Regardless of one's personal opinion of Final Fantasy VII, there is simply no denying that the game is legendary and is one of the most important games of all time. It was a landmark RPG that brought Japanese role-playing games to new levels of cinematic gravity. However, many people argue that Final Fantasy VII doesn't deserve all the praise it gets and its legendary status is a case of coming out at exactly the right time. Many people have also argued that the game has aged poorly. However, after completing my most recent playthrough of the game, it is clear that Final Fantasy VII is still an excellent game, albeit one that has indeed been hit harder than other entries by the passage of years. Final Fantasy VII has its rough edges, but its powerful moments are still powerful and its pacing and storytelling is still very compelling. So while it indeed might have come out at the right time, quite a bit of credit must be attributed to what was and is a very high quality production.
Final Fantasy VII is the story of Cloud Strife, an ex-member of a military group called SOLDIER. At the beginning of the game, Cloud joins up with the resistance group AVALANCHE to blow up a "Mako reactor." These reactors are used by Shinra Inc. to suck the Mako energy out of the planet, which, as a consequence, is slowly killing it. Shinra Inc. also controls a slum city called Midgar, which is probably one of the most distinctive locations in an RPG. Shortly after the operation, Cloud meets a delicate flowergirl named Aeris, who is the last of a race called the "Ancients." Shrina Inc. is in pursuit of Aeris because the Ancients have a connection to a mysterious land of plenty called The Promised Land. Shinra wants to exploit The Promised Land for its own sinister purposes. Meanwhile, a super solider named Sephiroth---who shares a frightening mental bond and a bit of history with the hero Cloud---plots to destroy the planet once he finds out some disturbing revelations about his parentage and his origin. Eventually, Cloud and his friends take it upon themselves to stop him.
The tale is easily one of the most confusing, if not the most confusing, stories in the series. However, it is well presented for the most part. It is well paced, with exciting things happening on a constant basis and plenty of extremely powerful moments that will stick with you well after you're finished playing; some of them are shocking but without being cheap or gratuitous. The dialogue is a little more mixed however. Much of the dialogue, especially Cid and Barrett's, is lively and vibrant, but other characters, like the sex symbol Tifa, or the stoic hero Cloud, are not the most interesting conversationalists; the clunky translation also doesn't help matters. However, even in spite of this, Final Fantasy VII has a fairly solid cast of characters who are well designed from an aesthetic standpoint with the exception of the incredibly weird-looking Cait Sith (granted, Cait Sith is responsible for some of the most interesting plot twists). Overall, this cast is above average relative to other RPGs, but it definitely isn't one of the strongest casts in the series.
As I mentioned before, the game's pacing is excellent, with tons of interesting places to explore and an easily navigatable world map. Not to mention that no passage of the gameplay goes on longer than it needs to and the game always strives to keep your interest by serving up tons of exciting and interesting moments. However, there is one persistent annoyance with the structure of the game. Most Final Fantasy games have a few mini-games to break up the adventuring, but Final Fantasy VII throws them at you ad nauseum and the lion's share of them are not optional. One of these mini-games is excellent (this one involves you playing a war strategy metagame), two are okay (snowboarding and motorcycling), but the rest are pretty awful. The game has you doing everything from giving a young girl mouth to mouth CPR to setting up excavation points that are infuriatingly touchy. The mini-games don't break the game by any means, but they really begin to grate and you'll find yourself wondering why the developers insist on them when they are not very good.
The battle system in Final Fantasy VII is your standard ATB system. You give your characters commands through a menu system, but you have to wait for the ATB bar to fill up before you can attack, which gives the battles an exciting element of timing. Less conventional is the game's materia system, which remains one of the most elegant and intuitive customization systems in a JRPG. Basically, you can collect materia by purchasing it or discovering it as you explore the game's various environments. As in other Final Fantasy games, you equip weapons, armor and accessories to make your characters stronger, but the twist is that weapons and armor have materia slots. As you acquire stronger weapons, you get more slots in which to place materia. Materia is what gives you magic spells (offensive, defensive, and curative), summons, commands (such as steal or transform), or support abilities (such as block or counter). The game always provides the materia you need, provided you have enough money to purchase it or enough patience to seek it out. Any character can equip any materia and with the right materia, you can prevail in any encounter that the game throws at you. Not that you'll need that much assistance. Final Fantasy VII is an extremely easy game. You level up incredibly fast, regular enemies can be disposed of in mere seconds, the game's awesome-looking limit breaks are a bit too useful, and bosses are total pushovers with the exception of the last one. Still, the extremely easy difficulty didn't bother me whatsoever. Battles are quick and fun and the story is interesting and exciting enough that you might be secretly glad that you can mow down the bosses so easily.
Battling is always fun, but traversing the interesting-looking environments is sometimes a pain in the ass. Since the game does not support analog, character movement is stiff and since the environments---in typical Final Fantasy fashion---are rather confined, you'll often find your character moving in the opposite direction that you want him to. In fact, movement in general can be pretty clunky. Still, the game makes up for this by having tons of interesting places to explore. The dark slum-like Midgar is definitely the high point in terms of the game's environments, but there are plenty of atmospheric landmarks and locales in Final Fantasy VII's well-realized world.
Part of the reason the environments are so compelling to explore is because the artwork featured in the game's pre-rendered backgrounds is full of interesting details and oozes with atmosphere. Where the visual package becomes much more mixed is in the character models. To say that they look poor is putting it nicely. The character models are blocky and messy looking and they are quite jarring when you consider the beauty of some of the game's exotic backdrops. Character models fare much better in battle because their proportions are a lot more realistic, but compared to later games in the PS1 era, even the in-battle character models leave a lot to be desired; the enemy designs leave a lot to be desired as well. In spite of the questionable quality of the character models, the CGI cutscenes are absolutely stunning and although they don't transition quite as well as they do in Final Fantasy VIII, the transitions from gameplay to CGI are simply mindblowing for a game released in 1997. Furthermore, the developers make excellent use of the CGI, making sure to use it at exactly the right time to punctuate some of the story's most exciting moments. As a final note on the visuals, battles look excellent with tons of cinematic flair and some of the coolest attack animations that you'll see in a PS1 RPG.
The game's sound design is often top shelf, but like the visuals, it can be a bit mixed as well. Many of the game's songs have excellent melodies that will stay with you well after you are finished playing and the final boss theme is absolutely dripping with awesomeness, but the sound quality leaves a bit to be desired. It seems like a lot of the same instruments are used, making the music sound a bit samey in spots. And while there is no doubt that many of the compositions are stunning, they could benefit from rearrangement.
Final Fantasy VII is a game that is hard to review because its legendary hype must be taken into account. However, when viewed on its own merits, Final Fantasy VII shows its age, but is filled with so many powerful and exciting moments and has such a graceful and smart customization system that the game is just plain fun to play with the exception of the times when you have to suffer through an ill-advised mini-game. Many people will claim that Final Fantasy VII is simply another RPG boosted by hype, but Final Fantasy VII has more powerful moments than most RPGs can ever hope to have and that is why it remains an excellent RPG even despite its many wrinkles.