Update: I was unfortunately not aware of Shamus Young's severe criticism of Fallout 3 available here to link in the original piece and I regret that. It dovetails rather nicely with what I've written and it's much better executed than my piece. I strongly recommend anyone...
Disclaimer: As always with old games, I am going to base my opinions on my memories of how much fun I had when the game was first played.
I bet most of you who's clicked on this review clicked on it because you found the low grade, and probably thought I was going to write "th1s gm suxxors" or something similarly stupid like that. Well, batter up, because you're in for something far worse. At least if you really loved this game.
I will be the first to admit, I had expectations to this game. I had already played FF VIII and IX, and people I knew well kept telling me how much better this game was. I was inclined to trust them on this, so naturally, when I finally found a copy of the game, I was expecting a lot.
I have never fallen so far down.
It starts off with a silly dual graphical design. In combat, the characters are looking as well as you can possibly expect them to, and some of the FMVs convey this even better. But then we have the stupid, stupid, stupid non-battle design, in which the characters are reduced to something with less possibility for emotions than Final Fantasy VI for the SNES. Why? Where's the sense in this? And where's the sense in using the non-combat character designs for some of FMVs???
For that matter, where is the sense in the plot? Well, it probably got partially lost in translation, as evidenced by many occurances of questionable grammar. But worse than that, the plot progression is one so static and errant, one gets the feeling there really isn't any plot there at all.
Don't understand what I mean? Well, I'll lay it on you, then. After getting out of Midgard, you will for about one disc do nothing but chase the villain, named Sephiroth. Every town, every dungeon you enter, you first enter it because you're chasing the villain. Then, something happens. Maybe it's connected to Sephiroth, maybe it's connected to the Evil Government /Corporation (called Shinra), maybe it's a character background story... There is no way to know in advance, and what's more annoying is that there is no natural flow. What happens in Dungeon A has nothing to do with what then happens in Town B (which you visit right afterwards), but it may have something to do with what happens in town F, if you remember the connection by then. Which you need either a very good memory or a spreadsheet to do.
Not that I claim that many other FF plots make sense. It's just that even in FF II (the Japanese one), it went like "After doing something in Town A, you're then going to dungeon B, then something happens in either dungeon B or back in Town A that prompts you to go to Town C". And then the plot unfolds naturally and dynamically. In FF VII, however, all you got is a bunch of random happenings that are forcibly (and often loosely) connected to the chase of the villain. I lost my motivation to play this game for fun at Cosmo Canyon, and only kept on playing to see whatever was there that made so many people flock to it.
Didn't find much, though. The combat system is OK, but there's nothing actually new there (well, to be fair, I guess it was new for many Americans and Europeans, given how it was the first FF game officially released in many countries). The MIDI music are often annoying and nerve-grating. Technically comparable to FF VI (again), and the latter at least knew about the limitations of the SNES, and used these limitations to its advantage, leading to what is still one of the better video game scores of today. The only thing memorable here is... I guess that epic score at the very end would be something to remember, if I had cared anything about the game by then.
And the minigames... Well, I sure as hell don't want a "racing" game that a) needs several hours of preparation before I can even start playing it properly, and b) once I do have the preparations, all I need to do is to press Select and then Square four times, then do absolutely nothing until I've won the race abotu a minute and a half later. Which I will always, without fail do, even when racing that fellow Joe. And I have to do this several dozen times just in order to earn enough game credits to do the Battle Arean minigame (which is basically just another way of doing random battles; the last thing you want in a minigame) in order for the -real- reward (the W-summon materia). If anyone can tell me where the fun is found here, I'd love to hear it.
The characters... Well, Cloud is possibly one of the blandest heroes I've seen. And he's a total wuss too. I mean, who else would possibly allow a stupid stuffed toy join the party after doing some 8-ball party trick? A mercenary with some guts would have just pushed it off, and if it kept on trying to join, cut the damn thing in two and told the crew to clean up the stuffing. Or how about when you meet a silly little thief that is all uppity, and in which you have to act meek to get her into your party? Purely counter-intuitive, and if the game had had any consistency, neither would ever have happened.
But FF VII is more random than the random battles, so they did happen. And apart from the character background scenes (one for each, mostly), your party is hardly even part of the plot either. Just try going through the game with Red XIII never in your combat line, and see how important he is to the plot. Hint: He isn't. Of course, even if you do have him in your line, he'll merely add a couple of lines for each town or dungeon you visit, so not much there is lost. The only character that adds importance is, ironically, the least likely one to join up the party, as Cait Sith provides both an actual plot element of betrayal, as well as some counter-spying. Whereas a random flower girl dying is... Totally forgettable, because by then, she hadn't done anything worth remembering for many hours. And yes, I have been known to actually cry a bit when something really sad happens in a video game. But that requires me to care for the character first. And there's nothing to care for here, simple as that.
In the end, this game succeeded because of two reasons: The success of the Playstation and how Sony's business practice allowed Square to spread their games to countries that hardly ever knew about the FF series. And also the most aggressive marketing an FF game has got. At least, it has so far been the only FF game that ever had its own TV commercials here in Norway. And since game commercials are few and far in between (about one or two per year on the biggest commercial channels since 1998... sometimes more, sometimes less), that's actually saying a lot.
But look at the game itself, and you'll find that it doesn't have anything going for it. The combat doesn't offer anything new from previous FF installements but improved graphics, and it's all too disjointed and disconnected in just about everything else it does. Me, I'll use my PS2 to instead play FF II (the upgraded version of the original FF II, that is), which has a real plot, some great music, and characters it's at least possible to care for. And a combat system that's still standing out a bit after all these years.