"The best Final Fantasy in the series!" they claimed. "The greatest game of all time!" they shouted.
"I don't own a PlayStation and am not shelling out $70 for a used copy of the PC version!" I exclaimed.
Fifteen years of that. Fifteen years of every other Final Fantasy—first the original, then Mystic Quest, IV, Adventure, VI, V Advance, VIII, I & II Dawn of Souls, and III. Fifteen years of a gap in my RPG lexicon where "Materia" and "Limit Break" could have been. Fifteen years of avoiding spoilers, in the hopes of someday playing the game for myself without having everything ruined already.
Well, more like fifteen seconds of that last one. I don't think the Internet stopped blurting out FFVII spoilers until Portal came along to fill their mouths with cake and lies instead.
There were certain things I knew. I was supposed to instinctively hate Yuffie and Cait Sith—no one likes you! I knew there were suit-clad Turks, and a motorcycle chase, and some minor thing that happens to Aeris that's probably irrelevant anyhow. A friend of mine got me the soundtrack to Final Fantasy VII within a few years of the game's release, so I knew—at least, according to the track names—all the major locations and events of the game. Surely there was a horse race where they'd steal a tiny bronco.
When Square Enix announced a revamped PC re-release in 2012, eventually putting it on sale for something like a paltry $11, I finally found my chance to download the legend. After sitting on my (digital) shelf for close to half a year, I booted up Final Fantasy VII for the first time at the end of January 2013. Just shy of two months later, I am no longer the last person on the planet who hasn't played Final Fantasy VII.
Turns out my wife hasn't played it, either.
With so much hype surrounding this highly venerated game—and with my track record of rating any Final Fantasy game after the first three I played on a scale of "meh" to "barf"—expectations were high that I'd be tossing this on the pile of overrated games I've suffered through in the name of keeping up with the mainstream.
Every once in a while, I like it when I'm wrong.
Don't let me get all gushy yet. I couldn't stand most of the minigames and quick-time events—I despise losing at things when I've been given vague instructions, five seconds to prepare, and have my controller configured in a way that's totally logical for regular gameplay but awkward as all get-out for special events. Switching around equipment when changing party members is a clunky affair. Half of the best equipment in the game has some awful flaw that counteracts the benefits—we can't just have "improves defense" or "improves defense and reduces elemental damage by 1/2"; we've got to have "improves everything but defense, which plummets so low you'll probably wind up dead if you use it."
Oh, there's more.
Movement is needlessly inconsistent—depending on what screen you're on, holding UP might move you up, right, left, or even down, and there's never any rhyme or reason to it. Cloud saves ("Cloud" saves. Funny, Square Enix.) are incredibly unreliable, taking as long as 10-15 minutes to sync up with the server before I can freaking save my game and go to bed. Quantum physics is easier to grasp than the infuriating task of breeding and racing Chocobos. (My original sentiment was, "Chocobo racing and breeding can go suck a Pepio Nut," but I felt that was too crass.)
What was I saying? Oh, right. How much I loved Final Fantasy VII.
A story centered around the characters. Not a series of random battles with some story shoehorned in around it; not a string of situations that drag the characters along for the ride; but a story where the action is clearly driven by the words, actions, and desires of both the good guys and the bad guys. Best of all, there's legitimate character development for everyone from Cloud and Sephiroth all the way down to the random townspeople whose dialogue changes once the world is clearly in peril. I actually cared about the people in FFVII, and that's rarely happened in a Final Fantasy game since FFI, where I named my white mage after myself.
Random battles that don't waste your time, and scripted fight sequences that don't feel contrived. FFV forces you into a random battle every three or four steps. FFVI foists an out-of-nowhere boss battle on you at any opportunity (Ultros, anyone!?). FFVII never lets the fighting overshadow the story; if you get into a battle, it's because it makes sense within the context of a story for a battle to happen. It's not just because you're in a dungeon, and fighting is what you do in a dungeon.
The Materia system. Magic that you can level up and pass around? Yes, please. Counterattacks, status effects added to your attacks, and an ability to learn all the crazy special powers your enemies use, like Beta and Big Guard and Pandora's Box? Heck, yeah. By the end of the game, I had Cloud decimating the masses with Deathblow on all enemies plus a regular slash as a follow-up, and Yuffie (yes, Yuffie—I enjoyed her backstory and appreciated her quirkiness) alternating between mugging enemies to restore MP and casting Ultima (twice in one turn!) to restore HP.
Limit Breaks. Tifa jacked up on every Strength Source in the game, kicking the ever-living snot out of an oversized dragon, is one of life's little joys.
Actions both great and small that impact some part of the game later on. At first, the completionist and perfectionist in me rankled at the thought of ruining my chances of a perfect game because I did or did not buy flowers from that girl at the beginning. However, after looking up the complexities of how some things affect other things, I got to be pretty intrigued by the replay value potential, not to mention the story value. Why, yes, Barrett. Let's do go on a date tonight.
I could go on. The long and short of it is that I was impressed by Final Fantasy VII—by the gorgeous cutscenes and deliberate breaks from tradition that made it so unique in its day, and by the exemplary pacing and balance that few other games in the Final Fantasy series (that I've played) even come close to. I see plenty of flaws, but I also see where someone who grew up with this game would've been able to overlook them, and even embrace them with repeated playthroughs. On a matter of principle, the original Final Fantasy remains my favorite for the time being—for the simplicity, the challenge, and for not aggravating me with dysfunctional cloud saves and snowboarding in my RPG—but darned if FFVII isn't the better game, once all the pros and cons are weighed. At the very least, FFVII is enough to tip the scales enough to say that, yeah, I really am a Final Fantasy fan—I'm just not wild about some of the games.
My one regret is not getting to play this sooner, and that's entirely because of the spoilers. I played the game differently than I would have if I'd've been able to go in blind. I knew Aeris wasn't going to make it to the end, so I left her out of my party whenever she wasn't mandatory—why waste good XP on somebody who won't be around long enough to enjoy it? From the little bit I'd pieced together over the years, I figured Cait Sith would run away with all my money and Materia at some point and never be seen again, so I left him out of the party, too. (WRONG.) I kept comparing the PC port's instrument set to the one used on the official soundtrack I had, and kept coming up disappointed with most of the music. I even guessed at some of the events in the cutscenes because of the musical cues I recalled from listening to the soundtrack all this time. I've never played a game with so many outside factors influencing my enjoyment of it, and I'm really sorry it had to happen to this one.
Guess I'd better play Mass Effect before I figure out why I should be angry at the end of the series, huh.