Today I will open an age-old wound and stick a sharp, salt-covered stick into it. This subject is one that causes cosplayer to fight cosplayer in the street, and flame posts to flow like rivers of liquid hot magma. Yes, it is a game that people seem to love above all else or completely despise. For me, personally, it's not a matter of love or hate, it's a matter of disappointment. That's right, today we talk about:
THE SUBJECT: Final Fantasy VII
But to really understand where I'm coming from, we need to step back a few years to the 16-bit era...
: Final Fantasy VI (or, as it was known back then, 3)
Released in the US in 1994, FF6 was the second Final Fantasy title on the SNES. I had played FF4 some years earlier and really, really enjoyed it. At the time, it had been my intro to JRPGs, and as anyone who played it can tell you, it was a pretty good one. So, when 6 arrived on our shores after it had been decided that 5 was too complicated for our simple American minds, I was understandably excited. I picked it up the summer after it was released, and that pretty much took care of my summer break.
FF6 centers around the struggles of Terra, a half-human, half-Esper (magical beings) as she learns about her heritage, the abuse she suffered at the hands of the Empire, and her attempts to end the tyranny of said Empire. The game begins with her serving the Empire against her will, but after an encounter with a strange creature, she is released from their hold, but suffering extreme memory loss. But, to say she's the main character isn't quite true, because as the game progresses and more and more characters are introduced, Terra becomes less central. And oh, what characters they were! The cast of FF6, for the most part, had wonderfully fleshed out characters with understandable desires and motivations, and stories to back them all up. I say most because, well, let's face it, Mog didn't have all that much going for him...
Dragons are well known not to be fans of opera.
The game was suitably epic, as all FFs must be, starting with Terra's liberation from the Empire, and then proceeding forward into larger and larger events. Terra joins with a band of rebels, her true nature is revealed, the Empire's use of dangerous magics is uncovered, and the real villain is introduced: Kefka. And oh, what a villain he was! Long ago driven insane by the magical power being infused into him, Kefka was one crazy dude. With a wicked sense of humor, the petulance of a child, and a deep and abiding love of killing people, he was the kind of villain you could really love to hate.
When your villain prances, you know you're in for a good time!
The story, the villain, the characters; all of them come together to create a rich world, one that far surpassed its predecessor FF4. All of these things also come to a head in one of the best moments you'll ever find in a video game when, after constantly being one step behind the Emperor and Kefka, you catch up to them on their floating island and, as Kefka betrays the Emperor and prepares to seize the powers of the Espers for himself, your party totally fails. That's right; you don't stop the villian. The world fucking ends right in front of. Bet you didn't see that coming the first time you played, eh?
The story picks up one year later as one of your party members, Celes, awakens from a coma she's been in since the end of the world, and finds she's trapped on a tiny island with her pseudo-father. And then he dies. And she commits suicide. Well, she tries, anyway; she's not very good at it. Finally she is able to depart the island, and thus begins the second half of the game in a new world, a world of ruin, a world of your own making, as you seek out your old comrades and try to make amends for your mistakes.
Final Fantasy VI was one of the first games I ever sunk a good 40+ hours into that didn't contain the words Simcity or Civilization. The graphics were fantastic for the time, with some of the most expressive 16-bit sprites you'll ever see. On top of that, the music meshes perfectly with the game, and has some both beautiful and haunting themes. And past the main story itself, there were plenty of secrets to be discovered, stories to be found, and general good times to be had.
Oh, and the Opera scene. That's all I'll say about that.
But, truly, FF6 was and is one of my favorite games, so it was with eager-eyed anticipation I waited for the next inevitable entry. It would show up three years later, and not on the system anyone was expecting...
: Final Fantasy VII
Despite early tech demos showing otherwise, Final Fantasy VII ended up not on Nintendo's new system, the N64, but on the new-fangled Playstation by Sony. It was, obviously, quite a coup for Sony. Square claimed, among other things, that the cartridge-based N64 just wouldn't be able to handle the sheer awesomeness that was going to be packed into their game, and that only the raw power of CDs would do! The early ads for FF7 were amazing things, showing off fully-rendered, animated scenes of dudes with giant swords and magic and airships. Of course, when you realized those were cut scenes and not the actual gameplay, you were slightly let down, but not too much!
Finally, in late 1997, the game arrived. It started off with a bang, too, in traditional FF fashion. The main character, Cloud, along with stereotype Barret and a handful of redshirts, invade a Shin-Ra mako reactor to blow it up. You set the bombs, fight some robots, and make your daring escape. Subsequent explanation reveals that Shin-Ra is an evil, evil corporation literally sucking the life out of the earth with their mighty reactors, and that Barret and his troop, AVALANCHE, are rebels out to stop them. Cloud is an ex-SOLIDER (Shin-Ra's armed forces) with memory problems who ends up with the rebels. Stop me if this sounds familiar. And yes, while the initial set-up does sound notably familiar to FF6, that's really where the similarities end. Cloud, the main character, is a rough-around-the-edges, reluctant hero. And that, frankly, is one of my first big issues with the game. I just didn't like Cloud. I get that he isn't supposed to be outwardly likeable right away, and that the more you learn about him, the more you are supposed to understand
him. Well, I learned more about him, and at the end of the game I still didn't like him. It's very hard to really love a game in which you dislike the main character.
Aeris, you might want to turn around in a moment...
In fact, I generally just didn't like most of the characters. Barret was a walking, talking stereotype, Cait Sith was interesting but was really just set up to be a foil for whatever the story happened to require at the moment (a traitor, a comedian, a savior!). Cid, though, as a grizzled old man in his early thirties with a dream of space travel, did win my heart in all fairness. But I digress...
Back in the world of the plot, as you progress through the world of FF7, you learn more about Cloud's own troubled past, how in ties in with Shin-Ra, and how, more importantly, it ties in with Sephiroth, the real villain of the game. Now, despite what a million cosplayers in long black coats and silver wigs may say, I just didn't think Sephiroth was all that great a villain. To me, he fell flat. He lacked the bizzare charisma of Kefka, and no matter how much dramatic music backed him or walls of flame he strode through, he just didn't grab me. And yes, he killed Aeris. But having played Final Fantasies before, as well as numerous other RPGs both console and PC, that just didn't blow me away so much. Aeris wasn't the first party member in an RPG to get cut down permanently by the villain, and she wasn't the last. I can understand why people who were perhaps playing FF7 as their intro to JRPGs were so shocked and amazed by it, but that category did not include me.
Yes, overall the story and characters did of FF7 did not strike the same chord with me that FF6 had, so that was disappointing. It wasn't that it was bad, per se, but it was just a a let down. Add on top of that the introduction of non-skippable battle summons that went on waaaaay too long, and I was not a happy camper.
Cloud: We've got some time to kill, right Barret? I'll just cast a summon! Barret: @#$(^&! Where It Went Wrong
As mentioned above, my biggest issues with FF7 are character and story related. Ancient alien crashes to planet, wipes out ancient race (I'm sorry, what's that Lavos? You say that's your thing? I'll let Jenova know), has cells harvested thousands of years later and inserted into fetus, fetus turns into evil super-soldier, etc, etc. It felt like the game was trying to express a lot of different concepts to me, but it couldn't quite do it without stumbling over its own feet. Parts of the story that seemed like they could use more development felt rushed, and parts that seemed ultimately unimportant got tons of focus. And then there was, as discussed, the Cloud issue.
In many ways, I feel like the game suffered from a severe bout of overproduction. Square wanted to make this the game that proved video games could be cinematic. In many ways, they succeeded, but perhaps at the cost of some of what makes a game great. Yes, the cut scenes and summon animations were gorgeous, but they began to feel overly intrusive most of the time (this is an ongoing problems in many games in general, so it certainly isn't isolated to FF7). Square wanted to wow people with this new generation of games, but for me it just didn't click. Again, part of it might have been that the "OMFG!" moments the game set up were old hat to me at this point. I just watched the entire world end halfway through the game in FF6; am I really supposed to be that shocked when mildly interesting Aeris takes a sword through the back?
Anyway, I know Final Fantasy VII is one of those games that can rile up the deepest of fanboy feelings in many people, and even I myself have been guilty of throwing some hate its way now and again. When it comes down to it, though, it's not a terrible game by any stretch, it's just a game that didn't, in my mind, live up to its predecessor and left me feeling let down. Maybe when that oft-rumored remake of it finally surfaces I'll give it another spin, but I won't hold my breath...
PREVIOUSLY Part I: Master of Orion Edition Part II: Star Control Edition Part III: Ultima Edition Part IV: Tactics Edition Part V: X-Com Edition