I have never played a JRPG before, let alone a Final Fantasy game. The closest I’ve ever got to Final Fantasy is my affection for classic cinematic CGI romp The Spirits Within (another party to which I was late, as I first saw it on DVD as an adult).
But I know that a lot of stuff I like was influenced by Final Fantasy, and the seventh entry comes up again and again and again in discussion. I have felt for years that this is a hole in my experience, and it was one I thought that I could never fill because Final Fantasies are traditionally console games… until I was told that Final Fantasy VII was indeed available on PC, and had been for a very long time.
Oops. Better late than never, right?
Final Fantasy VII
It’s a game that starts hard. Dramatic intro cinematic and–
A crowd of rebels piles off a train and about two seconds after you’ve walked Cloud along the platform, you’re accosted by some soldiers and have to battle them. No friendly zone, no easing in, no time to get your bearings. Keep up, new guy!
The battle system — or at least my preconceptions about it — were generally what’s kept me from following this up sooner. I love epic science-fantasy RPGs, but I never liked turn-based systems (at least until the recent XCOM games). Luckily, FFVII‘s battle system isn’t strictly turn-based at all and… well… actually I’m still not sure how I feel about this.
It’s all about timers. Your party lines up on the one side, enemies line up on the other, and each participant just stands around while their action timer fills up. Once it’s full, the menu comes up and you get to issue an order, at which point you’re treated to a suitably over-the-top attack animation.
I say it’s not strictly turn-based because, as far as I can tell, only one animation can be playing at a time, so if you’re giving the order while some enemy is taking their time farting about, your character won’t actually move until there’s a space. It doesn’t look like turn timers pause during animations, either, so there is still this weird need to respond quickly to make sure you get in ahead of the crowd. How do you make a fast-paced action-RPG out of a completely menu-driven combat system? Like this, apparently.
It begins simply enough, with only basic attack actions available, so there’s a limit to the amount of fumbling around the menu to find the option you want in the early game. However, once you get Materia equipped you can start casting spells, plus there are loads of items that can offer you mana-free ways to do spells (or to clear debilitating effects). Once you have a lot of items that list gets pretty long, meaning it can be something of a rush to scroll down to that healing Potion you need (not to mention the ensuing scramble to make sure you give it to the right person, and not, say, one of your enemies).
And then you have your special Limit Break abilities where… Well, after a while of hitting and/or being hit, Cloud gets to do a bigger slash with his giant sword; but Tifa gets a slot machine for some reason?
Honestly the battle system feels like it belongs to a totally different game. For every cool creature design and dramatic boss battle, there are a hundred space-filling random encounters with bizarro enemies that have no plausible place in the setting.
No, the Final Fantasy VII I’ve fallen in love with is the one where Cloud has to wear a dress to sneak into a villain’s mansion. The Final Fantasy VII I want to soak in is the sumptuous pre-rendered backgrounds that turn out to be huge video plates and flip into cinematics with nary a warning. The Final Fantasy VII that’s captured my heart is the one where Cloud is deliciously awkward around Tifa and Aeris as they gently tease him to pieces.
For all my experience with Infinity Engine games and indeed all things top-down, FFVII shouldn’t really be as constantly surprising and delightful as it has turned out to be.
Levels are explored as an adorable low-poly Cloud figure using the arrow keys, though in truth, things are not always top down. With Cloud being a 3D figure, many of the backgrounds are in fact at odd angles, allowing a level of flexibility for dramatic scenery that the Infinity Engine could never quite manage with its fixed viewpoint. You’re as likely to be exploring a market from a bird’s eye view as you are to be crawling through an air vent directly towards the camera.
Admittedly, this comes with a few snags. There are elements of light platforming, in that sometimes you can point Cloud at a gap and he’ll hop over automatically; but there are also ladders that require you to move up to them and hit OK to clamber on, and sometimes it’s hard to distinguish the active scenery from the passive decorations and a screen can leave you a bit lost. Other screens are just massive, and you have to run a long way to the horizon before it’ll swap you to the next one.
Ah, but when those scenes play out, they are fantastic. I never knew you could do so much with text boxes — they appear on top of each other to simulate crowds and interruptions, they appear at different places on screen, sometimes they even shake for emphasis. Combined with simple but evocative animations from the characters, and those cinematic backgrounds, it’s quite a masterclass in squeezing personality out of very limited resources.
Of course all that level of engagement can only come from spending a lot of time with your characters, and boy, do you spend a lot of time with these characters. Despite appearing like an open-world game where you can meander about to your own whims, it’s incredibly linear — even after leaving Midgar and achieving the mythical Overworld, there’s really only one direction to ever head in.
But the game uses that linearity to give you scene after scene of inter-party chatter that goes all the way. After any amount of time wandering through hostile territory, you’ll inevitably get somewhere safe, your party will emerge from the ether and once they’re done with the main plot talk you’ll get plenty of time to speak to them some more as individuals.
When I read that back it sounds like a negative, but it’s really not — the team are so much fun to be around, the chatter is sparky and witty as often as it’s serious and heartfelt. I want to speak to them all!
And for all there’s a lot of dialogue, it’s also delivered in concise little sentences to fit those speech boxes so it never even feels like you’re facing a wall… Though when dinner looms during some longer sequences, you can start to wonder when it’ll let you take a break to save — one time when Cloud is narrating a (playable) flashback, it literally does this, so clearly somebody on the development team knew it was a risk. You can save anywhere you like on the Overworld, but otherwise you have to pray for specific save points inside levels.
I could keep going, because Final Fantasy VII is endlessly surprising. I was not expecting the mad bike race to escape Midgar. I was not expecting the real-time strategy minigame at Mount Condor. I was not expecting my disguise as a Shinra soldier to require a performance in a welcome parade. Every scene brings something new and unexpected to spark another wave of joy.
According to the clock, I’m only about 15 hours in, so the obvious question is: will it last? Will grinding that battle system get tiring and outweigh the good bits, or will the character-driven delight continue to flow right up to the end? For how many tens more hours can it keep up this pace of charming dialogue, unique asides and grandiose planet-saving adventure?
It’s impossible to tell — but, so far at least, I’m satisfied that the legends are true: Final Fantasy VII is a great game.