Wednesday, 1 July 2009

The Landmark Reviews - Final Fantasy VII

Directed by Yoshinori Kitase, written by Yoshinori Kitase and Kazushige Nojima, developed by SquareSoft (now Square-Enix) and published by SCEE.

I have fond memories of sitting in a friend’s living room when the advert for this video game came on the television, memories of not quite knowing what Final Fantasy was, but knowing that I had to play it. I remember renting a copy from the local video shop, firing up the old PS1 and sitting enthralled for hour after fantastic hour, dreading when I would have to hand the game back in! From that day, my fate was sealed. I was, and still am, doomed to be a Final Fantasy addict.

The Final Fantasy video game series began back in 1987, when the first instalment was released for the Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES, console. Square-Enix was at that time known as Square, Enix dominating the RPG market with their Dragon Quest series. Final Fantasy I was Square’s first foray into the role-playing games, bursting onto the scene with ground-breaking graphics, story and game play, paving the way for eleven sequels (so far) and probably just as many spin-offs and related games. But the best of these, in my opinion, has to be Final Fantasy VII, released in 1997 on the Playstation 1.

When I first played FFVII I had never played a RPG and didn’t really know what to expect. It made sense that I would enjoy this type of game, as I had been a fan of the Fighting Fantasy adventure books by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, which contained the core elements of role-playing entertainment. From my childhood through to teens, I gorged myself on anything fantasy or science fiction, from books to films, and eventually games when my brother bought our first console, so the settings of the Final Fantasy games appealed to me instinctively.

FFVII is set in an alternate Earth of the future, where the corrupt and greedy mega-corporation Shinra Inc. rules the world with the iron fist of totalitarianism. Their mako reactors are sucking the Earth dry of its life force, polluting the atmosphere and killing the planet. Enter AVALANCHE, the eco-terrorist group led by the hot-headed and gun-armed Barrett, who is intent on crippling Shinra’s energy supply. But what secrets lurk in the dark past of Cloud, AVALANCHE’s gruff mercenary companion and former Shinra elite warrior. And who is the shadowy figure Sephiroth, Cloud’s mentor turned rogue who disappeared years ago, following an ancient myth that could spell destruction for the entire planet. More importantly, will Cloud ever choose between the high kicking bar maid Tifa or the mysterious flower girl Aeris?

Of course the plot summary above could never do justice to the enormity of FFVII’s plot, which spans three disks and includes a plethora of themes and tales. Each character has a story arc of their own, from the spy turned double agent Cait Sith (who happens to be a stuffed toy controlled by a Shinra official) to the foul-mouthed pilot Cid, full of bitterness at being thwarted in his lofty dreams of travelling into space. FFVII deals with the weighty issues of death, loss, war, pollution, self-discovery, religion, science, genetic experimentation, and of course the most important issue of all, love. The story will pull at your heart strings and even bring a tear to your eye at points, pushing the boundaries for how emotive and involving a video game can be.

Looking at the game by today’s standards, the visuals of FFVII have obviously aged and become obsolete. But when first released it took the capabilities of the Playstation as far as they could go, presenting the player with incredible graphics, from the painstakingly crafted backdrops to the manga-inspired character models. The game’s settings are spectacularly designed, ranging from the techno-slums of the metropolis Midgar to quaint villages and ancient temples spread across an enchanting and vast world. Not only that but the images and animations involved were iconic and instantly memorable, such as Cloud’s giant sword and spiky yellow hair, or the breathtaking summon animations and cut-scenes throughout. In short, it was one of the most beautiful games of its time.

Trying to summarise the game play of FFVII in a paragraph is like trying to contain the ocean in bathtub. In addition to the flawless core mechanics the video game boasts a host engaging and detailed side-quests and mini-games. The battle system of FFVII is a masterpiece, smoothly combining speed and intensity with micro-management elements and an abundance of attacks and skills. The fabulous ‘materia’ magic scheme is a joy to use and has the added bonus of being an inherent part of the overall story. The ‘Limit Break’ special attacks for each character are great fun and look fantastic. Enemies vary from tiny and easily dispatched rodents and insects, to the scene-filling behemoth bosses, ranging from massive gun-totting robots to fire-spewing dragons. But it’s not just about the fighting in FFVII. Fiendish puzzles, parallel storylines, hectic mini-games such as snowboarding and motorbike riding, military strategy and even animal breeding, are all elements of the hours of fun to be had.

The music of Nobuo Uematsu, found in most of the Final Fantasy games, deserves special mention in regards to FFVII. The game’s score is almost a character in its own right, expressing the depth of the emotion displayed throughout the story. Uplifting and energising at one point, then swiftly changing to dark and chilling, Uematsu provides the perfect aural backdrop for the perfect video game. In particular, ‘Aeris’ Theme’ is probably one of my favourite pieces of music ever, powerfully sorrowful and gently commanding. For those interested in Uematsu’s music, have a look for the Final Fantasy Piano Collections and also the two albums by Uematsu’s progressive metal band, The Black Mages.

One of the great things about the Final Fantasy series is that although almost all the games are not linked by storyline, they share common themes that are reworked for each new addition to the canon. FFVII contains the familiar appearances of moogles, chocobos, airships, the ever-present Cid (in a new guise of course); the mighty summon creatures and powerful magic spells such as ‘Ultima’ and ‘Flare’. These elements make FFVII instantly recognisable as part of the series, but also show how the developers at Square-Enix are never content to use the same tried-and-tested formula, constantly reworking and innovating.

It is easily understandable that I will have missed out certain things that I could have highlighted in regards to FFVII’s greatness. And that’s where you, the reader come in. As part of the Landmark Review series I would like the fans of each classic to add to this review in the comments section. Let me know what you think I’ve missed out, or what your favourite thing about this game is. In short, Final Fantasy VII not only changed the way video games and RPGs were made with its innovations and breakthroughs, but also changed the lives of millions of people across the world. Long live AVALANCHE!

If you like this, then try: Dragon Quest, any other Final Fantasy game, Kingdom Hearts, Rogue Galaxy, Star Ocean, Vagrant Story.

No comments:

Post a Comment