Retro Review: Final Fantasy VII (Squaresoft, Sony PlayStation, 1997)

Back in the late ’90s and early ’00s, I wrote a number of video game reviews for independent websites focused mainly on import console gaming. I also wrote a lot of casual “email reviews” to my friends, and still do. Earlier today, while sorting through and consolidating old files on my PC, I ran into a bunch of them. I started reading a few, and was both filled with feelings of great nostalgia… and embarrassment! They’re a little painful to read, mostly due to my almost fanboy-like fervor (and ignorance) about gaming back then.

Seriously, it seemed like life and death stuff at the time, but I guess it’s easy to get into that mindset when you live and breathe it every day. I’ve chilled out since then, although I am no less passionate about video games. I guess I’m just better at letting the bad stuff roll off, focusing primarily on the good… and I’m much happier for it.

Anyway, the following is one of those aforementioned email reviews, which I wrote in March of 2003. They were always written in a casual tone, usually with lots of smileys, inside jokes, stream of consciousness ramblings, and references that nobody else would get, so I’ve done my best to massage a lot of that stuff out. Also, they’re full of spoilers, so if you haven’t played this yet, you might want to steer clear!

To give you some further context, in February of that same year, I started a Final Fantasy marathon of sorts, and before getting to Final Fantasy VII (FF7), I had completed the following, all for the first time:

Final Fantasy X
Chrono Trigger
Final Fantasy VI
Final Fantasy IV (fan-translated Japanese “Hardtype” version)
Final Fantasy V (fan-translated)

So I was fresh off of all the Super Nintendo 16-bit greats, and was about to embark on my second playthrough of FF7. I did play and finish it back in 1997, but had come away from it with lots of mixed feelings. Did those feelings change my second time through?

Let’s find out…



I can’t believe it’s been almost 6 years since this game came out. I still remember when my friend showed me the import FF7 demo disc, and of course, how my jaw literally hit the floor when I saw him cast Leviathan for the first time. That goes down as one of the great moments in video game history. Anyway, last night I finished up FF7, and right now, I’m listening to the soundtrack to try and get all my thoughts in order. I can already tell that this “review” is going to be all over the place and will be quite incomplete, since this is more of a “second time through” kind of thing, so please bear with me! It’ll probably come across as overly negative at times too, but please understand that I’m just being that way because this series is so important to me.

Anyway, before jumping in, I did breed my Black Chocobo and raced that sucker up to S Class, finally having the goods to go breed my Gold one! Once that happened correctly, I felt this huge wave of accomplishment sweep over me as I went searching around and got all the various Materia cave prizes. I smiled big when I saw that FF7 also had a Mimic skill in it, but that smile got even bigger when I finally got Knights of the Round (KOTR)! One of my coworkers gave me endless grief back in ’97 for not getting this summon, and then when I finally saw it, it made me want it even more.

I didn’t use KOTR until the end of the game, though. When I fought Jenova and then Sephiroth’s first form, I cast this spell on each of them, and they both died before their first command. I laughed, thinking about how incredibly cheesy that was, so when Sephiroth’s second form showed up, I actually just sat there for a little while, and waited for him to cast his Supernova spell. I forgot how crazy that spell was and how long it took to complete!

After he did that, I went for overkill and had Barret do a Quadra Magic Cure 3-All, had Cloud do his Omnislash Limit Break, and then had Tifa W-Summon KOTR twice, and just for the heck of it, had Barret Mimic her. Well, he was dead after the first KOTR summon, and my party had full 9999HP health a piece (gotta love HP Plus Materia). It’s funny, because even after getting every or almost every extra and secret thing in all the other FFs I’ve played this year, none of them compare to how insane KOTR is. I mean, it’s flat-out unfair, unless you’re going against the Weapons, but those are only optional. Even then, if you have 3 Mimic Materia (quite possible with the Triple-AP weapons), you can just keep casting W-Summon KOTRs all day long.

Nice that the option is there, I guess. KOTR is indeed the “prize of prizes” (I can’t recall anything even coming remotely close to their power), so I suppose it makes sense that if you invest all that time into the Chocobo breeding that you have the power to slice and dice for 13 8000-9999HP-All hits to your heart’s content! Are summons affected by MP-Turbo and Magic Plus Materia? I couldn’t tell after a while. If so, then that just adds insult to injury… enemy injury, that is!

Anyhow, with that being said, I’ve now seen just about all there is to see in FF7, and can now give my re-review that is based on a roughly 60-hour playthrough, as opposed to my hasty sub-40 romp my first time through. Plus, I can now come in with the knowledge gained from completing the other previous FF titles (4-6).

So, Materia… as opposed to before, it actually made a lot of sense to me this time through. All the other FF games gave me the “basic skills” I needed to make sense out of the system, and I found it a constant struggle (in a good way) figuring out which weapons and armor to use to maximize my Materia growth, while still allowing for good offense and defense. I really liked that aspect of it, and also enjoyed how Materia had to “grow” to get more powerful throughout the game. By the end, the Master Materia was popping out of weapons faster than I could keep track, which was pretty cool!

That gave me tons of money for buying the greens I needed for my Chocobos. I’d read about the W-Item duplication cheat, but avoided using it. While a lot of the offensive magic spells were useful for the first half of the game, I found that all I was using by the end were a bunch of HP Plus, MP Plus, Magic Plus, Counters, Slash-All, 4x Cut, W-Item, Quadra Magic, W-Summon, Restore/Heal/Revive-Alls, Mimic, and a couple summons thrown in for good measure. With all the various “Source” thingies, they were fast, strong, and Tifa’s Magic was pretty crazy, too. The other stuff was pretty much useless near the end since almost all status abnormalities were taken care of by Ribbons, and most of the L3 and higher offensive magic hardly did enough damage to make it worth the while.

I don’t think I even casted Flare or anything like that, either. Kept Haste and some of the skills like that just in case, but otherwise, most of my Materia would’ve better served Yuffie’s kleptomania. By the end, I just relied on pure brute strength, making magic practically unnecessary. Cloud was just nuts at the end, hitting so many times per round that my other characters hardly had any time to do anything. The toughest monsters were dead usually within one or two character commands. They just sat around taking damage and healing, using their ridiculous Limit Breaks when they had a chance. I remember complaining back in the day about how tough I thought the last dungeon was, but this time, it was so easy that I just enjoyed the scenery and figuring out how to get every item, like the very, very cool “Super All” Materia. Perfect for Tifa, my spellcaster! Basically, it was just fun mixing and matching, figuring out the best combos.

So that really enhanced my enjoyment of FF7‘s battle system. Initially, I thought it was unrefined compared to FF10‘s, but in actuality, it couldn’t feel more refined! I loved it, despite the initial annoyance of CD load times. Speaking of which, after a while, I didn’t notice them too much. Also, while the party was reduced to three members (from the previous games’ 4-5 members) — and that initially threw me off (didn’t remember only having 3!) — the ability to have up to 8 commands helped offset this quite a bit. If you equipped your party members the right way, you could have the equivalent of 6 members, which was cool. Couple that with Haste, and it literally was a 6-man team. As always, being able to see all the different weapons as you equip them, and then checking out all the great spell effects and Limit Breaks was great. By the time they’re at their L4 Limits with their Ultimate Weapons, it’s like, uhh, mowing a lawn… enemies don’t stand a chance, which is probably why Square needed to put in those cheap “insta-death” enemies like Scissors and Master Tonberis in the final dungeon.

Which brings me back to the issue of Summons. I remember when I first played FF7 that while I thought they were cool, I complained about the length of the summon sequences. I still think they’re awesome, but I actually take the complaint about length back. Even when taking into consideration how short these are in comparison to the ones from FF8-FF10, I have to say that I only used these summons maybe once or twice a piece throughout the entirety of the game. I cast Odin a couple times just to get his two variations (still one of the best!), and Bahamut Neo/Zero a couple times just because I think they’re so over-the-top and amazing, and of course KOTR, but otherwise, they were there just as primarily showcase pieces for if I ever wanted to see something neat… good for selling friends on the game, right?

I don’t have the patience to get the Master Summon Materia, so for me, the cost to cast most of these summons far outweighs the damage they inflict, especially if you’re good about managing your Materia. So, this time through, I had a much more enjoyable time messing around with summons, since I didn’t use them as an integral part of my combat strategy. Oh, and I’m still not sure what the heck Typhoon is supposed to do. I cast it a couple times but it never had any effect on the enemies I cast it on. Oh well! But yeah, the summons brought back so many memories… seeing the summons we knew and loved from the 2D Super Nintendo days being fully realized and pumped up in 3D was an indescribably amazing thing. Ifrit, Ramuh, Titan, Alexander, Kjata, Phoenix, Leviathan, Shiva, Hades, and all the rest… all those feelings of awe came rushing back as I played through FF7 again.

On to minigames and sidequests… hmm, where do I start?! So, here’s a game that integrates most of the minigames into the actual storyline, so it makes sense in the context of the narrative. It’s not just some random task that you have to do… good examples, of course, are the submarine hunt, the snowboarding, or the bike chases. All the better that you can play these later at Gold Saucer for prizes, and then they keep going with all the UFO games, the very cool roller coaster shooter, and then the two major minigames, Chocobo Racing/Raising and the Battle Arena. It took me a long, long time to go through the Chocobo process, but I had fun doing it, and you somehow feel attached to your birds, and letting them go to make room in your stables for others is kind of a sad moment! It’s really cool that this sidequest makes sense (in a Pokemon/Tamagotchi kind of way), but more than that, it makes sense in the context of the FF world. They’re infamous by now, but you compare this robust system of catching, taking care of, racing, and breeding Chocobos to the relatively shallow ones in other games, and it just goes to show how much time went into creating them.

The racing itself was just OK — simplistic controls and was more about “energy management”, like Japanese horse racing games — but more than anything, I think the Battle Arena was probably the most fun minigame! Your adrenaline gets going when you see the reels go around, and you’re telling yourself, “Man, please don’t land on Accessory Break… [long pause… deep breath… click!]… NOOOOO!!!!!!” Haha! I had a total blast in this area, and spent a lot of time here while my Chocobos were recovering from their wild mating sessions. It was cool figuring out which handicaps gave you the most BP, so trying to get the reel stopped on those was more fun than the fights. Crushing the enemies was just a breather between reel spins! Not to mention that everything Yuffie-related is optional, and you have a really well thought-out side area that you can do if you want. While I didn’t do any of the Condor Fort stuff aside from the final battle, I acknowledge that there’s just a lot of stuff to do in this game that can please just about anyone.

Anyway, if I had to summarize the game in one thought, it would be this: FF7 is a technical marvel and exhaustive in its play options, but in striving for such high goals, has lost its heart as a result. What I mean by this is that Square has taken the FF series and made it very dark… very cold. I was surprised by how negative and apathetic Cloud was throughout most of the game. Of course, you find out why at the end of Disc 2 (lies about joining SOLDIER, etc.), but when you compare him to past FF lead-type characters such as Cecil, Locke, Edgar, and Sabin, he’s pretty weak. All this time away from FF7 has allowed me to focus more on the characters themselves as opposed to just superficially saying, “Yeah, I liked Cloud… I mean, look at that sword!” or “Yeah, Barret and those guns!” The storylines for each of the characters was also a lot more shallow than they were in previous games, and even the more simplistic FF4 executed better on conveying emotion and feelings.

I don’t know if this was due to the translation, or the fact that most of the conversations and in-game cutscenes were packed with lots of unnecessary filler dialogue, but for the most part, while there was some good drama throughout the game, its quality didn’t match that of FF6, which I think is just the pinnacle of its time. In fact, I liked the secondary characters in the game a little bit more than some of your party members, my favorites being the Turks. This trio was pretty classic throughout, and I love how you kind of befriend them in the Wutai area… funny stuff that reminds me of some of those “crack a grin” scenes from FF4 and FF6. Overall, I enjoyed the cast of FF7 more evenly in a holistic sense than most FFs, but the extremes in terms of how much I liked (or disliked) them wasn’t as strong, so I didn’t feel that connection with any of them.

I also didn’t like the fact that Cid and Barret cursed in every other sentence (in Cid’s case, more than that)… I’m not offended easily, and while it might be considered realistic or edgy by some, it was distracting, and in my opinion took away from those characters. Edge cursed a few times in FF4 Hardtype, but it fit his character and he only did it occasionally. Here? It just seemed really gratuitous. Other FFs have proven that you don’t need profanity to get your points across.

That’s not to say that there weren’t excellent scenes though, such as the one where Tifa and Cloud meet at the well to make his promise, or the date scene at Gold Saucer (which, of course, just underscores how annoying the “silent protagonist” approach can be). I also liked all the flashbacks to the early days of Nibelheim, the ones with Aeris’ parents, or the classic Seto reveal, when Bugenhagen tells Red XIII about his father and what he did to save and watch over Cosmo Canyon. That was my second favorite scene… and has one of the better musical pieces in the game. When the drums start up, I get goosebumps every time. Red XIII’s howl at the end and the tears falling from his father’s eyes are just the perfect cap to this scene.

And then there’s the scene, where Aeris sacrifices herself in the Forgotten City… for some reason, it was so much more powerful this time, and is one of the best scenes in any FF game, bar none. I love how you fight the Jenova monster with the somber piece of music still playing in the background (just like the Zanarkand Ruins in FF10). Masterfully done, and the following scene where Cloud lets her go is quite poignant. Great, great stuff! The one scene that I completely missed my first time through, was the waterfall area where Vincent’s backstory is revealed… I thought it was cool how they show that his ex-girlfriend is actually the mother of Sephiroth, their child conceived by her and Hojo of all people! I thought that was very, very cool, because all this time, I figured Vincent was just this weird fodder character. Even though he basically still kind of is a “whatever” character for me (I barely used him), I think this adds to his storyline immensely. It’s just too bad that it was so out of the way. I think a lot of people might’ve missed this… or maybe that’s just me trying to cover up the fact that I completely spaced on this the first time through!

Going back to Aeris, I do think one of the biggest missteps of FF7 is her death, and how unless you have a save set aside specifically for this, you’ll never see her at her full potential. I think I only got her L2-2 Limit Break by the end of Disc 2, so I never got to check out her later ones. I spaced on this, so I was pretty much stuck and couldn’t go back. Anyway, minor point since you can do all that stuff with other characters to some extent, but still.

Next, the ending. I didn’t like it the first time, and this time? Well, especially after playing through all the other games (particularly FF6 and Chrono Trigger), I think that this ending is still an utter disappointment. More importantly though, is that it’s executed extremely poorly. If I were to break it down to its core, it is somewhat similar to FF6‘s… your characters get on an airship and fly away. Haha! Seriously though, in FF7, you don’t even get the reward of spending any time with the characters afterwards. They kinda sit around, exchange a couple sentences, and then the Highwind comes in to save them. They hop on the ship to see Holy try to stop Meteor… that doesn’t work, and all seems lost. But then something mystical happens, and Aeris comes to save the day via the planet’s Lifestream.

On paper, I think that sounds like an awesome ending, but it happens so quickly, and the execution feels so rushed that you can’t help but feel a little empty after it’s over. On the flipside, I thought the credit scroll song was really good with its military medley of the character and classic themes. Very nice. The end of it however, lack any kind of finale/coda, so it ends on this really dull note, like someone missed the piano key or something. Again, compared to the musical finales in FF4 and FF6, it’s a letdown.

The rest of the soundtrack was quite good, but wasn’t as good as Nobuo Uematsu’s masterful FF6 soundtrack, or the benchmark Yasunori Mitsuda set with Chrono Trigger. He did, however, push into previously unexplored territory, by having full-on vocals for One Winged Angel, an idea he probably had in his head when he did the opera and final battle scenes in FF6, bringing them full circle with FF8‘s amazing opening FMV choral song and professionally produced end song using big-name talent.

Getting back to FF7‘s ending, so that “500 years later” post-credit sequence. Artistically, I can appreciate that the Lifestream saved the planet and that life endured (which is good), but it just takes the whole “big picture” approach to the extreme. After spending all that time with these characters, I wanted to have a little more time to share in their celebration at the end, and I was reminded of an old internet article that talked about the ending and what could have been. I could make up theories about budget/time constraints, but what’s done is done.

And one final nag… the fact that Sephiroth says nothing at the end of the game. He just sits there! Through none of the final scenes does he have any dialogue, and your characters just talk about getting rid of him to activate Holy. I didn’t even notice this when I played it the first time, but to bring up FF6 again, Sephiroth vs. Kefka? No comparison. One of the secondary bosses in FF5 (Gilgamesh) is a far more compelling and entertaining boss than Sephiroth at the end of this game. True, the confrontation with him when he’s in his God form (with One Winged Angel playing in the background) is a very powerful statement on its own, but man, it sure would’ve been nice if he said something… anything! Kefka’s end-of-game speech in FF6 is so darn good and really makes a big impact, so the lack of anything in FF7 takes away from the game’s climax.

Overall, I’d give FF7 an A-. It excels in almost all areas, above past and present FFs, and was truly instrumental in setting the stage and high watermarks for what we know as the modern console RPG. However, I thought the game lacked the heart and soul so wonderfully realized in FF4 and FF6, sacrificing narrative and character development for a robust world full of minigames, tremendous graphics, and technical refinements all around.