Monday, August 9, 2010

Very Old Video Game Review: Final Fantasy VII

In many ways, video games are the defining art form of the past thirty years.  More than any other medium they reflect the accelerating transformation of society in the wake of new technologies.  The introduction of new hardware has reshaped each generation of games and expanded creative possibilities; what once was state of the art can seem astonishingly primitive in as little as five years.  Games from the mid to late 1990s in particular have received a rough beating from Father Time.  Many classics from that era retain a strong following from the nostalgic set, but are so inaccessible to most younger gamers as to be completely unplayable.  While the greatest games will probably be remembered for years to come, the bulk of that generation of titles is likely to be confined to the bargain bin of history.

Final Fantasy VII, the first role-playing game from Square Soft on the Playstation console, will undoubtedly be one of the lucky few to remain notable in the future.  Aside from its own intrinsic qualities, it is among the most highly-regarded games in a series which has been popular since the late 80s, and its release in 1997 brought RPGs to their greatest level of prominence in the American market.  The memory of this game will survive on that legacy alone, long after its three discs have ceased spinning.

I didn't play through this game until around 2002 or so, a mere console generation after its release; even then it was firmly embedded in the canon.  By the time I picked it up once more in the spring of 2010 it was not only embedded, but positively entombed in a musty den of solemn reverence.  More than even most classic games, playing FF VII is like stepping back in time; to a very specific point in time, when the nature of games and what was expected of them was undergoing a sea change.

To be clear, I enjoy Final Fantasy VII for its own merits.  Unfortunately, any reasonable assessment of those merits must also make note of its flaws, which are legion, and have only grown less tolerable with age.  If a game like this were released today, it would probably be categorized as a train wreck: a few good ideas wrapped in a presentation which actively dares players to dismiss it.  Historical context is its saving grace, allowing its fine qualities to shine through without becoming obscured by painful anachronisms.

Ironically, the worst of the game's flaws is entangled in what was initially its greatest asset: its graphical presentation.  FF VII is a beautiful game, and also a very, very ugly one.  Charmingly illustrated pre-rendered backgrounds are routinely spoiled by shamefully primitive character models.  Well, not all of the models are so bad.  The ones used in the groundbreaking full motion video cut-scenes have held up pretty well; likewise, the battle models are acceptable given the time period.  But more often than not, the characters look blocky, ill-defined, and decidedly non-human.  Back when the better aspects of these graphics were state-of-the-art, it may have been easier to ignore these sub-standard models.  In the present, they are an enormous distraction from the action at hand, dated even by comparison with other games of the same era.

Even less excusable is the laughable English translation, which often appears to have been done by a mediocre Japanese high school student.  The text is rendered in a stilted English that's riddled with errors in spelling and grammar, and only rarely does it rise to the occasion in an inspired way.  To this day I am at a loss as to how a game with a thirty million dollar budget could be localized so carelessly.  The translators were probably working for peanuts, which would be appropriate as the end result may as well have been typed by monkeys.

I could go on and on about these and other flaws (especially the lack of analog control, which is particularly frustrating), but that would be boring, and if I've bored myself then there's no hope for anyone else.  After all, something must have drawn me back to FF VII, and it certainly wasn't masochism.  At least, I hope it wasn't. 

Previous games in the Final Fantasy series had set a high standard for narrative, mainly drawn from the traditions of role playing games like Dungeons and DragonsFF VII largely upended this tradition by taking most of its cues from cyberpunk anime, and while the resulting plot may not have been completely original, it is still one of the better premises to be used for a video game story.  In addition to its stylistic appeal, the story features mature themes like alienation and identity, as well as broader political messages about technology, environmentalism, and the role of large corporations in perpetuating social inequality.  Although these themes are blunted by the aforementioned translation problems, FF VII still manages to tell its story in an elegant way, using the advanced capabilities of the Playstation to improve on the methods used by Square in its earlier games.

The characters and their back stories are generally interesting, with the main villain, Sephiroth, exuding an uncommon aura of charisma that plays deeply into the game's mystique.  The only real face-palmer among the heroes is Barret, an arrogant Mr. T knock-off whose defining piece of character development seems to be his realization that he is not a very good leader, and would be better off following the direction of one of his lighter-skinned comrades.  I'm not saying the game plays him completely for a buffoon, but it's not always clear how seriously the player is supposed to take his character when he swings so frequently into stereotypes.  But even Barret has his charms, and the overall characterization of the cast is strong enough to make the tale enjoyable. 

No review of Final Fantasy VII would be complete without a gratuitous praise-fest for the musical score, composed by Nobuo Uematsu and presented to the world in glorious midi tones. More than graphics or text boxes, it's these melodies that charge the story with the emotion that grips fans thirteen years on.  The soundtrack is undeniably one of the most memorable in the history of games, incorporating a wide range of timbres and styles and making bold use of leitmotifs and variations on themes.  The score is so stunning, even a game as flawed as this one begins to take on the feeling of opera.  Subsequent games would match this aural triumph with more sophisticated visuals, but this soundtrack has never been improved on, and is the most enduring and beloved aspect of the entire game.

If one word can justify this game's claim to greatness, then that word is ambition: for all of its flaws, FF VII changed everything about video games.  It signaled the beginning of an era of increasing technical achievement on all fronts, implicitly making a public case for video games as a legitimate form of art in the new century. It proved that advances in technology could not only make games more superficially impressive: it could also expand the experience in ways that developers are still trying to pin down.  Taking the time to play through it once again, I was as inspired by what it promised for the future as I was charmed by nostalgia.

In 2005, Square released a tech demo, a hypothetical remake of FF VII's opening cinematic using the graphical power of the Playstation 3...

... and then quickly reminded fans that it was only a demo, and that there were no plans to remake the venerable classic using graphics that one could actually stand to look at.  Nevertheless, persistent rumors have whispered that just such a project has been in the works ever since, and sources at Square Enix have grown steadily less absolute in denying their veracity.  Should any of this come to fruition beyond the fevered dreams of writers on blogs and message boards, it would be fantastic news.  A game of such historic importance as Final Fantasy VII is as deserving of preservation and restoration as any other.  It's only fitting that the ambitions of 1997 should be fulfilled in the new millennium.

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