Final Fantasy VII is a game about a lot of things. It tries to tackle a lot of subjects with its narrative and intends to push gameplay in a lot of directions. It was an attempt at reaching for the cinematic breadth of film, in a time where the closest we’d gotten was FMV games. It’s a game that tried to be new and fresh in terms of tech, aesthetics, world, and characters, gameplay, and more. It’s funny that people criticize modern Square for trying to ‘cater to the masses’ when Final Fantasy VII was all about trying to capture a demographic they’d never been able to grasp before with the series… the western audience. They didn’t decide to include a snowboarding minigame by throwing darts at a wall.
In some ways, the time has been incredibly kind to Final Fantasy VII. In others, it has been ruthlessly cruel. So the question I can’t help but ask, is whether the game is still worth playing all this time later, despite the risks and choices that have aged the experience?
The easiest way to discuss the game is to break it down into two sections; the story, and the gameplay. While there’s a surprising amount tying gameplay and story together rather well for a game so old, they’re not inseparable. I also won’t be discussing everything the game has to offer, so much as just the things I really found worth discussing on this latest playthrough, which by now is probably playthrough number one million and seventy-four or so. If you want something that specifically discusses the story and its themes in much greater detail -which through sheer coincidence touches on a lot of the same subjects as I do in really similar ways- check out Games As Literature’s literary analysis on the topic.
One of the things that have always stuck out to me the most about Final Fantasy VII, is its focus on identity as a core theme. Everyone needs an identity. We all see ourselves in a certain way and have a vision for ourselves that we hope others see. That identity is shaped by the things we do, the things we say, and conversely by the things we don’t do and don’t say. Finding who we are, or maintaining a certain image can be hard work, even if it’s not about vanity. Being someone who others feel is trustworthy, or strong, or kind takes work, whether you’re deceiving your way to that goal, or actually working to be that individual. People won’t always see you for who you want to be, or who you are. Sometimes you won’t even really see yourself for who you really are.
Final Fantasy VII layers many themes and ideas on top of each other, from an exploration of spirituality, human impact on the environment, the spiderweb of tension between modern necessity, frivolity, and sustainability, to economic freedom, economic oppression, the lust for progress and more. And it does a lot of this with astonishing focus at times, bending everything in to cater to a central focus. For me personally, the core of all of this though centers around identity. This wasn’t new to the Final Fantasy series, or even to J-RPGs in general at the time. But what was fairly new was how vulnerable this particular game made its characters in an attempt to explore this core theme.
Everyone on your team puts up a front to varying degrees in Final Fantasy VII. Some just like to play up personality traits that benefit them at the moment. Many of the others are struggling, broken individuals who need to work through their issues.
Tifa has plenty of outer strength, but she struggles to speak her mind and find inner strength. The character many people choose to ‘oh so lovingly’ call a doormat, is actually one of the most passionate, driven characters in the game. She’s just kind of quiet about it. Tifa abuses her silence to keep close to Cloud, for him, and for herself. She has to learn that honesty with herself and with others is important, even if it sometimes means stepping out of your shell to get there.
Barret hides his past failures behind a mask of confident leadership. He justifies putting thousands in danger in an attempt to emotionally justify putting his past mistakes behind him. Marlene is a beacon of hope and a driving force for Barret, sure. She’s the last remnant of a past life he loved and lost. But she’s also a shield he holds up whenever similarities are highlighted between what happened in Corel, and his actions in Avalanche. He’s just doing everything for Marlene… right?
Red XIII feels like he has to step up and act like a wizened adult, despite realistically just being a kid. He’s willing to even throw away his name to avoid being compared to the father he loathes for seemingly being a coward in a time where bravery was a necessity. He’d rather be known as a lab experiment than his father’s son. So he does everything he can to convince those around him that he’s ready to take the weight of the world, where his father wasn’t.
Aeris… and yes, I’ll be calling her Aeris for the rest of this article, because dangit, this is the last time that name will ever really be accepted as correct! Anyway, Aeris lusts for freedom. It feels like her whole life is nothing but a means to someone else’s end. Life is everything to her, and all she really wants is to live for herself. So she often undersells or even completely hides her importance; anything just to be like everyone else.
Cait Sith, er, Cait Sith as it’s technically pronounced it… or, okay, Reeve initially pretends to be in support of the group, when in actuality he’s a spy for Shinra and is a core member of Shinra leadership. However, as things go on, and Shinra reveals itself to only be loyal to power and greed, Reeve swaps this mask for one that deceives his former comrades instead. He’s not entirely sure what he believes in a lot of ways. But he’s at least certain Shinra doesn’t have the answers anymore. Reeve’s true self is somewhere between the blue suit he wears, and the doll he controls.
Yuffie obviously lies to the entire party as well, only to steal all of their Materia in an attempt to save her home. She’s otherwise honest to a fault, or so it seems. But peel back a few layers, and you realize she’s not entirely sure whether she believes in the home she fights so hard for. Sure, she values Wutai and its customs more than anything. But does that still matter when her father has let it decay into just a mere shadow of what it once was?
Cid exhibits genuinely abusive behavior toward those he claims to care for and blames them for his problems. Instead of wearing a mask like so many of the other characters, Cid is honest about who he is. The problem is, the identity he dons isn’t a particularly healthy one for himself or his companions.
Vincent wears his sins on his sleeve. But what these sins entail, he feels he alone must bear the burden of. His story is probably one of the most integral to the events taking place. And yet he refuses to let the others shoulder some of the weight, his mistakes consuming his being. It’s up to Vincent to learn that sometimes action is necessary for redemption.
And Cloud… Cloud is by and large not the person everyone believes him to be. In the beginning, he comes across as a strong, but detached and callous individual. His demeanor is one of collected superiority. It’s not long before parts of this persona start to melt away. But in doing so, they only serve to reveal more horrific layers of mimicry. The real Cloud is in there somewhere, but it’s incredibly frightening that he’s often not in control.
Eventually, it’s revealed that Cloud was always desperate for an identity he could call his own. He fights with the other kids because they’ve chosen identity for him; one that sees him as an outcast. He eventually takes his fate back into his own hands, by deciding to join Shinra, with the hopes of one day becoming a member of SOLDIER. If he can accomplish this and become like the legendary Sephiroth, in Cloud’s mind he’ll go from being an outcast to being an icon. He’ll stand out because he’s special, not because he’s different.
There’s an emphasis on Cloud being a ‘cold mercenary’ in the first half of Midgar. He’s dismissive, has a pretty serious ego, and comes off as self-serving. But after Aeris forces him into some uncomfortable situations that tear down those walls, he becomes much more superhero-like. Everyone starts to heavily rely on and respect him, so he warms up in a lot of ways. He turns into a real go-getter. This goes on for a long time, building Cloud up as a pretty standard, do-good hero. He’s learned what it takes to be the good guy, and now he’s acting on it, right? He’s finally become the hero he wanted to be. Arc over.
Well… not exactly. Cracks in this identity have appeared here and there since the very first bombing mission. It’s clear something else is still up. But the player doesn’t yet recognize just how intertwined these quirks are with his existing personality and transformation. It’s not until the end of the Temple of the Ancients where we realize there are some serious issues with this facade. In a moment that certainly shocked me for one, Cloud starts pummeling Aeris, the perceived heroine of the story. Barret has to shoot him to stop his tirade.
This is frightening enough, but it gets worse when he pulls his sword on Aeris in the Forgotten City a short while later. The player has no choice in this matter but to struggle, or further raise their sword against her. The moment just before Cloud is about to take her life, the other party members bring his mind crashing back to reality, only for one of the most iconic moments in games to take place… Sephiroth kills her anyway.
Cloud is distraught by her death. The player should likely feel sympathy for Cloud, in that Sephiroth seems to be able to control his actions somehow. Sephiroth seems to be taking everything away from Cloud. And now that his emotional baggage from Aeris’s death is part of the equation, Cloud doesn’t really feel… safe to be around anymore. Even Barret’s attitude is subdued by Cloud’s strange behavior. That insecure child inside Cloud is resurfacing, and mixing with the crazy, superpowered, hero obsessed mega soldier he’s become. And you can no longer trust that he’s in control. Is he about to become another Sephiroth?
This recontextualizes all of the fun moments where he acts like things are normal or makes jokes from this point through to when he’s lost in the North Crater. You can totally view the lighthearted moments straight on, as simple jokes and a bit of fun. But they also give off this… messed up, the unhinged vibe in context of the wider story. Cloud’s a dude who just lost someone close to him, not long after beating the hell out of them against his own will, and now he’s just casually about to snowboard down a mountain? I find it really unsettling in a great way. He seems so sure of himself and his mission the whole way, even up to the point where Sephiroth finally confronts him with visions of Nibelheim.
But then Tifa finally admits that he’s been wrong about his past. She tells him he’s not who he says he is. That’s why it’s important that she’s sort of been his rock this whole time. She’s kept him mostly grounded, so if he can’t trust Tifa, who can he trust? Without her reaffirming his sense of identity, who is he? Cloud tries to act tough and in control at this point, but he’s obviously not. And it’s not long before he breaks down.
This reframes the previous issues, where he hits Aeris, and where he draws his sword against her. Instead of it feeling like some sort of unstoppable control Sephiroth has over Cloud, it starts to instead feel like Cloud has some active role in his abusive, dangerous behavior. His mental state is allowing these actions to take place just as much as Jenova’s cells and Sephiroth’s influence are.
Cloud’s willingness to succumb to these actions is arguably proven true after he and Tifa fall into the Lifestream. As far as we know, Jenova’s cells are still inside of him, and Sephiroth should theoretically have more control over Cloud’s actions than ever. He may have realigned his past properly, but the physical strings Sephiroth can pull still exist, as shown by the fact that Cloud has to finally defeat Sephiroth one-on-one to eject him from his mind. Despite this, he has no more episodes after he recovers from the Mako poisoning, no more bouts of violence, no more strange behavior.
For me, it’s really powerful that they place some of the blame on Cloud for his actions in the end. The reason this is important is that it doesn’t give him any excuses to wave it all away. So his focus on redemption from that point forward is all the more rewarding. He truly becomes the person he wanted to be; the character he’d even tricked the player into thinking he was. He’s still heroic like before, but he’s also kind of a dork now, which is really fun and heartwarming. Pre-Lifestream Cloud would’ve never done a claustrophobia dance in a submarine. He would’ve brushed his bangs and taken control, with a witty quip to go along with it. He’s now okay with relying on others in a more intimate way than before. But he’s also more understanding if they’re struggling with their role in the world.
This interwoven complexity geared toward tricking the player every step of the way, and still giving Cloud real, serious mistakes he can’t easily atone for is what makes him such a great character. This sort of thing is what makes most of the cast so great. It’s not uncommon for characters to make mistakes that haunt their past or whatever, and then be part of a story that’s all about redeeming themselves for those mistakes. But it’s often more powerful when the character is making mistakes during the story; mistakes we witness firsthand, which they have to take the blame for… mistakes we might even initially be pushed to agree with, like putting people at risk by bombing reactors. Final Fantasy VII likes to try and make you feel a little bit responsible along the way because you chose to see the world in less granular detail along with the characters. You saw everything as black and white, good and bad, and didn’t reflect on the repercussions of their actions. After all, you’re the good guys, right?
By the same token, this is what makes Sephiroth such a solid villain. Not his actions, but how he speaks to the themes and ideas of the story, as well as how he reflects on our party… in particular Cloud.
Like I said earlier, everything in Final Fantasy VII is built around identities, and the paths we choose to take in response to how the world sees us. As a sort of mirror image of Cloud, Sephiroth also has never really been able to choose his own identity. He’s always been seen as special. Once he realizes he was engineered to be this way though, it becomes crystal clear that his fate was never in his own hands. So he latches onto the one thing he sees as a beacon of true freedom… Jenova. Similar to what SOLDIER represents for Cloud, Jenova represents a way for Sephiroth to control the narrative around his life. With her help, he’ll become far more ‘special’ than anyone would’ve dreamt. He’ll become one with the thing that once nearly brought about a planet-wide mass extinction event, and achieve what she failed to do.
Sephiroth represents the alternative path that Cloud could take. Once Cloud and Zack become Hojo’s experiments, they’re really no different from Sephiroth. They’re massively powerful supersoldiers with the genetic material of a monster hiding inside. It would be easy for Cloud to betray humanity, lash out, and punish them for their sins. But it is his choices that make him different from Sephiroth. He chooses the path that Zack took instead; to help and care for those around him, with Sephiroth’s betrayal during the Nibelheim Incident cementing them as opposites. Rather than forcing others to accept him how he demands to be accepted, Cloud ultimately tries to convince them that he’s worth more than they initially might’ve thought, and leaves the final decision up to them.
That being said, the road to his true identity is a complex and difficult one. There is a multitude of factors that push Cloud in the wrong direction along the way. His fears of who he really causes him to initially hijack Zack’s personality, almost as if he hopes by simply becoming Zack, he’ll instantly earn the respect and love he desires.
Aeris doesn’t exactly help either. Since she has a past with Zack, Aeris greatly values the version of Cloud that wears the mask of her ex-boyfriend. Not intentionally of course. She simply can’t help but find the similarities alluring.
Everything that happens before Cloud finds his true self again, leads to the impression that Aeris and Cloud are perfect for each other. Cait Sith even says it in his last fortune in the Temple of the Ancients, and remarks about how Tifa will be upset by this fact. But then after Cloud’s rebirth, we see how much more intimate the relationship between Tifa and Cloud is. Their connection is true, and if anything, it’s supposed to contrast with the shallow nature of the romantic side of Cloud and Aeris’ relationship. It’s a major part of Tifa’s arc that she finds the strength to bring the real Cloud back. And it’s a major part of his arc that he lets her do so.
The game even illustrates the relationship beats between Aeris, Tifa, and Cloud through the events of the story itself. Tifa is intentionally trying to keep Cloud close at the beginning, to learn what’s really going on with him, and why he knows things he shouldn’t. So naturally, whose lap does he fall into as soon as she loses him? Aeris. She then pulls him in a different direction, reinforcing his current persona.
During disc two when Cloud is lost, you play as Tifa until you find him, which in a way is a physical manifestation of the fact that she genuinely feels like the true Cloud may be lost forever.
For me, this makes the relationship moments between Cloud and Tifa much more sincere. The one truly quiet, beautiful moment Cloud gets with Aeris during the gondola ride, if she ends up being your date, is slathered in an inescapable awkwardness because Cloud largely refuses to say or do anything the whole time. He’s awkward and stiff, which he most certainly is not when Tifa and he interact once he’s back to himself. The relationship feels mutual with Tifa, where it feels one-sided and fake with Aeris.
My favorite scene in the game involves Barret, who’s one of my favorite characters in the series. I mean, firstly, I love the fact that he’s pretty ahead of his time for being a Japanese-designed black male character whose core arc is about his dedication to an adopted daughter. Even today, it’s not uncommon for western media to treat the majority of black men like thugs that can’t even take care of their own children. And Japanese media can still rely extremely heavily on pretty offensive stereotypes. And yet, in spite of the Mr. T aesthetic, Barret’s still what I would call a rather nuanced and respectful character.
The scene with him that really hits me hard, is his scene in Corel Prison when he confronts Dyne. I don’t have kids. I’ve never been married. I’ve never had my entire town burned down by a corporation and been blamed for it by the survivors. But it’s so easy to empathize with Barret and Dyne here. While earlier I mentioned that Barret uses Marlene as a shield against criticism for the choices he makes in AVALANCHE, I think this scene is the point where he begins to realize this is the case. And it will take time to reconcile with the fact that he can’t use her to erase his actions or his past.
It’s not that he doesn’t care about Marlene. But Barret doesn’t want to admit that some of his actions have been just as unconcerned with the human cost as the things Shinra is willing to do. It isn’t until he confronts Dyne, who has all but completely let cruelty take hold of his heart, that Barret recognizes what he’s beginning to look like from the perspective of others. His passion for the planet and obsession with keeping those he cares about safe do not give him a golden ticket to harm thousands of others, even inadvertently.
This is personally my favorite scene in the entire series and gets to me every time I watch it. It’s painful to watch Dyne admit that he’s beyond saving, and even more heartwrenching to see Barret realize he’s sprinting down that same path. But instead of giving up, he decides to truly be selfless in his actions for once. After Dyne’s death, Barret begins to truly fight for the planet and for Marlene. Having accepted that his hands will never be clean, he’s determined to at very least not dirty them any further. This leads to Barret focusing more and more on educating himself, keeping calm when necessary, and even understanding that leadership qualities are far more nuanced than just being brave, intelligent, driven, and has a commanding voice and a big gun.
While FFVII’s cast has a lot of great moments like this, it’s not all perfect. Vincent and Cait Sith in particular struggle to fit in. Both are fantastic ideas, and in some ways are vital to understanding the core plot. But at the same time, Vincent doesn’t quite seem to get enough time to develop correctly unless you have him in your party the entire time, and Cait Sith struggles to really demonstrate the quality of Reeve’s arc. It also doesn’t help that he randomly and abruptly forces himself on the party in the Gold Saucer. As soon as the party reaches Gongaga, they start to wonder if a spy is with them, but they don’t put two and two together. I think adding a few scenes concerning trying to find the spy could’ve really helped make Cait Sith’s early part in the story feel more organic, particularly if he’s the one that convincingly throws them off of his trail.
I also feel like Aeris’s arc in relation to Cloud is significantly weaker if you don’t use her in your party basically the entire time up to her death. I don’t have a problem with her romance with Cloud because it’s fleeting and melodramatic, like some Hollywood romantic comedy where they meet and fall deeply in love within a week or whatever. I truly do just think they don’t get enough time together to make it feel particularly convincing. And if you don’t use her in your party, they have a pretty small handful of interactions before the climax of the first disc starts to close in, forcing the weight of those scenes to stand on a pretty feeble foundation, again, specifically when related to Cloud and Aeris’s relationship.
That’s why as outlined above when discussing Cloud’s relationship with Tifa, I personally feel like this was intentional as a way to illustrate why Cloud and Tifa have a stronger bond, whereas Aeris’s bond is stronger with Zack.
One of the other, bigger issues is the localization of the game. There are definitely times where it’s really solid, really faithful, or really creative in how it transfers the meaning of something in Japanese into a clever analog in English. But there are also a lot of times where it can be incredibly difficult to follow, particularly if you don’t know the story by heart. Take this interaction between Cloud and Tifa. Cloud decides to ask Tifa where she was specifically when he and Sephiroth went to Nibelheim. She asks if they saw each other. Then Cloud says “The other time.”, with Tifa responding by saying that she doesn’t remember.
If you’re on your first playthrough, this just sounds like a series of non-sequiturs being thrown back and forth. It sounds kind of like an AI that knows English words and sentence structure but can’t understand how to create proper responses during a conversation.
If you instead already know the plot really well, it seems like the line that’s messing everything up is when Cloud says “The other time.”. Normally, this line sounds like Cloud is trying to reference another time he went to Nibelheim with Sephiroth… which doesn’t actually exist. But in actuality, I think the line was just mistranslated, and Cloud was attempting to clarify that he’s referring to the day before she escorted them to the reactor. So the corrected interaction would be Cloud asking where Tifa was when they arrived. She’s unsure what he means, and asks if he means during the mission. He responds by saying “No, I meant did we meet the day before we went to the reactor?”. She then says no, she doesn’t remember if they did, because it was five years ago.
In reality, Cloud doesn’t remember meeting her before the mission, because he was hiding from her. Tifa, however, thinks he wasn’t there at all, so she’s worried she’ll mess with his mental state if she admits that the last time she remembers talking to him was actually seven years ago.
There are a lot of lines throughout like this that feel random or alien. People often bring up issues like “This guy is sick.”, but there really isn’t much of that in the game. At least no more than you’d find in your average localized RPG at the time. And even then, generally, you can still understand what these lines are trying to say. Instead, it seems like the primary issue comes down to the likely strict deadline of the localization effort, along with the density of the Japanese language when compared to English. The original English localization effort for Final Fantasy VII was actually handled by the Japanese development team themselves, with ports to other western languages being based on this English version. From what I understand, the reason for this was because the team was unhappy with the liberties that had been taken with Final Fantasy VI’s script in the west. So technically it’s arguable that Aeris isn’t any more incorrect than Aerith. But this also paints a clearer picture of why some translations feel awkward, out of place, or even nonsensical.
This kind of speaks to a wider gamut of pacing issues with the game. They’re not necessarily serious pacing issues, though they can affect the experience. As a small and isolated example, look at the village under Junon proper. The only meaningful thing to do here is to start talking to some random little girl. When you do, she believes you’re Shinra, gets attacked by a random boss, you beat the boss, and then you perform CPR. This feels abrupt, and doesn’t really seem to serve any purpose aside from giving you a boss to fight, since you haven’t fought one for a while, which leads to a… really strange alternative way up to Junon.
I don’t think this chain of events itself is bad, so much as that there’s no real lead up to it. Heck, if you happen to talk to the girl before you talk to the Shinra soldier guarding the door to Junon, you don’t even know that there’s anything stopping you from moving forward in the first place. It feels so sudden and then it’s just… over.
Like, I get that your help is what earns Priscilla’s trust so that she’ll let you whistle for Mr. Dolphin… which sounds like a fever dream saying it out loud. And it’s supposed to further dig in your hatred for Shinra since they’ve polluted the water to the point that no fish live in this once fishing town… except for Mr. Dolphin somehow. It just feels like rushed padding; an excuse created purely to lead to the next segment where Cloud is forced to pretend to be a Shinra soldier again.
They really should’ve presented the problem of getting past the elevator more clearly, and maybe had you meet Priscilla first before you talk to her by the water. How much better would it have been if the rehearsals for the parade above were already taking place, and you had the choice of earning the trust of Priscilla and Mr. Dolphin by beating the boss, paying the elevator guard a large sum of money to go up, or sneaking past him somehow? In the bribery solution, the guard forces you to go up one at a time so that it doesn’t look suspicious, meaning Cloud can still get mistaken for a soldier and pulled away. And in the option where you sneak by, you’re forced to do it one at a time as well. All could lead to the same conclusion, but make this area feel less anemic and rushed.
The same can be said for more major things, like the characterization of President Shinra. He really deserved more time in the spotlight to contrast him properly with Rufus. They more or less run the company the same way, despite Rufus saying his father ran the company with wealth, and he plans to run it with fear. Was collapsing the plate on Sector 7 not an example of creating fear of AVALANCHE so that people would submit to Shinra’s false benevolence?
There’s also little reason given for why we go after the Huge Materia on disc two. The game argues that we don’t want Shinra to have it, and mentions that it ‘interacts’ with our normal Materia in a positive way. But it doesn’t really explain why. For all we know, Shinra’s plan to use it to blow up Meteor could even succeed if we just let them try. So in a way, it makes our actions on disc 2 feel strangely self-serving and reckless.
Still, there are also a lot of other minor details that I love, which I kind of want to discuss really quickly.
Firstly, I want to point out that while Aeris’s death gets a lot of praise, and for good reason, I’d argue the loss of Cloud in the North Crater was equally shocking. Specifically, because the game took Aeris away from us, after trying so much harder than previous games to characterize her as a person, players were likely left asking… Why wouldn’t the game also take away your lead character forever? It felt like it was entirely possible for the game to try and pull some Romeo and Juliet shenanigans, killing Cloud as well.
I also like that the game tends to ‘lead ahead’ when it comes to future story events. It plants seeds in a sense, like by quietly moving the canon from Junon and having the characters briefly notice something is different when heading for the underwater reactor. Or by mentioning that Shinra is after Huge Materia for a different purpose, even as early as your first visit to Gongaga. You hear about things like the Shinra Gelnika ship that disappeared way earlier than you can actually find it. There are a ton of little things mentioned or shown in passing, kind of like a good book, which then comes back to play a large role in events.
The cinematography in Final Fantasy VII is largely fantastic as well and is worlds ahead of what was offered in most other games, whether we’re talking in battle animations or the actual CG cutscenes. Heck, even the puppeteering of the field models is surprisingly expressive, despite the models resembling Lego characters. Honestly, turn the game on and really pay attention to some of the camera work or animation. Notice the fantastic camera angles chosen when Barret uses Satellite Beam. Or what about this shot during the escape from Midgar. The animation, pacing, and camera here are top-notch. Or take this scene during Diamond Weapon’s attack, where they had the foresight to use advanced techniques such as depth of field. This wasn’t a team of Pixar animators with Disney money. This was a videogame in a genre nobody outside of Japan really even played at the time. There’s a reason for this game’s anomalous success, and it’s largely down to the fact that they convinced people they were playing something with movie levels of polish in the presentation.
I like a lot of the other little touches as well, which add a lot of heart to the game. Everyone, of course, loves the fact that Cloud twirls around the stage during the play because it’s hilariously adorable. But did you ever notice that when the dragonflies off the top of the screen, you can see his legs hanging up there still? It’s both a nice little joke, and also kind of rounds out the theater vibe, since when watching a play -particularly an amateur one- it’s abundantly clear that effects are effects, and you’re watching things happen on a stage. Immersion comes from the value you derive from the work, and I like that this is kind of a little nod to that fact.
It’s also interesting that the game doesn’t really have any empires or nations either. It’s just a bunch of towns and cultures strewn across the world, which is all in some way tied to Shinra. It solidifies the sort of Shinra VS the world angle, now that Wutai is no longer at war with them. I like that it’s different from your usual RPG in that way since the vast majority of J-RPGs have at least some focus on nations at war.
Closing the game on the opening shot of Aeris is brilliant too. It makes us assume that Meteor was stopped, but doesn’t spell it out. It fits with the slightly melancholic message of “Whether we like it or not, this planet will die eventually.” the game paints, while still providing a ray of hope for those that choose to live on in the moment. It also works well with the fact that FFVII is a game that doesn’t include voice acting. They could’ve included a ton of dialog to wrap things up in the end. But as the game already illustrates, doing that during the CG cutscenes isn’t the greatest idea. But having in-game scenes with text boxes after such bombastic CG would’ve also felt anti-climactic. So instead they put all of their emphasis on the visuals themselves and let them do most of the talking.
Then finally, the post-credits scene confirms that the planet is still flourishing hundreds of years later. This gives us an actually fulfilling, happy ending for our party, but still leaves us with interesting questions about the fate of humans and the direction they took after the Meteor. The planet is still lush, and Red and his kids are alive and well. You can also hear laughter from children, implying humans are still alive too. But maybe that they no longer abuse the planet.
This ending scene with Red XIII is tying up the core themes. Midgar is a symbol of oppression, excess, and abuse of the planet. In a sense, Midgar is the old identity of humanity and the planet. A lot of people think that -because Midgar is now overgrown and seemingly deserted- humanity must’ve gone extinct. They take the laughter of the children to be a passing memory of those that once were, and despite it’s flaws, the happiness humanity could create while it lasted. But I don’t really think that’s the case.
Even if Midgar was still able to sustain life for a long period of time -which I don’t think it could easily do without Mako energy- a lot of the people there would still be forced to live in the Slums due to space concerns. Why repeat that class system in this new world? So it seems like the ending is instead trying to imply that the entirety of the population of Midgar simply left it as a monument to their failures and moved somewhere else in the intervening 500 years. The entire United States is only half that age. So it’s perfectly believable that people moved on to build other towns and eventually nobody lives in Midgar any longer. Instead, it sits as a reminder of the sins of humanity, which is no longer willing to sustain the infrastructure that led to those sins. Nature taking Midgar back, embracing it despite its failures, is a strong metaphor for the idea that the Planet is finally able to reclaim what Shinra, Jenova, and Sephiroth stole, and that humanity has learned the lesson. Humanity was worth saving.
So, the gameplay then… Final Fantasy VII isn’t just lauded for its story, characters, and world-building, but also its interpretation of the turn-based Active Time Battle system that started back with Final Fantasy IV.
There are a fair few ideas taken from Final Fantasy VI, which are then explored in new ways, like Limit Breaks, or the further deemphasis on pre-set roles in exchange for characters that are more malleable. Equipment is simplified this time, with only a weapon, an armor piece, and an accessory, which does a great job of focusing the often needlessly complex equipment systems in previous titles. And while it’s only a baby step in the right direction, for once select pieces of equipment can maintain some semblance of usefulness long after obtained.
This is due to the biggest -and arguably strongest- addition to the game, Materia.
In-universe, Materia is made up of the planet’s life energy, which has condensed into a solid form you can carry around. Materia harbors the knowledge of generations past, including the Cetra, which knew how to use magic. This means when using Materia, anyone can cast magic if they have access to enough magic power. As you use a Materia, it grows stronger, allowing for more powerful magic, or more uses of its effect in a single battle.
This on its own wouldn’t be particularly interesting. It’s not wholly different from how the magic system worked in VI, or even games like Final Fantasy I, where you could buy spells outright. What makes the Materia system fantastic, and arguably one of the most versatile and player-driven systems in the series, is that Materia can interact with each other when placed in your equipment.
Every weapon and piece of armor the player obtains will also have a set of Materia slots. This is what allows certain equipment to stay useful over time because some slots make Materia grow two times, or even three times as fast as usual, while some equipment stops growth altogether. Some equipment has more slots for more Materia, while some might have more connected slots so that you can pair more Materia together. Some Materia pairings on your weapon will imbue your weapon with special offensive properties based on the Materia, and the same can be done defensively if paired on your armor.
Materia pairings can be incredibly deep; probably even deeper than many veterans of the game realize. This is thanks to blue Support Materia, which augment Magic, Summon, and Command Materia, and work extremely well in conjunction with certain Independent Materia. For the most simple example, pairing a Restore Materia with the Support Materia All will allow you to use Cure on a group, rather than just on individuals. Pairing Poison with Added Effect on your weapon will give you a chance to poison the enemy when you attack them physically, but will help resist poison if placed on your armor.
There are a lot of Support Materia options, including Elemental to add the element of the connected Materia to your weapon or armor, Added Cut, which will make your character do an extra attack with the paired action, Counter, which will counter attacks with the paired Command Materia, Magic Counter, which does the same with Magic Materia, HP Absorb and MP Absorb to heal or recharge MP when using paired Materia, Sneak Attack, which allows you to automatically use the paired Materia as a free turn at the start of the battle, or even Final Attack, which will used the paired Materia when that character dies.
The ways these combinations can be set up are numerous. A player can use Sneak Attack with Steal, enabling them to stock up on items for free as they explore. Or they can pair it with a powerful Summon to wipe enemies out before the battle even starts. They can pair Final Attack with Phoenix, which will damage the enemy while also reviving any currently KO’d party members to full health. They can also do stupid stuff if they’re not careful like pair Added Cut with Restore, meaning whenever they heal a target, they’ll then attack that target. Though even this has its use against undead enemies, which take damage from restorative spells and items.
It’s not just limited to basic spell Materia either. Added Effect is incredibly powerful because you can pair it with everything from Time Materia to slow enemies when you hit them, to Hades, which can inflict a host of different status effects on hit. And again, you can reverse this to protect against these effects by placing the same combination on your armor instead.
But that’s just the start. The system already has a lot of depth as it is. What pushes it far over the edge, is the knowledge that each turn a character is involved in, the game checks over their entire set of Materia for any valid combinations to use. It will also check for every party member involved, from the top slot in the menu down to the bottom. What this means is that the order of your setup matters, and if you double up on certain Materia in the right way, you can pair them with multiple Support Materia to get multiple effects at once.
You can, for example, put the Cover Materia on to make your character take an attack for an ally. Then you can set them to counter that attack with a spell-like Fire, four times in a row, by combining a Fire Materia with Magic Counter in one pair of slots, and then another Fire Materia with Quadra Magic in another pair of slots. If the character in the slot below also has Counter paired with Mime and they got hit from the same attack, this will then repeat that same set of four Fire spells without using any of their MP. There are even pairings that work in conjunction with equipment. Like for example, Tifa’s God’s Hand weapon is more or less guaranteed to be perfectly accurate with every attack. If you pair Counter with Deathblow – which is a Materia that either does a critical hit or misses – while she’s using this weapon, she’ll always counter attacks with a guaranteed critical hit, and you can use it as a replacement for your normal attack command to get the same effect on every turn. Pair another Deathblow with Added Cut, and she’ll add a normal attack on top of that.
4-8 Productions has a great video on just how flexible this system is, which includes ways to summon Knights of the Round seven times in a row at the start of the battle or use 4-Cut enough times to total 24 attacks in a turn. He even discusses some more clever combinations, like combining Steal as Well – which steals from an enemy when you use it with the paired Materia – with Knights of the Round, to steal from all enemies 13 times, or pairing Sneak Attack with Steal while you have the Mega-All Materia on, so that at the start of nearly every battle you can steal from every enemy-free of charge.
Independent Materia like Mega-All and Cover play well with Support Materia, because you can use them together to force certain effects. And if you’re willing to master a ton of Mime Materia, you can create all kinds of insane combinations.
The Materia system is the first time, and really kind of the only time, where the abilities in a Final Fantasy are more systemic than static. The development team set up a bunch of effects that occur when a Materia is used, and then let the systems freely use these effects largely without limitation. While Materia still offers the breadth of previous systems, it’s also extremely deep in comparison.
It’s a shame then, that the game itself doesn’t adequately test the flexibility of Materia, nor the player in charge of using them. Part of the problem is that many of the interesting Materia combinations are difficult or impossible to obtain until the end of the game. What’s more, to get some of the most interesting combinations requires grinding for multiple copies of certain Materia, which is super time-consuming. But the biggest issue… is simply that the game is too easy, and never really pushes complex use of… or even hardly any use of the system.
A couple of years ago, I uploaded two series’ of videos on this issue, where I fought all of the story bosses in the game. In one series, I turned random encounters off the entire time, so that the only fights I completed were ones I was forced into. In the other, I kept random battles on, but never ground, and never ran from any of them. I also… only used the Attack command – including Limits – and Cure magic, with the rare item like an Antidote or a Phoenix Down. What this proved without a shadow of a doubt is that -without the need to grind- it’s genuinely not challenging to get through the entirety of Final Fantasy VII without using any of your options other than Attack and Cure. It’s not really demanding at all, nor is it extremely time-consuming. In many instances, it can even be quicker than using other options, because you’re not sitting through extended casting or summon animations. You can find these videos in a playlist on my channel if you’re interested in watching them.
Now, this isn’t exactly abnormal for the series, or the genre. But for me, it’s a particular shame here, because VII’s systems are so fantastically deep. The interesting thing is that I’ve both had many people tell me I’m lying or cheating because that’s impossible, but I’ve also had people tell me that while the game is easy, it doesn’t matter whether the game is balanced well or not.
And I want to be clear here, the issue isn’t that Final Fantasy VII is easy. That’s subjective. The issue is that it doesn’t adequately test the systems at play, and give players meaningful, intrinsic reasons to explore said systems.
I suppose we should quickly define what an intrinsic reward is versus an extrinsic reward. An intrinsic reward would be one that gives you a tangible benefit in the game itself. So for example, if defeating enemies quicker or while using a specific spell gave you more experience and more AP for that Materia, that would be an intrinsic incentive with an intrinsic reward. Overkilling enemies in Final Fantasy X is an example of an intrinsic reward.
An extrinsic reward is one that isn’t designed directly into the systems of the game and instead relies on the subjective preferences of the player. So ‘having more fun’ by choosing to use more of your options is extrinsic, because the game doesn’t really respond to your choice to use more options, or may even respond negatively if those choices are less optimal than what it wants. What’s more, not everyone is going to find arbitrarily using more options ‘more fun’, limiting its value to the individual.
There is a gray area here to some extent, where things have to be evaluated on a more granular level. For example, in Devil May Cry 3, technically getting more Red Orbs for being more stylish is intrinsic. However, by the end of a first playthrough, most players will have gotten nearly enough Red Orbs to max most of their options out without being super stylish. As such, this reward loses a lot of value for your average player, and it’s a fairly weak intrinsic reward.
Conversely, time spent is usually an extrinsic factor. Unless time is used by some other system to confer value to a player’s actions -like in a Sonic game, where beating the level in less time can earn you more points and therefore extra lives or continues- it has no objective impact on the universal, mechanical experience. However, if a developer designs a boss to intentionally take an eternity unless you’re using a varied set of options, while not every player is going to care on a personal level, an argument can be made that this is still an intrinsic factor, because the battle is designed to be extraordinarily slow, bland, and potentially even dangerous if you try to ignore the design intent. And the longer it takes in relation to the time one would spend using other tactics, the stronger that argument gets.
Final Fantasy VII doesn’t intrinsically reward beating battles faster, or with more variety in your choices, or with more flair. It doesn’t reward taking less turns or using unorthodox Materia combinations. There is no intrinsic incentive to play beyond the strategy that takes the least effort for the most reward. And that strategy would be mashing attack and using Cure spells when necessary. Why waste a third of your MP on a summon, when attacking twice can do the same amount of damage in roughly the same amount of time, and free that MP up for an extra dozen Cure spells? Why use Fire on a random enemy weak to Fire, if it does four times the damage necessary to kill them, and an attack or two will do the same thing for no extra cost? Not that options like summons are engaging anyway since they more or less all just amount to an attack that hits all enemies at once. The spectacle was fantastic at the time, but mechanically they’re shallow. The strategy in using most of them aside from Hades amounts to spamming them at the beginning of the battle to get a head start. And even then, simply combining Hades with Added Effect will give you a lot of his specific benefits for no MP cost.
Most enemies in Final Fantasy VII do so little damage that the extra damage you’ll sometimes take by just mashing attack is basically not even a factor, particularly considering the extra MP you’ll have for healing. And when an enemy is a real threat, sitting in the back row using the Long Range Materia or long-range weapons in conjunction with Sadness, will more than trivialize most enemies. You honestly don’t even need to do that either, since keeping your party in the front and using Fury can ensure that you’re getting your Limits so often that you decimate everything before they get much of a chance to do anything.
There are exceptions of course. A handful of fights require minor amounts of strategy, like not defeating both heads of Schizo at once so that his final attacks can be staggered, or keeping Aeris alive when you’re in the Temple of the Ancients if you haven’t been using her and she’s underdeveloped. Battles with a bit of randomness involved also tend to keep things at least mildly interesting. Carry Armor can pick up any of your party members, so if it picks up someone like Cloud or Barret, you might find yourself in a marginally tougher encounter since you’ll lose access to powerful limits like Meteorain or Angermax.
This issue is exacerbated by the fact that every character can play every role. This is a great idea in theory, but what it usually means is everyone just becomes a jack of all trades, and master of everything. There’s no reason to specialize characters, despite them clearly being predisposed to specialization in terms of stats. So their biggest defining factor ends up being their Limit Breaks.
But these also make it so that many of your allies are just objectively stronger than others. Why use Tifa with her Limit that requires skill to utilize well, when you could just spam Stardust Ray, Meteorain, and Angermax?
Yuffie and Cid are both basically interchangeable with Barret or Red XIII in terms of what their strongest Limits accomplish. Though since Red has Lunatic High which gives everyone Haste and massively boosts Red’s defense, I’d say he easily wins out. And Barret is largely long-range with most of his weapons, meaning you can keep his damage high while keeping him safe, without using the Long Range Materia, unlike Yuffie or Cid. Cait Sith’s Slots is another one that requires skill to use, meaning it can be useless if you mess it up. And Vincent’s limits are a randomized mess that is often more detrimental than beneficial. He literally loses the ability to Attack once his Limit is full, unless you use the Sniper CR or Long Barrel R with Deathblow, since similar to Tifa with God’s Hand, these have max accuracy. His Limits can get in the way of attempts to Steal or Morph, and many of the attacks they offer can even heal some bosses, and you have no option to stop him without simply killing him.
Aeris is the only one for which an argument can be made that stands out with her Limits. They’re all focused on healing, buffing, and debuffing, instead of damage. But remember that she dies at the end of the first disc, taking your access to her Limits away just halfway through the game.
But even if you wanted to use her for her Limits anyway, half of the Limits for every character require killing enemies to unlock, which she’s terrible at. This means it’s extra cumbersome to try and gain all of her Limits, and you won’t gain access to too many of them without grinding. This also bleeds into the relationship pacing issues with her, because there’s not much mechanical reason to have her in the party, but her relationship with Cloud feels a bit rushed if you don’t.
The interesting thing is that she kind of highlights a solution to this problem with her pitiful HP and Attack stats. You’d never really notice if the game didn’t tell you, but Materia actually raises and lower stats when you equip them. The problem is, this has basically no impact on the gameplay whatsoever, outside of the realistically minor changes to max HP and MP.
But what if it did have an impact? What if stacking yourself mindlessly with tons of Summons and Magic Materia could make characters like Cloud or Barret as physically weak as Aeris? If there was more of a statistical push and pull with Materia, and enemy resistances and weaknesses played a bigger role, the game could heavily incentivize players to craft their own jobs for characters using Materia. It would effectively be an evolution of what Final Fantasy V does, except instead of having tons of preset jobs to explore and learn abilities from, you’d be able to craft your own jobs from scratch. Materia like Deathblow could greatly raise your Strength or critical hit chance while making your Magic plummet. Or Steal could raise your Dexterity, while lowering your Defense or even do something unique, like make enemies target that character less often.
Unfortunately, hypotheticals are just that… hypotheticals. However, I know of two ways you as a player can fix the game’s balance to some degree today, though they both come with caveats.
The first is to get a modern console port and then play through the game with the No Random Encounters toggle on the whole time, as I mentioned before. The game is significantly more balanced this way, with clever strategies becoming a mandatory part of the experience. This does, unfortunately, limit what options you can use, because basically none of your Materia will reach their final growth levels by the end, and you won’t get too many Limit Breaks either. Money is also rather tight most of the way through. But it also genuinely makes the game far more challenging in a way that forces the player to think about how they’re going to tackle fights. Surprisingly, you get to around level 45 by the end, just by doing forced fights and some optional sections like the Wutai sidequests or the Gelnika fight with the Turks. It works genuinely well, as long as you really flex the muscles of the systems and the items on offer.
The other option is the New Threat Mod on PC. The biggest hurdle here is that you have to own the game on PC, with hardware that can run it, and deal with modifying the game. Not necessarily difficult, and it recently became even easier now that 7th Heaven got an overhaul. But it can still come with some rather obnoxious quirks depending on the setup you want to use. I had to do quite a bit of extra troubleshooting because of a lot of small issues, from an inbuilt framerate counter refusing to shut off, my controller not wanting to work, my button configuration resetting each time I opened the game anew, the PC version having no soft reset button combination, the game not wanting to display correctly on my television without a bunch of extra display setting steps, an early issue where I could only choose the PS1 soundtrack rather than being able to play through the game with the MIDI tracks for the first time, and a crash that seems to be related to a memory leak, which would happen every two hours or so as I played, no matter how I configured VRAM options for my 4GB GTX 1050.
I have bad luck with PC games, from games with gamepad specific interfaces refusing to switch over when a pad is connected, to some games getting locked to 50fps on my television but not on the laptop display, even though it’s a 60hz television. Some games like Sonic Mania or Spec Ops: The Line love inexplicably crashing on launch, etc. Other games have no issues at all. The point is, your mileage may vary because mine certainly does.
That being said… if you like Final Fantasy VII at all, play New Threat.
I know, it sounds like a mod designed for masochists and people who want a goofy experience. People like to show the crazy stuff when they talk about it, like the secret, difficult new super bosses, or the fact that you can keep Aeris in your party after disc one if you want. They bring up how it has been rebalanced to be more challenging, but they don’t often seem to discuss exactly what that entails. And that’s sad because this is not a Kaizo-style difficulty mod. It’s not about punishing players. It’s about exercising the depth of the mechanics. It is certainly something for returning players, rather than those new to the game. But that’s more so because it’s difficult to appreciate the granularity of the changes, mechanical or otherwise, without having played the original. New Threat is maybe marginally more difficult than a No Random Encounters playthrough for the most part, which I would consider to be like a Normal difficulty mode for the game if the vanilla experience is like playing on Easy. It doesn’t get anywhere close to things like HP/MP swap runs, or anything like that. I wouldn’t even say New Threat is as difficult as something like a modern Persona game on the Normal difficulty. It’s designed to push the mechanics, not make you pull your hair out. And it’s wonderful.
So what does New Threat do?
New Threat adds scenes, tweaks dialog, adds fights, changes AI patterns, balances stats, changes item, and Materia locations, the effects of Materia and Limits are changed, it adds unique, innate abilities for each character, and much more.
The game goes from being just another poorly balanced breeze for anyone who is even marginally familiar with J-RPGs, to being a genuine challenge. Not to the point that you’re always on the brink of death, or that it feels cheap. Instead, it’s challenging in a way that asks the player to think about their setups, and use a wide variety of their Materia, equipment, and strategies in general. That’s the most important thing with balancing a game like this, because challenge can be tweaked to suit multiple skill levels from there, particularly with the Arranged Mode.
It also made me question if maybe a part of the issue with many of the other Final Fantasy games, including vanilla FFVII, is simply that they dole out abilities incorrectly. You nearly always get Haste or Protect, and a lot of your other options around the same time in each game. And a lot of these abilities are given to you late enough that people have grown accustomed to just using basic Attacks, restoratives, elemental spells, summons, etc. They get the more eccentric abilities like Regen, or Slow, or what have you late enough that the game can’t really be designed around providing strategies for both using and not using these options. Who knows whether the player is even close to leveling up half of these Materia? That means even the most complex fights in the series usually focus on things that are obvious, like using Fire against the thing that’s weak to Fire.
New Threat gives you most of these non-offensive abilities really early, and then massively remixes the abilities, stats, and Materia slots on your equipment. This forces the player to strategize and create builds that aren’t bloated with unnecessary options. You have to decide whether you want to equip things that reinforce certain stats, gain more AP, have more Materia slots, or have more connected slots. It also gives you some of the more creatively useful Independent and Support Materia more quickly. You get two Elemental Materia rather swiftly, which then adds yet another layer where you can suddenly choose to focus on beefing up your Attack command with that element if you think that’s more useful than casting the spell itself in a specific battle. New Threat further allows you to make your party your own, and the bosses and mobs can be designed around these options as parts of more complex strategies since it all but completely guarantees you’ll have access to them. But it never feels like a puzzle with a single solution either.
For example, thanks to some good strategy, I ended up being able to Morph the Demon Wall boss… both of them… which gave me access to two accessories that raised my Luck by 100, but made it so that the character couldn’t gain buffs like Barrier or Magic Barrier. I equipped these to Tifa and Barret, meaning they nearly always got a critical hit when they attacked, but they took way more damage than Cloud, so Cloud kind of became my dedicated healer. I also loved a specific weapon for Barret that didn’t have the best Attack stat but ignored defenses, which played extremely well into the Sources I’d been giving him through the new Source Level guy. Other changes like the Innate Traits each character has only further add to the depth, making this feel like a new game… almost like the Final Fantasy VII I always wanted the game to be.
Probably my biggest issue with New Threat comes down to how many enemies love to heal themselves. It’s not a bad thing on its own. The problem is that you get the Morph Materia incredibly early, and you’re intended to experiment with it. But it can be torturous to Morph a lot of the enemies to see what they have because they always tend to heal just out of Morph range at the worst times. It kind of reminds me of the arduous task of stealing in FFIX, and I wish maybe Morph did like ½ normal attack damage, instead of 1/8th. Or maybe it could’ve been made so that Yuffie’s weapons all do normal damage with Morph as the Conformer does. Or what about making it so that you can see what item you can Morph from an enemy when you Sense them, that way you can choose then and there if you want to spend the time trying.
New Threat fixes a lot of minor things with the story too. Remember how I mentioned that the game really never explains why we’re going after the Huge Materia instead of letting Shinra try and blow up Meteor with it? Well, New Threat changes this, by putting in a few lines about how there’s so much life energy built up in Huge Materia, that the planet will struggle to survive if they aren’t eventually returned to the Lifestream. So while yes, Shinra’s plan could maybe work to destroy Meteor, it would also doom the planet in the longterm.
New Threat is fantastic for a second, third, or four hundred and thirty-seventh playthrough. It’s not perfect, and maybe one day I’ll give it its own dedicated critique because it definitely deserves it. But regardless, I can’t recommend it enough.
As for the vanilla version of Final Fantasy VII, I can still recommend it too. But it comes with a lot of caveats because in a lot of ways it’s not the most well-designed game. It feels strangely laser-focused in some ways, and also like a complete mess in others. I think its biggest shortcoming is definitely that it asks too little of its own breathtaking systems. But if you’re okay with that, it’s still worth playing through even today. It’s still my favorite game of all time, and probably always will be…
But what do you guys think? Have you still somehow not played through Final Fantasy VII? Why not? If you have, what did you think? Do you believe it still holds up? Sound off in the comments below, and I’ll see you next time!
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