Final Fantasy VII – A Retrospective

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Back in the days of yore – actually around 14 years ago – several of my friends were talking about a PlayStation game called Final Fantasy 7. Most of the PSX games I had been interested in were things like Resident Evil, Demolition Derby, Ridge Racer, etc. I had played RPG games before, such as Fallout 2 and Diablo, but it wasn’t the everyday sort of game that I played (as brilliant as Fallout 2 was). Final Fantasy 7 was a very different sort of RPG however. For starters, it was the first PSX game I ever played that came on more than one disc; most of that was taken up with cut scenes but it was still pretty epic to 15-year old me.

On the recommendation of friends, I decided I’d get this game. After saving the money required, a quick trip to Electronics Boutique (yes, that’s how long ago it was) saw the game in my sweaty little hands. The first thing that struck me was the quality of the cut scenes. They were all prerendered CG and, though they are dated by today’s standards, they were utterly mind blowing at the time. When the game actually starts properly, you’re very quickly thrown into a battle. I actually almost lost the first battle in the game, because it took me a while to figure out what the hell to do!

For those not familiar with the JRPG style, a little background is in order. Most of the game takes place on the “field” – these are the locations that you explore, the towns/cities/dungeons/caverns that you visit. When you encounter an enemy, you’re taken to a separate scene – the “battle” screen – where you see your characters lined up on one side and the enemies you’re fighting on the other side. In the case of FF7, the battles are pseudo-turn-based. This means that you have to wait a certain period of time before you can carry out an action – attacking, using magic or an item, etc – and so do your enemies. You issue commands to your characters, they carry them out, while at the same time the enemy is doing the same. The first battle over, I was returned to the field to carry on. After some plot exposition, you gain full control of your characters. At which point you start getting random encounters – the second massive culture shock. I was used to being able to see my enemies on screen before I was thrown into a battle with them. Not so in FF7 (and many JRPGs). As you’re wandering around a location you encounter random battles – usually you do not see your attacker unless it’s a boss fight. This felt utterly gruelling: wandering round somewhere, never knowing when you’re going to run into a fight. It actually took me a good couple of hours of gameplay before the hooks really started to sink in. The gameplay mechanics were totally alien to me, but luckily the game had a compelling story. Once I started getting into the story a little more, there was no way I was ever going to put this game down – especially once they’d introduced Sephiroth, the main antagonist.

This was one of the few games I played that really hammered home the importance of having a good story line. The graphics, for the most part, were certainly not the best that the PSX could produce. The field screens were pre-rendered backgrounds with simplistic rendered characters. The battle screens were all completely rendered in realtime, and were rather more impressive, but you only ever saw those when someone was trying to kill you. Compared to the detail of the characters in Resident Evil, it felt like a step backwards. It’s a time-honoured cliché to say that graphics don’t matter if the story is engaging, but this was the first time I ever experienced it.

nThe first time I played the game, I was more interested in kicking Sephiroth’s ass back to the stone age – I played through the game in around 40-50 hours. While reading reviews and other material online, I started reading about parts of the game that I had completely missed. I was more interested in playing through the story than doing all possible side quests and really getting to grips with the game mechanics. So, I decided to play the game again from scratch. This time however, because I knew where the story was going, I could really explore the game fully and really get to grips with it. It took me a year or two to get the motivation to go through it all again – it is a very long game, after all – but boy did I miss a shedload of content.

I’m afraid I’m going to have to go all nerdy here – a common theme of this blog – and really get under the skin of this game. The basic RPG mechanics are that your character has a number of attributes, represented by numbers, that dictate how good they are at attacking, evading enemy attacks, using magic, accuracy of attacks, etc. To increase these skills you fight battles; battles give you “experience points” (hereafter referred to as EXP) and once you’ve gained enough EXP, your character goes up a level and their stats become more powerful. This system is employed by Final Fantasy 7. The magic system in Final Fantasy 7 was through a system called “materia”. In the game world, materia are condensed orbs of the “stuff of life” (lifestream) which contain knowledge of previous generations. When materia is equipped the wearer can use that knowledge in the form of offensive and defensive magical attacks/spells; some types of materia also allow you to call up powerful monsters to carry out an especially powerful attack against your enemies. rnrnIn order to use materia, each character’s weapons and armour have slots to which materia can be equipped. Usually, the more powerful the weapon/armour the more slots it has. Some of these slots can also be “linked”, meaning that you can combine two types of materia for added effects. Materia come in a number of different types:

  • Magic: These are the ones that allow you to use magical spells against your enemies (such as a blast of fire) or cast defensive/supportive spells on your party (such as enclosing them in a shield that absorbs attacks, or speeding them up so that their turns come around quicker).
  • Command: These give you extra commands for a character in battle, such as stealing money from an enemy or sensing an enemy’s stats
  • Summon: These allow you to call up monsters to perform powerful attacks on your behalf.
  • Support: These materia don’t give you any extra commands or spells, but grant benefits to individual characters or the whole party. For example the “enemy away” materia reduces the occurrence of random encounters and “Counter” will make your character counter-attack an enemy when they’re hit – without having to use that character’s turn.
  • Independent: These materia have no use on their own, but need to be linked to other materia (using the linked armour/weapon slots mentioned). These can have some really diverse effects, the most common of which being “All” and “Elemental”. Usually a magic spell is only directed at one enemy; however if magic materia is paired with an All materia, that magic spell can then be used against all enemies. Elemental adds the elemental power of a paired magic materia to your weapon or armour: the game has approx. 8 different “elements”, such as fire, water wind, etc – some enemies are sensitive to particular elements but may absorb others. For example if you pair an Elemental materia with a Fire materia and equip it to your weapon, every attack you make also deals Fire damage. If you used this Elemental combo against enemies sensitive to Fire damage, it means that more damage is inflicted; if the enemy absorbs Fire-based damage however, your attacks heal the enemy. If you were to put a linked elemental materia into your armour, it would protect you against that element; higher levels of magic & elemental materia will allow you to be healed by elemental attacks from enemies. Independent materia are some of the most powerful materia in the game – even to the point of making your party effectively invincible to most enemies and bosses.

Materia also gains “experience” and “grows” to become more powerful. At the end of each battle, as well as awarding EXP to characters, AP is also awarded. Whatever materia the characters are wearing will have that AP added to it and once the AP reaches a certain threshold, the materia grows and becomes more powerful. Some materia, notably Summon materia, also have a limit on the number of times it can be used in battle – as it becomes more powerful, you can use it more and more times in battle. Materia usually has five AP levels before it reaches it’s maximum power; at this point it will absorb no more AP and is called “mastered”. When a summon materia is mastered, you can use it as many times as you like in battle (well, as many times as you have Magic Points, but hey). It doesn’t stop there though; once a materia is mastered, a new copy of it is spawned. This new copy has no AP, so is the most basic form you can obtain. Some materia is so powerful that it is only possible to find one copy in the game world. With enough time and effort though, you can equip all your characters with the most powerful materia in the game by levelling it up.

Once you get your head around the tricks to the game, and find the combinations that work well, it’s very easy to become very good in battles. With enough time invested, it is very easy to create extremely powerful characters which have no problem in walking all over the bosses in the game – even the end-game bosses. In my first playthrough of the game, it took me a long time to get through the final area. I struggled like crazy to beat the end-game bosses – Sephiroth just does not want to freakin’ die! – and lost count of the number of times I died and had to start again. When I replayed the game and made a bit more effort with my characters, I walked all over the end-game bosses. Of course the game designers anticipated the fact that you could tank through the game with powerful characters, so put in optional bosses that were even more powerful and deadly than the bosses in the main story line, just for us punishment-gluttons.

As mentioned, the game even allows for combinations of materia which pretty much make you invincible. One of the later summon materia you can obtain is called Phoenix. It does a Fire-based attack against all enemies; it isn’t exactly the most powerful fire-based attack, but what it also does is revive all characters who have been killed. There is also a rare support materia – you only ever find one copy in the game – called Final Attack. When the character wearing it is killed, they automatically use whatever materia it is paired with. Pair Final Attack with Phoenix and you have a character that automatically revives themselves – and all other dead party members – when they are killed. At lower levels of the materias, this isn’t so useful – you can only use them a limited number of times each, so you might only get this chance once or twice in battle. Once they’re mastered however, you can use this combo as many times as you like: no matter how many times that character dies in battle, they’ll always revive automatically and bring all other dead party members back. Of course once you master these two materia, you get another two copies – master the copies and you can now have this materia combo on two characters. Of course if you master the two new copies you get a third copy of both. If you can master three copies of this materia, you can equip it to all party members – you now have a party full of characters that can never be killed. Some monsters will remove characters from battle without killing them, but they tend to be extremely rare and extremely powerful bosses – usually the optional bosses I mentioned earlier.

This is just a small example of the flexibility of the combat system in this game, and says nothing for all the optional quests and content available. As a testament to just how big this game is, one of my save games on the original PSX has over 180 hours logged against it.

If you’ve never played the game, and can spare some time to invest in it, I highly recommend picking up a copy and giving it a whirl.

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