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Final Fantasy VII Was Messy, Clumsy, and Wonderful

When my co-editor and friend, Collin Henderson, wrote about Final Fantasy VI, he added a disclaimer that he would get spoiler-y, and I feel compelled to do the same. I won’t spoil a lot, and the things I will spoil are—at this point—common knowledge and fair game for a title released for the Playstation Uno in 1997. Still, you’ve been warned.

Final Fantasy VII is “The One With All The Flashy Cutscenes” if we’re using the Friends episode title format. Those FMVs (full motion videos) were the bomb back in the day, which was also back when people said “the bomb” and “back in the day,” but now they’re just a quaint relic of the past. It’s something we have a chuckle about while sitting through a lengthy modern day Final Fantasy cutscene. Mind you, this was only a few years post-Toy Story, so the bar wasn’t exactly set just yet, but the visuals are fine for their era. Even today, game cutscenes still have moderately dead-eyed characters on the wrong side of the uncanny valley.

It was admittedly pretty funny when the initial cut scene with the train reaches its destination and those big, bright, blocky polygons make their entrance. The character models are—to be accurate—PSX quality graphics. That just makes Cloud and the NPCs stand out even more in this world of pre-rendered backgrounds and FMV cutscenes. All three arts styles are constantly at war with each other, and it’s jarring at times.

Cloud, blocky and PS1 era style graphics, in the elevator.
In the PSX era, everyone was built like Mega Man.

It reminds me of the giant step backwards graphics went through during this generation. The 3D world was still relatively new, and a lot of your favorite characters went from looking pretty good in their SNES/Genesis era only to wind up a hot mess in their N64/Playstation era titles.

The art style further confuses things by making it unclear where you can go, and is often times vague about what is visually represented on the screen. There is one part where you have to hit the action button to jump from a pipe (I think it’s a pipe) to a ledge, but you could very easily mistake it for a dead end. I often found myself wondering which way I should go, despite having played the game before several times in the past. Parts of the game that should be linear feel like they’re mildly open world, merely because it gives you ability to wander off, get lost, and discover nothing but dead ends.

Cloud wanders to the edge of Sector 7.
“Hello…ello…ello…”

Grandiose Fantasy

The plot is schlocky. It’s fantasy sci-fi masquerading as high art, but done strictly by the numbers. These days that would be a negative review, because that describes most poorly done fantasy sci-fi schlock masquerading as high art. But here’s the thing: Final Fantasy VII invented that. That’s where all the other games get it from. They get it from this bombastic piece of art.

Final Fantasy VII demanded to be seen as art, the way the Magician’s Alliance in Arrested Development demanded to be taken seriously. Whether it was through thoughtful subversion of gender stereotypes, such as Cloud’s brief stint as a sex slave, or the subversion that isn’t even a subversion, such as killing off the amiable protagonist and flower girl (“Aeris! Say her name!” the fans shout), the game swings for the fences and looks to make an epic adventure that has it all. The crazy part is…they mostly succeed. It’s sloppy, but it works.

Cecil in a dress. Aeris calls you "Cute."
Men go there. Women work there.

A lot of people who have never played FFVII know about Aeris (or Aerith, which is her name in the Japanese version and 2020 Remake). Even more know about Sephiroth, the silver maned, spikey-haired baddie that thrusts a giant sword through her. I think most people know this through pop culture osmosis. Sort of like how I know nothing about Star Trek, yet I know the Bones guy is crabby but lovable.

While the characters are often over the top, they eventually get fleshed out. Barrett is the big brawny tough guy who spends the early hours of the game yelling and intimidating people, but he’s that way for a reason, and in the world of FFVII where everything is heightened, it fits. He’s taking care of his daughter Marlene, and knows the only way to protect her is to fight, but the time away from his girl puts him in a foul mood.

VII is not a perfect game. While VI has a timeless beauty to it, VII is an often jarring pastiche of graphic styles that constantly clash with each other. The controls are wonky and Cloud only seems to move painfully slow or frantically hurried.

Since your environment is basically a matte painting, knowing where to go can be confusing. You can toggle on red arrows that help guide you where to go, but it’s frustrating when you’re traversing a new area and have no idea where to go, and random battles are never more annoying than when you’re not sure you’re going the right way.

The Problem Attic

I was very averse to using the term “problematic” a few years ago when it became a catch-all phrase for anything the writer decided they were the moral arbiter over. It was becoming an overused buzz word that people prone to moralizing used. Still, that doesn’t mean I don’t see things in older entertainment that I recognize as culturally outdated. Case in point:

A line of dialogue uses the R word.
A term used similarly in Kevin Smith movies, It’s Always Sunny in PA, SNL, and countless others, gets dropped in Final Fantasy VII. 

Presentism, which the Oxford English dictionary describes as “the tendency to interpret past events in terms of modern values and concepts,” is something I’m fascinated with. Some people—especially pop culture writers—like to chide old pieces of entertainment based on the societal mores of today. It’s why episodes of TV shows get yanked after being untouched for years, sometimes decades. How are people suddenly upset? Shouldn’t they have been upset the whole time? Of course, this is oversimplifying things. I’m speaking broadly, and in no way mean to imply a certain way of thinking about the topic (at least not here in a silly video game review), but the outrage factor—or the level it reaches—does often confuse me, even when I see merit in what people are saying.

When I got to this part in the game and I saw this line of dialogue, I’ll admit, I didn’t like it. My wife works with developmentally disabled adults for a living, and she’s one of the most genuinely empathetic people I’ve ever met. We don’t use that word. However…

This game came out in 1997. I know for a fact that word was “acceptable” back then. I remember the Boston Teens characters played by Rachel Dratch and Jimmy Fallon used the word in their SNL skits (although later skits purposefully changed the word). I know that It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia used it quite often, until they too stopped (in one case replacing the word with “donkey-brained” for the “Frank Falls Out the Window” episode, which was a callback to the “Cereal Defense” episode). My point being, I’m not the moral arbiter of others. I’m responsible for me, and my actions, and my choices. I assume the Final Fantasy VII remake didn’t have this line in it, nor would I want to see it, but I understand that some things age better than others.

There is nuance to all this. Is the character in question supposed to be an antagonist? Is their ugly behavior in character? Relevant to the plot? We could get down in the muck and dissect every problematic element of Final Fantasy VII, and debate what is, or is not (in our own personal opinion) problematic. I’m ill equipped to dive deep into the topic, but I did want to address it.

I can enjoy this game for what it was, when it was. Back then I didn’t view entertainment through the same worldview as I do now. I am partially jaded by Twitter, and social media in general, where every artistic choice gets micro-dissected and criticized by the masses. I see that constant second guessing—as a writer myself—as an affront to basic creativity. Shutting down, or erasing, parts of entertainment that are uncomfortable does not make for better entertainment. It’s a (mild, admittedly) form of censorship. If we have to plug our ears and close our eyes every time we see or hear something we don’t agree with, no one will learn, or grow, or evolve. Throwing things we don’t like into The Problem Attic isn’t the answer.

A Materia World

I haven’t talked much about the gameplay in Final Fantasy VII, and that’s mainly because it’s all things we’ve more or less seen before. Weapons and armor can come equipped with slots that you can place marble-sized orbs called Materia into. Materia is crystallized Mako, and can be used to allow the user to cast spells. Some Materia, know as Support Materia, when paired with a Magic Materia will allow the user to cast enhanced spells. For example, if you have your Ice Materia paired with your All Support Materia, you can cast the Ice spell on all the enemies.

They are all color coded for order, so all the Summon Materia, for example, will be red. This can, naturally, be used to summon a familiar to assist in a fight. Overall, the system is far less complex than later entries in the series, and doesn’t require much beyond the usual upkeep and upgrading that goes along with your weapons and accessories.

Level grinding is drastically reduced as well. You can certainly still grind away to your heart’s content, and the game eventually opens up to encourage that as you go along, but during the first few hours of the game, you can easily progress forward without having to spend time farming enemies for experience and gil.

This is mostly due to the fact that combat is less a battle of attrition this time around, and more about learning the specific approach to certain enemies, especially bosses. Fighting Reno, for example, he’ll cast a spell called Pyramid. I had no idea, but you need to attack your party member when they are afflicted with this spell in order to break the spell. Otherwise, he’ll cast it on all three of you, and you’ll be jarringly sent to the Game Over screen.

Game Over screen with film canisters
Film canisters reinforce the idea that this game is a cinematic experience.

This was the first Final Fantasy game where I started to experiment with spells more. I usually find a few that I like and stick with them, but with this game I was sampling everything. I played with Tifa’s Steal ability, snagging some choice items (Ether!), and would even strategically hold on to my special attacks until just the right moment.

Each of your characters has a Limit bar, and when it fills up, you can use your special Limit Break move. For Cloud, it can be a powerful sword move, for Barrett it can be a charged blast from his arm cannon. Most people will use these as soon as they are offered, but sometimes you’re fighting a little tomato-can robot and you don’t want to waste your power move on them. In these instances, you can Defend and wait for your other party members to complete the battle. Then you can use your powerful attack in the next battle, where it might be more useful. Plus, as a returning player, when I knew a boss battle was approaching, I’d try to plan out my Limit Breaks so I could use as many of them in a big fight as possible.

This Game Has Got Jokes. All Day.

For a game that traffics in melodrama, the game is surprisingly funny. Yes, some of the humor is dated, but the overall feel of the dialogue is more akin to a quippy Marvel movie than it is a somber DC movie—“if that helps you,” as George Constanza would say.

The PSX generation was an amazing time for games. I was a Nintendo kid all the way. The Playstation was my first non-Nintendo console, and I’ve bought every PS system since. To me, seeing a series like Castlevania, Metal Gear, or Final Fantasy suddenly have extended voice acting (for good, bad, or so-bad-it’s-good) and cutscenes was mind blowing, but to have injections of humor in them was just as revolutionary.

Aeris asks if you remember her. You can tell her you do, or crack a joke.
I’ve never chosen the joke option. Does she not die if I do?

Video games have always been self-referential, but the Playstation is where this idea really took off. These days, you can’t play an indie game without them referencing an old game. The sheer number of games that make “It’s dangerous to go alone” references is staggering.

The early hours of the game alone see Cloud dressing up in women’s clothes in order to infiltrate Don Corneo’s mansion. While it’s played for laughs, there are probably a few moments the public of today would take issue with. Overall, the intent was to provide a more adult experience, and that sometimes meant, ironically, leaning on juvenile humor, and for the most part it’s innocuous. Again, you really can’t judge a game from 1997 by what we consider okay today.

The Big Bad with the Big Hair

Sephiroth. He’s the main villain in the game. Although there are plenty of supporting players, Sephiroth is the one everyone knows. I never go into the storylines for these games because that’s something I feel people usually want to experience for themselves. Plus, I’m total crap at synopsizing stories.

His origin is total science fiction whimsy, which is on par for a game so much more concerned with style over substance. It doesn’t break new ground, but it’s doesn’t really have to. He’s a super soldier with a mysterious origin. You can’t really go into his story without revealing things the game pointedly withholds until you’re a good ways into the adventure.

Needless to say, he’s a fan favorite, and a baddie people love to hate.

Final Thoughts

I hope I’ve managed to touch on some unique topics here because Final Fantasy VII has been written about extensively since it came out. Debate over whether it’s overrated, or an all time classic, have raged on for years. Personally, it’s one of my favorites in the series, but everyone’s mileage will vary. Seems like everyone has a strong, dug-in opinion on certain pieces of entertainment, and I really don’t go for all that nonsense. If you like something, cool. If you dislike something, also cool. I just don’t understand the “And if you don’t like this piece of entertainment you are wrong” mentality. Conversely, I don’t understand people that say something “sucks,” yet are incapable of saying why.

To me FFVII was influential, a little messy, goofy as hell, visually striking, and a big step towards what RPGs are today. Do we have this game to blame for the rampant overuse of cutscenes today? No. The entire PSX era was about cutscenes, and this was that era in its infancy. It’s a world filled with character and life around every corner, and I think anyone who gives it a chance today will find it to be a game both wonderful and strange.

A child in Sector 6 speaks of his home as both wonderful and strange.

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Written by Johnny Malloy

Johnny Malloy is the Managing Editor of Gaming at 25YL, and is a crafty arranger of words.
A gamer since childhood, he enjoys indie games and considers The Binding of Isaac to be a subversive masterpiece. He has also written an extensive series of articles about the Castlevania, Super Mario Bros. and Final Fantasy series.
He enjoys writing fiction, be it screenplays, scripts, or novels. His favorite TV shows are Twin Peaks, The Leftovers, It's Always Sunny in Flipadelphia, Community, and Workaholics.
He has one of those faces. Sorry about my face. It can't be helped.
He's @mistercecil on the Twitter. Follow him if you like wild tangents and non sequiturs.

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