Final Fantasy VII
Review By: Darth Phenom

I assume you're familiar with the concept of role-playing games. You know: four blokes with skin complaints sitting around a table until 4AM, imagining they're hairy warriors from the Wilderness of Death instead of overweight system analysts from Sandringham. Theirs is a world governed by weighty tomes containing list upon list of arcane rules about armour classes and hit points, a tragic melange of facial hair and desperate Tolkeinesque wish fulfillment. It isn't the sort of thing that gets covered in enthusiastic detail by any self-respecting style mag.

But now, prepare to banish those aforementioned stereotypes from your brain because Final Fantasy VII achieves the task of making role-playing 'cool'. This isn't just an illusion of cunning design-it really is a superb game. You just have to be prepared to accept a few peculiarities.

But of course PlayStation owners may already know this. Up until the phenomenon known as FFVII was released on PlayStation in 1997 you could have asked your average console gamer what he was doing with his game-playing time. He would regale his tails about insanely hammering buttons to do 68-hit combos in Tekken 2 or attempting to exploit every little extra secret in Crash Bandicoot. Final Fantasy VII brought RPGs into the spotlight (to newish gamers at least) and sold over 3.5 million copies in the first few months alone. So now Eidos (the bods of Tomb Raider fame) have brought this mega-selling epic onto the PC.

Now it's time to finally let Quake 2 and your mouse and keyboard pick up some dust because Final Fantasy VII is on PC and it's even better than it was on PlayStation. Unlike other PC RPGs, this game is not controlled by mouse or keyboard. Just like the PSX version, your gamepad is where it's at here. Thankfully, Japanese developers Squaresoft are unafraid to make a game look like a game. Glance at a screenshot of a western RPG and you'll see the same old tired devices. An Olde World Gothic typeface; menu screens which apparently written on ancient parchments; a cursor in the shape of a sword. They're all a bit too 'real ale', if you know what I mean.

The Japanese don't have much truck with all that. Instead, we're treated like adults and provided with a fresh, clean, quick, and intuitive interface all controlled from your gamepad. This all sounds like a very minor development but it isn't. It actually makes a huge difference. Rival developers should take note.

Before we go on, a quick word about cut-scenes. It can be very upsetting to find a game filled with lengthy and superfluous video sequences. We're supposed to be playing a game. If we wanted to simply sit back and witness events unfolding, we would just go and watch television. Well, this game is absolutely stuffed with non-interactive movie sequences. In fact, at a rough estimate, I'd say that 25 per-cent of the time you are doing little more than pushing a single button to advance to the next chunk of an ongoing rolling sequence. Now before you call up the developers and call them assholes, let me tell you it's actually not that bad. While this may sound terrible to your average Quake player, it really increases the plot of the game. True, the dialogue may not be too great but the actual plot could rival, if not surpass, many feature films. That actually isn't too hard with films today but the plot and all the cinematics in the game are excellent and actually add to the game, not detract from it.

Oh, and there's also no voice-acting in the game whatsoever. Anything the characters say is all text. That's right. No voices whatsoever. While this news may put off many of you I feel it barely faults the game at all. And what from what I've heard and seen most gamers don't like listening to characters speak anyway.

There's a world of difference between our Far-Eastern cousins and us. We like our RPGs traditional. Plenty of dimly lit dungeons, axe-wielding goblins, club-bearing ogres. We like nothing better than leaping straight into a tedious quest to recover a sacred dagger or a piece of rusty pipe. The story line barely seems to matter, we just like the idea of the whole thing. We're idiots, essentially. Well, most of us anyhow. The Japanese, at first glance, are altogether better adjusted. Their RPGs are perhaps the finest examples of the genre (though some may argue this) and are adept at keeping things exciting, by remembering to include two very important things: a compelling story (which I've said is incredible, above) and sackloads of amazing, eye-dazzling animated action.

The graphics are absolutely incredible as well. If you have a decent 3Dfx card that is. The in-game combat graphics are excellent. They look considerably more detailed than the PlayStation version. Even the most basic Lightning Bolt spell raises eyebrows the first time. The Summon spells (acquired later in the game) are phenomenal. However, the walking-around-exploring graphics aren't quite as incredible. The backgrounds are still as detailed as the finest paintings you could think of, but the actual characters may raise eyebrows-negatively. Short, deformed-looking, goofy characters make up most of the exploring parts. They aren't that bad but why didn't they try and create 'proper' human looking characters?

Now, more about the plot. I won't bore you recounting a load of background information. What I'd like to draw your attention to is the fact that the developers haven't once lost sight of the fact that they're first and foremost storytellers, here to keep you entertained. The audience must be held in a state of suspended disbelief for the entire duration of the narrative. They succeed in doing this by performing a complex "juggling act": exciting you with frequent bursts of activity, while allowing the overall course of events to unfold slowly, arousing your curiosity with unexpected twists in the tale en route. Character interaction and growth is also of paramount importance. Squaresoft has achieved this tremendously. All nine of your allies (even the two secret ones) have a vast background and each of them has their own personal agenda.

Finally there's the creation of a believable environment, with its own set of rules and logic-a world which slowly becomes familiar as the player's own. That's the basic formula for producing something that will drive the player on. It's also a design that FFVII slavishly adheres to. You'll never be able to put the thing down. Really. And here's the bad news: it's absolutely immense in scale. It's one of those games where you keep thinking, "I must be half-way through by now" for weeks on end, but you're not halfway through at all. You've probably only seen about 5% of it. So that could be a fault for some one with a very hectic schedule. But then if you're one of those people you probably don't own any games anyway and you wouldn't have the time to read this. So consider it a huge plus point. Believe me, this game is truly epic.

The game itself is an intensely playable hybrid of simple arcade-style action and traditional RPG geekery. Just like the most bearded Dungeons & Dragons clone, it's crammed with all manner of characters statistics. You mention it: vitality, dexterity - it's all here. But somehow the arcade elements make that seem all right. Nowhere is this peculiar mixture of arcade fun and dice-rolling spoddery more apparent than in the battle sequences, which crop up with increasing regularity as you progress through the game. Fighting takes the form of a half-real-time, half-turn-based orgy of violence, with some truly spectacular special effects thrown in for good measure. It takes a little getting used to but it works rather well.

All in all, Final Fantasy VII is a truly outstanding game. It does have its faults in the form of requiring you to read and not listen to the dialogue, there are out-of-proportion, goofy-looking characters and perhaps too many cut-scenes but it's still exceptionally brilliant. I highly recommend you buy this one. If you've never played a Japanese RPG before you may want to do that old 'try before you buy' idea. But that would be boring. C'mon, splash out on this one. You definitely won't regret it.

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