Square's Final Fantasy series makes its 32-bit debut with Final Fantasy VII, a role-playing game blending 3D polygonal characters, pre-rendered backgrounds, and animated cut-scenes across three discs. Lead protagonist Cloud Strife's memory is as murky as the quality of life in the city of Midgar, where a resistance movement named Avalanche targets the apparent source of the problem: the Shin-Ra Electric Power Company. Cloud will join Avalanche as he seeks to piece together his past, kicking off an adventure spanning three continents. Cloud will intersect with an assortment of characters along the way, including a mysterious, silver-haired adversary named Sephiroth.
Gameplay is divided into three distinct phases: travel across a world map; exploration from a close-up view of an area; and a 3D battle screen that pits your party against the enemy. Enemy encounters employ a turn-based, active time-battle system, where players decide to attack, use items, or cast magic within a short window of time. A crystal-like energy source called materia can be found in your travels and attached to equipment, granting characters access to new skills or the ability to summon powerful creatures. Your party consists of three heroes selected from a potential pool of nine. In addition to the main quest, you can participate in mini-games ranging from snowboarding and boxing to creature breeding and arm wrestling.
Several years ago, one could not find a Playstation in the home of every RPGamer. Indeed, the ranks of RPGamers were far fewer as well. All this however changed with the release of Squaresoft's Final Fantasy VII. Undeniably setting a new standard for the industry, FF7 introduced many elements of the modern RPG. However, it is far from perfect.
The most notable innovation of Final Fantasy VII is clearly the FMV. When everyone else was still using sprites and tiled backgrounds, Square made the leap to lush prerendered backdrops and three disks worth of gorgeous FMV. However, as gorgeous as they are, the graphics are not always functional. Many areas of the game, while attractively presented, make the available paths extremely difficult to see, at times even impossible. Additionally, while the backgrounds are prerendered, the characters are extremely crude polygonal models when exploring. Particularly when compared to the large battle models, these look terrible on the rare occasion the screen is zoomed in enough to see detail.
Music is also a collection of extremes. While a few select tracks are absolutely wonderful, most of the game is permiated with simple pieces which seem a bit rushed, and at times simply grate on the nerves. Sound effects meanwhile show no real improvement over the earlier SNES titles.
The translation on the other hand is quite different from earlier works. In what seems like a cry of freedom from the censorship heavy SNES, the dialog of Final Fantasy VII is packed with swearing. Unfortunately, it is also packed with typos and other errors which further obscure what is already a very confusing plot. In fact, years after the game's release, many fans are still scratching their heads over just what happens at the end.
While it is easy to note the flaws in Final Fantasy VII, it has plenty of good points too. The entire game is packed with very engrossing mini-games, ranging from frantic action, to sports, to real time strategy. Even CPR and hypothermia have their own mini-games. In fact, these mini-games can consume more play time than the otherwise average lengthed game. Beyond the constant mini-games, Final Fantasy VII packs some interesting and solid mechanics. While all the spells and skills from previous entries in the series exist here more or less unchanged, the requirements to use them are new. Each spell, skill, and summon in the game is contained in a materia. Each weapon and piece of armor contains a number of slots in which materia may be equipped. As materia remain equipped, they gain AP, eventually becoming more powerful, and either improve or hinder the stats of the character using them. Aside from this odd system, battles work just like any other Final Fantasy game, or really any other RPG at all.
Unfortunately, all the customization in the game goes to waste to a certain degree. While it is possible to expertly outfit each character to create a finely tuned and balanced party, it simply isn't nessessary. No part of the game is anywhere near challenging enough to require cunning strategy, with the exception of optional bosses which quite frankly aren't worth the effort of fighting. Even the last few bosses can be defeated with a single casting of the best spell in the game.
While the gameplay may be average, and it has it's flaws, no one can deny that Final Fantasy VII has left it's mark on the genre, setting new standards for RPG graphics and general presentation. Additionally, while it may not be the most spectacular of games, it paved the way for a vast number of hits.
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