Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Final Fantasy VII (PSX)

Super Adventures at Christmas 2012 - Game 1:

Last Christmas I spent a week playing through every Christmassy game I could find, and it turns out that they're generally ultra obscure and a bit crap (huge shock). So this year I've decided to do the opposite, and play some of the most well known and highly rated video games ever made, games that people may actually give a shit about. For the next seven days there'll be no obscure Amiga exclusives, no movie adaptations, no ZX Spectrum screenshots, and definitely no Christmas games.

Final Fantasy 7 title screen playstation
There seemed to be a large Final Fantasy VII sized hole in the site, so I thought I'd get I'd get that sorted out now, rather than put it off any longer. Yeah I know that there's is actually no possible way to say anything new about this game, as the internet is saturated with every fact and opinion in every possible way you can phrase them, but I've never let that stop me before.

I have actually played this already, but fortunately I'm blessed with a terrible memory so it should be as if I'm seeing it all for the first time.

After the classic Final Fantasy prelude (youtube link), the game goes into a CGI video showing Aeris the flower girl staring into some kind of pipe or drain, then walking out into a city street. Actually to be precise the video starts with about 40 seconds of the camera panning across stars, as if it was daring me to find out if the intro's skippable.

In case you're wondering, no you can't skip it. -50 points!

Final Fantasy 7 opening cutscene Midgar
Bored of following Aeris around, the camera continues pulling back to reveal the entire city of Midgar, looking like a steampunk version of the Imperial City in Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.

Pre-rendered CGI intros were nothing new in 1997; they'd been popping up for a few years by this point, even in non-CD games. But CGI of this quality and scale was beyond anything you'd expect to see in a video game. Of course they later found a way to recreate the entire thing in real time with modern tech (youtube link), but it's still bloody impressive work.

Oh, and this music would shame most other game soundtracks even today.

And then, showing off like... a special forces soldier doing a handstand to climb off a train, Square goes and puts their realtime characters on top of the pre-rendered footage while the camera's moving. Well okay not at this exact moment, as it had transitioned to a still background by this point, but it was doing it a second ago. I still think it's really clever.

After getting control of my spiky blonde player character, I was allowed to walk around just long enough to grab a potion and learn that the game doesn't support analogue sticks, before getting dragged away into a random battle by a swirly screen transition.

On the battle screen characters suddenly become much more detailed, and the world turns into textured polygons instead of pre-rendered CGI, allowing the camera to swoop around the action dramatically. None of the characters seem to notice or care much though.

Well if you're still reading this I'm going to assume that there's at least a possibility you're not familiar with Final Fantasy VII's combat, so here's how it works. My characters each have a separate Time bar which fills up a little every second. When character's bar has filled up he gets to take a turn and this 'Attack, Magic, Item' box appears to let me choose a single action for the guy to perform. After he makes his move, the Time bar is reset and the enemies get their go, if they're fast enough. At this point in the game though strategy is optional, so I won this fight by just hitting 'Attack' each turn until the enemies exploded.

Final Fantasy III/Final Fantasy VI (SNES)
FFVII came out about three years after the previous game in the franchise, and though the gameplay is very similar, there's a massive difference in the graphics. It's debatable which looks better today, as FFVII looks primitive even compared to later PSX games while FFVI has damn good graphics for a SNES title, but it's not hard to tell why it was a blockbuster hit in its time, eventually selling three times as many copies as its predecessor and popularising the Japanese RPG style in the West.

In fact in Europe it sold over a thousand billion billion times as many copies as every other FF game released here at the time combined, mostly because this was actually the first Final Fantasy game we ever got in my corner of the world.

Final Fantasy VII menu status screen
After my first victory, I was straight away awarded my first level up, boosting my hero up to level 7. Though as is traditional for Japanese RPGs, his stats were boosted automatically, making him slightly better at everything instead of giving me a choice of how I want to develop him.

Oh, and the enemies seem to drop potions occasionally, so I'm no immediate danger of running out of health.

Final Fantasy VII Barret The planet's dyin' Cloud!
A few corridors later the plot is soon revealed. My little purple paintbrush-hand'd protagonist (who I decided to name "Cloud" because I'm crazy like that) has been beating up (killing?) guards in the street because he's working for a group of eco-terrorists in the process of blowing up a power station.

Well they're not actually trying to terrorise people, they're here to save the world. You see, these Mako reactors are actually sapping the lifeforce of the Planet, and this is obviously bad news for anyone living on the Planet as it's going to eventually kill it dead. You know, I think this might be a metaphor for something...


13 MINUTES INTO THE GAME.


You know, I'm not sure we're sneaking in through an alternate route here. I think this pipe may actually be the proper way to get to the lowest levels of the reactor. This place is just really badly designed.

Hey, there's a save point down there! Annoyingly it pops up with a message saying "Access the Menu and select [SAVE] to save your game", instead of just asking me if I wanted to save and bringing up a save menu if I said yes. Makes absolutely no sense to me.

Awesome, I've finally reached the heart of the reactor and I've also found a 'Restore' Materia! These spheres of Materia can be slotted into weapons and armour to give the user new abilities, so they're handy to have. Though I can't actually figure out how to equip it yet, so I'm just going to blow this place up and leave.


BUT THEN!


Oh awesome, it's a bloody huge robot scorpion boss and it's kicking the shit out of me! That Restore Materia would have been nice to have right about now.

This battle requires a bit more strategy than just hammering the attack button, as the scorpion immediately counter-attacks if I hit it when its tail is up. At least the game was actually nice enough to tell me this, instead of expecting me to notice. Unfortunately I'd actually selected attack with both characters just before the message came up, so I'm about to get two counter-attacks in the face.


ONE DRAMATIC ESCAPE LATER.


Whoa, how much explosive did Barret bring with him? At least two of those wedges are going to get showered with bits of Mako reactor. I suppose you can't always save a planet without breaking a few cities, but that seems like overkill.

After leaving the reactor I found myself on the same street from the intro, now covered in debris and upturned cars. Aeris doesn't seem that bothered about it though.

I tell her nothing happened, buy a flower with the money I beat out of those guards earlier, then wander off down the street searching for the path back home.


MORE TEDIOUS/DRAMATIC ESCAPING LATER.


But after catching up with the others I finally get stuck. I just don't know what the game wants me to do on this screen. Barret tells me to sit down and shut up, so I tried that, but Cloud just won't sit down. Then I tried talking to everyone, and nothing happened. Then I tried walking further down the train, but nope.

Turned out in the end that I hadn't talked to the woman on the far right yet. I'd tried walking over there earlier and got pushed back by someone standing off screen, but there is just enough of a gap between the guy in the red hat and the edge of the screen to squeeze in there without triggering the push back.

Wow, I honestly didn't think the game would actually acknowledge the logical consequences of what Barret's group just did, but there you go. Not only did they kill a fair number of guards on the way in, our heroes are also directly responsible for the deaths of innocent people caught in the explosion.

Plenty more reactors left to blow up though!

Back in HQ, after a long cutscene, followed by a long flashback, followed by a long cutscene, Cloud's old friend Tifa decides to join up with the team as they head out to blow up the next reactor, leaving Barret's FOUR YEAR OLD DAUGHTER to run the bar in their absence.

Holy shit, these are terrible people! Likeable, occasionally interesting, terrible people.

I mean I get it, if they don't blow up the reactors then they're all dead either way when the Planet dies, but c'mon guys, at least get someone to look after the kid when you're out.

Well I'm done with the first 'dungeon' now, so now I have to decide how much longer I need to play to get a good idea of what the game is like. I suppose I should at least keep going until I get to the world map. Hopefully that won't take too long.

Alright, before I head off to catch my train I should get rid of some of this cash that's weighing me down.

The shop screen is mostly unchanged from Final Fantasy VI, and is exactly as complicated as it needs to be to get the job done. I can instantly see what each item does, and if it's improvement over what my characters already have equipped. It's not the most aesthetically pleasing interface ever seen in an RPG, but it absolutely gets the job done.

Oh now it lets me attach Materia to my gear. Each character can equip a weapon, a piece of armour, and an accessory, and I can slot Materia into the first two. Materia alters a character's stats and gives abilities (in this case fire magic), so it's massively important. Better gear has more slots, and levelled up Materia has more abilities. And the best thing about it is that the Materia can be taken out at any time, it's not permanently attached.

Personally I think this is one of the best magic/skill systems in any of the Final Fantasy games, and it definitely beats the dodgy Junction system it was replaced with in Final Fantasy VIII.

Damn, now Cloud's teaching kids how to set each other on fire with magic attacks! Actually this is a pretty decent tutorial, and I'm awarding the game bonus points for both including it, and making it entirely optional.

Okay enough preparation, time to go blow up a reactor and save the world.


45 MINUTES OF ESCALATING DISASTER LATER.


Well, stuff happened and now I've fallen through a church roof. Fortunately I landed on a small patch of flowers, so I'm able to just walk it off with barely a scratch.

Also by incredibly unlikely coincidence I've bumped into Aeris the flower girl again! First I blew up the street she sold flowers on, now I've smashed up her church and crushed her merchandise. She takes it pretty well though, and even offers to escort me back home.

On the way back Cloud and Aeris are getting to know each other better, when they're interrupted by Tifa riding around town in a carriage pulled by a giant yellow chicken. When Barret's team screws up a sabotage mission, they screw up in style.

I suppose we'd better go rescue her or whatever then.

Well this can't be good. It doesn't seem that I can get in through the front door, so I'll need to find an alternative route.

This place is full of shops, though nothing here is getting me any closer to saving Tifa. I bought some new gear and found a pharmacy voucher, but the closest I've come to finding a quest here is some guy desperately waiting for someone else to finish in the toilet.

Honestly, I'm a bit stuck.


LATER.


I got sick of wandering around the shops trying to figure out what the game wants me to do, so I'm going to go backtracking back to the church, to see if there's anything I overlooked along the way.

I'm assuming this wreckage has nothing to do with me, though it's hard to be sure, I tend to blow a lot of shit up. Either way I hope I never meet the thing that hand came from.

Final Fantasy 7 Cloud Aeris Hell House battle
And then I got into a random battle with a nuclear equipped enemy house. He's not even a boss, he's just a normal average enemy, wandering the streets and picking off unwary pedestrians. The average person living in down here in the slums has to fight off two of these just walking down to the shops. Then two more on the way back.

I gotta award FFVII 100 points for putting more imagination and creativity into its enemy designs than a lot of RPGs have in their entire game. Sure they make absolutely no sense, but somehow it works.


EVEN LATER.


Well I went back to town and solved the toilet crisis at least. My reward: "Sexy Cologne". I'm not entirely sure how this is supposed to help me get Tifa back.


EVEN LATER STILL.


Eventually I found the one guy I hadn't talked to yet and managed to finally start off the quest to save Tifa from the sinister Don Corneo. He's only letting women inside his mansion though, so Cloud needs a cunning disguise. Because fighting our way in would be ridiculous.

Yeah I know that cross-dressing usually isn't the best solution to a crisis, but in Cloud's case it may just work. The guy's so androgynous looking that Square Enix were able to stick a wig on him and recast him as Lightning in Final Fantasy XIII.

Well, okay maybe not.

Anyway all I have to do is beat this group of boxers in a squats minigame, and I've earned myself the first part of my outfit.


LOTS OF TEDIOUS WALKING AROUND TOWN LATER.
 

Okay, that's just disturbing. Cloud started the day off living the care-free life of a mercenary eco-warrior, blowing shit up and fighting The Man. Then a few hours later he's a fugitive cross-dressing prostitute trapped in a room full of leering men chasing him around in a zombie-like trance. 

Looks like I'm going to have to fight my way out! So really I should have been able to skip all that bullshit in town and just walked right in from the start.

It turned out that Tifa deliberately got herself caught by Don Corneo because "there was this weird man" and when Barret squeezed him for information "the Don's name popped up". So that all makes total sense then.

Anyway the Don reveals that the Shinra corporation, who run the city, are a little annoyed that people keep blowing up their Mako reactors, so they've decided to put an end to Barret's entire group. But it seems they don't know exactly where they operate from, so they're going to blow up a support pillar and drop an entire slice of the city onto his sector of the slums if we don't make it back in time to stop them.


40 MINUTES LATER.


We didn't manage to stop them! Congratulations Shinra agent Reno, you just got the biggest kill count in the game so far, possibly killing off around 1/8th the entire population of the city by dropping 1/16th of them onto another 1/16th. And the game didn't even let me kill him afterwards! Oh plus the Shinra have kidnapped Aeris.

And by the way, guess which large bearded eco-warrior with a gatling gun for an arm didn't think to get his daughter out of the way before the city plate flattened Tifa's bar. He's lucky Aeris had the sense to run off and save her, which is in fact how she got captured by Shinra.

So now I guess now we have to go break into the giant Shinra building to go rescue Aeris. Eventually.


AN HOUR OF TALKING TO PEOPLE TO GET THE PLOT MOVING AGAIN LATER.


It seems that there are two ways into the Shinra building. Tifa suggests that sneaking in through the staircase in the back is a better idea than just breaking in through the front door. If you're ever playing this yourself and you get to this point DO NOT LISTEN TO HER. I don't know what you find if you choose to go in through the front entrance, but it's got to be better than six minutes of stairs.

No battles, just stairs.

118 flights of stairs.

At least I've got to be close to reaching the overworld now.

Then after I finally get out of the endless staircase, my reward is a bloody minigame. First I have to sneak past these enemies in the second they turn away, then I have to repeat it with Barret, then I have to repeat it with Tifa... then I have to do it all over again with the second set of enemies!

The penalty for getting caught is a battle, then I get kicked back to the starting door and have to do it all over again. And it's really annoying! Come on Cloud, have you learned nothing from all that cross-dressing business at Don's mansion and those endless stairs? Quit trying to be sneaky and just fight them all.

See, after all that effort sneaking past those four crappy enemies, I go up to the next floor and end up fighting random encounters! The stealth was all pointless.

Incidentally these enemies are awesome. I'm fighting no-entry signs with machine guns! You couldn't pull this off in many games but FFVII has just the right tone to make things like this work.

And now I'm back to walking around and talking to everyone, trying to find the one NPC with the card I need for the next floor. Honestly I think the game relies way too much on this; making me try to guess what it wants me to do, rather than giving me a problem and letting solve it my own way.


SOON, IN THE LABS.


I'm with Barret, the plot's getting too convoluted and weird. Or maybe I'm just grumpy because I want to be out on the overworld, not stuck in this miserable city getting into hijinks. Still, at least now we've found Aeris, so we can finally get out of the Shinra building and then leave Midgar forever!


OVER ONE HOUR AND FOUR BOSS BATTLES LATER.


Cool, another CGI cutscene as Cloud's team finally escapes the bloody Shinra building (watch it on youtube). To be honest it looks like they animated it using stop motion with action figures. Especially Barret with his plastic muscles. Not that I've got anything against stop motion animation, I'm just saying they've got a way left to go before they manage the lifelike fludity they achieved two years later in cutscenes like Final Fantasy VIII's amazing ballroom dance (watch it on youtube). I'm guessing the secret ingredient was motion capture.

But this means I'm finally out of the Shinra building! I'm done with it.

Nope, surprise Road Rash minigame! I've got to admit, they put in a lot of effort for something most players are only likely to see once, though I didn't find it much fun to play. Well okay graphically it's no Gran Turismo, but then that game didn't come with a 60 hour RPG built in, so I think you can cut Square a break here.


EVENTUALLY.


It's been 6 hours and 24 minutes since I did a handstand on that train at the start, and I've finally reached daylight! I've made it to the Final Fantasy VII world map and I can finally quit. Though now that I'm out I actually kinda want to keep playing. Look at all that scenery spread out before me, all those dots on the map I could go to. Also ol' paintbrush hands is starting to look like a Final Fantasy VI sprite at this distance. I wonder if that's what they were originally going for.

And then at the next town I slammed right into another unbearably long cutscene and turned it off.


In my opinion Final Fantasy VII is a very likeable game, and still very playable. Graphically it may look a bit ass these days, but the art design and music is fantastic, and the interface is slick and intuitive. But damn the game annoyed me at times. Every now and again the game will come to a crashing halt while I have to go around talking to everyone in the area or collect items. It's like playing a Monkey Island style adventure game, except without the puzzles, or clever dialogue trees, or anything interesting. Just gotta go around and talk to everyone until I stumble across the trigger for the next part of the plot. Oh and then there's the endless bloody cutscenes as well.

Plus I thought the minigames sucked too, though I'm sure I'm in the minority there. Anyway, all the classic Final Fantasy style dungeon crawling and combat at its heart works just fine for what it is, so the game gets a shiny gold star for keeping my interest.

Do you have an opinion on Final Fantasy VII, or all those words I just typed about it? Comments are always welcome and are in fact encouraged.

7 comments:

  1. After finding a black label copy of this at a charity shop a week or so ago, I started playing through it again for the first time in... a while. Oddly, so have more than a couple of my pals, who are all from completely different social circles, and none of whom I'd mentioned my own replaying of to previous to them announcing it. Perhaps there's some sort of bizarre astral alignment that's causing us all to spend time with this gem once again.

    The mini-games thing is probably the single biggest thing that's been standing out to me like a sore thumb. I remember loving them as a youth, but taken with a more critical eye today... it kind of feels like Square made a bunch of internal tech demos, and then decided to somehow work most (if not all) of them into their next Final Fantasy game in order to not make those efforts go to waste. They're playable, sure, but enjoyable? I'm not so sure about that one.

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    1. I don't hate the minigames, but if they ever make a remake I wouldn't complain if they dropped the dolphin jumping.

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  2. Hi there! Looks like there is a large Final Fantasy VI sized hole in the site. Why not cover it?

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    1. There are a lot of large holes in the site, the thing is ALL holes. But I will add FF6 to the list.

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  3. FF7!! This is a hidden post XD
    Ray, you said that this has one of the best magic & skill systems in FF games (I agree!!)... which ones ya consider the best, including non FF games?

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    1. I think I remember FFIX having a nice system, where you could gain magic and skills from the equipment you find, buy and steal, and if you equipped it long enough you kept the abilities permanently. It meant that even low powered junk items had a point to them, if I was willing to put up with lower stats for a while. More interesting than just buying Fire 1 from the shop anyway.

      I also liked the idea of levelling up job classes to unlock new skills, then creating mutant hybrid characters in FFV and FF Tactics.

      Though I prefer games with recharging mana to be honest, so I can play around with all the spells I've been collecting without worrying about running out before the boss fight. I always feel a bit dumb dragging my black mage into a random battle, with unimaginable dark powers over nature and reality at their command, and then have them run up to dragons and smack them on the nose with their staff because I didn't want to spend MP.

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  4. FFIX is on my list XD

    Yeah, agree about this recharging mana!! Usually I save my magic only for bosses, and in the end of the game I realise that I have not seen 50% of my spells ò_ó
    A good game that I remember is Chrono Cross! Your mana is limited for the battle, so you are encouraged tho use as many skills/spells/summons as you can to win every random battle =D

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