When I was young, my life was structured, what i assumed, in a normal way for a young child with separated parents, every other weekend I would go stay with my dad. He was a typical auto factory worker of the late 90's (he made plaster moulds for car parts, I think) and sometimes worked a lot of overtime. As a safety net for weekends which we couldn't do much (usually fishing) one of our first stops would be the local Hollywood Video (why do I feel old now?) to rent a game. One day I saw a pretty cool looking game, but there weren't anymore copies left. That sucks, but back then the selection of games seemed infinite. Next time I beelined the same game, once again no copies. Next time? still no copies. This was inconceivable to my little mind. This pattern repeated itself a few more times, and I become increasingly disappointed. Then one weekend, we didn't stop at the local Hollywood video. Instead we stopped at Target. This wasn't too odd, sometimes we just didn't go rent a game for various reasons (maybe we were going somewhere this weekend). My dad told me to wait in the car as he ran in to get something real quick (back before people realized this wasn't a particularly good idea). He came back a short time later, put a bag containing something on my lap, and said "here you go". Inside the bag was the game I had pined after for so long. Inside the bag was Final Fantasy VII.
Technology Finally Begins To Do The Series Justice
Something I unfortunately forgot to bring up in my award winning critique of FFVI (my lie, I'll tell it like I want to) was the fact that it was beginning to feel like the series was starting to be held back by the available technology at the time. While the results of the new technology is rough, and it's obvious the team hasn't quite mastered the new tech, it's the beginning of the 3D era for Final Fantasy. Better graphics, better audio, better presentation over all. So far it's a small step compared to later leaps and bounds, but far more important.
The Materia System Is Pretty Awesome
For the uninitiated FFVII's main character customization relies on Materia, small spheres that, when slotted into weapons and armor, grants characters magic spells, skills, and stat modifications. Examples are generally classic FF abilities like Cure, Fire, Enemy Skill (Blue Magic), and stat boosts like HP+. All materia when slotted gains AP from battles (unless slotted in a zero growth weapon/armor) that levels them up, giving access to more powerful versions, new spells, greater magnitudes, or more casts per battle. Equipping magic or summon materia doesn't just give access to their spells, but also produces stat changes that push a character's attack and HP down, their magic and MP up. So while characters have a passive stat growth via leveling, Cloud and Red XIII (best character ever) being jack of all trades, Tifa "A Rack To Hang Your Hat On" Lockheart a physical damage dealer, You can produce an instant mage character, just add materia. Now there are a couple of reasons why this system is so well done. Firstly, the system is designed to act as a double edged sword with the stat modifications. As time goes on and you acquire more powerful magics, with greater bonuses and penalties, a character loaded with the latest and greatest can take a pretty big hit to their HP. If you're using a lower HP character (say Vincent) this can actually become a bit of a problem. Add in the fact that you're limited to how much materia you can equip by how many slots and paired slots (allows use of modifier materia, like All materia which allows AoE casting) your equipment has, and you're forced to make some choices. How can you spread your materia out to take advantage of paired slots? Are you lowering your HP too much? Is the extra power of a zero growth or zero slot piece of gear worth it? You've got a pool of materia you want to have loaded, and now you've got to find the most efficient way to make it work. The second reason why I like this system so much is that it allows great amount of adaptability. No matter who the story requires you to have in your party, mechanically you can have exactly what you want. usually character equipment is very similar in distribution of slots and the game has a wonderful UI that allows quick and easy transfer of materia sets between characters. So the game lets you use whoever you want, set up however you want. When given the choice my party almost always consists of Cloud, Red XIII, and Tifa, with who i decided to hold the most potent materia switching between Red XIII and Tifa based on my whim (Red XIII has better natural magic, but his ultimate weapon does more damage the more MP he has, Tifa's doesn't depend on MP).
The Main Plot Succeeds Because It Plays With Player Expectations Of The Genre
Cloud Strife, The cold, uncaring, cocky ex super soldier mercenary. Aeris, the kind gentle young woman with a mysterious heritage. If you've got any genre awareness, you know how this plays out. Cloud is the only one who can stop the big bad, and Aeris is the one to thaw his icy demeanor so that the day can be saved with love, friendship, and goody goody feelings….yeah it's not that simple. What follows is an adventure that ends up with some very shocking developments, and a few shots are fired at standard JRPG protagonist tropes. Unless you've been living under a rock for about 18 years (wow do I feel old at 24) you probably know that Aeris bites it, and this hit people pretty hard. It might seem weird now, but back then, while female leads had been in dangerous situations before, never before have such central character been killed off in such an immediate out of nowhere way, nor in such high quality (for the time) 3D graphics. Cloud himself is a character that not all is what it seems, and Tifa, his childhood friend, adds an interesting dynamic to the overall effect. Until now, Final Fantasy hasn't exactly been subtle in it's plot twists, if it even has them. A lot of times they're things that just happen. shocking to be sure, but the art of good foreshadowing had yet to be mastered. Here however the potential for a more enlightened replay, where the player begins to see events in new light. Subtle hints as to the following story events, that the player may have initially just accepted as standard dialogue/events, suddenly shine like a beacon, giving the player a good case of the "Aha...so that's why he/she said/did that".
As a small note, one of the interesting misconceptions I often see in regards to FFVII (and a variation of this problem appears in FFVIII) is that it's blamed a bit for the proliferation of the brooding, angsty, emo, big sword wielding protagonist. Someone who plays the game for the first time having heard these descriptions might be surprised to find out that Cloud isn't really any of these things, well okay yeah the sword is huge, but it's really the only ridiculous one for a long while. He really falls under a more egotistical jackass antihero, with his lack of caring in the beginning. But there is actually a very good reason for this. In a later section when Cloud does kind of lose it, trust me when I say it's pretty damn justified. As for Squall in FFVIII...well we'll get to that later.
The Supporting Cast Are Given Time To Shine
While the main plot generally focuses on the relationships between Cloud, Aeris, Tifa, and big bad Sephiroth, that doesn't mean the supporting cast is left completely out in the cold. Woven into the main plot, each character gets a bit of a mini arc, showing slices of their past that led them to be who they are today, and why they choose to fight for the planet with Cloud. Some of these arcs are well done, involving characters to reevaluate some aspect of themselves. Barret coming to terms with the real reason he fights Shinra, Red XIII learning the truth of his "coward" father, these add further dimensions. Not every character is a winner, but by the end you and the characters themselves know why they fight against sephiroth at the risks of their lives.
Side Note: FFVII Presents Initial Evidence I Am A Horrible Person
In the second disc I was a little short on cash to stock up on HP/MP boosting materia, when I noticed I still had all of Aeris' weapons. I thought to myself "well...bitch ain't gonna be needing these anymore" and sold them all. To Be Continued In FFVIII
Cutting Through The Overhyping Fanboy Bullshit, Sephiroth Is A Great Villain (Warning: Slight Soapbox Rant).
If you've participated in any online setting requiring a username, forums, MMO's, whatever, chances are you've seen and had your fill of xXSepheroth1337Xx usernames, I know I have (really once is enough). The problem and pushback against any good word about FFVII and Sephiroth isn't 100% rooted in the fact that either are bad (although neither are perfect as well, and some people really just don't like FFVII), rather it's a result of the legions off annoying fanboy assholes who seem to worship the ground either walks on. It leads to what I like to call the Silent Hill 2 effect. A certain entry to a series garners so much love that a large contingent of the fanbase completely disregards any further entries or past entries accomplishments. To them that particular release is so perfect that nothing can compare, and it pisses people off with it's zealot like behavior. I hold that sometimes the greatest detriment to a great game, isn't any particular flaw, but the fans of the game themselves. Nothing makes a person want to scream to the heavens how shit something is, than when someone else won't shut the fuck up about how awesome it is. Add in classic human "It's cool to hate what's popular" hipster attitude, and chances of you walking in to a random chat room and getting a level headed opinion can be slim at best. /rant
Back on topic, I think what I like about Sephiroth can be boiled down into two aspects of his character. For what feels like the first time in the series, the main villain Sephiroth has a complete character arc. Every main antagonist up to this point has been presented to the player as being evil when they're first encountered, in fact we're usually told just how damn evil they are beforehand. While Cloud makes some initial references that Sephiroth is up to no good, the first time we actually get to see him, in Cloud's retelling of events in his hometown of Nibelheim 5 years earlier, he's actually not that bad. A little cold and distant maybe, but he seems friendly with cloud, asking him what it's like to be back home. He even shares a little of his own past before allowing Cloud leave to go see his family and friends. What follows over the course of the flashback is a retelling of the series of events that drove Sephiroth, a mighty and loved war hero, down the path to madness, ending in a sudden stop at Bat Shit Bonkers-ville. It gives us insight into how someone so celebrated became such a threat to all life. Most of all, it sets up a real reason to hate him. Now past villains have made us hate them, usually by fucking up the world with various degrees of success, but with Sephiroth it's a character's past made in to a personal grudge. Cloud has a deep seated and justified hatred of Sephiroth, when the party becomes aware of his return, and suggests maybe he's a good guy, Cloud knows deep down it's not true because of these events. This is really the first time such a connection is present in Final Fantasy.
Secondly, what makes Sephiroth a great villain, is part of what made Kefka such a fun villain as well, and it's being so committed to being downright evil. This man does not half ass a god complex, he goes whole hog with his "I'm the destined ruler and god" schtick. What really sells me on it however is one scene in particular. Well into the game Cloud comes face to face with Sephiroth (not for the first time) and the silver haired mad man makes several references to the events at Nibelheim 5 years earlier. At one point he makes mention of a group photo taken of Sephiroth, Cloud, and Tifa by a resident. Sephiroth pretends to look for it amidst an illusion of the town (it's obvious he knows exactly where it is) before picking it off a corpse and asking Cloud "Do you want to see it? It turned out pretty good". Throughout the entire scene Sephiroth exudes level joy and snark that is both entertaining, and shows just how much of a bastard he really is. I really feel that it's pretty much his best scene and it really sells his manipulative, antagonistic behaviour.
One Winged Angel Is Pretty Damn Good
Love or hate the game, give Uematsu credit where credit due. The Final boss theme has come to symbolize Sephiroth, and is a pretty big fan favorite. It's also the first song in the series to feature Lyrics. According to the ff wiki, Uematsu has stated that it was something very experimental, and they didn't expect it to end up what it was. The use of lyrics in Final Fantasy would be greatly expanded on in the next entry to the series.
Supernova Is NOT Pretty Damn Good
Okay sure it LOOKS cool as hell...the first time. But seriously who the hell thought a repeatable attack having that long of an animation was a good idea? I wonder if using Knights of The Round to try and bypass it would be considered an instance of irony?
The Game Sometimes Has Trouble Telling Us Important Information
While FFVII could be called the herald of the modern JRPG, it still had a few Old School JRPG problems, chief among them is making sure important information is given to the player in a mandatory way. One of the big examples lies in the way the player is informed of the existence of the Black and White Materias...namely in that it's possible you never learn about them until Cloud mentions it as if it was an established plot point. At a couple points during the game, Cloud will (optionally) give a short summary of the story so far, framed as for the benefit of confused or new party members. On the groups second visit to the Golden Saucer, if you elect to hear the review, Cloud will mention that Sephiroth is looking for the Black Materia. Now having beaten the game before, I knew this, however I sat up in my chair because a thought hit me. "wait a second...where the fuck did they learn about the Black Materia before Cloud just mentioned it?" Well the answer is that on the prior visit to the gold saucer you can talk to the owner and find out that someone was asking about it. It's inferred that the man in question is connected to Sephiroth. The problem? it's possible to accidentally progress the story without having that conversation, meaning the player could never obtain that little tidbit, and might feel a little confused as to how cloud came to this assumption.
A seemingly even more egregious example could be the existence of the white materia. Cloud is informed that it could hold the key to stopping Sephiroth. He then becomes despondent because Aeris had the white materia and it was lost when she died. Now to the game's credit, it's clue as to Aeris having the white materia is unmissable. When she first meets cloud she mentions how her mother gave it to her, and it doesn't do anything. Cloud says that she probably just doesn't know how to use it. Aeris says no, it's just good for nothing, but she feels safe having it. Then said materia isn't mentioned again until Cloud realizes it's lost. Can you spot the problem with this whole situation? Okay sure it makes sense in hindsight that the oddly non functional materia was actually super special and could only be used in a special place. But no mention is made of it's color or anything, and when Aeris ventures off thinking only she can stop Sephiroth, she never says why. Cloud somehow knows it was the white materia, but the player isn't really given the tools to make the connection he does. Just a little more information could have made this plot point feel a lot smoother.
The Huge Materia Sub Plot Feels Unnecessary
Remember way back in the FFII when I pointed out how it was kind of stupid how the Ultima spell was played up to be a secret ace in the hole against the empire and it ended up being just another spell for the rest of the story? well the huge materia sub plot is it's modern day spiritual successor. Cloud and crew find out that Shinra (evil corporation that basically rules the world) is attempting to stop Sephiroth with the use of a big ass rocket loaded with Huge Materia, special materia produced in reactors that contains 330 times the power of regular materia. Cloud decides they can't let that happen. As for why? It kind of just boils down to shinra being assholes therefore any plan they come up with is bad I guess. That really is pretty much the gist of it. You don't even have to succeed in rescuing the materia, and even if you do, unless you're really diligent in mastering every piece of their respective types of materia, it doesn't do you any good. Well you do get the Bahamut Zero summon materia (if you have Bahamut and Neo Bahamut) which is pretty awesome, but by no means required. It feels a bit like padding. Good quality padding, I never said no to more FFVII, but it's sorta padding all the same.
Vincent Really Shouldn't Be Optional, and Neither Should His Side Quest
Without going too much into detail, Vincent is one of two optional characters and it doesn't make a whole lot of sense. His indirect connection to Sephiroth is interesting and kind of important. Why the designers decided to relegate it to option content is beyond me.
English Localization Is Starting To Become A Problem
If there's one other thing FFVII is known for, it's probably the fact that it has become increasingly obvious Square had an english problem on their hands. The translation is full of spelling errors and awkwardly worded sentences that can cause some interesting issues. The warning that Cloud gives to Barret during the first boss fight in the game is probably infamous. This is the game I credit for motivating me to become the person often known as the best reader in my class. Imagine my surprise in later years when I realized that my problems wasn't from being a stupid 7 year old, it was from Square severely lacking a fluent english translator.
I Think Final Fantasy VII Is the Best Final Fantasy Yet, But Not The Best Final Fantasy.
Why is that? you might wonder. I seem to have almost nothing negative to say about the game. My only nitpicks are things that could be easily dismissed as minor or annoying at worst. So many others think FFVII is the cream of the JRPG crop, one of the greatest games ever made? So why don't I? Honestly I don't have an answer to give you. FFVII is a game that is consistent in it's pacing, story, gameplay, and overall quality, but I feel it lacks a certain...something a certain je ne sais quoi if you will. If I HAD to offer a theory, I would probably have to say that FFVII, despite being the first FF I owned, is actually the last of the three PS1 FF's that I beat. One of them I actually consider the best of the PS1 FF's, and my second favorite FF overall. So it could be that stole some overall thunder. Still I highly recommend that everyone play FFVII, if only because it is so wildly considered to be a landmark title, akin to the Half-Lifes and Resident Evils of the world. I would definitely say that if you've stumbled on this series in hopes of finding a good point to jump in, this would certainly be the one, no question about it. Like FFVI, it isn't the end all be all nothing shall ever compare second coming of christ like some more ardent fans will preach. But it is really good and worth your time. At the very least play it so your big FFVII obsessed friend will shut the hell up about you having never played it.
A Special Thank You
We are (sort of) halfway through the series and I want to take a second to give a big Thank You to everyone who has taken the time to click on my articles, whether you've read them in full or not. Love me or hate me, agree or disagree, you've all been wonderfully supportive. I feel like I've grown way more confident in my writing, and I hope that shows. So I hope you all continue to enjoy the series as we roll in to the back 9 so to speak (actually I think I do have literally 9 more to do).