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 [when it was still the 90s] 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, which we’ll get to in more detail during our coverage of AC. 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, so I still feel like it applies, even though I’d rather hold off on it until later.
Kyle didn’t go into any more detail than that (after all, he and I 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 sometimes 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 again. 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 hopes 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.
(Ed. I originally wrote here that FFVII was one of the only Final Fantasy single-player games without a bestiary, but it turns out I was mislead by my barebones skim of the FFWiki in an effort to avoid spoilers. The entire PSX trilogy is actually missing bestiaries, even in the HD releases of FFVIII and IX, which are out at the time I make this edit. The concept was born in the PSX, Wonderswan and GBA remakes, carried on strong in that vein, but only reached new entries of the main series in FFXII.)
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 over FFVI that you’d expect after moving from 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 work better for than IV and TAY’s, and maybe approximate to VI’s, 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 for the change 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.
With those concerns on the table, 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 comically 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 about it. 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 of the carry-over plot elements, but there’s one that didn’t even make it to screen: 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 yet exhausted my patience for these recycled storylines and elements, 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 could stand these repeat 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, for Kyle and I, and considering our chronological approach to the series 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 that went in some esoteric direction (that didn’t work). Likewise, to me, FFVII feels in many ways like a natural extension of the previous eight Final Fantasy games (I-VI, FFA, FFMQ), as well as other previous Squaresoft titles like SaGa/FFL, 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.
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. Sometimes, these look-backs will give FFVII credit for doing something “no other game had done” that had actually debuted within the Final Fantasy series itself! C’mon, folks, it’s twenty years on! Now I don’t want to generalize, but a lot of these fans are happy to share the fact that FFVII was their first RPG, and so it makes sense that they might not recognize the game’s gradual improvements as being gradual, and see them as “revolutionary” instead. 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 that ended up being formalized post-FFVII, like the English release of FFII. If anything about this actually bothers me, it’s that some of these look-backs are being done by people who are now in their thirties, many of whom have worked in games for years, and should know better!
There was one piece of FFVII criticism that I watched 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. 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.
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 Corp, a practical but still evil company, takes up more screen time and is much better executed, which I feel more than balances out the original problems. On the flip side: I found and still find Midgar to be more interesting as a setting than the rest of the world, but Midgar is forgotten for such a long stretch of the game’s plot (basically just replaced by Shinra-in-the-abstract, which could be based anywhere at this point) that in the end I almost forgot all about its positives towards the end of the game! 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), Politician Who Becomes Satan Somehow Entirely Offscreen (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, and 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. It’s hard not to compare to FFVI, what with them being immediate development neighbours. FFVI gave basically everyone in the cast (except bonus characters) a few solid pre- and post-World of Ruin scenes to develop them, and usually with a dedicated gameplay segment (often a dungeon) to pad it out, and we’re talking about a much larger cast! FFVII isn’t so evenly balanced. Barret gets his scene in Corel/Corel Prison, but I wouldn’t count Mt. Corel as “his” dungeon, and he got nothing post-Meteorfall except his speech surrendering command. Cid takes command of the party for a while, and good for him, but his characterization is only explored in Rocket Town cutscenes, never gameplay. FFVII does give characterization to its bonus characters, but they’re no better off than everyone else! Yuffie ouright loses her sidequest if you put it off until Meteorfall, and I didn’t remotely understand what FFVII was trying to say about Vincent and 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! Stuff like that. Cait Sith didn’t get any gameplay except the brief periods he’s forced into teh party, and while I’ll jokingly say that I’m okay with that, maybe I wouldn’t hate him so damned much if they had given him some interactive screentime?
One thing that nagged at me about FFVII was that Meteorfall didn’t impact the characters as much as as I would have liked. Meteor in FFVII only seemed to impact Reeve, Cid and Nanaki? I don’t ask that they literally remake the world ala FFVI’s World of Ruin, but there should have been plot developments for everyone in the fact of such a world-wide event! 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, following up on Aeris’ and Dyne’s deaths? And let’s not forget the fact that Vincent’s plot is abstract to the point of being incomplete. 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. While fridgings aren’t necessarily a total evil, the same as any trope (although god knows it leans that way), 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, god-help-me-I-need-a-name-for-this, 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 standing on its own.
Next, let’s talk about Cloud, his plot points with Sephiroth, and that line of disasters. First off: Zack. Zack is the first disaster, and I will add that to his list of mostly-affectionate 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 the devs of both games 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. The trip to Cloud’s subconscious was certainly aesthetically appealing (giant, background Cloud aside), but its understanding of Cloud’s PTSD was still shot. 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 aesops. And let’s not forget Cid’s abuse of Shera, the game’s generally poor treatment of fat people but especially Palmer, treating 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 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 entirely artificial plot, which at this point less resembles a “core 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. They’re the core pillars of the plot! 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 could do, to divorce FFVII from its ableism. The treatment and magic cure 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 1 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, especially when they’re as huge as FFVII. 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 – that is, they try to address 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: simple neutrality. Not all of us, mind, but I feel there’s a trend in that direction. FFVII’s innovations are epochal, they can’t be ignored, but critics using a style similar to mine grade innovations and influence 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 (Sunshine’s FLUDD, Odyssey’s cap), but FFVII? FFVII started an avalanche of nigh-exact gameplay clones, and things have only gone up from there. Where can FFVII stand?
I know I’m not the first person to say that FFVII is average (infrequent as it may be), 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. This post – this critically dedicated post, like nothing I’ve done in the past and hope not to do frequently in the future – is the irregularity, if anything. 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.