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Game Name:  Final Fantasy VII
Developer:  Square
Publisher:  Eidos Interactive
PC Release Year:  1997
Review Date:  March 28, 2015

Whether discussing literature, film, or music, the arts reach into the deepest recesses of a person’s soul and make it nearly impossible to remain objective.  Gaming is no different, and because humans are flawed and selfish creatures, we often conflate our personal favorites with the perennial greats.  While these categories sometimes intersect, it is generally for very different reasons.  Console exclusivity aside, I would never write a retrospective about The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of time.  Regardless of what modern players may think of it, my two longest-running friendships were forged in the fields of Hyrule, so my rose-colored glasses are never coming off.  If I had played Final Fantasy VII in those particularly formative years, I am sure I would view it in the exact same way.  Sadly for me, I did not, and without the playthrough being a trip down memory lane, all that remains is a muddy mess of a game that has outlived its place and time.

Fresh eyes cannot ignore how insular an experience Final Fantasy VII is, despite its attempt to convey a broad and diverse cyberpunk world.  Square was keenly aware of the audience it would need to crack into the American market with its RPGs, and Cloud Strife was designed to match the demographic profile of those ‘90s era gamers.  Our hero is white, male, of moderate means, and just leaving his awkward adolescent years behind him.  While there are broader themes of environmental sustainability and corporate responsibility weighing on the larger story, important issues in today’s post-industrial age, they are downplayed so that Cloud’s personal struggles can take center stage.  For a generation of angsty teenagers who had outgrown Mario, this tale of burgeoning love and self-acceptance was a milestone on the march towards adulthood.  For older players, this comes off as both a missed opportunity to make the Shinra Corporation more than a hollow bogeyman, and an indulgence in the extreme narcissism for which the Millennials are well known.

Narrative concessions for a marketing campaign are one thing, but Final Fantasy VII’s greater sin is how it embraces its juvenile worldview without ever challenging it.  For starters, would it have been so hard to portray Cloud’s love interest as a normal woman?  Tifa Lockhart’s imagery is ripped straight from the mind of a 13-year-old boy, with her bare midriff, black miniskirt, and white tank top.  Her martial artistry and shy personality are impossible to reconcile with her after-combat pose, when she shoves her ample bosom out suggestively for the camera.  How does this make sense?  Barrett Wallace presents a separate set of problems as the game’s only black character.  Equal parts Mr. T and Flavor Flav, he is a walking, talking stereotype whose hyperemotional rants, filled with expletives and catchphrases, could feature in a modern day minstrel show.  Nobody expects the Japanese people to fully understand the complex racial history of the United States, but they could have consulted with someone who does.  Kids in their teenage years are impressionable, and Square’s failure to take a more adult approach to serious issues undoubtedly helped perpetuate the racist and sexist tendencies among today’s gaming culture.

If not for this depiction of minority groups, the world of Gaia would probably be Final Fantasy VII’s most endearing feature.  Unlike many early 3D games, which include a floating camera and necessitate a fully-built 3D world, most places Cloud visits are viewed from a fixed vantage point.  Designing playable spaces in this way gives developers freedom to use attractive hand-drawn backgrounds to set the tone of a given locale, without the player realizing the world is essentially flat.  As a result, Costa del Sol looks every bit the sun-drenched Mediterranean resort it is supposed to be, while Wutai gives off the impression of an Okinawan hamlet with its mix of Chinese and Japanese influences.  Nowhere though, can compare to the dark urban styling of Midgar.  Every new playthrough begins in this iconic capital city, and gamers are quickly introduced to a realm of segmented socio-economic groups, world-destroying power plants, and monstrous skyscrapers.  When players assault the Shinra Corporation’s headquarters in the game’s first act, they are treated to a level of detail not often seen in gaming.  Gymnasiums, mess halls, and archival libraries drive home the fact that this is supposed to be a living, breathing world where people actually live their lives.

Sadly, much of this grounded realism is lost after escaping from Midgar and moving onto Final Fantasy VII’s world map.  It is here where gamers will spend the majority of their time, and it is here where they will experience one of the worst combat systems ever conceived.  Nobody can say that a turn-based solution is the most exciting way to resolve a battle, but it gets the job done and opens up a level of strategic depth that is not possible in action games.  While this trade-off is less than ideal, picking one approach and playing up to its strength works far better than the hybrid ATB system engineered by Square.  Active timed battles provide each party member with an individual cooldown to rest between attacks, after which there is a mad dash to engage since abilities cannot be proactively queued.  It is like trying to drag race between traffic lights.  Speed trumps tactics and ultimately ends up limiting player choice, because the obtuse casting menu makes it far more efficient to use melee attacks than spells.  With as bad as this combat is, it certainly does not help that enemy encounters are way too frequent, spring up automatically, and always happen at the worst possible time.

These battles feed into Final Fantasy VII’s frustrating character progression, which is also made up of completely irreconcilable threads.  On one hand, the magic system is a radical, yet clever departure from most other RPGs, both old and new.  Spells are physical objects, called materia, and they can be leveled up through repeated use, paired with other materia to make the type of combination spells seen in a game like Magicka, and traded between party members when the story necessitates a particular character be present.  In some ways, I wish the combat was just a little more challenging, since it would have forced me to delve into this facet of the game sooner.  As it stands, I ended up making it to level 46 with nothing more than some basic healing abilities.  Only the final dungeon, which punishes players with its omission of a save location, forced me to seek out a strategy guide to optimize my tactics.  Despite how progressive and refreshing a system like this is, it is hamstrung by the traditional RPG elements that are attached to its hip.  Player health, mana, and damage are determined by stats that are based on individual character level and gear.  Not only is this used to gate off content and slow down a playthrough, but it subverts the freedom that should come from the interchangeability of spells.

Even if the gameplay were changed to make it less of a grind, and far more fun, it is still hard to imagine looking past all of Final Fantasy VII’s oddities.  Some things just get lost in translation, both figuratively and literally.  Being attacked by giant Russian nesting dolls and demonic penguins is a regular occurrence, and I cannot even begin to imagine the appeal of a playable character like Cait Sith, who is essentially a robotic housecat riding around on the back of a giant stuffed animal.  Beyond that, I wonder what an English teacher would make of the many dialogue boxes which are used to convey storylines throughout the game.  Localization was not done in the states, as it should have been, but rather by folks in Japan who clearly needed to pay more attention in their language courses.  Sure, many of the most blatant translation errors were fixed with the Windows release, like the oft-maligned Aeris quote, “This guy are sick.”  However, PC gamers still get the chance to read a whole lot of text where articles like ‘the’ and ‘a’ are missing, so words like meteor suddenly become proper nouns.

In the end, this all leaves Final Fantasy VII in an awkward place.  Designed originally for teenagers, the clunky menu system, PlayStation-era graphics, and arcane RPG elements are more than enough to dissuade today’s younger gamers from picking it up.  Juvenile storytelling does the same thing for adults.  If Square had fully embraced the world they created, they would have realized all the grinding and character development is unnecessary.  Take a look past the homophobic subtext of Wall Market’s citizens subjecting Cloud to ridicule for acquiring himself a dress to save his friend, and players easily find the game’s greatest segment.  A larger emphasis on this type of item collection and exploration, typically found among adventure games, would help modern players overlook the other flaws.  As it stands, however, just about the only folks who would enjoy this title are those who played it years ago, and while they may set Final Fantasy VII on a pedestal as one of the greatest games of all time, it definitely does not warrant that designation when it is viewed with fresh eyes today.

Verdict:  Not Recommended