VII when it originally released. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize Final Fantasy wouldn’t be on a Nintendo console anymore, so when it was released for the PlayStation, I didn’t have a way to play it. I clamored for the game for months. I even bought it before I got a PlayStation and read the strategy guide until my eyes crossed. Once I finally got my hands on the system, I was completely enamored with the story, the characters, and all the side content. The graphics blew my mind. No game since has captured my imagination the way that Final Fantasy VII did. RPGs were already my preferred genre; after Final Fantasy VII, I didn’t play anything else for years.
In the years since, I’ve played most of the compilation titles, and even forced myself to sit through Advent Children. Today, general opinion on Final Fantasy VII goes in almost every direction, ranging from lambasting it as the downfall of Final Fantasy to praising it as one of the greatest games ever made. It’s hard to get past all that noise and see the game as it is. With the added features of the port, and the ability to take it on the go with the Switch, is Final Fantasy VII worth going back to or experiencing for the first time? For me, in many ways, it’s deeply flawed. But what it does right, it does very, very right.
The story is exactly as you remember: it opens with a sweeping camera over Midgar — a closed off, industrial city — introducing us to not only a couple of the key characters, but also the unpleasant setting. You control Cloud, an ex-member of SOLDIER (an elite military group) as he works as a mercenary with AVALANCHE (an eco-terrorist group) to blow up a reactor that uses energy from the planet to power Midgar.
Whew. And that’s just in the first 20 minutes.
The story goes in different directions from there, touching on both ecological and psychological concerns that games hadn’t previously covered. The narrative seemed fresh and bold in 1997, but many of the story beats have been tackled more effectively in the years since. Additionally, the story just doesn’t make sense at times; this is largely due to the translation, which is unfortunately intact from its original iteration. There are a few things that make the story mostly work, though. Notably, the characters are vibrant and varied, in spite of the spotty translation. Most of the characters work outside of the stereotypes associated with their appearance. Aeris, for example, seems like a typical ‘good girl,’ but she is overtly flirtatious with Cloud and often encourages him to do less than savory things. The 3D graphics successfully add to that characterization as well: characters shrugging, moving up and down, and otherwise gesticulating brings them to life in ways that sprite work simply could not. Sephiroth wouldn’t be nearly as imposing without his lengthy Masamune.
Most importantly, despite telling a relatively intimate story, Final Fantasy VII feels like an sweeping game of epic scope because of its big moments. Whether it’s the aforementioned camera sweep to open the game, or the flashback to the burning of an important town, or losing that character, the big moments of the game are exciting, heartbreaking, and exulting because so much care was put into the cutscenes. It’s easy to see why Square decided to start making movies after this. Their cinematic instincts are right on the money here. Sure, the cutscenes might not be as awe inspiring from a graphics perspective anymore, but they are rousing in all the right ways.
The gameplay here has not aged quite as well as the story, but luckily, the improvements in the port take the edge off of some of the outdated mechanics. For starters, the combat feels painfully slow. The summon animations were cool in 1997, but they’re a chore now, and the lengthy animations for even normal attacks seem sluggish at times. Even the post-battle celebrations got on my nerves. But there’s good news: the Switch port allows you to speed up the game 3x. This was a useful feature in the field, especially the overworld, but it was a lifesaver in battle. Suddenly, combat was snappy, and random battles didn’t take forever. With this additional feature, the tried and true mechanics of the ATB system are still fun, and maybe even a little more exciting with everything moving so quickly. If a boss fight gets particularly sticky, you can turn it off whenever you like, but otherwise this is an essential feature that makes the game much more playable.
Other new features in the ports include the ability to become nearly invincible with characters’ health and MP constantly regenerating or leaving your character in ‘limit break’ form at all times, limit breaks being powerful attacks exclusive to each character that build as damage is taken. Another is the ability to turn off random encounters. Some have decried these features as cheating; that’s silly. These features allow you to come back to the game and experience the story again without being forced to sink 40-50 hours into it. If you don’t like the new features, then just don’t use them. I didn’t use them much, but I did find myself turning off random battles when I couldn’t figure out where I was going. With the high encounter rate, it was a blessing which made the entire experience much smoother.
One thing these new features can’t fix, though, is the Materia system. In this game, skills and magic are learned by equipping materia to your weapons or armor. You gain experience for the equipped materia after each battle, and they level up. The levels stay with the Materia, and are thus not associated with any specific character. At first blush, this seems like a cool, highly customizable system that allows a lot of freedom. And it is. The problem is that the characters all feel nearly the same in battle as a result. Outside of minor stat differences and limit breaks, there isn’t much to distinguish them, and it takes away from their characterization, leaving combat monotonous.
Final Fantasy VII is still chock-full of minigames and side content. Throughout the main game, there are many more built-in minigames than I remembered. Some are harmless (like performing CPR), some are really fun (snowboarding), and some are incredibly aggravating. (I’m looking at you, jumping dolphin.) It’s neat that Square tried to pack in so much variety, but when I hit a minigame and struggled, it was frustrating along with breaking the natural flow of the game. The extra content, though, is more fun than it’s ever been, largely due to the new features. Chocobo breeding doesn’t seem nearly as boring when you can speed it up. Even taking down some of the super-boss ‘Weapons’ is doable without spending over 100 hours preparing for them. Luckily, while there is a wealth of extra content for those looking for it, it’s not necessary. I didn’t engage in nearly any of it this time around, and the final boss was still manageable without any grinding.
There is certainly charm to the blocky characters, but in general, the look of the game has not aged well from either an aesthetic or a gameplay perspective. Indeed, the character models are sharpened and look much better than before, but the same treatment was not given to the static 2D backgrounds, which is a problem on two fronts. One, the difference between the upscaled character models and the comparatively dull backgrounds is jarring and took me out of the experience a few times. Two, it’s often hard to figure out where you’re going because of the lack of detail. I couldn’t see where caves opened or figure out the right place to jump on more than a few occasions.
From a musical perspective, this game is still strong. Uematsu is said to be disappointed with the sound presentation, but I think it’s some of his finest work. I’ll admit to being tired of some of the tracks from years of hearing them played again and again outside of the game. But in game, these tracks absolutely shine and underscore the emotional beats perfectly. The only gripe I have is the much talked about overworld theme bug — every time you exit battle, the music resets to the beginning of the track. My solution? Turn off random battles a few times so I could hear it in all its glory. It’s annoying, mostly because it is easily fixed, but not an issue that I found myself noticing too often.
Undoubtedly, the Switch is the best way to experience this touchstone of the genre. Playing on the go is fun, and the port-specific features take the edge off of some of the decidedly PS1 era annoyances I don’t have the patience for anymore. All these added features help us to see the best things Final Fantasy VII has to offer — the incredible moments of storytelling, the music underscoring those moments, and the wealth of additional content. Final Fantasy VII might not quite live up to the classic status we ascribed to it over 20 years ago, but it’s still an epic adventure that’s worth returning to or experiencing for the first time.