2023-01-25: Final Fantasy VII 20 Years Later
I remember being a wee little thing when I saw the first ad for Final Fantasy VII. Sony took up Square's banner and went in hard on marketing the game, going so far as to buy a Super Bowl ad (or so my memory insists, though I cannot confirm this now). I had played Final Fantasy IV and seen gameplay footage of VI but "played" translates to doing little more than pushing buttons. I'm not sure I was even old enough to understand HP values when I played it. I had fond memories of it though, and of Mystic Quest which my parents bought for me instead of the twice-as-expensive FF4. I wanted FF7.
I did eventually get it later that year, as a birthday present, or Christmas? It quickly became my most played game; my obsession for awhile. I'd play it after school for hours then go to school and tell my classmates about what I'd experienced. I had a back and forth little rivalry with a classmate for awhile about who could find the coolest thing in the game. I realize now in my older age with access to the internet that most of what he told me was bunk; but that's okay, most of what I told him was too.
I'd eventually do almost everything. The gold chocobo, the battle square, all the ultimate weapons, the limit breaks. Not the super bosses and, strangely enough to look back on now, not actually finishing the game. For reasons that escape my recollection, I couldn't finish the final boss. I chalk this up now to a combination of being a fairly impatient pre-teen and not wanting to sit through the lengthy animations for the most powerful spells, and not realizing the final boss's main gimmick was a fractional HP attack and trying to grind out taking less damage from it.
So I took on going back and finishing it. However I had to start from scratch, I don't exactly have my memory card any more. Oh well, it's also a good chance to re-experience the plot. Mainly I wanted to see if it really was as inscrutable as I seemed to remember. People blame a really hamfisted translation and a really obtuse plot with some missed opportunities for proper signaling for this; I wanted to find out for myself now that I'm more patient, and willing to dig into things.
Localization, Plot, Reveals
One of the things that struck me almost immediately was how much I missed when I played it the first time, and how much of it wasn't even discreet. Things like the entire Wall Market scene being about sex and prostitution, which I blame on being somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 when I played it; but also things like the interplay between Cloud, his psychology, and his friends who were aware he was not himself but held back calling him out on it until it got too bad to manage.
The entire "Cloud is a manufactured identity" thing is panned rather heavily by a lot of people because the reveal was obtuse, lampshaded oddly, and kind of didn't make a ton of sense for most of the game. I'm not inclined to disagree and I feel like a lot of how I understand the plot comes from the fact that I went in already understanding where it was going. I remembered the Mideel scenes so any time someone acted strange toward Cloud, I knew what it was building up to. Localization weirdness or not, this is pretty important to understanding what's going on and you may not remember all the small individual breadcrumbs leading up to the big reveal after it's all clear.
Not knowing where this train is going, though, leaves the impression that the localization is gods-awful. This is largely because the early game produces some baffling translation boners like the famous "This guy are sick"
Here's what I think: when someone plays a game, they mentally forge a contract with it. They feel out the mechanics, the plot, the quality, and they come to an understanding of what they can "trust" the game with. This trust can be mechanical like my trust in the 7th Dragon games to never slap me with a permanent miss-able. This trust can be story like my trust in Castlevania II that no one is telling the truth and I need to verify every bit of information for myself. In Final Fantasy VII's case, I feel a lot of people fell into the undesired design hole of not trusting the localization to be clear. Once you're in that hole, if you're presented with something unclear, it's far easier to blame localization than it is to presume the story is lampshading something or being clever.
That said, Final Fantasy VII also suffers from the localization and engine both hampering clear communication of what's going on. FF7 tries to hint that something is not right with Cloud in two major ways: interplay between people who know him better than he knows himself, and visuals that either show his memories being altered as he relives them, or his very person splitting in two in moments of duress. FF7, being an extremely early Playstation title, didn't really have the power to do anything impressive so most of these visual stings are simple model tricks or flashing jump-cuts where scenes change as Cloud is having flashbacks. They're not clear, and where dialogue has an opportunity to further clarify and punctuate these confusing scenes, it fails to do so.
The two biggest hammers on this point come at the very end of Disc 1, as the first major plot arc is reaching its climax. Cloud is becoming increasingly erratic and exposure to Sephiroth is causing him to collapse with headaches while the player is shown a visual of Cloud splitting into a second ethereal version of himself. This is an opportunity to convey Cloud's internal struggle between his true self and this identity he manufactured, but the mark is missed, leaving the player wondering if only they can see this second Cloud or not. As a kid I presumed this was an extremely awkward presentation of Sephiroth's direct control over Cloud as the result of Jenova. It is... but that's not the whole story.
In this final run-up to the end of Disc 1, Tifa and Aerith begin pushing harder on Cloud's delusion. Whoever you date in the Gold Saucer will directly confront Cloud about his split personality but will do so with a line that is far more easily dismissed by blaming awkward translation like this exchange:
Aerith: I want to meet you. Cloud: But I'm right here... Aerith: No, I want to meet... you.
It seems obvious if you know what's about to happen, but when all you have to go on is weird scenes where Cloud appears to have a ghostly form of himself emerge and battle for control of his body, it's not so clear. At least it wasn't to me. What would work better? "The real you"? A direct impugnment that Aerith knows Cloud is not being himself? I'm unsure. I think now, this is where it'd click for me though that those scenes where Cloud splits in half and battles with himself aren't just the result of Jenova's influence, but Cloud himself being unwell.
Up until that first dance with FF7, in my experience with RPGs at least, this is the first time where the presentation of a protagonist was an out and out lie to the player though, so maybe that's part of why I struggled to comprehend as a child. The closest comparison I have is Terra in Final Fantasy VI and how it's revealed only after you've traveled with her for 10-15 hours that she's not human. That's different though; that was omission. Final Fantasy VII shows you scenes that flat out did not happen, and only vaguely hints in interplay between Cloud and Tifa that something about that memory seems odd. I approached this from the perspective of "This must be true and something has been omitted to make it mesh with what I'm being told is reality"
Here's the thing though: I don't feel the translation of FF7 was nearly as bad as people say. I think word-for-word most of what is said in the dialogue is fine, and accurate, but that the localization starts with some awkward lines and grammar faux pas, then has to swim upstream against the tide of "The plot is actively trying to mislead the player"? That makes it real easy to just dismiss what was clever misdirection and lampshading as bad translation and writing. Where you are with your trust for the game will decide how you feel about it and the reveal that it was all ruse might not redeem the localization in the eyes of a player who spent 20+ hours between the awkward beats and the reveal.
If I could criticize anything, it's that the localization could have possibly realized some of the discreet hints might burr a little in translation and should have taken extra care to both make sure they remain in tact and maybe even sharpen the points a bit. Also some way to better convey that the split Cloud scenes are a visual aid for the player and not literally "Sephiroth is summoning some Jenova clone of Cloud"? That seems obvious and dull now, but 10 year old me wasn't sure what to make of it.
There is one scene where you control the ghostly twin, and Cloud walks straight through you. Maybe this was supposed to be the sharpened point of the whole affair. Hmm.
Figuring out what was kludgey localization, what was clever lampshading, and what was just deliberate misinformation was something I hoped the remake would address. Unfortunately based on what we have access to so far, it looks like the remake is going to go in a completely different direction. This is fine, but I do feel it's a bit of a disservice that we're not going to see Final Fantasy VII, the original, retold with more modern localization and accessibility scruples. Even today there's a lot of hanging questions about developer intent and such. Some of that is answered if you dig into the original Japanese script-- something I think the likes of Tomato would get a lot of attention doing.
Pacing and Gameplay
Another thing I found rather shocking is just how the game is paced. FF7 comes in three discs. Disc 1 is a massive sprawling affair where you spend half of it inside Midgar, see the open world and understand how little of it you've actually traversed now, explore about half of that map, and end on the famous plot twist. This runs about 20 hours in a first time play. Disc 2, by comparison, has about five plot points and runs about 7 hours unless you go hunting for side-content. Seriously, after all of the plot establishment of Disc 1, Disc 2 is...
- Going to the North Crater
- Escaping Junon
- Gathering the Huge Materia
- The City of Ancients revisit
- Diamond Weapon
- The assault on Midgar
That's it. Disc 1 spends most of its time building the plot scaffold with massive long scenes and dialogue and then Disc 2 is almost all action with a few interruptions for revealing what to do next. Now that said, Disc 2 is also the first time you can do chocobo breeding, the best time to start the battle square stuff, and has a ton of places to go and small side things to do. I'm looking at about another 20 hours in Disc 2 having done everything.
Then Disc 3 is just the North Crater and finale, presumably all of the cutscenes involved packing the entire disc. In truth, you're probably half way done with the game when you leave Midgar, as far as mandatory plot points are concerned. There's a couple of padding moments in here like dropping you off after Rocket Town with no idea where to go so you have to slowly canvas the world looking for map dots you haven't visited yet to piece it together.
The story is definitely extremely front-loaded. I'd say the startup for the game really is too scene heavy. I'm slightly impatient though, I prefer to explore and interact so having to sit down and watch through a statically timed dialogue sequence grates a tiny bit.
Aside from pacing, one thing I forgot is you cannot remove Cloud from the party. Aside from a short stint where Tifa is forced in in his place (and for an even briefer moment Cid), he's there all the time. As a result he out-levels the rest of the team pretty quick. The game is merciful in that characters not in your active party still get experience. Maybe half? They rather persistently ran 2-5 levels behind everyone else. So you're not stuck in a situation where if you have to use someone, they tag back in at level 10.
That's pretty good because there's no reason not to use anyone except the two allies you like the most visually, or have your favorite limit breaks. Even with different weapons and stat curves, it doesn't matter much. Cid and Red XIII will deal about the same damage using the same spells with the same materia loadouts. Physical damage might be a bit more character-specific but physical damage is, in my opinion, Cloud's wheelhouse anyway. He's most likely to level limit breaks and his Meteor Rain and Omnislash benefit most from high strength.
As a kid I made everyone red mages and didn't concern myself with the stat penalties on materia. For your basic Fire, Ice, Bolt trio it doesn't matter a ton. -1 Strength and a couple percent HP loss. Once you start getting the big hitters like Contain, Ultima, Bahamut ZERO, and Knights of the Round, it adds up. If you stack someone with materia they'll possibly lose a third of their max health and gain quite a few magic points. This time around the only magic materia Cloud touched was Contain and Hades to slot in with Added Effect to make his physical attacks convey status effects.
So I ended up running your basic trio of physical, white, and black magic, with a little mix between the two mages. This mostly manifested as Cloud running Cover, Counter, Deathblow, Double Slash... anything to make him hit harder and more often, then Cait Sith stacked with MP Turbo and Quadra Magic on the strongest spells and summons I had, then Tifa with Restore, Heal, Revive, Time, and Barrier with some offensive magic for downtime.
One thing I will gripe about is most games with a three-person party end up pushing you to build physical/offense/defense eventually. 7th Dragon avoided this by making every character practically forced to dual-role by their kit. More games could use that.
Another minor quibble is just how much really cool stuff the game gives you in the very last moments. All in the span of the final dungeon you get a materia that lets you apply the "All" trait to every spell and command you have, a materia that lets you counter attack with joined command materia, a magic materia that makes one character straight out invincible for a short time, and a command materia that lets you cast twice per turn. In addition, you can access an area only just before the finale that gives you Slash-All, and one of the game's very few triple-AP weapons. This would have been sweet to be able to play with for just awhile longer.
Disc 2 is prime time for side content. Once you get the Highwind early in the disc you can do all the big time consuming stuff. The biggest one in both time sink and impact is chocobo breeding. If you return to the farm early in the game where you get taught how to use chocobos, you can rent stables and keep your own. This presents an immediate benefit of being able to grab a chocobo and ride it at will (which isn't that big of a deal since you have the Highwind), but it opens the door for a long 10 or so hour side quest to breed the ultimate chocobo.
This took me about 6 hours in total, knowing what to do and save scumming breeding attempts. It would take a first time player far longer. Your reward for all of this? With each unique color of chocobo you can access an otherwise inaccessible cave on the world map and get unique materia. In order of chocobo tier, you get...
- Mime command, which lets you repeat the last command in battle on a different character
- Quadra Magic, which casts the supported magic or summon materia four times for the cost of one, but at half power
- HP-MP swap, which changes your maxes to 999 HP and 9999 MP. Powerful for a high MP burn build but incredibly dangerous
- Knights of the Round summon, the most powerful spell in the game and it's not even close
Knights of the Round summons the entire Round Table for 13 hits that hit about as hard as a single ultima cast. On even a mediocre mage KotR will hit for 40,000 damage. This is either a complete one-shot, or close to that on every boss in the game except the final boss. It's so powerful that using it in the final dungeon is coded to add almost 100,000 HP to the final fight so you can't just one-shot that with it. It is absolutely obscene in terms of both how much digging you have to do to get it, and how absolutely powerful it is to justify that time.
KotR is so powerful (and long) it's specifically coded to not work with Quadra Magic. People joke that FFXIV started forcing you to do Hildebrand's stories by putting powerful gear at the end of the arc. FFVII started that art-form with chocobo breeding.
In addition to this, the Gold Saucer has a battle arena where Cloud goes in and fights alone. For getting an absolute metric ton of points in the arena, you can get his ultimate limit break Omnislash, and the W-Summon materia that lets you cast two summons in one turn. Yes it works with Knights of the Round. W-Summoned KotR on a good caster will kill anything in the game but the superbosses in one turn. Your only penalty aside from the MP cost is that the KotR summon takes multiple minutes to play out, and you get to see it twice.
The superbosses... those are a thing. "Superboss" wasn't really a term when FF7 was new. Strategy guides of the day called them "The American bosses" because they were only in the localized version. There's two: Emerald and Ruby weapon. Both have rather severe gimmicks and specifically respond to having Knights of the Round summoned on them, to discourage leaning on it.
Defeating those two gives you a Gold Chocobo (as if you didn't need Quadra Magic and KotR to win these fights), and one of every Master materia. However since you need to be many, many, many times stronger to do this than you do to finish the game, it's kind of moot.
Speaking of master materia: these are rewards for mastering every materia of a certain color (or beating the Weapons). Having one socketed conveys the benefits of every materia of that color at once. Ignoring the reward for killing one of the Weapons, getting these requires a massive grind for AP since every color of materia has at least one example you acquire in super late game and requires a ton of AP on its own. I've never done it; I frankly haven't needed to.
All in all, the big side content rewards trivialize the game and if you don't want to turn the final half of the game into spamming Quad-Ultimas and Knights of the Round, it may be best to skip them. I believe all of this stuff had me at 70 hours of playtime before I was ready to try to finish the game when I was a kid. This time it had me at 40.
Amusingly it wasn't any of these that carried me through the final boss gauntlet. KotR was too slow to sit through, quad-ultima started falling off as final dungeon enemies packed ludicrous magic defense values. What trivialized the bosses was Omnislash and, optionally, Mime on Cloud to repeat it over and over again. Omnislash, coupled with Cloud's ultimate weapon, will easily out-damage Knights of the Round for the low, low cost of needing to fill your limit gauge first.
Final Fantasy VII has a few places I'd point at and say "That's jank" but most installments in the series do. All and all it's an enjoyable and solid experience. The plot is not as wildly inscrutable and unreadable as a bunch of people make it about to be. If anything it's some temporary lack of clarity and a few odd unanswered questions that future games might even tidy up (I haven't played Crisis Core or Dirge so I don't know). The pacing is a little weird and I'm not entirely sure how I got through the fairly slow opening as an impatient pre-teen. I'm not completely sure why Disc 3 exists, I guess the 30-some minutes of cutscene between the final delve and the ending.
The game gives you a lot of cool toys to play with, but the coolest options are locked out. Something as simple as Double Cut and Added Cut to give you triple (and later quintuple) attacks doesn't work. Quadra Magic and Knights of the Round doesn't work (perhaps for the best). Slash-All and Steal As Well doesn't work. There's some really neat materia that has no use because anything you'd snap it to, it doesn't work. Also many toys come too late to really play with them and build a strategy around them; they're intended for the playthrough where one finishes everything then exits the final dungeon to fight the Weapons I guess.
Character identity in combat is strange. If you're not using a physical attacker, it barely matters at all who you use. Once you apply a materia loadout, every character will perform more or less identically save for the stats on their weapon and their limit breaks. This is neat in that you can use whoever you want, but also it renders your party slots down to platforms for your materia. One can argue FF6 was similar: characters are platforms for espers.
Outside of these gripes, the game is a delight to experience. I don't consider it the divine's gift to RPGs like some do, but it's solid and playable and a cornerstone in the development of the JRPG in the west.
This just leaves VIII and XV and I'll have played all the numbered ones...