It will be a challenge, but I promise to do my hardest to not allow the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia affect my review for the re-release of this RPG classic.
With that said, it becomes difficult to fully detach myself from the history that Final Fantasy VII shares with the game industry, and even in my personal life. I remember being a wide eyed 13 year old boy, fresh off my bar-mitzvah, wishing, wishing, wishing for a Nintendo 64. Then, during an innocuous viewing of Beavis and Butthead on Muchmusic, a commercial came on that made switch console allegiances in only 30 short seconds. The cinematics were incredible. Who was this spiky-haired protagonist with the bitchin' sword and badass motorcycle? Was this a true sequel to my beloved Final Fantasy III? (Call it VI all you want, the SNES version will always be III to me.) What adventures awaited in this steampunk world? We were told to "never underestimate the power of PlayStation."
When my 14th birthday rolled around, a couple of friends chipped in to get the game for me, but I lacked on crucial element. The game console. For the next three weeks, I read, re-read, and re-read the instruction manual. Finally, I went to visit my sister in Vancouver who bought me that little grey box that held so much of my hopes and personal hype for so many months prior.
I was not let down, and few gaming experiences I've had in the 11 years between then and now have stuck with me the same way that Final Fantasy VII does.
Therefore, it was with a certain trepidation that I chose to review the re-release of the game on the PlayStation network. As such a fond childhood cultural item, I was worried that I would completely tarnish those fond memories by playing the game today. I hadn't picked up the adventures of Cloud and company for eight or nine years now, and was concerned that I wouldn't be able to get past the primitive graphics, or the antiquated battle system. Would the infamous typos ruin the story that I once held so dear to my heart in less discriminatory times? Only time would tell. I downloaded the game, and quickly transferred the game over to my PSP's memory card and began playing.
For those of you who didn't spend their public school years playing the game, here's a quick rundown of the story. You play as Cloud Strife, a former member of an elite military force called SOLDIER, which works for the mega-conglomerate Shinra Inc. Cloud, disillusioned with Shinra's ways, becomes a mercenary for hire and is promptly hired by anti-Shinra extremist group AVALANCHE. Their first mission involves blowing up a Mako Reactor, an enormous power plant that gathers its energy by sucking out the life essence of the planet. The deeper you get into the story, you'll find out a lot about Cloud's murky past, and a new enemy will emerge, one that threatens the entire future of the planet.
The storyline takes roughly 40 hours to get through, but there's lots more room for play if you take advantage of the myriad of optional side quests. Doing it all could easily suck up 100 hours.
From the moment I saw that impressive opening panoramic view of Midgar (Shinra's enormous capital city), I knew that my fears were already laid to rest. Several parts of the game show their significant age. The character designs look goofy with the pencil-thick biceps and boxy arms, and the pre-rendered backgrounds that once blew our minds looked pixelated compared to the photo-realistic environments of games like BioShock and Fallout 3. But here's where another element of the visuals presents itself, the art style and animation. The characters are very expressive in their motions, and the battle sequences still pack a visual punch with the proper expectations. While the game doesn't look all that impressive on a 32" widescreen HDTV, shrinking the game down to the PSP is a wonder to behold. On the small screen, the game still has the power to wow and surprise with it's phenomenally designed environments and the still impressive cutscenes. Sure, the game lacks a bit of consistency from one CGI cutscene to the next, but it doesn't stop you from falling in love with the well developed characters all over again, or perhaps for the first time. If only the character models on the field and world map weren't so poorly detailed and bizarre looking.
Another element of FFVII that hasn't shown its age is the battle system and character customization. FFVII uses a materia system to increase the power and magical abilities of your characters. By equipping different characters with various weapons, you have a set number of slots to put in materia, which gives a host of different abilities. Some materia will allow you to use spells such as cure or fire, others will increase stats such as increasing hit points or mana, others yet will give you supplementary skills to materia such as letting you cast a spell on all enemies/allies or allowing you to absorb mana when the spell is used. The rarest materia are red in colour, and allow you to summon mighty beasts for long, drawn out spells that do massive damage. As materia levels up through battles, you'll gain new skills and spells as you go forth on your quest.
Like other Final Fantasy games before it and since, FFVII uses an active time battle system. This means that every character on the battlefield has a meter that fills up, and when the bar is full, it is that character's turn to commit an action. According to options made by the player, you can have all the meters fill up at once in real time, or have the game pause when selecting spells and items. I personally preferred the frantic intensity of the active instead of passive battle system.
Final Fantasy VII takes place in a huge overworld that may not be as big as other epics out there, but still covers a huge variety of different locales. Beyond the technological bastion of Midgar, you'll visit small towns, spiritual canyons, an overpriced amusement park, ancient pyramids, run down towns destroyed by Shinra, the frigid arctic, and a few more that I wouldn't want to spoil.
Since the game hasn't received any upgrades whatsoever from the source code on the originally pressed discs, you'll be privy to some occasionally hilarious typos. "Off course!" Cloud exclaims when asked if he wants to continue fighting in a battle arena. Sometimes the typos will make you laugh, and occasionally they'll suck you right out of the story, but both outcomes are only momentary at worst.
It also bears mentioning that this game's soundtrack holds a lot of weight. This is Nobuo Uematsu at his outright best. These tracks do what few video game tracks have done in the past, and stir the soul. These are phenomenal compositions that appropriately pump adrenaline, pull on the heart strings, tap the toes, and cause uncontrollable humming. This is Uematsu's finest work.
While there are no enhancements to speak of in the actual game, Sony has ensured that there are loads of compatibility options out there for you. Save files are completely transferrable between the PS3 and the PSP, giving you options of when and where to play the game. If you happen to have a memory card reader for your PS3, you can even call up your old save files that are probably still sitting on your memory card after all those years. It bears mention though, you can't just pop out the memory stick and put into the card reader slot (if you're like me and have the wonderful 60 gig version of the PS3), and the files can only be downloaded by connecting a PSP to the PS3 via USB cable.
It bears mentioning that three times on the second disc, I encountered a nasty bug that essentially scrambled everything on the screen, resulting in a colourful yet unplayable mass of pixels that would eventually clear the way for a textless Final Fantasy experience. If you've ever played an FF game, you'll know that playing the game without text is like trying to play in the NHL with a blindfold on. Once I restarted the game, I was able to pick up where I left off without any issues, and I never encountered the bug on the PS3 version.
Yes, I was shocked to see that my heavy nostalgic feelings for this title were not unwarranted. Some dated elements aside, Final Fantasy VII remains the powerful, incredible experience that it was when it was released 12 years ago. Yes, believe it or not, it has been that long. If anything, Final Fantasy VII proves once and for all that great gaming is not based on polygons and frame rates, but rather by the power of creativity. Final Fantasy VII is just as much a triumph of imagination as it ever has been.