Even now, years after the PSX age, I never struggle to find people willing and able to debate which of that generation’s Final Fantasy releases was the “best.” While I’ve always taken up the fight for Final Fantasy VIII, it is against a vast majority that I find myself fighting a well-armed Final Fantasy VII opponent. The reasons for the popularity of the game has been well documented over the years, but with Square Enix releasing yet another version of the role-playing classic for the Nintendo Switch, it’s time to once again go over what makes Final Fantasy VII what it is.
The main players in the story of Final Fantasy VII are set up in the iconic opening sequence of the game. We’re introduced to the crew of Avalanche, a rebel group opposing the greedy company of Shinra who have made the city of Midgar into a power-sucking dystopia. The city drains the planet’s energy to provide energy to its people, an idea which the members of Avalanche have no tolerance for. If you’ve never played the game, it’s definitely worth expereincing the rest of the story yourself, as the plot quickly expands beyond the walls of Midgar and the confines of a naturalist militia.
A common argument for the genius of Final Fantasy VII is the deeper elements of its story. At face value, the story is very much environmental, all about protecting the world from the greed of humanity. By the end of the story, if you read beyond the text on-screen, there are so many more messages to dig into. If you’re new to the game, I’d highly recommend you play for yourself first and see what you make of it. Once you’re done, there are plenty of in-depth articles online that investigate many other possible interpretations of the characters and major story beats.
Speaking of the characters, fresh players would do well to heed a quick warning: the relationship and attitudes of the main cast may be confusing at first, but stick with it and you’ll find the connections and personalities will shine through. Part of the charm of Final Fantasy VII is that we join the action mid-way and spend a lot of the first half of the game working out exactly how these characters came to be who they are now. I’ve rarely seen this done as effectively as Final Fantasy VII does, so while you may struggle to get a read on a character for several hours, stick with it and it’ll eventually click what kind of person they are.
Alright, we need to tackle this sometime, so let’s just quickly get it done now. This isn’t the long-awaited Final Fantasy VII Remake. We’re dealing with the original PSX graphics of the first ever 3D Final Fantasy game. While some of the edges have been buffed up and it’s a little easier to make out what each character is supposed to look like, we’re still talking about the blocky figures of 1997. If you struggle with retro looking games, you’ll either have to make an exception here to experience a JRPG classic or pass and hope the action-oriented FFVII Remake comes out within the next decade.
On the other hand, what needed no adjustment was the combat system. The Final Fantasy ATB system has never seen a poor implementation (in my opinion, at least), and we’ve got no exception here. I have always felt the gradually filling bar that allows for a “turn” to be a much more action-oriented version of a straightforward turn-based game, adding to the tension of combat and making decisions feel more urgent. That said, it’s still ultimately trading blows, so it’s nothing revolutionary.
As a strong complement to the combat itself, the character customisation is fantastic, second only to my beloved FFVIII. All of your team have access to just two primary actions: “Attack” and “Item”. They are defined beyond this by which Materia you equip to them, unlocking specific spells, wholly unique actions, and augmentations to both of these. It’s entirely up to you whether your main attacker has a back-up heal spell, or if your healer is able to help in combat by inflicting poison on an attack. It’s comparable to the popular Path of Exile game of recent years which appeals for the very same reason: complete control over the character’s abilities to suit your tactical preferences.
For all of the excellence of the game’s combat systems, it’s still absolutely necessary to acknowledge the issues the game has with speed. It’s a common symptom of the age, with cutscenes, combat and exploration all being extremely sluggish. You see it in cutscenes of characters walking across a giant platform or watching a vehicle park, every single Summon animation, even navigating across the continents takes eons to unfold. While the speed-toggle is a practical bandage to assist with this – and I appreciate the intention of keeping the experience genuine to the original – it’s a fault that may be too much for some.
The speed-toggle is one of a few wise and well-implemented quality of life features, accompanied by “no random encounters” and “powerful party.” The three of these are easy to toggle at all times, even during cutscenes or while loading. I played a large majority of the game with the speed toggle on, which feels largely in line with the speed of modern games. The other two are both useful for their own reasons. Back-tracking is made less agonising when you can stop being interrupted by random encounters, and (my gamer pride diminishing as I admit this) I needed to use the ‘powerful party’ buff to make it through a couple bosses promptly. All in all, these three toggles should allow gamers of any ability to enjoy the renowned story.
The Switch implementation seems to be on par with all modern releases, as I had no issues with crashing or performance hiccups. As usual, I’d recommend the Switch experience over others just for the sake of portability. Any classic JRPG has the risk of long periods between save points, being caught in a long battle or cutscenes playing at the worst time. Being able to put your home console to sleep, chuck it in your bag, and resume playing on the train to work is a Switch-specific luxury that I can’t get enough of.
I’ll lastly mention a minor complaint, which may be personal to me: the mini-games. There are a surprisingly large number of these available, and some of them are mandatory for progress. I feel these are out of place in the game, aren’t fun to play and control poorly at best. That said, I’ll acknowledge the large fan-base who love these games for what they are, even adoring spin-offs that are just these mini-games as standalone titles. Their love towards these mini-games is baffling to me, but then again not everyone appreciates the joy of Final Fantasy VIII’s Triple Triad, so each to their own.
You don’t really need me here to convince you to try playing Final Fantasy VII. Even if you’re not a long-time fan of the JRPG genre, you’ve likely already heard about the refined Final Fantasy combat system and the unforgettable story of this classic. With the added bonus of the modern quality of life features, there’s no real reason not to go ahead with this if you’re still on the fence. It’s arguably the best way to get you into the series short of Square Enix finally granting me my wishes and giving us all the splendour of Final Fantasy VIII on the Switch.