Guest appearance by C. M0use
Final Fantasy 7 is a goddamn headache, man. Not only from a gameplay perspective - if you don't have a taste for repetitive battles and long stretches of non-interactive melodrama - but just the whole psychic environment that surrounds the game, particularly on the Interbutts.
You see, they couldn't just settle for this one being another moderate sales success for nerds like Final Fantasy 6 was. Square had to go on a three month, multi-million-dollar ad blitz prior to release of the game in 1997, much of which was targetted at drawing "casual" gamers into the heretofore entirely geek-dominated world of RPGs.
FF7's brilliant dialogue
It worked, of course, and many self-professed "hardcore" gamers thus see FF7 as The Cancer That Killed Final Fantasy (for them, at least). However, that criticism - along with most of the other major criticisms of the game you see around the Web these days, not to mention the pockets of frothing hatred of it - is almost entirely based on things that have grown out of the game since its release, rather than the game itself. The huge, frequently rabid and obnoxious fanbase, for one thing. Many people simply hate the game because they hate a lot of the people that like the game - a lot of people who fall into this group may have actually never played FF7 or only played a few cursory minutes of it. There's also the unabashed whoresmanship with which Square has treated the property as of late, with an absolute glut of spinoffs and movies (and even a perpetually threatened but never delivered PS3 remake), just about all of which are indefensibly terrible. And then there's the trends that FF7 is seen as establishing - the move toward making console RPGs uniformly Animu in style, increasingly non-interactive, emphasizing graphics and style over gameplay, and packed full of bishy-boy characters with ambiguous motivations and ridiculous fashion sense.
I would submit that, getting lost in the stew which has been created in the wake of FF7, are the merits of the actual game itself - the three-disc set that was released for the original Playstation over a decade ago now.
First of all, there's really no way that a game which has a budget of tens of millions of dollars, and which is staffed by the sort of talent that produced the six previous Final Fantasy games, is going to come out objectively bad. It may not be to a player's subjective personal taste, but to say it's a shoddy product that Square has somehow brainwashed tens of millions of people into enjoying is just an unhinged argument. A multi-million dollar budget and veteran programming and design talent working from an established solid formula will, at the very least, assure you a Meh face if nothing else. I mean, you're bound to do at least a few things right with those circumstances. There's only a small handful of games in gaming history that have been produced under such circumstances and come out just irredeemably awful, and FF7 isn't one of them.
Bestiality adds a touch of class to any game
That said, the game is also nowhere near what its legions of hardcore fanboys - most of them bound up in the nostalgia of having it be their formative introduction to RPGs, good game music and cinematic technique in gaming - claim it to be. It has quite a few significant flaws.
The most glaring is the rushed translation, which does a decent job with dialogue mandatory to the narrative for the first two discs or so, but then gets sloppy towards the end and is almost uniformly awful for NPCs and other non-vital areas of the game.
FF7's complex, nuanced villain
It's also far too easy - while you can't as easily break your characters as you could in FF6, the challenge level overall is also significantly lower. There's absolutely no need to ever grind at all, except perhaps for money - which is usually a good thing, except that there's also no need to ever really shift your tactics in battle away from strong attacks, a good generic mass damage spell or two, maybe a buff like Big Guard for the rare semi-challenging fight, and a mass heal spell on one or two characters. That simplistic pattern will carry you up to and through the end of the game with very little variation unless you just feel like mucking about for the sake of mucking about. There are a couple of optional bosses who are a challenge, but they jag from being too easy to too ridiculous (1 million hit points each and insane attack damage), to the point where no one but the most hardcore OCD will want to be bothered with buffing up to take them down.
The game also falls a bit into the old PC adventure game pattern of strewing clumsy mini-games in to break up the action. In theory it's a good idea, but in practice these are more often irritating and have shit control (often not properly explained to the player either, thanks partially to the aforementioned botched translation), and really just serve to waste the player's time. Fortunately, very few of them saddle you with the possibility of losing the game if you screw up, but you can miss out on fun bonus items, and they sometimes destroy the pacing of the game.
The biggest barrier to enjoyment of the game for the unbelievers, however, is probably simply the main character and the main villain. Cloud and Sephiroth have become two of the most overblown figures in video game history at this point. In the case of Cloud, it's a bit of a bum rap due to the same circumstances that his game gets hated for - he's become sort of a poster boy for wangst, and yet that isn't so much due to the character as it is to the association after the fact with the whole Linkin Park, basement-dwelling crowd that took the game up to such a great degree. In-game, he's certainly not the most well-developed character, hardly communicates much, and doesn't give you a whole lot of reason to like him or identify with him, but he actually gradually matures over the course of the game and handles his shit, and even during his "lol I'm an angsty lone wolf badass loner" period during the first disc, his dialogue choices actually allow you to have him come off as halfway human and communicative. Given the circumstances the game sets him in I didn't think his response was anywhere near over the top, and it's a far cry from games that would later go way farther overboard on this theme (Xenogears, Xenosaga, FF8 for a few starter examples). Sephiroth, on the other hand, really just sucks as a villain. His design is a clear pander to the bishy wet dreams of teenage girls and gay dudes, he gets almost zero real development, and he has the good ol' "deus ex machina" superpowers that seemingly allow him to do anything he wants when he needs to, yet he never actually effectively stops the party from opposing him aside from one famous moment in the game. He also disappears from the game almost completely for most of the second disc, which is actually a blessing in disguise because the game is way more interesting and easy to swallow in the segments where Shinra is your main opposition. On the whole, the game really doesn't have that "CRAWWLLLIIING IN MY SKIIIIIN" vibe to it that later similar games would be much, much worse about, and I think FF7 is kind of the victim of retroactive poisoning in this manner. The game frequently has the comic tone that pervaded FF5 and the first half of FF6, especially when dealing with Shinra, the antics of whose grunts make them hard to hate in spite of how genuinely evil the company is.
Mystery Shinra Theater 3000?
After playing the game again start-to-finish, I'm left with the impression that the main problem with both FF7 and the post-FF7 series isn't inherently FF7 itself, but character designer and battle cinematographer Tetsuya Nomura. If there is a Cancer That Has Killed Final Fantasy, I believe Nomura is it.
At the point at which FF7 was created, these were Nomura's only duties, which he had just taken over with this game from Yoshitaka Amano. He didn't write the script or the dialogue, in as far as I know. But the design and writing is not a linear process, and the game was basically forced to cater to his aesthetic sense, which is completely ridiculous. Cloud doesn't need to wield some huge airplane wing of a sword. Tifa doesn't need to have a generic male fantasy outfit and giant DDD breasts that she shoves out at the end of every battle. Sephiroth doesn't need to cast a spell that destroys the universe four or five times over before landing to hit your party for a measly 3000 damage. And we don't need to watch summon animations that, while many of which are impressive, are also too long for something that can't be skipped and has to be watched every time you fire them off. You can thank Nomura for all of the above, and then some. At this point he's like the ultimate Otaku nerd with a teenage boy mentality, just gleefully chucking in anything he thinks looks cool regardless of whether it meshes well with the established narrative or destroys the more serious aspects of the plot by making the visuals totally absurd.
And this drags down what, bad translation aside, is really not that bad of a story. The translation hampers it, as does Cloud's lack of personality and Sephiroth's generic Madman Destroying The World role, but it is really fairly interesting and even has the capacity to be touching here and there. It's really a goddamn shame that most of the camera time is focused on Cloud and Sephiroth because there's a fascinating world in the background that doesn't get as much development as you wish it would. As such, you sort of have to enjoy it indirectly through the hand-drawn static background visuals, which are really excellent and packed with subtle detail. Shinra and what they are doing to the world is a clear parable to IRL corporate business mentality, but rather than run with this theme we get Pretty Boy V.S. Pretty Boy in a battle for the universe instead. I'm convinced that a lot of the fandom for this game subconsciously enjoys it not so much for what it gave us but for the potential of what it could have given, and they keep coming back to it in the hopes that it will someday be delivered.
FF7's gripping drama
Unfortunately, due to FF7 being far and away the biggest commercial success of the series, and his subsequent major financial success with the Kingdom Hearts series, Nomura has since been promoted to complete creative control of the Final Fantasy universe, and you can thank him for the superficial Dragon Ball Z wank fest that was Advent Children as well as everything else that's spewed out the pipe since then. Nomura is like the Sephiroth blocking the Holy of the potential of this universe from being realized, and simultaneously like the Shinra in sucking all the life out of it for quick profits, for personal glory and for indulging his fetish for fruity fashion boys flying around at the expense of maturity and real substance. And that's a goddamn shame, really.
What most FF7 fans would do given half the chance
What you're left with, then, is the original FF7 all by it's lonesome. But it can still be a good experience. The battles are a little too easy and too repetitive, the plot and characters have some stuff dragging them down and the writing rarely hits the peak that it could have, and there's a good amount of non-interactive cutscene watching and dialogue (though nothing on the order of Xenogears, thankfully.) But on the plus side - Nobuo Uematso's score is really fantastic, the last of his really great scores before the burnout of doing 200+ songs per FF game started to visibly set in with FF8. There's the often beautiful background graphics and effects, and while the polygons are chunky and have not aged well, animation is still reasonably fluid and doesn't get bad enough to get distracting. The story is on the same melodramatic order of that of FF4-6, and like those games the music often makes it seem better than it is, and I didn't think this one carried it all off quite as well as FF4 or FF6 did, but it's still more than good enough to make for an interesting bit of escapism. When you get the airship and are finally turned loose to explore the world, there's a reasonable amount of side-quests and little discoveries to keep you busy (if you don't spoil it all for yourself with a FAQ ahead of time.) It also flows smoothly and doesn't get bogged down with any overly difficult bosses or dungeons or really obtuse quests. You have to be in a certain mood for it, and it certainly isn't ever going to be mistaken for fine literature, but FF7 really is a pretty good game, mostly hewing to the same formula that made FF4-6 pleasant experiences, and anyone who has even half an appreciation for RPGs should give it a play at least once.
Chocoboz is all about dem greens, son
* Caves of Narshe FF7 section
* The Romantic Date Scene
* The Tragic Death Scene