Final Fantasy VII: Looking Back and to the Future

Released by Squaresoft in 1997, with a blonde anime character, an over sized sword, and symbolic logo on its cover, Final Fantasy VII released to the world. Final Fantasy VII took off in sales and popularity, being debated as one of the greatest games of all time, and for years, its fanbase cried out for a remake. It’s initial release was a bit unusual for a western audience, as they had only a few years prior gotten Final Fantasy ‘III.’ This was a rather infamous case of several of the games, II, III, and V not heading for the west. In light of the upcoming remake, we’ll be looking back to where it all began for many fans of the franchise, then looking forward to what comes next, so that one might see why Final Fantasy VII is a must for 2020.

A scene like space, an ominous groaning noise. Gentle string, or at least as close as the Playstation can get. Bright green particles on a dark screen, and a girl’s face, as she seems to gaze at the player, who then turns to reveal herself to be in a rather grimy alleyway. Her footsteps echo as she steps into the city, basket of flowers in hand, instruments building tension, as we see vehicles, people and signs, the camera slowly pulls out to reveal the girl is in only a small part of a massive city, with a colossal building at its center, and eight great reactors. As the music really starts to kick off, the logo of the game appears, a train cutting in as it wheels into the station, and little do the guards know what awaits them aboard the train… 

Midgar: Smash Stage, and center stage for the start of FFVII

The introduction to Final Fantasy VII is one that has remained iconic throughout the years, one that establishes a great deal through just its visuals, and is very quick to grab the player’s attention. The game immediately sends you into traditional Active Time Battle (ATB) combat, and gives exposition in a way that doesn’t feel overly forced as to what is going on. The opening act of the game is exciting, enticing with its gameplay, set pieces, action scenes, and even the easily managed timer sequence. The introduction is a wild ride, one that people thoroughly enjoyed, and it’s followed by what else? Tutorials!

Joking aside, the tutorials aren’t actually that bad. Something more modern games don’t do that often, is to actually make the tutorials easy to understand, with it actually being explained as if a person were explaining this. Because it is. The tutorials were skippable, but they also had an interesting detail of them being a character moment, where the main protagonist, Cloud, explains how the Materia system works. There is a location in the little town you start in where Cloud has more moments where he teaches how the game works, but again, this is all optional.

Final Fantasy VII is interesting in terms of gameplay. It very much encourages experimentation with its Materia system, where the player uses slots and links on the character’s weapons and armor to equip spells, commands, or passive skills. This could be something as simple as putting a Fire Materia and an All Materia so you could get in an AOE magic attacks, or through Materia shenanigans, use an AOE physical attack that attacks four times, and has a chance to steal an item from enemies each of those times. Good fun. While there are certainly limits on how often you can do certain things with the Materia system, be it due to MP costs, or perhaps you used up your All Materia’s AOE for a battle, the gamer certainly has almost no limits on what they can do if they get creative and experiment. 

VII’s combat system makes use of the traditional ATB system. This is that iconic turn based combat where the characters wait for a gauge to build up, so that they may take an action. This was rather infamous for causing situations where players might be left waiting to act, but this can be remedied through game settings to speed up the game. 

In addition to this ATB bar, there is the second Limit bar. Final Fantasy, as a JRPG enjoys its flashy, over the top attacks. Going by many names throughout the series, VII uses the most famous moniker, Limit Break. 

Combat Screen of the original game

As one might expect, when it came to getting the absolute best and most broken stuff in the game, you aren’t going to just get it handed to you. Sometimes you have to do a somewhat tedious task, or figure out a certain combination. But Final Fantasy VII didn’t make these things too hard to do. In fact, if you know what you’re doing, it isn’t too much of a hassle to actually get some of these incredibly busted pieces of equipment. For instance, Cloud’s Omnislash Manual is a very tricky thing to obtain, it involves him taking on a bunch of solo battles in a minigame location. You may realize pretty soon that you can lose and won’t get a game over. But, at the same time, if you leave, you lose the points you compiled. It was pretty awful if you didn’t know what you were doing. But, even then, the game properly rewards you for your efforts, so just about anything you do ends up giving some kind of reward, and they were largely very satisfying. One particularly long and expensive sidequest can really eat into your time, and drive you bankrupt in game; but then you get a magic so powerful that the number of enemies who can survive a single casting you can quite literally count on your fingers. So satisfying…

The last important gameplay aspect was of course, the characters themselves. If you didn’t field a character, they got only half experience from an encounter, which definitely does help a little in the event that a character is mandatory for a side quest or main quest. But, if the Materia system says that no one character has a set class, then what’s stopping you from just using the characters you like, and no one else? Well, nothing. However, certain segments of story with force you to use certain characters, so it is worth trying to learn how each character want to play. But that’s the beauty of Final Fantasy VII. It gives so much freedom to the player, that there’s almost no absolutely right way to play the game.

Final Fantasy VII was an overall excellent game. It has an excellent soundtrack to this day, despite its age, thanks to the fantastic composition of Nobuo Uematsu, and of course, the remake is remastering these tracks. The cast, save one or two characters, have very interesting characters, but even they get revamped in some of the expanded content. Though, considering the nature of this remake, as we’ve seen it so far, these issues may even be fixed. Though, that brings me to a very serious issue for many; an issue that scares many people from starting the Final Fantasy series or a particular game in it, most infamously, VII is a victim of this. The additional content. The worry over what is canon and what people need to know. Final Fantasy XV was a huge victim of this, what with the Kingsglaive movie and the Brotherhood anime.

The simple answer to this problem? Don’t worry about it. Final Fantasy VII does have a large expansive story, and has been accused of being overly convoluted. I ask that newcomers to the series try not to look at the expanded content, like Crisis Core or Dirge of Cerberus. Instead, take in just VII, the game that was always there. The spin offs are just that, spin offs, optional. For all you have to care, VII starts and ends, and that’s it. If you want to explore the rest, feel free, but you don’t have to, just take in the project as it was originally intended.

Cloud as he was drawn in 1997, and Cloud as he is now

The Final Fantasy VII remake on the horizon seems to blend the gameplay of Final Fantasy XV with VII’s original system, resulting in a slightly more action game style, or perhaps closer to Kingdom Hearts. Allegedly, players have the option of playing in Classic mode, which is closer to the gameplay of the original, and the new system. A fun, new freedom of choice to players, should they prefer one style to another. Most intriguing though, the trailers suggest that additional content is being added, be it in story, or how things progress. This is perhaps most evident in the relatively recent TGS trailer, where we see a motorcycle scene not in the original, as well as a SOLDIER, not seen in the original. Though it is currently unknown if this is a new generic design, the emphasis put into this character in the trailer suggests otherwise. Also new is the battle in front of Tifa’s bar, or the paragliding scene. The Turks themselves have additional encounters it seems. Though this is a remake, I might go so far as to compare it to something more like Persona 5 the Royal.

Final Fantasy VII was by no means a perfect game, but it helped set the standard to which we hold video game storytelling today. The upcoming remake’s blend of both classic gameplay, and a more modern action RPG give it great potential for a gateway to the series for players unfamiliar with Final Fantasy. Square Enix has had a shaky past few years, but, as of late, they’ve had a better track record, with titles such as Octopath Traveler, or Dragon Quest. Perhaps this return to their roots will usher in a reinvigorated sense of storytelling in gaming. I hope you’ll all join me on March 3rd next year when the legend itself come home again, and journey to Midgar once more. Until then, good level ups to you.

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