Today is the age of spectacular, Hollywood-esque video games, where video game culture has gone mainstream and where video game ads are even seen in movie theatres. As such, it can be difficult to appreciate the novelty of Sony’s ad campaign for Final Fantasy VII (FFVII) in the months leading up to its 1997 release.
In the era of Nintendo’s first heyday, video games and their respective consoles had been marketed and understood primarily as toys. Sony, however, marketed FFVII like a movie, with TV ads edited like movie trailers, featuring boastful taglines like, “The most anticipated epic adventure of the year…will never come to a theatre near you!”
And it worked, turning the PS1’s (Playstation 1’s) FFVII into the first non Nintendo game to sell millions while (with the help of 1998’s Metal Gear Solid) ushering in the era of the video game blockbuster epic. Even more impressively, it did this with a game that was a direct descendant of Dungeons & Dragons, that most nerdiest and uncool of gaming hobbies.
FFVII made the Japanese Role Playing Game (JRPG) into a genre as mainstream as any Mario platformer, and turned the Final Fantasy franchise from a cult phenomenon into a gaming juggernaut fit to compete with the best.
But FFVII didn’t merely popularize its genre—it effectively rewrote the JRPG genre in its own image. With some exceptions, JRPGs had not strayed too far from the standard European medieval fantasy tropes it had inherited from D&D. FFVII, however, drew from pop sci-fi sources like Blade Runner and Mad Max to create a surreal, dystopian fantasy setting with the appropriate anti-hero cast to boot.
Meanwhile, Tetsuya Nomura’s character designs featured a sort of punk chic, epitomized by the protagonist’s iconic, impossibly spiky hair. The plot replaced the standard Evil Empire with the Evil Corporation and emphasized a twisty, mind-bender approach to storytelling.
Since it was the first JRPG many played, and the most successful one to date, FFVII defined for many what the JRPG experience should be. In short, FFVII is responsible for the stereotype of JRPGs as a genre of angsty, fashion runway rejects rebelling against the Man in narratives so convoluted that even the developers don’t understand them.
A dubious legacy, to be sure. Nevertheless, FFVII remains a unique watershed moment in gaming, a lightning flash which has never quite been re-bottled by its many imitators.
FFVII tells the story of Cloud Strife, a mercenary for hire. The game opens with him working for AVALANCHE, an Eco-terrorist group fighting a war against the Shinra Electric Power Company, a business so big that it functions as an oppressive world superpower. Cloud is initially aloof to the conflict, more interested in making a quick buck than with taking a moral stand. But as the situation escalates, Cloud realizes that it’s only the tip of the iceberg of a far greater plot, and that he may have an old score to settle after all.
It’s difficult to say much more without spoiling the plot’s many twists and turns, but FFVII‘s story is a pretty wild ride, exemplifying all the best and worst traits of the genre.
Sure, it becomes a convoluted mess riddled with plot holes and bizarre leaps of logic, but its long-term storytelling pays off big dividends in its character arcs and world-building, and it features one of the most memorable video game casts ever. It was also one of the earliest games to experiment with conceits like unreliable narration and the exploration of the psychological lives of its characters.
Like most JRPGs, FFVII‘s gameplay falls mostly into two modes: exploration and combat. While exploring, you have direct control over your party leader, but when combat is initiated, the game switches to a separate screen where the player directs his characters via menu inputs. The combat runs according to the Active Time Battle (ATB) system, which means that action is ‘time’ based: each character has a time gauge which gradually increases, and upon maxing out, that character is allowed to take an action.
With the exception of some long attack animations, combat in FFVII unfolds at a brisk pace and remains simple and accessible to this day. The game overall leans on the easy side, with only a handful of boss fights requiring more tactical precision during combat.
Although FFVII features your standard RPG set of equipment and accessories, the meat of its strategy lies in its materia system. Materia are crystal-like objects which characters can attach to their equipment. Doing so allows them to make use of the abilities contained within the materia, and will also often modify the character’s attributes in appropriate ways. Attached materia also will gain ability points through combat, which causes them to gradually grow stronger and unlock new abilities.
Savvy players can also bind certain materia together to get different effects: for example, binding a ‘Fire’ and an ‘All’ materia will give the character a fire spell that can hit all enemies at once.
The advantage of the materia system is that it offers the player a large degree of customization in how they build their characters and approach combat. The downside, however, is that it can make the characters feel almost too interchangeable; although each character has a unique set of special abilities called Limit Breaks, they are otherwise blank slates until the player attaches materia onto them. So the choice of who to bring into combat is often more of an aesthetic than strategic choice.
But, in addition to exploration and combat, FFVII also features a rather large amount of minigames sprinkled throughout. Some are fitting, like an interactive motorcycle chase sequence, while others are bizarre, like a random instance where the player must perform CPR. There’s a kitchen sink mentality to them which can be either endearing or annoying, depending on your taste.
Ironically, the aspect of FFVII that fares the worst these days is its presentation. The game’s graphics are wildly inconsistent. Although many of the game’s pre-rendered backgrounds are impressively detailed, the super-deformed polygonal character models stick out and look more like Lego figurines than people. The combat screen, which makes use of more realistically proportioned models, is more consistent, but the switch between the two can be jarring. And although the many CG cutscenes are lovingly crafted, the different character models are used inconsistently.
The soundtrack, composed by series veteran Nobuo Uematsu, is memorable and almost uniformly excellent. Most famously, it features one of the first vocal tracks used in a video game. However, the game’s technical limitations gives the music a Moog synthesizer-esque quality, which at times can stifle Uematsu’s compositions.
Finally, the game features a terrible English translation, rife with amateurish spelling and grammar errors. Some sentences are so garbled so as to come across as borderline nonsensical, which is especially egregious with a game featuring a plot as convoluted as FFVII‘s. But this is as much a sign of FFVII‘s age as anything else, since at the time story-driven games like FFVII were not internationally popular enough to warrant developers investing in the full-blown localization teams we have today.
Thematically, FFVII was broadly intended as an environmental parable, and that certainly shows. Unfortunately, it’s mashed up with some rather new-agey spirituality which leaves one with a bit of a bad taste.
More poignant is its treatment of social justice and bioethical issues—the evil of exploiting the poor is a strong theme running throughout, as is the evil of treating the human person as something to be engineered and experimented on with no moral restrictions. And although the Shinra corporation is depicted in an antagonistic light, the game is also willing to criticize AVALANCHE’s terrorist tactics, ultimately stating that revolutionary violence is not the solution to societal ills.
When talking about innocent casualties, one character scathingly remarks, “A few? Whaddya mean ‘a few’? What may be a few to y’all is everything to them who died.”
In that respect, one is reminded of Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum. In that text, Leo XIII criticized an emerging capitalism which was operating without any moral restraint, as well as radical ideologies which would agitate workers to violently subvert the social order. Rather, Leo XIII stressed the moral duties of both employers and workers, as befitting their intrinsic dignity:
- Of these duties, the following bind the proletarian and the worker: fully and faithfully to perform the work which has been freely and equitably agreed upon; never to injure the property, nor to outrage the person, of an employer; never to resort to violence in defending their own cause, nor to engage in riot or disorder; and to have nothing to do with men of evil principles, who work upon the people with artful promises of great results, and excite foolish hopes which usually end in useless regrets and grievous loss. The following duties bind the wealthy owner and the employer: not to look upon their work people as their bondsmen, but to respect in every man his dignity as a person ennobled by Christian character. They are reminded that, according to natural reason and Christian philosophy, working for gain is creditable, not shameful, to a man, since it enables him to earn an honorable livelihood; but to misuse men as though they were things in the pursuit of gain, or to value them solely for their physical powers – that is truly shameful and inhuman. Again justice demands that, in dealing with the working man, religion and the good of his soul must be kept in mind. Hence, the employer is bound to see that the worker has time for his religious duties; that he be not exposed to corrupting influences and dangerous occasions; and that he be not led away to neglect his home and family, or to squander his earnings. Furthermore, the employer must never tax his work people beyond their strength, or employ them in work unsuited to their sex and age. His great and principal duty is to give every one what is just.
Although FFVII depicts a vicious cycle of exploitation and violence, it isn’t a cynical game. The characters may be anti-heroes, but the game doesn’t celebrate their darker sides: rather, it shows how people can rise above their demons. And, although the game’s spirituality isn’t terribly Christian, the most efficacious action in the game may be one character’s prayer (to explain more would spoil things).
FFVII isn’t spotless though. One of the characters, Barret, is a walking racial caricature. The humour can also get a bit raunchy at times, pushing the upper limits of what you can get away with in a T-rated game (although most of it is packed into the game’s early hours). But these faults are vastly outshone by the game’s virtues.
Nineteen years after its release, FFVII certainly shows its age. A player starting it up for the first time—whether from PSN (PlayStation Network) or Steam—will likely not be blown away. With so many epic titles dropping from the shelves, FFVII‘s own pretensions now come across as a bit quaint. But FFVII still remains a fun and at times even moving experience, and is one of the best games of the early 3D era.