Somehow, I managed to avoid Final Fantasy VII for the entirety of my gaming life. I didn't own a PlayStation console until I bought my Vita, and by the time I owned a computer capable of running the game, copies were very hard to come by.
That all changed this month. Square Enix is selling a new PC port from its online store, and the original PlayStation game will be arriving on Vita soon. At last, I got to experience what some say is the best RPG ever made. And even today, at 15 years of age, Final Fantasy VII is everything it's cracked up to be.
Yes, FFVII is old. The music is a big giveaway—the soundtrack covers a good variety of genres, from rock to jazz to classical, but it sounds like it's being performed on a cheap keyboard. And the graphics obviously date to the earlier days of 3D rendering. Many of the characters look and move like LEGO figurines.
But you stop noticing all of this about fifteen minutes into the game. As the experience draws you in, your realize that gaming has never gotten any better than this. Since 1997, plenty of titles have copied aspects of Final Fantasy VII, but none of them come anywhere near this perfect blend of artful storytelling, engaging RPG mechanics, and accessibility.
You play as Cloud, a mercenary who has been hired by an eco-terrorist group to help take out an energy reactor. The surrounding world is captivating—it's a blend of futuristic technology and grinding poverty, with an oppressive corporation-slash-government ruling the whole thing. You'll likely have some second thoughts about engaging in stealth attacks against your own government, of course—but Cloud doesn't, because all he cares about is getting paid. At least at first.
The Final Fantasy series has always struggled to strike a balance between linearity and open-endedness; just look at all the criticisms leveled at Final Fantasy XIII. But here Square Enix—actually, just plain "Square" back then—nailed it. FFVII certainly shepherds you through a story, but you never feel like you're running down an endless hallway, and you frequently have chances to take optional quests or explore. The occasional minigame or puzzle changes things up, too.
The gameplay mechanics are amazing as well. FFVII hits the sweet spot between being too simple and being too inaccessible—there are several systems that overlap, but they're all easy enough to learn in themselves. As in any RPG, you level up your characters by earning EXP, and you're free to buy new weapons and gear. There's also "Materia," a magical substance you can equip on characters to change their abilities. Interestingly, Materia has unique features depending on how it's combined; for example, if you equip "Restore" Materia and "All" Materia together, the character will gain the ability to cure your entire party with a single spell. Other Materia types enchant weapons and summon creatures.