This isn’t a difficult game. Some bosses might pose a problem if you don’t know what you’re doing…like triggering Vincent’s first Limit Break against a fire-elemental boss (guilty as charged), and visiting the Sunken Gelnika unprepared can be a distinctly painful experience, but otherwise, there’s nothing insurmountable. The fact that this is one of the glitchiest games in the series doesn’t help. There’s notably an item duplication bug which allows you to fill up your inventory without spending a single penny (or Gil) once you get your hands on the W-Item materia, which would normally allow a character to use two items in one turn. Besides, the Gil Plus materia always doubles the party’s monetary gains in combat, regardless of its level. Another bug makes it possible to turn Vincent or Barret into killing machines who can one-shot any enemy, but that one requires actual work to achieve. Not all glitches are beneficial, however: for example, Magic Defense is rendered useless, so there’s no actual way to defend against magical damage.
If you’re worried about challenging fights, you may be happy to learn that optional superbosses make a triumphant return, after being conspicuously absent from FFVI. There are two of them, both Weapons, i.e. creatures released by the planet to protect itself. Emerald Weapon dwells in the sea and has a nasty habit of greeting your party face to face when they exit the Sunken Gelnika (although you have to actively bump into it to trigger the fight), while Ruby Weapon wanders around the desert south of the Gold Saucer. Both are perfectly capable of wiping the floor with your characters’ faces, but if you make the proper preparations before antagonising them, they’re manageable.
While FFVI failed in the superboss department, it did provide a salutary precedent as far the main villain was concerned. FFVII followed its example and produced a villain superstar: Sephiroth, the SOLDIER hero-gone-rogue, with his long silver hair, pale blue eyes, somewhat S&M-looking leather outfit and a katana the length of which defies all reason. Guess Cloud’s not the only one compensating for something…Seriously, how does he fight with that? Anyway, Sephiroth is remarkable among FF villains in that he’s the first one to have a ‘before’ and ‘after’ phase (this was before Golbez(e) had his backstory beefed up). He used to be a normal guy (well…relatively), if a little cold and aloof, but an incident led him to discover his real lineage. This made him flip, and he decided that he was destined for godhood. Thus his goal is to control the Lifestream so that he can rule the planet. As you do. To be entirely fair, he does cut an impressive figure of ruthlessness and cruelty, so he does have a legitimate claim to fame. It’s just that, like with everything about FFVII, he has been overhyped and overexploited. I would rank him in my top three FF villains, but he would be third.
Sephiroth’s monopolisation of the spotlight somewhat obscures the other nefarious forces in the game, but Shinra employees also include an array of disreputable characters. Most of them are little more than comedy villains with evil laughs whom it’s difficult to take seriously (e.g. Heidegger, despite being named after a German philosopher), but some, like the mad scientist, Hojo, are more effective. There’s also the team of Turks which keeps pursuing the party, although, by the end of the game, they’re not so much opponents as respectful rivals (regardless of how many innocent people they’ve actually killed over the course of the game…but I digress). Charisma credit goes to Reno and Tseng, despite their diametrically opposite looks and personalities.
Another area where FFVII makes a significant effort are sidequests. There’s a wide array of optional objectives, like collecting materia, scouring the Ancient Forest and the Sunken Gelnika for goodies, or running Yuffie’s gauntlet at the Wutai Pagoda to obtain her final Limit Break. However, the most significant sidequest in the game involves chocobos. There is a Chocobo Farm in the vicinity of Midgar, and the party can eventually capture and breed its own chocobos. The goal is to make them race at the Gold Saucer and to produce more versatile specimens able to navigate various terrain to reach previously inaccessible spots. You can breed green, blue or black birds, until you ultimately obtain a gold chocobo, which can cross any mountain or body of water and will enable you to claim the Knights of the Round materia. Moreover, you can win several noteworthy items from the races, including unique materia. The only problem? The whole process requires a lot of money and time. You need to feed your chocobos greens to raise their stats, and those little bastards wolf them down like they’ve been starving for months. Moreover, the only in-game indications as to how to breed special chocobos come from the Chocobo Sage, an odd, forgetful…being who lives in an area only accessible by airship and will only dispense one bit of info at a time (you need to fight four battles to trigger his next piece of advice). This is distinctly tedious, so unless you have a guide handy, it puts a bit of a damper on what is otherwise a fun idea for a sidequest.
FFVII is the first game in the series to feature easily accessible minigames, but also the one with the widest variety, barring FFX-2 and XIV. I’m not a big fan of them, because they give the game a goofier, more artificial feel than is necessary, but many other people enjoy them. They mostly appear as attractions at the Gold Saucer, but you’ll also encounter several during the course of the main game. There’s a motorcycle chase sequence upon escaping Midgar, a snowboarding sequence at the Great Glacier and a submarine chase at the Underwater Reactor near Junon. All of these are also available for replay at the Gold Saucer later on. Moreover, you can do some digging for items at Bone Village or participate in the Fort Condor battles. These are a series of very poorly rendered tactical skirmishes. They’re very slow, the units look like a bunch of triangles, and the strategy usually boils down to ‘keep throwing expendable mooks at the enemy’. Unfortunately, one of these battles is mandatory to the storyline. Other than that, if you’re looking for good tactical combat, go play Final Fantasy Tactics.
Another detail worth mentioning: the first part of the game features a hidden affection meter for Cloud in his interactions with his female companions (and Barret…), which comes into play once you reach the Gold Saucer. Plot advancement forces the party to spend the night in a hotel there, and Cloud gets to go on a date with whoever he has the highest affection score with. Nothing even remotely risqué happens, which is for the best, considering Yuffie is not actually legal (and yet, she’s the only one who shows any PDA, with a–thankfully non-reciprocated–peck on Cloud’s cheek), but it’s still a noteworthy innovation. Going from easiest to hardest date to obtain, we have: Aeris/Aerith (ugh), Tifa, Yuffie and Barret. Before you get all hopeful about a hint of progressiveness in a JRPG, Barret’s ‘date’ is just some very awkward dialogue (which, by the way, includes him referring to Marlene as his “prized possession”…GOOD JOB), and he doesn’t get to participate in a play with Cloud, like the girls do.