A Final Fantasy Retrospective: Final Fantasy VII (Playstation) – Part II

Editor’s Note: This is a continuation of the previous Final Fantasy VII article, which can be found here. It is a game of such cultural and technical importance that I felt it needed more than one part to really do it justice.


IF YOU MISSED THE LAST ARTICLE, spoilers ahead.

Last time, we looked at the elements of FFVII‘s story that helped it resonate with a pre-millennial climate of growing uncertainty, and how it tethered itself to a fevered climate of global anxiety. One of the themes that we didn’t touch upon as much was the crucial theme of life, death and, especially, grief and how we deal with it.

Famously, series producer Hironobu Sakaguchi lost his mother during the development process of FFVI. Partly as a coping mechanism, he chose to incorporate these themes of life and death in order to approach them in a rational, analytical manner. This is manifested in Bugenhagen, Red XIII’s jovial uncle – in many ways, Sakaguchi’s proxy – who politely explains the process of the Lifestream: how all things, ultimately, return to the Planet to create new life.

Life – and its inevitable conclusion – dominates Final Fantasy VII. It is woven into every single one of its narrative strands. Each character’s backstory is overwhelmed by death and suffering. Shinra and Sephiroth reap destruction wherever they go. The acceptance of death – and acceptance of one’s identity in the process – is the great obstacle that each character must overcome, and no death in FFVII is greater to overcome than Aeris’.

We signed off on that death last week, perhaps the most (in)famous of videogame twists. Sephiroth kills Aeris in the forgotten city of her people, and she never comes back. Players famously scoured the Planet, searching for a way to revive this character that they grew to love; not because she was a martyred lamb, but because she was a fully-realised person. That’s sad enough, but a lot of why this scene persists in the cultural memory of players is through its interactive elements.

When Cloud approaches the altar, you’re in control. When Cloud takes out his sword, you’re in control. When he raises it, you’re in control. When he brings it crashing down, you’re still in control. You literally cannot progress through the game until you perform these actions. Though the player has no true agency, that’s precisely the point – Cloud, and by extension, the player, is under Sephiroth’s control. It’s a clever, subtle use of player interaction for narrative purposes, a practice almost unheard of in 1997.

Even better is the aftermath of the battle with JENOVA-Life. Each party member, depending on your configuration going into the fight, has a unique reaction to Aeris’ body on the altar. Yuffie’s is especially heartbreaking as she crumples, weeping, into Cloud’s arms. This kind of expressive, gestural communication would have been impossible for 2D sprites and it shines throughout the game. It provides more insight into characters’ thoughts and feelings than a hundred pages of overblown dialogue ever could.

Another striking facet of Aeris’ death is the use of music. Suffice it to say that Uematsu’s score is, once again, magnificent, representing a giant leap beyond even FFVI’s soundtrack. More important, however, is the implementation of his music. ‘Aeris’ Theme’ kicks in the moment the White Materia hits the floor and doesn’t stop playing until she is laid to rest. It continues throughout the entire sequence – from the death, to the boss, and the aftermath. That it’s one of the standout tracks on a supreme soundtrack is a bonus, but it’s a constant reminder of the finality of that loss.

This scene, like the opening, is a microcosm of everything that makes Final Fantasy VII great. It encapsulates all the subtle nuances that drive its characters, highlights the importance of communicative character models and underscores the genius of well-placed musical cues. It entered gaming shorthand because of moments like this, where every tiny detail coalesced into a striking and deeply poignant whole.

‘The whole’ is FFVII’s most impressive achievement. The game is massive, for one thing, but it’s incredible how well it connects from one scenario to another. The hilarious and insane Wall Market scenario – where Cloud spends half an hour locating lingerie and tiaras in order to infiltrate a brothel disguised as a woman – differs vastly from the thrilling motorcycle chase or the Junon prison escape or the Nibelheim flashback, but none of them feel misjudged or out of kilter with the game-world.

Like, seriously. What?

Beyond the set-pieces, it’s the subtle character moments that draw us in. Cloud being vaguely claustrophobic in a cramped shack; Aeris’ glee at ‘Miss Cloud’; Tifa’s defensiveness during the party’s visit to Gongaga; Cid’s sweary misogyny; all these little snippets, whether through dialogue or physicality, add so much to the storytelling. These characters feel real, especially in the context of their lived-in surroundings.

And how about those surroundings? Every single one is stunning, and it can’t be overstated just how vital they are in constructing the game’s atmosphere. Midgar would be nothing without the grimy, industrialised menace that these pre-rendered environments convey, and the oppressive solitude of the Northern Crater would likely be lost with less expressive backdrops. Yusuke Naora, the game’s art director, did an exceptional job in unifying the graphics seamlessly from one location to the next. It is near-impossible to imagine the Planet without his stellar work.

On a different note, FFVII strives to integrate player interaction to a surprising degree. The proliferation of mini-games in FFVII – many of which are collated in the Gold Saucer – is the prime example, with diversions as varied as snowboarding, submarining and squat-thrusting thrown into the mix. There is a bizarre sub-RTS mini-game in the form of Fort Condor; there’s a Battle Arena; there’s a Moogle feeding simulator, and this isn’t even mentioning the Chocobo Breeding/Racing side-quest, which can take several hours to fully complete. (Assuming you know what you’re doing.) Rather than bombarding the player with these sequences in the first few hours, leaving the rest of the game deflated, the game peppers them throughout the journey, always shaking things up whenever the pace is flagging.

ATB-lead battles haven’t changed all that much from previous instalments and the mechanics are as robust as ever, but it is the implementation of the Materia system that offers the most significant change. Not dissimilar to Hiroyuki Ito’s Esper/Relic diptych in FFVI, characters apply Materia – crystallised Mako energy – to their equipment, allowing them to cast magic, perform additional commands and summon familiar primordial creatures to level the battlefield. The trick is that any Materia can be equipped by any party member; all you have to do is transfer the Materia to whomever you want to have it.

While this offers a vast array of options for experimental players, it almost completely eliminates the distinctions between characters. Whereas FFIV’s approach was to limit each character to a specific class, and FFV anchored each party member to one Job at a time with the option to swap around, FFVII’s approach is rather more laissez­-faire. It leads to a situation where party members are, essentially, homogenised.

The only truly unique abilities come in the form of Limit Breaks, an evolution of the rarely-seen Desperation Attacks from FFVI. Limit Breaks are specific commands for individual characters that are powerful, flashy and very satisfying to pull off, but aren’t really that visually distinct and reach the same conclusion: End whatever’s in the way. It’s mostly Aeris’ Limit Breaks that do something other than murder everything, usually healing the party or curing status effects, and she’s gone by the end of Disc One. If there’s one thing FFVII is lacking, it’s character variety in battle.

Another is difficulty. Beyond the super-bosses of Emerald Weapon and Ruby Weapon, you’re unlikely to get a Game Over if you’ve any experience with RPGs. It’s tougher than FFVI’s paltry effort, especially if you’ve got the ATB bar cranked to its fastest setting, but only a handful of mandatory encounters are likely to rustle your jimmies (Carry Armor, specifically, can fuck right off). The encounter rate is consistently pleasant and, depending on your Materia set-up, you’re never likely to be grinding at any point in the game.

The nightmarish dungeons of the 8-bit era are no more. The ambitions of the 16-bit era are no longer checked. Where game-play once reigned, narrative has emerged as the dominant force in the DNA of Final Fantasy VII. For all the solid foundations that its gameplay sets, and as enjoyable and frantic as battles can occasionally get, the FFVII experience is dictated by its narrative. It’s a story that was – and, in many ways, still is – relevant, and has something to say about the way we live that few games have struck in so convincing or memorable a manner.

It’s graphic and violent and foul-mouthed, sure, but its thematic clout is genuinely mature, representing an advancement in video-game storytelling that has rarely been rivalled since. It’s a credit to Kitase and to scenario director Kazuhige Nojima’s intention to make “a completely unified work”, with each set-piece flowing from one heart-in-mouth stop to the next.

That fixation of purpose gave Sony the confidence to pour $100 million into advertising the game worldwide. It immediately paid off: The game sold 2.3 million copies in its first three days in Japan alone, and proved to be a sales darling in the less JRPG-friendly western market – particularly in Europe where Final Fantasy had never previously trodden. FFVII was the game that not only legitimised the JRPG in the eyes of Western audiences, it also “sold the Playstation”, giving the fledgling console the foothold it needed to break away from Nintendo and Sega’s lengthy shadows. It changed everything.

But, as  important as all of that is, none of it matters. For all the breadth and scope of its plot and world, it’s the small moments that Final Fantasy VII is remembered for. The moment Sephiroth stares through the flames of a burning Nibelheim. The moment ‘One Winged Angel’ kicks in. The moments Cloud and Tifa share on the final day. The moments spent in the Lifestream.

The moment Aeris dies. The moment Cid blasts into space in the rocket that failed him. The moment Red XIII howls to his father. The moment Cloud Omnislashes Sephiroth into oblivion. The final moment of Aeris’ face before the credits roll. The moment a camera pans from Red and his children to the sight of an abandoned Midgar reclaimed by nature, 500 years in the future.

This is how I remember Final Fantasy VII. This is how I remember the game that opened my eyes to the power that video-games can have. It isn’t perfect – nothing ever is – but it didn’t have to be. This is the legacy that Final Fantasy VII will leave behind – not Advent Children, or Crisis Core, or Dirge of Cerberus, or Before Crisis, or On the Way to a Smile, or Smash Bros, or Ehrgeiz, or Last Order – not even that bloody remake. This is Final Fantasy VII, the masterpiece.

So, what now? Change everything. Next time: Final Fantasy VIII.

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