Something like a phenomenon
Reviewing Final Fantasy VII is somewhat daunting, because of the enormous hype that surrounds this monolith of videogaming culture. The first Final Fantasy game to hit the PlayStation, introducing cinematics and 3D, it’s unquestionably the most popular episode in the series and has achieved cult status, since it was many people’s first FF. If you want an indication of the scope of the phenomenon, try browsing a JRPG-related forum, and you’re likely to encounter several screenname variations on either Cloud or Sephiroth. The other measure of the game’s popularity is the number of spinoffs it has generated: an OVA (Last Order), an animated film sequel (Advent Children), a prequel (Crisis Core), a pre-prequel (Before Crisis) and a spinoff sequel featuring what was originally an optional character (Dirge of Cerberus). I also strongly suspect that the names of these spinoffs were intentionally made to follow a pattern (AC, BC, CC and DC? Come on…).
I won’t deny that the game has its merits: the characters are memorable (whether in a good or bad way), the villain has style and flair, the story is compelling and has little in common with preceding games in the series. Where FFVI only dabbled in steampunk, this one dabbles, dips and takes a belly-flop into it, transporting the series into a completely futuristic setting, with the heroes facing a radically different set of problems than in the previous opuses. There are still super-deformed sprites–which, incidentally, look like Legos, with their blocky hands and lack of noses–, but the characters also get the luxury of normally-sized incarnations during cinematic sequences and battles, thus taking expressiveness to a new level. Summoning sequences are also one of the big graphical highlights. Granted, by modern-day standards, the quality is very dated, but you can imagine just how awesome it must have seemed back when the game first came out.
That being said, I’m one of those people that have always felt that FFVII was absurdly overrated. Yes, it’s a very good game; yes, I would gladly replay it anytime, but it’s been blown out of all proportion. Some fans would have you believe that it’s the ultimate masterpiece of videogaming. Well…it isn’t. I don’t even number it among my top five games in the series. And even objectively speaking, there have been better, more innovative and interesting games since, whether in terms of storyline, characterisation or atmosphere (I won’t say graphics, because that’s not a fair criterion). First of all, the ending is seriously underwhelming. This may be one of the driving reasons behind the spinoffs (besides the desire to
milk fans for cash capitalise on the game’s popularity), but you may be left wondering “was that really it?” Secondly, the characters are deeply flawed, so much so that I either strongly dislike or have serious reservations about over half the cast, which makes it a little difficult for me to empathise with them. Thirdly, the driving idea behind the storyline may be a good one, but the execution is somewhat…lacking in places, and the tone of the game is sometimes almost jarringly goofy. There are some genuinely bizarre or even disturbing interludes (like the whole Wall Market-Honeybee Inn episode) that could either be considered as extremely bold by the JRPG standards of the time or wildly offensive, depending on how you look at them. Of course, the FF series doesn’t always take itself seriously, and there are some more lighthearted and even genuinely goofy episodes in the lot (e.g. FFV), but this is rather on a different level. And last, but not least, the translation is really weak. There are mistakes, inconsistencies, awkward vocabulary choices, and let me insist how lucky you are if you’ve only played this in English. My first copy of the game was in French, and boy, was that worse.
FFVII is currently being remade for the current console generation, but the developers’ decision to make it into several games smacks far too much of blatant cash grabbing for me. However, if you own a PS or a PC, you can still play the original–although PS copies are probably rather expensive now–, and there are plenty of good reasons why you should give it a go if you haven’t already, even if it’s just to see what all the fuss is about. Just don’t expect a life-altering experience, that’s all I’m saying.