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‘Final Fantasy VII’ and a titanic step forward for RPGs

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Final Fantasy VII
Squaresoft
SCEA
PSX, PC

Anyone old enough to remember gaming in the 90s would, of course, remember the huge splash that Final Fantasy VII made when it first arrived back in the autumn of 1997. Preceded by a mountain of hype, a massive advertising campaign, and a price tag that signified it as the most expensive game ever produced, FFVII had a heady and hefty weight on its shoulders before it even stepped out of the gate.

Luckily for Squaresoft (not yet Square-Enix), the game launched to almost universal praise, and quickly became a killer app for Sony’s first foray into the console market. Boasting easily the most gorgeous graphics anyone had ever seen, FFVII soon ascended to the realm of legend, with much of its plot, iconic hero Cloud Strife, sinister villain Sephiroth, and an unflinchingly brutal main character death, a mere third of the way into the narrative, quickly entering the public consciousness to stay.

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Of course, the aforementioned plot is the main reason for Final Fantasy VII‘s enduring reputation among gamers. Setting the player into a surprisingly dark world right from its dynamic cold open, the narrative casts you in the role of a remorseless mercenary working for an environmental terrorist group. Your first action in the game: to blow up a reactor, killing dozens, if not hundreds of people, in the process. Hardly an ingratiating start for the games’ central characters.

FFVII only grows darker from here, dealing with issues like the fallacy of human nature, the need to prove one’s self, several gruesome massacres, an incredibly unhealthy mother-son relationship, cults, underground sex trafficking, human cloning, genetic manipulation, and even abortion and suicide. Even with the occasional burst of quirky characters and humorous exchanges, Final Fantasy VII still sets itself apart as the roughest, most brooding chapter in the series 20+ title history.

Heavy as it is, the fantastical characters, including an unreliable narrator with multiple personality disorder, two deceitful and self-destructive love interests, a coffin bound experimental monster, a grizzled, chain-smoking, expletive-spitting airship pilot, a talking wolf-lion hybrid who can live for over 500 years, a 70s era blaxploitation archetype with a machine gun for an arm, and a villain with a 20 ft. sword, help to juxtapose the somewhat overbearing, self-serious narrative

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For all its critical commendations, though, the game is not without flaws. Take, for instance, not one, not two, but four disparate art styles and presentations, ranging from pixelated sprite types in ugly polygon chunks on the area and world maps, to dynamic CG and humanoid presentation in the battle screens and cut scenes. This uneven presentation can be incredibly jarring for a first time player, especially in modern times. Once you add in the overwhelming bevy of minigames, including an early edition of Snowboard Kids, a Road Rash clone, a moogle dating sim, and The Hunt for Red October, the look and feel of the game actually changes over a dozen times throughout its 40 hours.

Even with its missteps, however, Final Fantasy VII has a daunting legacy for a laundry list of reasons. As the first FF title to use the traditional numbering system as seen in Japan (i.e. including the full series in its “VII” rather than simply the NA/EU released titles), it finally returned the series to its proper place, and set the stage for the re-release and re-branding of several titles and properties. As the first 3D title, it built the framework for titles to come, and its use of intermingled hi-res cutscenes, and realistic character models became trailblazing staples for not just RPGs but the industry as a whole.

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Its crossing of several narrative boundaries generally reserved for film and literature, introduction of orchestral and operatic elements, MIDI chiptunes that they were, to its musical presentation, and a notoriously brooding antihero (though not as brooding as he’d eventually become), only further cemented Final Fantasy VII among the greatest pantheon of classic groundbreaking games.

Through its various spin-offs and sequels (of questionable and arguable quality), its characters’ many cameos and allusions in other titles and media, a still relevant presence in the cosplay and fanatic community of ultra-geekery, and a wildly popular final boss tune that’s still reverberated at orchestral concerts to this day, Final Fantasy VII is a game that remains seen, heard, and felt nearly a full 20 years after its introduction.


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