Overblown, inconsistent and incoherent are all fair criticisms of FFVII. It’s also understated, consistent and coherent. Like Whitman, it stands above mere critical vocabulary and declares: ‘Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself.’ Utterly modern in setting and narrative, to the point of making ecology the dominant concern, FFVII also contains elements from Greek, Roman, Norse and Irish legends, incorporated explicitly in names and quietly in incidentals. It has been credited as being partially responsible for the success of the original PlayStation – and accused of being the most-returned game in retail history. It is a remarkably rich and varied achievement, and has more or less become an industry of its own, inspiring prequels and sequels in print, films and games. But, after all that, is it a great game?
The answer is ultimately that, yes, FFVII is a great game, but like many great works has difficulty within its medium: it performs a balancing act between the old and the new that could have led to disaster. Moving away from the cartridge-based N64 towards Sony’s PlayStation allowed for huge increases in storage, and opened the door to what people alternately consider Square’s Achilles heel or raison d’être: sizeable FMV sequences. Cutscenes may be dressing for many games, but FFVII is dependent on the player becoming involved with its story and characters – and so when those characters veer wildly between realtime polygon models and FMV representations that bear little resemblance to each other there is a fundamental inconsistency that many players find an immovable object.
The game centres on the character of Cloud, alternately a realtime polygon model and a detailed FMV soldier, an initially obscure figure whose past gradually unfolds. But he and nemesis Sephiroth are only the focal point for a story that includes one of the most unusual and appealing casts of characters ever seen in a single game. There’s Yuffie, the ninja-thief who suffers from motion sickness; Red XIII, a lion-type adolescent who’s 48 and the last of his species; Cait Sith, a cat that rides on top of a giant stuffed moogle, a piece of comedic relief that ultimately provides an unforgettably tragic moment. FFVII is made up of such contrasts, between the upper levels of Midgar and the slums, between Shinra and Avalanche, and ultimately between the linear nature of a plot and the open potential of a gameworld.
Perhaps Final Fantasy VII’s greatest moment arrives when your party acquires an airship. From Midgar, and some local travels, the world had seemed large indeed (and by this point the average gamer would have spent days if not weeks on the game). The airship blows this all away: the world is huge, and packed full of towns, ruins and places to go and explore. It takes time to simply travel from one place to the next via airship, never mind exploring what now lies before you, and as the game unfolds the party travels to the upper limits of the atmosphere via rocket and to the bottom of the ocean via submarine. There are breeds of chocobo that allow you to cross previously closed terrain, or alternately you can breed up a racer and take him to the Gold Saucer to enter competition. It’s easy to forget that the world needs to be saved in Final Fantasy VII simply because, for once, it’s a virtual world that’s actually worth saving: the experience, and the memories, are permanent.
The Active Time battle system is ported over largely unchanged from the SNES iterations and combined with the bane of all western gamers: random battles. But this is compensated for with the introduction of materia – round stones that slot into grooves in armour or a weapon’s grip. These give a character a specific spell, attribute or ability and allow for such a degree of customisation and complexity that hitting the elusive perfect combination becomes an obsession. Battles themselves are rarely onerous, or particularly difficult, unless against a boss enemy which typically involves some careful planning and use of your carefully husbanded summon attacks. Summons are accompanied for the first time in the series with lengthy animation sequences (one, Knights of the Round, being longer than a minute in duration) that divide opinion greatly, but overall have become such a favourite that they live on in the most recent iterations.
Even the most routine elements of the game divide opinion in this way, yet, while it is obviously not flawless, it exerts such a fascination over the converted that it frequently tops polls seeking to identify the best game of all time. Is it? Well, no. But it’s only really a game in the literal sense that The Lord Of The Rings is only a book – it transforms everyone who enters its world. With the industry that has been spawned around it, and an almost inevitable remake on the cards, it could even be said that the gaming world can be divided into those who have played Final Fantasy VII and those who are going to play it.