For a "Final" Fantasy, there sure are a lot of them.
Before the hate mail starts to roll in, take a look at the date of this review. Final Fantasy VII has been out for 6 months now. The excitement has tapered off, the apple has lost some of its shine, and more importantly, the gushing hype has ended and we can take a long rational look at this best selling PlayStation RPG just in time for the PC release.
Final Fantasy VII is even worth such a close examination (and this extremely long review) because it does some terrific and amazing things; it also does some very tedious things and some fundamentally terrible things. In fact, I have never seen a game that was as much of a mixed bag as FF7. At times, I would have sworn that ten different development teams all worked on different parts of the game, at the same time, in secret from each other.
Lets start with the very first FF7 mystery combination (which includes the best part of the game): the graphics. Like it or not, this is an 'anime' game. For those of you who don't know, this means that it is in the style of Japanese animation. Some people like it, others do not; no judgment here. What is odd is that the anime style changes constantly throughout the game. One minute the characters are short and goofy looking, the next minute they are tall and lanky with a dark, heroin-addict look. And there are are many other styles in between.
The quality of the graphics is not quite as mixed. They range from solid to fabulous. The cut scenes are great and of movie quality. However, most of the game involves moving your goofy-looking polygonal character around on pre-rendered backgrounds. There is also overland movement which takes place on a large 3D map. These graphics are pretty clean, and the backgrounds are well drawn, but there is nothing inspirational here... until you go to combat.
The combat art style is less childish looking but still a bit cartoonish with weird spiky hair and preposterously oversized weapons... and the graphics are simply amazing! Regular hack and slash combat looks good, but the spells and 'limit break' special moves are just astonishing to watch. The variety is tremendous also, with hundreds (thousands?) of different adversaries, weapons, attacks, and spells throughout the game. Using a smart camera that has dozens of different pans, rotations, angles and even editing styles, the fights rarely look the same twice. Simply put, the combat graphics in FF7 are far and away the best in any RPG made yet.
The sound, however, is not so good. The oh-so-average midi tracks soon get old, especially since there is only one main combat track used for 99% of the battles, and there is (horror!) no way to turn off the music.
For our next bizarre mix, we have the gameplay itself, and again, the combat is the best part. It is semi-turn based, semi action. Basically, everything is timed, and you can move whenever your time bar fills up, based on your character's agility. You then can choose to attack, defend, cast a spell or other options. The magic system is all about combinations of magic gems called 'materia'. It is complex, but has amazing depth and variety (did I mention the graphics?). Finally, after a number of battles, your 'limit break' bar can fill up, at which time you perform some very impressive moves indeed.
There are even a few games within the game. These include primitive motorcycle racing and snowboarding, a fairly complex strategy game, some gambling, a fighting arena, and the 'chocobo races.' Some of these are necessary to complete FF7, while some are just for added depth and fun.
The rest of the game is less exciting. Exploring and looking for the next random encounter is not so bad, but the towns and other slow parts can be awful! To advance past these parts, you must spend hours just walking around 'talking' to people. (By the way, this is a CD game so WHY DO I STILL HAVE TO READ TEXT?!) Ahem. Anyway, being stuck somewhere for hours because you haven't yet randomly discovered that you have to talk to the old man three times, after talking to the child in the street and the lady with the hat, is not fun.
The depth of the gameplay is still amazing though. While the plot is pretty linear, there are lots of places to go, things to do, monsters to fight, areas to explore and characters to find that are totally unnecessary to completing the game. The smallest things have more depth than you can imagine, for example the 'chocobo races'. While they are a minor part of the game, if you are dedicated, you can catch and breed chocobos. Select them for different traits, race them, and ride your specially bred chocobos to otherwise inaccessible and interesting parts of the map. Not only does this complexity increase the replay value of FF7, but it gives it more of an immersive, real-world feel.
Speaking of the linear plot, the story is the weakest part of Final Fantasy VII. The characters (up to 3 in your party at any time) are a confusing mix at best. 'Cloud', the main character, is a mercenary with a muddled past. 'Barret' is the leader of the resistance and a big black guy with a machine gun grafted onto his arm. Dark, troubled characters. But then the cast also includes 'Aeris', a flower girl who can conveniently destroy robots and monsters by hitting them with a stick, 'Yuffie' a cutsie-pooh girl ninja, 'Vincent' the vampire, 'Red XIII' the talking dog, and (my personal insane favorite) 'Cait Sith', a magical cat riding around on the back of a big, magically animated stuffed animal and fighting with a megaphone. Anyone want some drugs?
The story starts off simply enough with the terrorists-for-the-people 'Avalanche' blowing up the reactors of the evil corporation 'Shinra'. However, it soon turns into an unfathomable muddled mess involving the 'ancients', mad scientists, mako energy (to which characters are coincidentally related), traitors, 'Soldier', robots, dragons, 'The Genova Project', vampires, black 'materia', genetic experiments, mind games, Sephiroth, a magic cat, the spirit of the planet, and which girl Cloud is going to date. It's not that you couldn't follow it if you really wanted to, but it's so stupid, I don't know who would want to. To quote the character Barret, halfway through the game, "I been here since the beginnin', an' I still don't know what the hell's goin' on."
Final Fantasy VII is truly epic in scope (3 CD's worth), but it can't make up its mind what kind of epic it is going to be. There are too many ideas all randomly smashed together. One minute you are in a dark, cyberpunk world, the next you are riding on a giant chicken. You hit missile-shooting robots with an ancient sword, and blast machine guns at fire-breathing dragons. You fight creepy biological horrors, and robots, and big playing cards, and a cartoon house on legs.
The amazing graphics, impressive spells, scope and depth of Final Fantasy VII do make up tremendously for it's bad plot and total lack of coherent vision. However, they also make me long for what could have been done. The world of FF7 is huge, if confusing and completely unfocused.
Still, I recommend it wholeheartedly to fans of Japanese RPG's (perhaps they will be more forgiving than I). However, I only recommend it moderately to everyone else. Final Fantasy VII is hundreds of hours of visually beautiful gameplay, but its frustrating incoherence will make many people cringe and put the game aside before they have even finished.