Image by GameDevolution (Cloud’s 22 year challenge)
- Final Fantasy VII, out of all the games in its series and there are many, continues to stand out in the public consciousness. Other titles like IV,VI,IX,X and to some, VIII, remain essential entries in the Japanese role playing genre if not among the best games ever made. They also have devoted fan bases for that same reason. Final Fantasy as a series, for better or for worse, is the face of the JRPG. Yet for most people in and out of Japan, it all goes back to lucky number seven.
It doesn’t hurt that the original FF7, soon to have a multi-part remake for us all to enjoy, is still a great experience. Has it aged? Very much so, but not in the ways that would necessarily make it difficult to play over two decades following its 1997 debut.
Let’s get the synopsis and character overview out of the way despite the ubiquity of this particular game. They’re still some laymen/women out there in need of a fresher. In a dystopian alternate Earth, the Shinra power company all but has control of the world.
Ruling from the walled, circular steam/cyberpunk city of Midgar, President Shinra cares nothing for those poor and unfortunate souls living below the upper plates of the city, an underworld in many different ways. From below the plates come the eco-resistance-essentially terrorist group Avalanche, with their MR. T-esque leader Barret leading the fight. Their mission: destroy Shinra’s Mako power system, which is literally sucking the life essence of the planet for short term energy and financial gain.
On one notable raid on a Mako reactor, a hired mercenary carrying a near-comically large sword joins them: Cloud Strife, the blond haired, stoic Japanese boy band looking protagonist of our story. Possibly the most iconic hero in Final Fantasy’s history, if only due to FF7 being a gateway entry in the series, Cloud has a complicated reputation despite his recognizable nature.
Is he too angsty? Too stoic? Too 1 or 2-dimensional for some tastes? Despite his story very much delving into why Cloud is the way he is, he is for the majority of Final Fantasy 7 your surrogate in exploring the strange and beautiful Earth of this 1997 experience. That alone makes him something worth writing home about though his relationships with the rest of the “party”, those that make up your fellowship on your globe trotting journey, are a stronger defense for the troubled youth in your control.
Barret is the first party member in Cloud’s team. He is somewhat divisive based on how his dialect, demeanor and him being an angry, black gun toting man screams to some of the Japanese developers relying too heavily on unfortunate stereotypes from America.
Despite being the leader of an aforementioned terrorist group, Barret is honestly not an unlikable figure, in spite of how occasionally uncomfortable he may be presented. He has many positive traits. He has totally understandable motivations for the man he is based on his tragic backstory. He has a cute adoptive daughter that he unambiguously cares for. He comes to terms with the immoral methods he takes as a terrorist leader being wrong.
He ultimately becomes a stalwart, loyal member of the party and if anything is the one who stresses the importance of loyalty the most, not just to others but to yourself and your values. If that isn’t enough to convince you that Barret is at the very least not a mean-spirited stereotype, he has a minigun on his arm. How cool is that?
In the early portion of Final Fantasy VII, you explore a mostly linear path throughout Midgar above and below the plate. In that time, two female members of the group join and in doing so create one of the most clear-cut examples of a video game love triangle. First: Tifa, the well endowed(so to speak) childhood friend of Cloud turned Avalanche pugilist/bartender/ team mom.
Despite her tomboy aesthetic and combat style, she has a feminine side that has made her one of the most popular female figures in the series regardless of player gender. She is also the most sexualized figure in the game and the remake has toned down her breast size though nothing can really prevent Tifa from being the eye candy member of the group, then and now.
Aerith, originally Aeris due to the original English localization having some serious problems, is on the surface the innocent, nature loving healer and magic user of the group. Those elements aren’t absent, but for her more girly appearance, she is behavior wise more tomboyish than Tifa and has a disarming cleverness to how she thinks, acts with a welcome outgoingness to her compared to Tifa’s more reserved nature.
Tifa and Aerith, in relation to Cloud and the possibility of romance blossoming, has been described as something like Archie, Betty & Veronica, though with elements of that archetype switched around to make them perhaps more unique than the conventions they were likely inspired by.
Who Cloud ultimately should end up with truly has been debated in the twenty years since FF7’s release. Even though the player has a distinct choice in deciding who Cloud genuinely falls for, one unforgettable moment at the game’s midpoint makes it so that in the end only one girl can get the guy.
Even though that moment is one of the most recognizable moments in gaming’s entire history, almost the “I am your Father” for games but with an entirely different context between the scenes, for the sake of the laymen, I will let you either play through, watch someone play through or spoil for yourself what that scene is. One thing is certain, that moment is the one thing everyone in the know is both anticipating yet dreading seeing unfold once again in the remake.
Near the end of the opening act set in Midgar, a strange sentient dog/cat hybrid that can speak joins the party, escaping what can be inferred as some truly creepy experiments by Shinra’s science division. Even though his real name is Nanaki, the game’s default option, based upon his time as a test subject, is Red XIII.
As he appears in the 2020 remake
Red XIII is a fun addition to the playable cast, as he breaks the mold of human/humanoid members of the group and opens up the diversity of characters that will eventually make up your team. Half the time, Red speaks in a dignified, academic accent. He was taken from his home in the American Southwest inspired Cosmo Canyon by Shinra and seeks to return home.
Once Cloud and the player escape Midgar after a crazy escalation of events, most importantly involving the placement of two new central antagonists replacing President Shinra, namely his son Rufus and one that I will getting into after I round out the party, the game shifts into a world spanning adventure through grassy fields and thick jungle. Through cavernous mines and ruined villages. Through sun scorched deserts and snowy valleys and much more.
For a first 3D generation game, Final Fantasy VII is stunningly diverse in locale, accompanied by Nobuo Uematsu’s treasured score. It is also the first time a completely optional party member becomes available. On my first attempt of the game, I entirely skipped this character’s introduction and the process of acquiring her is just as annoying as she can and will come across. The sixth possible member is Yuffie Kisaragi, teenage ninja thief extraordinaire.
She is hands down, the most divisive party member, more so in terms of character traits and personality than usefulness in combat progression. For those who persist with her, she is a worthwhile addition, probably one of the best.
However, she can be a tiresome figure when it comes to her dialogue and how she treats the rest of the party. True, she is an immature teenager but it doesn’t really feel that her character really evolves clearly enough to feel as if she has become a better person, aside from sticking around for the long haul against apocalyptic odds and being heartbroken at that moment mentioned earlier on.
One long though entertaining side-story involves returning optionally to her Japanese based homeland of Wutai. There, when you’re not looking, she steals all of your “materia”, a magical. ball-shaped substance which allows the party to use magic to empower themselves on their journey.
It’s safe to say that without materia, mechanically and narratively, Cloud and Co. would stand no chance at all with what they’re up against. Her sneaky theft of it and the hoops that Cloud and the player have to go through did not endear her to critics or fans. Even worse, once the materia is returned and Yuffie rejoins, there are signs that she wasn’t truly remorseful. Even after she is saved by you from a sleazy,tertiary villain.
At least she kicks ass out on the field and there is certainly room to improve her as a character in the Remake. It also doesn’t help that for Western players, her appearance combined with her confirmed age of 16 makes her a little uncomfortable to look at.
True, her ingame 3D appearance negates that compared to her concept art and she is not a romantic interest for the adult Cloud. She does give him an innocent kiss on a chaste date on a theme park gondola ride( more on that later), but she is far removed from being a sexually charged figure thankfully. Just for reference, here is her 3D model, which better reflects a child-like suggestion.
The other optional member is unlockable after you acquire a mandatory member at the theme park I just mentioned. He/it is also a divisive figure but I’ll get the optionals out of the way. Introducing, handsome vampire gunslinger/shapeshifter Vincent Valentine.
A brooding, vengeance filled immortal man who has slept for thirty years until you (optionally) awake him from his self-atoning punishment, he seeks to make up for failing to protect his unrequited love Lucretia from death and his involvement in not only that but being partially responsible for the creation of Final Fantasy VII’s main antagonist.
Cloud gets a lot of crap for his angsty, emo portrayal which was characterized that way more strongly in spinoff content outside the original game. Vincent, however, fans love Vincent.
Perhaps it’s the melodramatically tragic backstory, his thirst to get back at the evil Dr. Hojo who is arguably responsible for almost all the conflict in Final Fantasy 7, or that he is a locked and loaded vampire that can transform into a werewolf, a Jason Vorhees-like monster and a super cool looking winged dark angel kind. Either way, Vincent is the brooder of FF7 that was so popular, he got his own spinoff game, Dirge of Cerberus. It wasn’t well considered, but still the popularity stands.
It doesn’t hurt that he is a hunky vampire man that doesn’t really have any indication of being a bloodsucker and has no issue with being out in sunlight. So, the vampire without any of the drawbacks. I get it now.
Now for the final two mandatory additions, one polarizing and one beloved despite the latter having some troubling behavioral issues, especially in the MeToo era of today.
First Cait Sith. I’ll let his appearance sink in and do my best to explain what exactly he is.
Cait Sith is a magically controlled animatronic-style robot, one a cute talking cat with a megaphone and a kingly attire riding atop his steed/ muscle called Mog, based off the fictional species called moogles that are indigenous to the Final Fantasy franchise.
He is weird, but his adorable design makes up for it and almost makes up for his duplicitous role in the party. In this instance, I don’t want to spoil too much but in some respects Cait Sith is actually one of the more important figures in FF7’s story, especially once his secret is discovered. What his ultimate narrative trajectory offers in fruit is soured by his overall usefulness as a party member.
Cait Sith, out of the nine party members, is based most on luck. This plays into Cait’s background as a theme park mascot who offers visitors like Cloud and Co. to read their fortunes. The whole fortune may or may not be actually supernatural but his abilities in the fight certainly are.
A lot of his moves like “manipulating” foes or “morphing” them can half the time not even do anything. One of his special moves that you need to charge up, called ingame “limit breaks”, is literally a roll of the dice. In that he throws some dice on the ground and the number will determine damage he gives the assailants.
Sometimes Cait can seem like a great addition. Other times, it’s easy to see why many players often relegate Cait and Mog to the bench and never pick them as part of Cloud’s three man group to control. At least he has his background, redemption arc and cute design to fall back onto.
Finally, we have Cid Highwind, as foul mouthed a figure as a late 90s’ T rated game could allow.
Starting with Final Fantasy II, all the way back in 1988, there has been a Cid for a Final Fantasy game. He has been a hero, party member, neutral figure, mentor figure, villain or a combination of several. In Final Fantasy VII, this Cid is the most remembered and liked and for many the Cid. Again, can’t understate enough the gateway title that is VII. He’s so popular, he was the Cid chosen for the Kingdom Hearts crossover series, which if anything furthered this one’s exposure.
Despite being the last party member to acquire, Cid’s excellent stats as a fighter and support character and that he has truly powerful limit breaks means his character is among the best to play with. He would be a near perfect character, but…
Cid is not just a foul-mouthed figure, he has serious anger problems. They mostly stem from how he was so close to being the first man to venture into outer space in a rocket he designed himself, all with Shinra’s funding. It just so happened that his overly shy assistant Shera was trying to fix a problem with one of the rocket’s oxygen tanks, which would mean certain doom for the rocket’s flight and Cid himself.
Cid quickly aborted the launch, saving himself and Shera but making the rocket unusable. His lifelong dreams were crushed, seemingly forever. He puts all his hatred for the failure solely on Shera and she in return lives in his house as his constantly berated servant.
While Cid is framed as being wrong for how he treats Shera, the game never seems to reconcile well enough with how dysfunctional and abusive their relationship is. There is a epiphany of sorts later in Cid’s story, but it’s more about recognizing that Shera was right about the rocket’s problems and less to do with recognizing how poor he treated her all this time.
Again, this is something that the Remake could actually improve upon compared to the original, at least in how Cid and Shera make up in their relationship. Aside from Cid’s treatment of Shera, he is one of the most enjoyable figures to tag along on the adventure going forward, both with what he adds in his commentary in the story and in gameplay. If that isn’t enough, he eventually gets you access to the airship, which makes travel around the world much faster, a staple of Final Fantasy, like Cid.
That is the party of Final Fantasy VII. So, aside from stopping the plans of the Shinra company, what is the main source of conflict for Cloud and friends? This guy and his quasi-Norman Bates delusions.
Sephiroth is a fallen hero soldier who upon discovering his pretty crazy origins, as a genetic fusion of a human and alien life-form, goes crazy himself. Thinking that he and his “mother” Jenova are the true rulers of the planet, goes off the rails and destroys the town where he learned the awful truth about himself, with a smile. It just so happens that town was Cloud’s home.
It also happens that Cloud was present for Sephiroth’s descent into madness and genocide, especially painful that the former saw the latter as an inspiring figure, to become a member of SOLDIER, the elite military force under Shinra’s control. In a matter of hours, if even that, the man that Cloud looked up to most goes mad, kills nearly everyone in his home of Nibelheim, including his mother and almost Tifa.
This is just the tip of the iceberg for why Cloud has issues and why Sephiroth is both so hated and feared by him. Sadly, Sephiroth is hardly finished making Cloud and everyone else’s life hell, if he doesn’t end a few of them in the process.
To be honest, Sephiroth’s motivations and why he is doing them are somewhat muddled. It is never unclear that what he is doing will have dire consequences for everyone save himself. The official logo for Final Fantasy VII depicts a world-ending meteor if that is any indication of how much of a threat he is.
All that said, why he is entirely doing this is not as clear though some general ideas like revenge for the near extinct alien race he is supposedly part of as well as a desire to be more than the result of some vile science experiment could be part of it. Whether or not it is the English localization’s fault for the difficulty in processing Sephiroth’s plan and motivations is up to you to decide.
Again, something that could be improved in the remake. That the character is physically showing up much sooner in the remake than the original could be part of the streamlining process, especially for newcomers.
Regardless of where you stand on Sephiroth’s background, the impression he makes through his appearance( super long grey hair notwithstanding), musical accompaniments including the legendary if overplayed One Winged Angel track, what he manages to accomplish and how he totally wrecks Cloud in so many ways makes him a truly masterful foe to face.
It doesn’t hurt that the final fight with him, where One Winged Angel first played, is an epic yet truly brutal fight, remedied by being leveled up just enough and having all your gameplay ducks truly in a row. Sephiroth commands more than a basic understanding of FF7’s systems, like a true final boss does.
The systems that make up Final Fantasy VII involve a number of elements, some endemic to the role playing game genre and some a little unique to VII.
There is the way you move in FF7’s pre-rendered backgrounds, a beautiful compromise to the limitations of the PlayStation One. Rather than a completely 3D environment to explore, which wouldn’t happen for Final Fantasy until the tenth game, pre-rendered backgrounds are premade backgrounds with a different visual and interactive palette than the 3D Models of living characters like Cloud and his team.
Pre-rendered was a popular trend in the PS1 era that was first popularized with the original Resident Evil a year prior in 1996. Here is an example of a pre-rendered environment in the original Final Fantasy 7. See if you can distinguish what is and is not 3D.
Now, here is this same location in the remake that is fully 3D rendered.
Again, Final Fantasy VII is a beautiful representation of what you could do when you couldn’t go full 3D. If anything, it is an example of a lost art in game design, similar to the lack of silent films in the modern day.
As great and memorable an impression as these backgrounds can give FF7 97′, it is easy more often than not, to get stuck in those same environments. Even though a button you can toggle on and off lets you see places you can climb or exits to different backgrounds, sometimes where you need to traverse won’t be immediately or at all obvious. Many have gotten stuck or had to go to guides( myself included) to know where to send Cloud.
Final Fantasy VII is also occasionally vague in what you need to progress the plot or just how to do additional content. I get that there should be a rewarding sense of discovery to what you can do or uncover in the world, but having some better placed hints in some areas could’ve made the original even better. Yes, some may very well be blatant secrets, but I digress.
One notable aspect, aside from how out of the way finding Yuffie can be, is getting the full experience out of the infamous “cross-dressing sequence”. In the middle of the first act set in Midgar, Cloud and Aerith are trying to infiltrate the home of a crime boss, the same one that kidnaps Yuffie later on in her optional quest in Wutai. The duo think Tifa has been captured by the lecherous Don Corneo.
The Don only accepts pretty ladies into his domicile and Aerith certainly fits the bill, but Cloud ,despite his bishonen (link for what that means) [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bish%C5%8Dnen] facial appearance, is a man so what does Aerith think up? Why, have Cloud go Tootsie!
Most players, especially without a guide will get only the basic necessities like a blond wig, dress and tiara. This won’t get them the most rewarding encounter with the Don, but for those who dig deeper for items to make Cloud go drag, they will get more items, some of which have very abstract steps to accomplish and a couple involve entering a brothel called the Honey Bee Inn.
Depending on a choice of door in that brothel, you may end up witnessing a scene that is just a tiny bit( being generous here) homophobic or stereotypical in its assumptions of gay lifestyle. It’s nothing M-rated, but its implications….sheesh. The whole section involving the Honey Bee Inn in the remake seems to be more tasteful or at least have LGBT themes or conventions that are less mean at least.
Either way, there is a lot in Final Fantasy VII that is surprisingly easy to miss, which I suppose lends the game a healthy amount of replay value especially for the lengthy experience that it is. People I’ve met who have played the game have boasted of completing FF7 like 20 times though that could be exaggeration.
A lot of replay value, aside from the varied ways to accomplish objectives both mandatory or optional, stems from how you form and level your team, especially in relation to the materia system.
As mentioned in the part about Yuffie, materia is a magical property based off the planet’s lifestream, the essence of the planet’s being as well as being the game’s somewhat vague explanation for the afterlife. Depending on the color of materia you find and how you combine it, a staggering amount of playstyles, especially for the time, is made.
The properties of materia relate to powers that can directly hurt foes and heal/aid allies to passive abilities that buff up your defenses and abilities like counterattacking after getting hit by an opponent or providing cover for your party members.
Some give you special abilities like scanning foes for the health and magic amounts and occasionally what they are vulnerable to. You can steal items and even copy and use enemy attack maneuvers. Then there are the summons.
Since Final Fantasy III, you could upon acquiring the right objects and having enough spare magic on hand summon powerful beings, whether they be Gods, mythic beings, or just really powerful creatures that could wipe the floor with tough enemies or at least severely damage them, especially bosses.
What made Final Fantasy VII’s iteration of summons stand out was its complete 3D translation of them, making them grandiose and occasionally long cut-scenes where they would either take their sweet time preparing the killing blow or would spend almost three minutes beating the crap out of opponents, especially funny with weak enemies due to its absurd overkill.
The sense of scale that was included in Final Fantasy VII wasn’t just impressive for its respective series, but for games as a whole when coupled with telling a more complex narrative then was expected of the industry at that time. Final Fantasy had been telling intricate, even moving stories since day one, especially with the particularly beloved sixth installment.
Final Fantasy VII’s marketing to a wider audience opened up new expectations for the medium, especially in its capacity to make you cry over the events that could transpire ingame.
Even after all this time and other games that further pushed interactive storytelling to higher standards like The Last of Us or the same genre as Final Fantasy like Persona 5, Final Fantasy VII leaves an impressive mark for someone who has freshly played it for the first time in 2020, just in time for the first of what I hope is not too many installments for its top to bottom recreation.
It’s a game that captures a bygone sense of imagination and visual flair that was probably only possible in the era it was made. The limitations of the time, more visual than anything else, are present and can be an upset for new players or those who have not played in a long time.
What matters is that this 22 year old PlayStation game managed to do the one thing it needed to do in this time and place: make me understand why it was so important and why after all this time, it is still a game whose thrall over those that played it refuses to slacken.
It has been argued that there are better Final Fantasy games. The same year as VII, a spinoff called Final Fantasy Tactics was released, offering a new top down tactical way of playing. It has been called an often overlooked classic as well as being deserving as an all time great in its own right.
For a numbered main entry title, Final Fantasy VI (1994) is often considered to be the other game in the series to be the best, let alone for the 2D era that begin with the 1987 original.
Yet, in terms of what Final Fantasy VII means to the industry and medium at large, that it justifies a highly anticipated remake, little can keep the legend of Cloud, Tifa, Aerith, Barret, Red XIII, Cid, Cait Sith, Yuffie and Vincent from withering into the dustbins of history. It’s a game that refuses to be forgotten and only overexposure be to its detriment, ironically.