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Final Fantasy Thoughts #5

Final Fantasy VII is a well known game, but one with twists and turns that are widely discussed even today. Though nearly everyone knows its story there may be the sole individual who has never played the game and may have no knowledge of the plot. I will try to keep this rant spoiler free, which unfortunately means my discussion of the story elements is a bit vague. If you have played this game and want to challenge me on the feelings expressed here, please send me an e-mail. Otherwise, try to read between the lines to figure out what I'm talking about. Oh yeah, Snape kills-- oops!

With the relatively recent release of Final Fantasy: Advent Children, my thoughts are turned to Final Fantasy VII, a game hailed by critics and fans as the best Final Fantasy of all time. It was the game that unofficially elevated the Playstation from the new kid on the block to that, and according to the majority, did so because of its wonderful gameplay and plot. Conventional wisdom asserts its memorable characters are responsible for its enduring popularity. The story is so deep that eight years later, productions sprung from its mythology are still going strong.

And I happen to think they're all full of manure.

I suppose some people will think that I am an old school-fan who refuses to accept change, but there is much more than that behind my dislike of this game. I also apologize for the combative tone on this rant in advance, but as hard as it is to contain my admiration to form a coherent essay on Final Fantasy III, it is equally as difficult to maintain my composure in face of what I feel is the most overrated game of all time. This game is not excellent, not great, and while I will say it is good, it barely achieves this status and I will explain why.

Before I get there, I do have to praise Final Fantasy VII for the two things it did get right, one of which is the graphics. I am not going to look at today's games and compare Final Fantasy VII's graphics to them. At the time, Final Fantasy VII was a visual masterpiece. It was the first Final Fantasy to have realistic looking characters within battle, and the battlefields, spells, summons, and special effects simply awed me. That is not to say the graphics were anywhere near perfect. Yes, I will admit, the early polygonal graphics hindered the storytelling to a staggering degree, thus necessitating the cut scenes. Also, many of the pre-rendered painting backdrops looked both fake and were at times confusing. However, at the same time, the makers of the game recognized this and allowed the player to go through the game with markers to indicate the exits and entrances. Also, there was also the attempt to return to the "big headed" super-deformed character graphics outside of the battle scenes and have the grittier graphics within. It was reminiscent of the American Final Fantasy II, except with a more striking dichotomy.

I must also praise Final Fantasy VII for a gameplay innovation. Though there were Limit Breaks in the SNES Final Fantasy III, in all of the times I played through that game, I have never experienced even one. On the other hand, Final Fantasy VII introduced the Limit Breaks as a controllable, integrated aspect of the gameplay. Borrowing an idea from Capcom's two-dimensional fighting games, as one took damage, one's Limit Break meter increased. Even if the acquisitions of Limit Breaks in this game needed improvement and the execution could have been tweaked for a better experience, I like the idea so much that I wish it were a staple in every RPG.

All of these redeeming attributes are diminished in the face of Final Fantasy VII's inherent problems, one of these being the music in this game. The music isn't horrible in quality. However the soundtrack is rather pompous and overblown. Listening to the battle theme, for instance, I get the impression that there was more attention paid to the orchestral components of the song than creating a strong melody. If you listen to the piece closely, you can tell there are too many accompaniments in this piece. A listener can't concentrate on the main tune itself because there is none. The frantic strings and cymbals clash with the more laconic horns, leading to a piece that is not cacophonic but not especially striking either. Even for pieces that are stronger in their tunes, most of them are overwhelmed by the various other instruments determined to make their presence known. Only a few tracks, like Cid's theme or Those Chosen by the Planet, are simple enough to actually be great.

But the gameplay and presentation of Final Fantasy VII reveal far more serious flaws. Never has there been a worse ability system than the equipping of Materia, and even the most ardent aficionados will admit that this is a weak point of the game. I have several gripes against it. One, it's too portable, turning the Materia themselves into the object of your attention instead of the characters, removing an immediate source of attachment toward them. Two, it takes an insane amount of time and effort to level up one's Materia to the highest level, only to find out later in the game that there are Materia that make yours obsolete. Three, it is far too easy to miss critical Materia even if you explore because you didn't complete this sidequest or do something by the third disc. Still, the biggest problem I have with the Materia system is how it needlessly complicates the simplest of battle mechanics. You have to pay attention to the different Materia slots and different Materia combinations in the different pieces armor to cast Cure on all your party members. To make matters worse there is a penalty for using this ability in addition to the MP cost. The player can only target a spell on all members of a party a specific number of times during battle. Of course, the longer you equip Materia the more they can be used, but this requires one keeping track of Materia development in addition to the development of the characters that equip the materia.

Likewise, this Final Fantasy introduced a storytelling feature that has been the worst addition to Final Fantasies as a whole. Full motion video is now used to dramatically enhance the storytelling that previously was left to the in-game graphics. On the surface this seems to be a wonderful innovation, and there are times when cut scenes add to the plot. However in Final Fantasy VII, FMV served only one true purpose -- to be used extensively in television commercials to fool people into thinking the entire game looks like the pre-rendered video sequence. What made things worse is how much I hated the visual style of these FMVs. The characters looked less realistic in them than they did in battle. And it only highlights the worst part of Final Fantasy VII.

The story is simply appalling.

Every Final Fantasy I have played before and after Final Fantasy VII I have understood in terms of its plot. There may have been important nuances I may have missed the first time around, but the basics of who the good guys and bad guys were and why they fought for their various sides are clear. I comprehend character motivations even when they aren't exactly the most innovative. On the other hand, when I play Final Fantasy VII I get this overwhelming sense of confusion regarding every character and every plot development. Part of this was because this game wants to imply things without showing them outright, but the problem is that Final Fantasy VII chooses to do this in both flashbacks and critical moments of character development. Final Fantasy VII also buries much of its critical character background in purely optional sequances like recordings or segments that are only visible if triggered by the player in a non-mandatory portion of the game. When most of the information on a principal antagonist is hidden instead of part of the main plot, it underscores the inherent disorganization in this game. If the game were as charming to play as Final Fantasy III, then I would enjoy searching for the loose ends. But playing Final Fantasy VII was such a chore at times that I wanted to just get past certain parts and didn't want to explore. Should I be punished by being confused because I didn't check out a certain spot that is indistinguishable from others?

Of course, even if this game did have a good story, I wouldn't be able to recognize it. The dialogue in this game is simply horrendous. Sentences don't follow from each other and I get the feeling some lines of dialogue were generated a Mad Libs session gone wrong. Some of this is blamed on the translation but even games with "worse" translation such as Final Fantasy II were far clearer than this game.

Sadly, the three -- yes, only three -- principal characters that I did think were initially constructed fairly well in this game and had depth in this game happened to meet rather unsatisfactory fates. It was as though the creators wrote themselves into a corner and tried to manipulate our emotions and deprive characters the chance to evolve. Then again, perhaps it is telling when the main character falls into the stereotypical "antihero" role and yet it propped up by the events that surround him more than any inherent character strength of his own.

Very little annoys me more than stories that try to be epic and fail, which is what Final Fantasy VII tries to be. By epic, I mean it in the literary sense of the word. It begins en medias res, characters are given epithets, there is a sense of "high speech" the makes the dialogue even more stilted, allusions to both real-world mythology is even more striking than in other Final Fantasies, and the interference of in-game figures that act as deities abound. What makes the plot worse is that Final Fantasy VII wants to have it both ways. In the beginning Cloud is a mercenary who hires himself out to an ecoterrorist group, AVALANCHE. In essence, you are playing as a group of unsympathetic characters whose only goal is to destroy property to protect the planet. Unfortunately, because this game wants to have it both ways, it does all it cam to make this morally bankrupt group a bunch of individuals into more traditional heroes. Why couldn't this game have stuck with the dystopic dynamic instead of changing the direction of the story to a more traditional conclusion?

Yet even the ending, once the saving grace of this game, is ruined. Once upon a time, it was a perfectly ambiguous ending that allowed pessimists and optimists to clash. Now because of the undying love and endless source of fans willing to purchase anything that is even remotely connected to Final Fantasy VII, sequels --Advent Children and Dirge of Cerberus-- are made. There is no discussion as to what happened; fates are shown and this unlikable group of heroes receives more attention and appearances.

There are other things I hate about Final Fantasy VII. I hate the fact that there are three discs, but most of the story takes place on Disc One, leaving Disc Two and Disc Three to be nothing but filler. I hate the amount of indecipherable symbols that appear in the backgrounds that are supposed to indicate the shops. I hate the fact that it is called Final Fantasy VII, instead of either keeping the American naming system for consistency or simply starting over in terms of numerals. I hate how there is an overabundance of annoying minigames that instead of being fun are instead tedious, lacking in control, and unimpressive. Most of all, I hate this game for not being the game it should have been. Final Fantasy VII isn't horrible, but it should have been better. Instead of surpassing Final Fantasy III, it instead makes a mockery of the series.

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