SquareSoft's Final Fantasy VII was released on the PlayStation with much hype and fanfare, including television commercials and huge bus stop ads in metropolitan areas. For many months, it seemed Final Fantasy VII was the only game available for the PlayStation. For those who played it, this was practically the case. The game's epic storyline and impressive production values made for a game that kept one immersed for anywhere from 30 hours, "rushing" through, to more than twice that, exploring every available option.
The PC translation of Final Fantasy VII is fundamentally the same game as the PlayStation version, which makes for both its greatest strengths and its most frustrating weaknesses. There was obviously a great deal of attention spent improving the graphics, but other equally important areas - the sound, the interface - have been neglected.
Final Fantasy VII tells the story of a young mercenary named Cloud. At the outset of the game, Cloud has hired himself out to Avalanche, a revolutionary group set on sabotaging a huge corporation's plans to harvest all of the energy from the planet. Cloud is an ex-employee of Shinra Inc., the corporation in question. While the Avalanche members' intentions are noble, Cloud's are, it seems, strictly financial. Throughout the first segment of the game, Cloud works with Avalanche in the elevated city of Midgar and the slums that exist below it. Because of the events that transpire there, he must venture with them beyond Midgar, across the whole of the planet, where the story becomes much more complex.
This complexity is the heart of the game, and describing too much of the story would give it away. What makes Final Fantasy VII so involving, though, is not just the story it tells - the characters themselves are intriguing. Each of the main characters has interesting motivations and history. Much of the game is devoted to painting these portraits, with Cloud's being one of the focal points of the game. So as not to spoil anything, a simple understatement will have to suffice: Cloud is easily the most interesting and complex character ever presented in a game.
The game utilizes many different styles, depending on the event and the location. When wandering around cities, you play from an Alone in the Dark-style perspective, where different angles are used in different areas. When in the world map, you see everything from a birds-eye overhead view. In both cases, your party (made up of three of the available characters) is represented by a single character, usually Cloud. Combat is a hybrid of real-time and turn-based. It takes place in real time, but it takes a certain amount of time for your characters to perform moves. It's sort of a best-of-both-worlds scenario, where you must act quickly, but it's not a purely response-time-based situation.
The magic system is so complicated as to defy simple explanation. Your characters can be equipped with Materia, and different types of Materia have different properties. Some will allow you to heal characters during combat, others will summon deities to combat your opponents, and others will cast spells or add attributes to your characters. Materia can be coupled with other Materia to change its properties, and Materia gains experience along with your characters, allowing for more powerful spells, extended effects, or multiple castings during a single encounter. Understanding the way Materia works is one of the keys to playing the game, and it's a complex yet elegant system.
Aesthetically, the PC version of Final Fantasy VII exceeds the PlayStation version in one area: graphics. Support for 3D accelerators makes the characters look much more crisp and detailed than the console version. Combat sequences benefit the most. Quite simply, combat scenes in the PC version look incredible. Unfortunately, everything else is inferior. The music is MIDI, so the quality is completely dependent on the MIDI playback ability of your sound card. With the most common contemporary sound cards, this isn't good. As a result, the epic score of the game is reduced to something that sounds like the background music on a poorly designed Final Fantasy web page.
Not all of the graphics are superior: The rendered cutscenes, which were breathtaking on the PlayStation, are AVI files in the PC version - low-resolution, washed-out AVI files. The menu-driven interface, a necessity for the PlayStation controller, is presented here intact. No hotkeys, nothing. To play without a gamepad, you must use the number pad on the keyboard, which isn't a pleasant option. You can reallocate keys, but the options menu makes it difficult to understand exactly what function the different keys serve. If you plan on playing Final Fantasy VII on the PC, a gamepad is almost essential.
Of course, there are some problems that exist simply because of the nature of console RPGs. Many of these discrepancies will seem foreign to those who have never experienced them: the inability to save at any point when in certain locations, the random combat encounters that occur with no warning, and the strange moments in combat when huge monsters firing huge weapons do little damage, while your characters do twice as much damage with a single punch. And none of these compares to the adjustment many will have to make to accustom themselves to the fact that these cute little big-eyed characters are swearing, killing, and pondering the nature of their existence. But these are caveats, not criticisms.
The PC version of Final Fantasy VII could have been, and perhaps should have been, better than its PlayStation counterpart. But it isn't. The story is amazing, and the combat is fun, making it a good choice for open-minded computer role-playing fans or adventure game fans who don't mind a little action in their games. Perhaps it's unfair to criticize Final Fantasy VII for being merely great, but it's hard not to think a version tailored specifically for the PC could have been amazing.