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The Calf of Gold
As I gaze at the back of my Final Fantasy VII jewel case, the first thing that strikes my eyes is the quote that runs along the top: “…quite possibly the greatest game ever made.” And yes, for a time (and what a time it was) this was undisputedly true, as Final Fantasy VII graced the covers of several publications with similar adulations. More than half a decade later, and such a pompous quote brings a smirk to my face. For now, the words ‘quite possibly’ in the quote can be replaced with simply ‘not’, as the march of the dinosaurs that accompanied its release has since died off.
Final Fantasy VII has a strange hold on me. I foster a peculiar love/hate relationship with this game: there are times when I absolutely adore its ambitious yet convoluted story and dark presentation, and others where I totally abhor its bland characters and lack of coherence. Moreso than probably any other title in the series, Time has not been a kind mistress to Final Fantasy VII.
Maybe its because this game is the RPG genre’s own calf of gold. Upon its release everyone was quick to jump on its bandwagon (including me), pronouncing it as the greatest RPG ever, the harbinger of a new revolution; the death of the ‘old-school’ and birth of more modern and ‘mature’ themes in videogames was at hand—all because of this game (in my defense, this was the first console RPG I played myself, and I was young). And yes, few would argue against Final Fantasy VII being a revolutionary title, and the one responsible for bringing RPG’s into the mainstream. But this does not make it the greatest game (or RPG) of all time—though this reasoning has caused many to go astray, in keeping with the Biblical allusion of this review’s title.
Let’s formally begin the review on the game with the battle system. It features yet another incarnation of the ATB system, which everyone by now has had to have heard of. This time however characters learn skills, commands, magic, and even defensive properties through fragments known as Materia—somewhat similar to how you learned magic from Magicite/Espers in Final Fantasy VI. However it is much more in-depth in this game, as Materia can be mixed and matched on weapons and armor to form potent combinations (which is indeed, very fun); but the learned skills are kept on the Materia, not with the characters. Thus, you must switch Materia between characters to allocate magic, battle commands (such as Steal and Throw), and so on. Herein lies the problem with this system: since the characters themselves don’t truly learn anything, then they are basically empty stales that you build up. Besides their desperation Limit Breaks, they themselves have nothing unique to offer in an effort to warrant a special place in battle. In the end, this leaves many of the nine playable characters obsolete; and this is the biggest fault I find in games such as these, that favor heavy customization.
Speaking of the characters, as aforementioned there are nine of them in the cast. There are several supporting characters and NPC’s, and the potential was there for some great interaction and relationships in the cast. Though this game features some of the most memorable characters of all time (namely Cloud and Sephiroth), the problem (of course there had to be one) is that very few of the other characters receive the development they should have. It’s not that they don’t receive the development—they just don’t receive enough. The secret characters can more forgivingly be excluded from this, but even they receive some development, unlike other principle members such as Aeris, Tifa, and Cait Sith; even secondary villains such as the Turks, Hojo, and Rufus are warranted more growth as characters. Coming after Final Fantasy VI, which was masterful in this regard, the cast of this game is a disappointment. As for how the characters look, well they are…ugly, composed of bulky, blocky polygons. The pre-rendered backgrounds though are gorgeous, and further immerse the character into the unique and mysterious world. The much-hyped FMV’s are simply stunning, and seamlessly transition from in-game graphics to amp the cinematic scope of the game.
The story itself has become a classic, said to be almost unparalleled in form or execution—yet few actually understand it, especially in light of the fact that this game concludes with one of the worst (or should I say infinitely ambiguous?) endings ever. Yes the story, a rebellion against an evil corporation that erupts into a struggle against a disillusioned ‘god’ figure, is ambitious and grand, unlike any told before its time; but read a little here, remember a little from the beginning there…and the story begins to unfold more and more like that puzzle box in the closet with more than a few missing pieces. There is evidence that this game was quite rushed to completion (even though it had been three years since the prequel, they did switch from Nintendo to Sony, and consequently new systems), as there are some glaring holes in the plot. In its defense many of the answers are hidden in the plot, and they just take a lot of time and effort to find over the course of the 50-plus hours it takes to finish the game. Despite this handicap the story still set a bold new precedent for the series, and remains highly touted as one of the best in the genre.
Another factor in defense of the impression that Square was pressed for time with this game is the localization. Not the worst ever, but there are some definite errors scattered throughout the game. The worse thing about the localization, however, is the typecasting of some of the characters’ dialogue, mainly Barret’s and Cid’s. You can’t even understand what they are saying half of the time because %^&@!! and #>!#% permeate their text boxes! Even stranger, as the game progresses instead of denoting swear words with arbitrary symbols, they are depicted as is—in the whole. Why the translators set the game up like this is beyond me, as at times the games reads like a badly typed, un-proofread document.
I love the music from Final Fantasy VII…I mean, I love SOME of the music from Final Fantasy VII. Though the atmospheric music effectively sets a dark mood for the game (which I like) for the better part, a good portion of the soundtrack sounds weak and uninspired—especially when compiled against the SNES-era Final Fantasies. This game sounds best when it is being melancholy and foreboding, and really fails in other venues: it’s true that tracks such as One Winged Angel, the Main Theme, Aeris’ Theme, and Valley of the Fallen Stars rank among the best in the series (and of all time); but I must say that Uematsu’s work took a backwards step after the masterful Final Fantasy VI. Of course, this still means that the music is better than eighty-percent of the other stuff out there anyway, and still warrants a purchase if you’re into game soundtracks.
In conclusion, this has probably been the hardest review for me to write. As stated before and hinted at throughout, I both admire and abhor this game. Five years ago this was my without-a-doubt favorite game—a definite 5 out of 5—and it holds a dear spot in my heart as my first console RPG experience. But Time has not been kind to Final Fantasy VII, and as the glossy glint that once covered it erodes, I am revealed to and forced to accept more and more of its shortcomings. However nothing can take away the historical importance of this game. To this day it remains an established—albeit flawed—masterpiece and will remain so for years to come.
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