Title  : Final Fantasy VII
Platforms  : Sony PlayStation, Windows
Publisher  : SCEA
Game Rating  : 8.8
Review by  : Ken Gagne

It's been a long time in coming, but it's finally here. Sony has released Square's best role-playing game, Final Fantasy VII, in the States. This highly-anticipated title sold over 330,000 copies its first weekend alone. Don't bother looking for Final Fantasy IV, V, or VI, though; only a handful of this series, which originates in Japan, have been translated to English. 

The game begins in the midst of a plot to destroy Shinra, a corporation which is sucking the Mako energy from the planet for its own uses, killing the Earth in the process. The story becomes more complex as the main character, Cloud, meets new people, experiences flashbacks, and has new and old enemies alike surface. It's a bit confusing at first, but all is explained in time. The world is more technologically-oriented than previous games, mixing swords and sorcery with guns and cel phones. Final Fantasy's size is enormous, the first role-playing game to encompass three discs. The first six hours or so takes place within the limits of one city, before the outside world can even be glimpsed. Even experienced role-players can expect a 40-hour game. The game includes profanity and adult themes, however, rating it for teens and older. 

The Final Fantasy series has always had a tradition of excellent graphics and sound, but this latest installment blows it all away. The graphics are fully rendered, presenting a world similar to King's Quest. No two areas have the same perspective; some are overhead, some over-the-shoulder, others 3/4ths. The controls change slightly due to this, which can be somewhat grating. It's easy to get lost, but there is an option that enables arrows pointing at all major characters and exit points. Minor items lying on the ground may be easy to overlook, though, and people often appear too small to be detailed, or too close and thus hard-edged. The battles invoke amazing spell effects; indeed, the "summon" magics are some of the most impressive sequences in the game. The camera jerks wildly around to find the best points of view, but rarely finds them, unlike Wild Arms. Plot interludes of computer-generated, full-motion video are simply incomparable to anything else. Never before has this level of graphical showiness appeared in a role-playing game. 

Nobuo Uematsu, the man responsible for all previous Final Fantasy music, continues to work his art. Familiar themes take on a new twist, to the delight of Final Fantasy fans. The music here is powerful and dark, but several layers of orchestration are often not apparent. More digitized sound effects could've been used, but what's there is used well. 

The ease of control varies, as there are so many buttons to remember. Once it's figured out, the ability to quickly switch between various functions becomes appreciated, but some items could've been more streamlined. Much of the game is spent with the Run button held, for example; a simple toggle between Walk and Run would've been better. 

On difficulty, Final Fantasy has some, but not too much. With a wide variety of abilities, Cloud and company will quickly dispatch most obstacles. The maximum party size is three, although other characters can be waiting to switch in at any time, as in Chrono Trigger. The majority of the challenge lies in puzzles and figuring out what to do next. Some puzzles are confusing and tedious, but some are actually quite fun. 

Innovations refresh the Final Fantasy series every time, and FFVII is no exception. Various components of previous titles have been taken, improved, and implemented. Magic use, for example, is done through Materia, which is similar to the Espers in Final Fantasy III. No character permanently learns spells, though, so their magic is limited to whichever Materia is currently equipped. Different Materia can be combined to produce several effects, but always with a cost. The amount of Materia that can be equipped at any time, and how well it performs, relates to the characteristics of the armor and weaponry to which it is attached, adding an element similar to the special attacks in the Lufia games. Familiar to Street Fighter fans will be the Limit Breaks, special attacks which become available after different levels of damage have been received. Also found in the game are many side attractions, like those found in Chrono Trigger, only more so. Included are snow-boarding, chocobo (ostrich-like birds) racing, arm-wrestling, and more. These are fun to find and revisit. 

Final Fantasy VII had so much hype, it's hard for it to live up to it all, but comes close. An unusual, and occasionally problematic, graphical interface may discourage some diehards, but not many. This could be the first mass-market role-playing game, attracting new members from other audiences to experience the genre. It takes awhile to get into, but eventually this game pulls the player in. Final Fantasy VII may be the final word in role-playing.

This article is copyright (c) 1997, 2007 by Ken Gagne. All rights reserved. Not to be distributed without permission.

Original publication: Sentinel & Enterprise, 15-Sep-97