Reaching out to Kyle for some final thoughts on FFVII, he reiterated a frequent complaint of his (starting in FFVI and going into games to come) that the level of customization in FFVII ultimately eliminates what could have made the various characters unique, making them easily forgettable blank slates that aren’t required after you’ve customized three that work for you. As for the narrative, he remarked that “before I didn’t really care to think about the inconsistencies the plot had,” but now he couldn’t ignore them. Kyle also pointed out that a certain plot detail from Advent Children (and the short stories) also undermines FFVII’s plot and makes much of it pointless. Now, you might think sounds like a problem with Advent Children and not FFVII, but the thing he’s talking about is actually rooted in common sense and Advent Children did nothing worse than point out FFVII’s flaws in that regard. I’ll try to discuss the matter when we get into the film right after this.
Kyle didn’t go into any more detail than that (after all, we had been discussing the plot through and beyond our playthrough, and if I’ve done my job right, his impression is woven through the entire Journal), but I’m the one writing and so I think I’ll go into as many final thoughts as I want. This came out somewhat stream-of-consciousness, and sorry about that, but hopefully you can follow it.
To get started, I’ll repeat that the translation is horrible, but I think even the game’s biggest fans would agree with that. Still, it’s such a huge problem that I really am looking to play the game again with the recently created fan re-translation, Beacause, just to see how much it fixes! Bad translation aside, the humour is shallow, childish and frequently genuinely offensive. I could live without a lot of the writing.
On the matter of graphics and controls, like most games that were sold on technical prowess, FFVII is now aged beyond its innovation, leaving it visibly faulty, since it lacks the refinement of the games it inspired. I think that I now understand why people have been hoping for an HD version for years, because I’d gleefully take one over having to ever play the original busted version. Hell, I’d even take a fan remake at this point, even if it had to be chopped together in RPG Maker, just to experience the narrative and gameplay without the game’s janky execution, because it would at least avoid FFVII’s experimental but often foolish mistakes. An RPG Maker game would at least let me see what I’m pointing to when I try to cast spells, instead of giving me extreme close-ups of Barret’s head. It would probably give me water vehicles that go faster than 2 knots. It would avoid the major glitches (and one would hope it would avoid introducing its own). It might go so far as to not have so many damnable missable items and enemy skills, like a good remake that improves upon the original. Maybe it would have minor convenience upgrades, like a Bestiary, but I’m just dreaming at this point.
(FFVII is actually the only main-numbered FF game without a Bestiary at this point! The concept of an in-game master bestiary was introduced in FFVIII and was carried over to all subsequent remakes and sequels (excusing the MMOs, of course, and the action games). Since FFVII is the only game released prior to VIII that has never had a remake, it’s the only main, numbered game missing a bestiary! At the moment I write this it’s missing from FFXV as well, but it’s been suggested that it will appear in a later patch. Hell, even the FFIV Interlude has a Bestiary!)
But if you want me to try to analyze the narrative and gameplay away from these obvious faults… well first of all, you’re asking a lot. If a game narrative exists out there that’s truly separated from its translation, humour and presentation, I can’t imagine that it’s a genuinely complete narrative any longer. But gameplay should be fine, and I’ll give narration a shot, because how else could I possibly proceed?
As for gameplay, FFVII is basically the same as the SNES trilogy, progressing a similar degree of experimentation and refinement not unlike the gap between IV to V and from V to VI. In this case, FFVII stands out with its materia system and Limit Breaks, with additional credit to those elements of its magic system that are distinct from materia. If we were grading FFVII strictly on its customization options and Limit Breaks, I’d probably like its systems better than IV and TAY and maybe approximate to VI, but I’d still feel it had weaker gameplay than V.
Unfortunately, I can’t grade FFVII just on customization and Limit Breaks. Technical limitations created the need for a party of three instead of a party of four, and while I know that three becomes the standard from here on out, VII doesn’t honestly do enough to compensate in my mind. If you’re going to take a combat system designed for a party of four or five, barely change it, and then rip out one to two whole characters without adding enough features to compensate, I’m just going to look at the game a little more poorly, and do. The party size limitation even ends up hurting the narrative, since there are fewer characters around at any given time to comment on things and develop in the little, everyday ways that characters get outside of their personal arcs. What’s funny is that this particular narrative problem is entirely artificial: the game is perfectly happy to throw the entire party into the salad bowl whenever it needs to, and could have simply implied that they were all narratively present at all times, as RPGs have done since if not earlier. Sometimes developers overthink their “realistic” elements.
As far as the ATB games go, then, I still find VII better than IV (which is far and away my least favourite ATB game. Let’s be real: IV’s customization is nonexistent and some of IV’s gameplay mistakes, especially forcing party members out without warning, are comedically bad), but no longer consider it even with VI, and I’m not sure how it fares in comparison to TAY.
Shifting gear completely into narrative, the change-over to a techno-fantasy world from a generic European fantasy world was certainly daring at the time, but cultural osmosis had long ago taken away any surprise for me. One purpose of the Marathon Journals as critical entities is to grade the success of new developments, but since I knew this one was coming, there’s not much I can say. In fact, cultural osmosis has made it clear that techno-fantasy is Final Fantasy’s norm from here on out, so I don’t think I registered FFVII’s switch in setting as more than a curiosity.
Much of FFVII’s plot is, on closer observation, simply repeated from previous Final Fantasy games, FFV especially. I’ve already discussed most, but we can go even further: there’s apparently a cut line of dialogue implying that Sephiroth had 9 demons at his disposal, which sounds like they were going to go even further down the FFV route by recreating the Demons of the Rift? In any event, repeating old plots isn’t so awful in-and-of itself. After all, the SNES games did it all the time! I’d certainly have been more engaged with the FFVII’s narrative if it hadn’t been such a copycat, but the same is true of previous games. I find that in the end, I haven’t quite exhausted my patience for these recycled storylines and elements yet, and don’t think poorly of FFVII for using them. It could have had a better game if it hadn’t, sure, but I’m not going to dock it for keeping them. Hell, I think I stand these old stories for another game or two yet, which is good because I hear FFIX is pretty open about its referential plotline!
On the other hand… being aware of the fact that FFVII repeats so much, both narratively and mechanically, may have separated me from a lot of the wonder that fans seem to have for this game? If you’ve read my FFII review, you might remember how I contested the game’s reputation as a “black sheep,” saying that from Kyle and my chronological approach and our familiarity with very early tabletop and computer RPGs, FFII felt like a natural extension of the series that simply didn’t work rather than being a black sheep. Likewise, to me, FFVII feels in many ways like a natural extension of the previous eight Final Fantasy games, as well as other previous Squaresoft titles like SaGa, Mario RPG, Live a Live… It also fits in naturally with the general RPG scene of the day, especially products from Enix. A natural extension, but aside from the 3D graphics, not a revolutionary one in my eyes. It just may have happened to cross the line between where western fans weren’t paying attention to the genre and where western fans were? Now I don’t want to generalize, but a lot of FFVII’s biggest fans that I’ve heard from since clearing the game are happy to share the fact that FFVII was their first RPG. Note also that it’s the post-FFVII Final Fantasy fandom that dubbed FFII a “black sheep.” I’m starting to get the impression that youthful impressions have a lot to do about this game’s reputation as well as the reputations of previous games made immediately post-FFVII, like the English release of FFII.
I do a lot of looking into a game’s fandom after I clear the game, and since clearing FFVII, I’ve seen a few retrospectives and looks-back that give FFVII credit for things that it didn’t really do first or even particularly well for the era, or even outright saying that other games of the era had never certain things that they actually had! Sometimes, like I said in the previous paragraph, these things that “no other game had done” actually occurred within the Final Fantasy series itself! And these are looks-back, as in “criticism done by people who are now in their thirties, many of whom have worked in games for years, and should know better!” I don’t want to use this evident nostalgia to outright reject the criticism of others, but as I said repeatedly in my look at KH2, a first impression is a powerful thing, and there’s something to be said about proper historical context even if you’re like me and try to separate legacy from quality when trying to analyze both.
There was one piece of FFVII criticism that I read after playing the game that resonated with me very strongly. It didn’t come any review of the game or franchise, but a video by George Weidman of Super Bunnyhop, which took a look at Japanese gaming restaurants. You can see the sequence in question here, but I’ll describe it: Weidman and his friends are at Square Enix’s Artnia café in Tokyo (I can’t say for certain whether any of the people visible or heard in the video are Weidman himself, but he must be there somewhere). Having purchase a parfait themed after Aeris/Aerith, one of the diners decides to stab the parfait with butter knife. As you do. While this is happening, another diner monotones: “Oh no, it’s the most emotionally intense moment of my seven-year-old life.” People talk about nostalgia a lot, but it was definitely that monotone comment that really turned a lightbulb on in my head and made FFVII suddenly come into focus for me.
Moving on from nostalgia and gameplay, we’ll come to specific elements from the narrative. We have a cartoonishly evil company in the opening hours that I think was a pathetic writing job, but Rufus’ version of Shinra, a practical but still evil company, takes up more screen time and I feel more than balances out the original problems. On the flip side: I found and find Midgar to be more interesting as a setting than the rest of the world, but Midgar is forgotten for so long that in the end I almost forgot all about its positives! The Lifestream is an interesting and engaging concept heads and above the central conceits the previous Final Fantasy games (even if it doesn’t have that unique “mythic touch” of the first two FFL games that I keep harping about), but I find myself less-than-engaged with the space alien plot that takes over around the half-way point.
On the matter of villains, I think I’d have rated Sephiroth and Jenova fairly low as villains if it weren’t for the frankly unsubstantiated nature of previous Final Fantasy antagonists. How do I put this? Final Fantasy villains… aren’t…… very……… good. Or at least they haven’t been in the games we’ve covered so far. On a scale of all fantasy and sci-fi villains, Sephiroth and Jenova are basically average or poor, but on a field of their Final Fantasy competitors, they’re leagues ahead of Sir Not Appearing In This Game (IV), Satanist Courtier (II), I Didn’t Do Anything But Was Apparently The Villain All Along (LII), and, lest we forget… Tree (V).
That brings us to the question of protagonists / player characters. Unfortunately, like I said above, the party size of three means that Kyle and I didn’t feel much connection to the various characters. Their plots were okay, especially Yuffie’s and Tifa’s. I liked Barret’s relationship with Marlene and the short-lived members of AVALANCHE, and also his general-but-not-100% dedication to his larger cause. Unfortunately, none of that erases the fact that he’s also an “angry black man” stereotype. I was going to address Barret’s stereotypical portrayal, which honestly is everywhere, but never found a great highlight scene, but doesn’t that speak to the shallowness of his arc overall? Indeed, FFVII has great characters but really shallow arcs for nearly all of them. Great characters with little to do. Barret’s not the only one who got a belated stereotype spotlight: I also didn’t find a time to talk about Nanaki and Cosmo Canyon’s Native American/Ainu stereotypes. As you can see from the way that I had to list two cultures with a slash in the middle, I can’t even say for sure what culture Cosmo Canyon is even supposed to be a stereotype of, given the shallowness of his arc and the way Japanese media tends to conflate the two cultures. Again, I’m not the right person to talk about this.
Let’s continue with characters for a bit. One thing that nagged at me about FFVII was that FFVI made a big impact in every character’s lives with the onset of the World of Ruin, but the descent of Meteor in FFVII only seemed to impact Reeve, Cid and Nanaki? This is probably a consequence of the World of Ruin existing for god knows how long before the player enters the scene via Celes, but people have only been reacting to the Meteor for a few days by the time Reeve stages his jail break. Still, I was hoping for more. It would have been nice to see dramatic changes in Wutai after Meteor beings to fall, or maybe Corel. Why not some fair-sized side-quest with Elmyra and Marlene? And let’s not forget the fact that Vincent’s plot is abstract to the point of being incomplete, and I didn’t remotely understand what FFVII was trying to say about Lucrecia until I played Dirge of Cerberus after the fact. Is this really that important, you undead moper? The man with the eight-foot sword is trying to drink the Planet dry with a straw! I did like the part towards the end of the game where Cloud asked everyone to consider if they were really willing to death delve after Sephiroth at the end of the world, and him spending time with Tifa, but that was heads above the others and not necessarily thanks to its own quality. No other character-focused scenes particularly stand out to me to a similar degree? (Though hold that thought).
As for Aeris’ famous death… well, we’ve got some issues. Killing Aeris served Sephiroth a specific purpose, in attempting to stop her from summoning Holy. Unfortunately, after it was accomplished, I feel that Aeris’ death reflects more on Cloud and Cloud’s motivations than it does on her, and that starts to feel like the author’s real intent. Aeris seems to float through the game as a device for Cloud more than a character in her own right, something not exactly, but also not unlike, the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” trope of the 2000s. It’s like some root trope to the MPDG that you could define as “a character that exists to benefit another character, and not for themselves.” That makes Aeris’ death a fridging in my mind (a death that serves to motivate another character), even if it’s not the worst fridging I’ve ever seen, just like Aeris isn’t remotely the worst root-trope-to-MPDGs that I’ve ever seen. She’s a much better and indeed greater character than those stock traits might suggest, but that’s how she’s used! It’s another one of the problem I addressed above: FFVII’s characters are deep but their arcs are shallow. And fridgings aren’t necessarily a total evil the same as any trope, but I really feel like Aeris as a character was weakened by this blunt treatment from the script.
These two tropes, fridging and characters-that-narratively-exist-as-devices-for-others, always feel worse for me in games than in traditional media, because sometimes it doesn’t just means that the poor character existed only for the writer to bluntly motivate some other character, but because they exist for the writer to motivate the player. A fridge in a game is often a fridge directed at the player. And I find that so odd in FFVII because so many other characters are more independently motivated? Tifa actually manipulated Cloud to accomplish her own ends! She’s like some kind of selfish opposite! But Aeris seems to have been created only half half for herself and half for Cloud’s character arc and the player’s drive, and I can’t help but feel that weakens a characterization that was so close to independent.
Next, let’s talk about Cloud, his plot points with Sephiroth, and that line of disasters. Okay: first off. Zack. Zack is the first disaster, and I will add that to his list of nicknames. Since I came to this game from Crisis Core, I knew all of The First Disaster’s story ahead of time, and how Zack was the real SOLDIER 1st Class and Cloud was just a grunt. And frankly, I think it’s good that I did know this stuff ahead of time, because I don’t think it’s a very well handled plot twist. Anyone who read my Crisis Core Journal might remember me getting annoyed with the game when Zack went to dress Cloud up in a SOLDIER uniform, and it’s because I knew that Cloud was supposed to be a SOLDIER in FFVII and had realized just what bullshit they were trying to pull. The idea of Cloud mistaking himself for Zack because of a head injury, proximity and some clothes is so utterly, artificially contrived that the idea that Jenova somehow made it all better is so laughable that if I had been introduced to it via FFVII instead of Crisis Core’s more intimate scenes, I think I very well might have laughed my way out of the game. Judging by Kyle’s reactions, I think he already did, somewhere between here and 1997.
Next up in the list of Cloud plot points: Sephiroth controlling Cloud as one of his Jenova clones. I suppose it works well as a surprise. I hadn’t been spoiled about the mind control even after twenty years of cultural osmosis, so I got the full impact of the twist, which is more than I can say for Aerith’s world-shattering death.
But next we have to discuss something of a lot more real-world importance, namely: using a mentally ill person like Cloud, who suffers from PTSD and trauma-induced amnesia, as a plot device instead of as a person. It’s scum. It’s something writers do every day, and they have to stop. The trip to Cloud’s subconscious was certainly aesthetically appealing, but even that belongs to a concept that I’d rather see end in fiction. I feel that that scene and similar scenes detract from a serious medical issue by misunderstanding, reducing, sometimes even trivializing the severity of the actual problem in exchange for trite pop psychology and equally trite moral messages. And let’s not forget Cid’s abuse of Shera, the game’s generally poor treatment of fat people but especially Palmer, palling around with the mass murdering Turks like we’re some kind of buddies, and of course the many issues with Reeve.
Do I expect the FFVII Remake to be much better in these regards? With the Turks, quite possibly, either by making them less villainous, less friendly, or simply just as the villains should have been all along. Who knows? On the matter of Reeve/Cait Sith, I can imagine the remake being more detailed in areas where the original was sparse, like Marlene’s kidnapping, and so Reeve might actually be called to task for those details. Moreover, Cait Sith is easily the most hated character in the fandom and it’s not hard to imagine the remake being harsher to him than the original game was, maybe even harsh enough to make him face the consequences of his actions? You know, like… just connect the dots there a little, some basic fucking critical thinking? My issues around Cid might improve as well, although I don’t think the odds are good. Admittedly, my problem with Cid isn’t that he’s canonically abusive, it’s that he’s canonically abusive and the game expects me (and Shera!) to be okay with it and let it slide, which I will not do, but it’s not impossible for the remake’s characters to more openly condemn the shitlord. With Palmer, I don’t expect any changes.
And finally, do I expect the Remake to improve things when it comes to Cloud and mental illness? Not a chance: the games’ dangerously reductive pop psychology approach to Cloud’s condition is too central to the game’s narrative to modify in any acceptable way, since an acceptable portrayal of mental illness would never serve FFVII’s critical need for a plot device ex machinae to drive the entire artificial plot, which at this point less resembles a “plot” than it does an owl pellet full of bad ideas and mouse bones. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that FFVII’s central plot simply can’t be saved from its dangerously reductive pop psychology and use of mental illness as plot device to give the author free reign. It relies on both! I’ll level with you: I actually like FFVII enough that if I had the time, I’d happily mod it, tidy up some of the plot and features. I’d love to, and I’d love to play that tidied game! But there’s nothing I could do, and I don’t think there’s anything anyone else could do, to divorce FFVII from its ableism. The treatment of Cloud’s mental illness is both repulsive to me and integral to FFVII. FFVII’s ableism cannot be fixed while remaining recognizably FFVII.
That said, in a battle of assholes, I’d rather take FFVII’s manipulative, ignorant, but generally positive portrayal of Cloud as a mentally ill person over Persona 1’s slap-in-the-face ignorance any day, but god help me, I could and would rather do without ever seeing anything like this ever again in the entire Marathon. Like, I can’t tell you just how reticent Kyle and I are to pick up the Persona 2 games after the disaster of Persona 1, and I know that on my part at least, it’s not just a matter of gameplay. While writing the Persona and FFVII Journals, I actually had to have long pauses, wondering whether or not I should just… stop writing the Journal for them. This is because I don’t believe that a real-world harmful work deserves to be treated as a critically viable product, as though its real-world harms could be tossed aside. To me, the real-world harms stain the entire product. So why did I continue? In Persona 1’s case, it was because we were so close to the end that I could hammer out two shitty final blog posts and be done with it. But in FFVII’s case… I don’t know why I continued, and that should tell you how close FFVII was to the edge. FFVII got by on a whim, and that’s incredibly irresponsible of me both as a critic and a denizen of the real world, but here we are. If someone else feels it goes past the edge by an atom or a mile, I would have no objections to their treating the game like the wreck that it is.
Since I am, however uncomfortably, treating FFVII as critically viable in spite of its real-world harms and almost-harms, I’ll give my final conclusion on the product as a game and narrative: neutrality. And you know what? I’ve been seeing a handful of reviewers that critique in a similar style to me – namely, by addressing a game’s innovations and its quality as separate but equally important elements – coming to the same conclusion about FFVII’s quality in isolation from its historical importance: a sort of simple neutrality. FFVII’s innovations can’t be ignored, but we grade that separately. I think that so many years of infighting in the Final Fantasy fandom trying to decide if FFVII was the best game of all time or the worst game in the series might have skipped past the possibility that while Final Fantasy VII set the standard for all RPGs to come, once its innovations had dried up, Final Fantasy VII might simply be an average or slightly above average RPG of the standard it created! It once again comes back to Mario 64 and its wretched camera: the genre has done better after learning from its early, revolutionary failings. Super Mario 64 survives into to the modern day gaming scene in spite of its camera, mostly on the fact that its open-world treasure hunt approach has yet to be duplicated without notable changes (Ed. at least prior to Odyssey), but FFVII? FFVII started an avalanche of nigh-exact gameplay clones, and things have only gone up from there. Where can FFVII stand?
I’m not the first person to say that FFVII is average, and I know it’s not going to score me the big hit counts to say middling things about the world’s most famous RPG, but earning hits aren’t what the Marathon and its Journals are about. At its heart, the Marathon is about my friend and I playing games and having fun, and then I write about them to preserve the experience, including the part where we talk about how the game has affected us. And depending on my focus, FFVII affected me somewhere on a scale from “poorly” to… let’s say… “better than a dull afternoon, right?” In the end, I think I’ll join all those other people who say the game is average in looking at both the fans who think the game is the best thing ever and looking at people who think the game was wiped off Satan’s ass, and wonder where everyone else is coming from.