Let’s get the obvious cleared out first: Yes, I’m a devout Final Fantasy VII fan. This is a game dear to my heart and I cherish it deeply. I want to talk about why I think this game is a masterpiece and my concerns for the Remake.
Final Fantasy VII came out in 1997 on the Sony PlayStation. It sold over two million copies in Japan within the first three days of release. It also received overwhelmingly positive reviews and has frequently found itself in numerous “Top 100 Games Of All Time” lists. Even today, 22 years after its release, it is still considered as one of the best games of all time.
It’s no surprise that the Final Fantasy VII Remake is garnering enormous support and enthusiasm. It is a game adored by many, as apparent by the cries during the E3 presentation.
For me, the Remake has provoked giddiness and a tinge of fear that seems to grow a tiny bit larger every time I ponder over whether or not Square Enix can pull this off.
What made Final Fantasy VII such a huge success? Does it still hold up or are we wearing nostalgia goggles? And most importantly, why hasn’t Square Enix been able to pull off a masterpiece in recent years?
Unraveling a Masterpiece
If I created a poll and asked people what made Final Fantasy VII so great, I’d get a range of different answers.
The story, the music, the Active Time Battle (ATB) system, the characters, the open world, and perhaps even the visuals?
The obvious answer is “All of the above”. After all, you can’t have a good RPG with just a subset of those elements. However, the reason I think FFVII truly excels is because of how it brings all those elements together with nuance, and most importantly, subtlety.
Let’s start with my favorite one:
Music and Atmosphere
No one doubts Nobuo Uematsu’s genius. He’s composed tracks for a number of Final Fantasy games and is widely regarded as one of the best video composers of all time, even being referred to as the “Beethoven of video game music”.
I personally hold the belief that Uematsu’s greatest work has been the FFVII OST. With tracks like “Aerith’s Theme”, “Anxious Heart”, and the ever-popular “One-Winged Angel”, the FFVII Soundtrack is glorious.
The game’s opening scene, from Aerith’s face to a view of Midgar to Cloud jumping off the train is supported by “Opening Theme, Bombing Mission” – a track that starts off slow and mysterious, slowly building up to a crescendo before transitioning to a rhythmic and tense second half. It sets the tone for the rest of the game – curious and exciting.
The “Main Theme” played during the overworld is another track that helps us set our expectations for the game. It’s not cheery and exciting as a lot of overworld themes in RPGs. It doesn’t push you to go out on an adventure. Instead, it starts out slow and almost scary, filling you with uncertainty and doubt. It builds up to a more exciting part before going back to being a little creepy. You just don’t know what to expect, just like the world of Final Fantasy VII itself.
The soundtrack not only conveys the feel of the entire game as a whole but plays a role in fleshing out the game’s many characters. FFVII doesn’t feature voice acting, but each character’s theme plays a role in defining who they are and conveying their personalities to us.
Take “Aerith’s Theme” for example. It’s slow, it’s peaceful, and it instills trust. It’s what Aerith is supposed to feel like. It plays while she’s dying in Cloud’s arms. It makes that scene all the more impactful.
Another common example is “One-Winged Angel”. It’s a tense, almost frightening, track that does a fantastic job conveying how terrifying Sephiroth is. It’s also pretty catchy.
I might even go so far as to argue FFVII’s lack of voice acting works to its advantage because it lets these excellent tracks stand out more. The world and characters of FFVII are rich and alive thanks to Uematsu-san’s work.
World and Progression
Final Fantasy VII is huge. The original game came out on 3 discs.
You start out in Midgar, a large futuristic city divided into sectors, with each sector having a slum. You’re introduced to this dark, polluted, almost pitiful place run by the ShinRa company. After a few hours here, you’re introduced to the open world. The world gradually opens up for you to explore as you keep playing the game.
You start by walking to places but realize there’s some terrain you can’t cross without certain vehicles. You’re given a buggy to cross shallows rivers with, followed by a plane to traverse coasts. Soon you get access to a submarine that lets you go underwater, and an airship that lets you travel by air. The world is huge (you even go to space at one point!), and this gradual access to new vehicles and terrains gives you a sense of scale and progression.
Not only is the world exciting, but each individual location in the world is unique and memorable. There’s Junon – a city known for its giant cannon; Cosmo Canyon with its cliffs and red skies; Wutai with its Eastern backdrop; and Rocket Town with its… Rocket. Not only are most places attached to certain characters as their birthplaces, but each one of them is unique in the way it is portrayed and how it plays into the story.
You’re also required to return to a number of places in the story and it is interesting to see how these places are affected by the events of the story. The world of FFVII is a living, breathing world.
Story, Characters, and Complexities
If I could use one word to describe the cast of FFVII it would be “diverse”. Here’s who your party consists of: A spiky-haired mercenary, a goofy terrorist leader, a bartending martial artist, a wolf-like animal, a flower girl from the slums, a kleptomaniac ninja, a gun-wielding shapeshifter, and a robotic talking cat. How can you not love this cast?
At one point in the story, Cloud, Tifa, Barret, Red XIII, and Aerith describe themselves as “A former SOLDIER First Class, members of AVALANCHE, a flower girl from the slums, and a research specimen.”
Each character has a history that you get to explore during the game that adds to their personality and makes them feel real. In fact, FFVII deals with a number of themes with its characters.
We have Barret struggling to raise a child while also trying to fight for the planet. We see him as this tough leader, but he has moments of softness and genuine worry when he’s with Marlene. We also later learn about his past and how his actions led to his town being destroyed. We see him struggle with his guilt which culminates in a battle with his best friend.
On the other hand, we see Red XIII wrestle with his belief about his parentage. There are themes of honor, sacrifice, and family as Red XIII learns about his heritage and his duty. Remember that this is a non-human character we’re talking about here.
Even Yuffie, an optional character, is a layered one. She’s portrayed as a funny, juvenile ninja, but we later learn of her patriotism to her homeland and her desire to restore it to its former glory.
All of the characters of Final Fantasy VII have interesting back stories and a stake in the overarching story of the game. Each one of them feels important.
The cast, like the world itself, is also very complex. We find out that Cloud isn’t who he claims to be, we know from the start AVALANCHE is essentially a terrorist group responsible for the deaths of people in Midgar, and we learn that Cait Sith is actually a ShinRa member. These characters are not one-dimensional. There’s depth and conflict in each one of them.
The larger narrative itself at its core is a story about good versus evil. It’s the classic tale. However, what makes FFVII stand out is the way it handles this battle. Our heroes aren’t your typical heroes – they’re not royalty, they’re not superhumans – they’re just a bunch of misfits thrown into this adventure. In fact, some of them are terrorists, which makes you wonder if they’re really heroes at all.
We also have two different villains in this story: Sephiroth and the ShinRa company. One is a powerful, menacing being who has a twisted idea of how to save the planet, while the other is a corporation that only cares about itself with no regard for the planet or its inhabitants. Both are terrifying in their own ways.
Final Fantasy VII manages to intricately weave all these things together to give us a game that truly feels like a journey with real, believable characters, and a world that has both literal and metaphorical depth.
So why hasn’t Square Enix been able to create something as good as this in recent years?
Remember how I said you can’t create a good RPG with a subset of the above-mentioned elements? That’s what Square Enix has done with its past couple of games.
Don’t get me wrong, Square Enix hasn’t created terrible games (We’re not counting FFXIV 1.0), but its recent mainline Final Fantasy games haven’t been as great as games of the past.
Let’s do some comparisons. Note that these are more at-a-glance comparisons than in-depth ones.
For reference, for those who deem this a valid tool for critical comparison: FFVII has a Metascore of 92 based on 20 critics, and a User Score of 9.2 based on 1709 ratings.
Take Final Fantasy XIII. It has a Metascore of 83 based on 83 critics, and a User Score of 7.2 based on 2690 ratings.
It’s a colorful game with an interesting cast and a cool world. But it doesn’t grow organically. The game doesn’t slowly introduce you to the world and its components. Instead, it throws complex terms at you and expects you to do some reading to figure out what things mean. “Fal’Cie! L’Cie! Pulse! Cocoon!”. Imagine if FFVII started mentioning nonsensical terms at the start of the game: “Jenova! Weapon! Black Materia!”.
The game also doesn’t feature any interesting places. There are lots of corridors that take you through some cool looking places, but there are no towns, no open spaces, no places that truly stand out. Sure, there’s an “open world” about 30 hours into the game, but you only get to explore that for a few hours before you’re thrust back into narrow paths.
The characters can also be a hit or miss. There are back-stories to them, but none of them particularly stand out.
Take Final Fantasy XV. It has a Metascore of 81 based on 109 critics, and a User Score of 7.6 based on 4011 ratings.
Let’s compare the cast of Final Fantasy VII to the cast of Final Fantasy XV.
Notice anything? On one side you have a colorful, diverse cast and on the other, there are 4 dudes wearing black.
I get what Square Enix was trying to go for with their FFXV party – a story about brotherhood and friendship. However, the characters have backstories that aren’t fully explored unless you buy DLC and watch the short anime episodes they released prior to the game. The world and the main conflict also isn’t explored unless you watch the prequel film.
There are other characters in the game, but they aren’t fleshed out much either. Important characters die but their deaths feel meaningless because they aren’t explored much at all.
The world itself is lackluster too. It’s gorgeous but feels incomplete. It lacks verticality and diversity. Additionally, the second half of the game takes you out of the open world and into corridors where you’re expected to use stealth to make your way through. The game’s pacing feels choppy and the narrative lacks coherence.
Despite Square’s efforts to make it feel like an epic journey, it doesn’t feel like a journey at all.
This is just my opinion but I think the story, world, and characters are essential in a Final Fantasy game. The games don’t have to be open world, but they do need to be well defined and possess depth.
Okay we get it, you’re a Final Fantasy VII fanboy and you think it’s better than all the other games. Why are you afraid of the Remake?
I’ve been hoping for a Final Fantasy VII Remake since the 2011 PS3 Technical Demo. The demo blew my mind and gave me hope that there would one day be a Remake. I’ve had my fingers crossed since that day.
When Square Enix officially announced the Remake in 2015, I was in disbelief and awe. I can’t wait to play the Remake. I preordered the Deluxe Edition as soon as they announced it during their E3 conference yesterday. It’s difficult for me to stay away from this game.