We all have those moments in gaming that define our tastes, potentially for years to come. In my case, my youthful gaming years were shaped by the likes of River City Ransom, Final Fantasy IV, and none other than Final Fantasy VII. While I’ve touched on the importance of Final Fantasy IV in my gaming life in a previous article, the truth is that Final Fantasy VII came around the block after I had grown a bit older.
Basically, I had a better understanding of fundamentals, such as storytelling and character development as a 10 year old than I did blasting through the 4th franchise entry as a 5 year old. Thus, without a doubt, Final Fantasy VII was highly influential in my own life, thanks in part by Square embracing new technology and setting the bar astronomically high for what was to be expected from a JRPG henceforth.
But that was over 20 years ago – on a Sony console – and now we’re talking about the game once again under the Nintendo umbrella. Who would have thought we’d get here? But before we get into that, it should be no secret (even at this point) that I am a diehard fan of Final Fantasy VII, however I have every intention of detailing the negative aspects alongside – what is sure to be – spurts of nostalgic gushing. I can assure you that this is not a perfect game, let alone a perfect port, but let’s discover just how well Final Fantasy VII holds up after all of these years.
A dominant global powerhouse known as Shinra uses the lifeblood of the planet – Mako – as a source of energy. Mako is taken directly from the lifestream, the collective pool of organic energy that comprises all living things. Things are brought into existence by the will of the lifestream, and to it they return when their time is done. Needless to say, it is an abundant, yet finite and dangerous resource to those that would abuse it for their own gain. That’s when Captain Planet and the Planeteers, uh…I mean, AVALANCHE, makes their debut. Opposing both the Shinra Corporation, as well as anyone else that might seek to harm the planet, they do whatever they can to help the soul of the world succeed – no matter the cost.
Questionable as it may be, one of their missions has them blowing up a Mako Reactor in the city of Midgar, the heart of the Shinra Corporation. It is here where we meet the main protagonist, Cloud, a man of few words that might put on the “tough guy” act for a while, but hides some interesting depth behind that mask. Before you groan in disgust at the most tired of JRPG tropes – the emo protagonist – consider that we sort of have Cloud to thank for that in the first place, considering he was more or less the first mainstream example of such a character in the realm of JRPGs. That said, if you stick with it long enough, you’ll see that his story – and personality – changes in ways you might not expect.
Really caring nothing about the planet (or anyone) from the outset, Cloud joins AVALANCHE for the reactor mission for little more than to line his pockets with gil. But before too long, Cloud, Barret – leader of AVALANCHE, and Tifa – Cloud’s childhood friend – get wrapped up in a string of events involving government corruption, old friends(?), and a healthy dose of self discovery. By your powers combined, I AM-okay, I promise I’ll quit. I’m a kid of the 90’s, give me a break.
I’m really not giving the story much justice here, but I only wanted to skim the surface as to keep spoilers at a minimum. And yes, all Captain Planet jokes aside Final Fantasy VII leans heavily into the “save the world” scenario, but does so through a gritty and realistic lens. From the beginnings beneath Midgar, with only a sky of technological “pizza” up above it, to entering the lifestream itself, the world of Final Fantasy VII is both beautiful and painfully dark at times.
While you are off trying to save the planet, multiple villains are at play not only to stop you, but also seize the natural resources for themselves. In reality, you’re facing off against those that oppose the team – and to a far greater extent the planet – but your primary objective is literally saving the world itself. It doesn’t take a certified naturalist to draw parallels from this plot to events in the real world, and that only bolsters the potential emotional output possible here. I’m not a nature nut or anything, but I certainly wouldn’t wish for a world to perish, therefore the overarching story here definitely gets me in the feels.
Really, the more I spend time with Final Fantasy VII, the more I appreciate its surprisingly mature story. It certainly isn’t the best story in the franchise, however it did mark a turning point in overall plot complexity compared to previous entries. That’s not to say that it is better than those involving maniacal clowns named Kefka, or better than entries with fear-instilling dark magi like Golbez, but I just believe that #7 in the franchise came around at a time when technology was revolutionary and cinematic-like storytelling was just becoming a thing in the medium. If you have better tools available for a job that may have already been done before in the past, the new product has the potential to turn out a more impressive as a result, and Final Fantasy VII is a perfect example of that concept.
The exciting, but EXTREMELY DATED cinematic sequences are still as impactful to this day as they once were. It really makes you wonder what kind of negative impact the remake might have if it fails in trying to achieve those same levels of emotion from the audience, but that is a rant for another day. Simply put, traveling back into the world of Final Fantasy VII – while clearly a nostalgia-driven trip – was just as enjoyable as before, and I believe there are enough twists and turns along the way for even fresh pairs of eyes to take in and appreciate despite the age gap.
Final Fantasy VII once again uses the fourth installment’s iconic hybrid battle framework known as the Active Time Battle (ATB) system. As was the case before, you have the option of maintaining classic turn-based combat – ie. wait – or you can opt in for the far superior (in my opinion) active mode, which continues to flow time regardless of what actions you take on your end. I would go as far to say that, unless you are an absolute newcomer to RPGs, active mode is essential in getting the most out of the combat system here. One of the biggest gripes (and rightly so) of Final Fantasy VII is how incredibly easy it is in comparison to other franchise entries up to this point in time. I personally feel that it is even easier than the US version of Final Fantasy IV (II SNES), and that game was more or less regarded as “easy mode” by the developers themselves.
Now, just because a game is easy doesn’t mean it isn’t fun, and that is certainly the case with Final Fantasy VII. Back in its prime, it had two strong pillars in place, with one of them being excellent graphics and flashy animations. It should be no surprise that now, the argument just doesn’t hold up any more. The secondary pillar was built completely around the revolutionary (for its time) materia system, and that, my friends, is primarily why the easy combat can still be a blast. Part ability pool, part character progression, and part story bit, this condensed Mako energy allows for characters to borrow the force of the lifestream and channel it into abilities, spells, and stat boosts. Materia can be interchanged any time from the menu, and each character can equip a certain number of them based on how many slots are available in their gear at the time.
While materia can easily be a “set and forget” affair, those that want to get the most out of it will want to be mindful of a couple things. First, materia has their own EXP meter – AP – which develops alongside standard character EXP. Upon reaching a new level with any given materia, a new power is attained (or a brand-new copy of the base materia is born, depending on the materia in question). For example, a Fire Materia will start off only offering a basic Fire spell, with Fire2 and Fire3 becoming available once it has leveled up a couple times.
Also, your weapons and armor directly impact the growth factor of materia in more than one way, with certain combinations doubling or tripling the growth of materia in their slots while others stunt it altogether. Additionally, equipping Materia from the Magic and Summon categories will directly increase some of the character’s stats while decreasing others. This means that it isn’t always smart to just load up on everything possible on every character as it might negatively affect them in the long run.
Another minor – but important – saving grace from the dated presentation of combat are Limit Breaks, which basically act as ultimate abilities for characters once they have taken a certain amount of damage. While most of these are offensive in nature, a few aren’t, but all of them have their uses. There are four tiers of Limit Breaks available to most characters that unlock in order, and only after fulfilling certain requirements. In general, Limit Breaks grow substantially in power as you reach new Limit Break levels, and don’t be surprised when you can decimate the opposition in a few seconds when using one or more of them in action. These are still fantastic to watch, too – don’t try to deny your inner giddiness at the sight of an Omnislash or two. You aren’t fooling anyone!
At its core though, Final Fantasy VII is a fairly linear JRPG throughout, though some rather hefty side content is sprinkled into the mix towards the mid to late game scene. Some full-on mini-games are available also, like Chocobo breeding and racing, though these are very rudimentary by today’s standards and really haven’t aged that well. Lots of this side content provides additional context and ample rewards to your team, but again, the mini-games are not really as exciting to play as before and uber powerful items can only go so far in an already painfully easy game.
Graphics, Sound, and Performance
Obviously, an early 3D game from two decades ago is not necessarily going to age gracefully, and the out-of-combat character and NPC models especially have taken the brunt of the sands of time. You’re also better off not looking into the beady eyes of Cloud during a Chocobo Race – that is pure nightmare fuel. Regardless, I’ve always been partial to the graphics and character design in Final Fantasy VII, and the Switch version – like the Steam version – has seen some minor polish and FMV upscaling love to help offset the aged look. Blown up on a TV or in handheld, things look as crisp as they can, though it clearly still looks like something straight out of 199X. Combat graphics fare much better, but likely won’t excite those without nostalgic roots that much.
It is really hard to compare the works of Nobuo Uematsu across his many Final Fantasy compositions, but I’d have to say that Final Fantasy VII is certainly one of his greatest soundtracks of all time. And unfortunately, a bug exists which resets the progress of music every time you enter a battle. This means that if you come across a relatively pleasant piece in a contested zone, you must chill out for a bit in order to fully experience the track.
Surprisingly, I did not even notice this was an issue until reading about it in an article a few days after the Switch release. Now, I can’t “unhear” it but I believe it is not as big of an issue as the media has publicized. Admittedly, I did spend lots of time in menus changing equipment and materia in my own review run for the sake of the SwitchRPG Final Fantasy VII Challenge, so that could be why it wasn’t as obvious to me as it was for others. Either way, it is an issue that should definitely be fixed as soon as possible, because I’m not about to sit on the world map for over five minutes to hear that iconic overworld theme, no matter how awesome it might be.
Final Fantasy VII, for the most part, runs well on the Switch, especially when you compare it to Final Fantasy IX Switch from a few weeks ago. Menus are fast and responsive, and load times are minimally invasive whereas the Final Fantasy IX port really struggled in that department at times. There are a couple of locations in Final Fantasy VII where the framerate takes a nosedive, however. I didn’t really run into random hiccups or anything, but going into these specific areas dropped the FPS immensely, for whatever reason. Those cases were few and far between though, and otherwise the game runs well.
Like the Steam version, Final Fantasy VII comes packed with a few boosters to “improve” your experience. These features consist of no random encounters, max damage, and speed-up switches, which can be turned off and on as you see fit. I’ll admit that, and I have no shame in saying, the frameskipping feature was a wonderful boon for select cases which can really benefit from a kick in the pants (ie. some of the more drawn out sequences, some trivial enemy encounters, etc). That aside, I would not recommend using the no random encounters or max damage tools as it makes an already criminally easy experience even more laughable.
I’m not going to lie, having Final Fantasy VII on a Nintendo platform and being able to bring it on the go is literally a dream come true. Yes, the game is a couple decades old at this point, but does it really matter? At $15.99 USD, we’re talking about a JRPG that could easily take upwards of 25-75 hours to complete based on your personal goals and familiarity with the title. Even I spent a solid 20 hours playing for the sake of this review, and that is with skipping lots of the side content and modestly using the speed-up feature. Needless to say, there is a lot of value to be had here.
This was Square Enix’s most ambitious, heartfelt project at the time of its release, and it still shows to this day. If there’s one thing that can be said about their more recent entries in the franchise, they might be good – some even great – games, but that “magic” that once was attached to seemingly every Final Fantasy waned long ago (in my opinion). Final Fantasy VII’s scope alone (in its original context) is magical, and it is clear to me that the team behind it put their heart, mind, and soul into the project.
There is a reason why many consider it the best Final Fantasy ever (I don’t) and why many more at least acknowledge its importance to the industry and its undeniable legacy (I do). Do yourself a favor and play this game if you never have before, and if you’re looking to return there has never been a better time to do so – minor issues aside. Final Fantasy VII might not seem as ambitious as it once did, but it is still an incredible ride for fans of the traditional JRPG.