A Final Fantasy Retrospective: Final Fantasy VII (PlayStation) – Part I

FOR THE FEW WHO HAVEN’T heard, spoilers ahead.

The story of the seventh Final Fantasy begins in 1994. Almost immediately after the release of Final Fantasy VI, Square commenced development on its follow-up, originally intended to be released on the SNES. After a number of setbacks, including most of the staff being shipped off to finish Chrono Trigger, it soon became clear that the ailing cartridges and their two dimensions of old could no longer withstand the sheer ambition of Hironobu Sakaguchi and company.

Fast forward to 1995, and the first glimpses of this shift in perspective were seen in the Final Fantasy SGI Demo, a short presentation utilising cutting-edge 3D technology. This short, five minute demonstration clocked in at over twenty megabytes. To put that into perspective, the entire ROM file of FFVI – everything in the game – is three megabytes. The soon-to-be-christened Nintendo 64 and its Game Pak cartridges, meanwhile, could hold an absolute maximum of 64 megabytes. For Sakaguchi and Yoshinori Kitase’s vision, it simply wasn’t enough. Nintendo was not enough.

Enter the Playstation and the compact disc. Sony’s juggernaut console was sweeping the Japanese market upon release in early 1995, and Square soon realised the system’s CD ROM storage eclipsed everything else on the market. So they shifted production to the Playstation in 1996 and enlisted the aid of 120 members of staff, the largest team ever assembled for a videogame at the time. All this effort culminated with Final Fantasy VII, released in 1997.

The seventh game in the series was a game of many firsts. It was the first game to be released exclusively for a console that wasn’t made by Nintendo. It was the first game to trim the party down from the traditional four members to a streamlined three. And, most crucially of all, it was the first game to make the jump from two dimensions to three. Which allowed for the use of fully-CG-rendered FMV cutscenes, expressive character models and pre-rendered backgrounds.

The transition is made boldly clear in the game’s opening. The scrolling camera pans from an inestimable number of stars to a young woman’s face. As she walks through the streets, carrying a flower basket, the camera slowly zooms out from the bustle and noise of the city until it settles on a lingering shot of Midgar, the technocratic nightmare, as the logo appears to the triumphant swells of Nobuo Uematsu’s ‘Opening’. The camera then pans down to a train arriving in a station, seamlessly blending into game-play graphics from an FMV prelude as a spiky-haired blonde dude leaps off the train and is thrown into battle.

While the core systems of the previous entries remain – Active Time Battle, menu-driven commands, the positions of enemies and player characters – the visuals have dramatically transformed. Gone are the days of rigid tile-sets and re-used assets; in their place come dynamic camera angles, shifting backdrops and fully rendered 3D models. The leap from 16-bit to 32-bit is staggering, and the detailed character animations, near impossible with sprite-based models, prove this beyond all remaining doubt.

The plot, too, has changed. Cloud is a mercenary hired by Barret and his AVALANCHE ‘freedom fighter’ group. Their goal: blow up the Mako Reactor, an energy refinery that is, quite literally, sucking the life out of the planet. Shinra, a megacorporation that monopolised Mako some time ago, operates these Reactors in order to propagate their control over the world. Barret’s objective is noble, but his means to the end cause the deaths of hundreds of innocent people. The game does nothing to hide the fact that the AVALANCHE crew are, by its very definition, terrorists.

VII’s opening is an encapsulation of everything to come. The plot, the themes and the combat, though constantly evolving through the rest of the game, are summarised succinctly within the first twenty minutes. All at once, it’s subversive, ambiguous and perfectly paced. The series has always been associated with blitzkrieg intros, but VII’s is one of the most thrilling examples of shock and awe in video-game history.

And that’s just how it starts. FFVII, appropriately, shackles its players to a narrative train that never stops rolling. Whether it’s the metropolitan dystopia of Midgar, the commune utopia of Cosmo Canyon, or the desolate crater at the northern edge of the world, the game is constantly reiterating and expanding upon its themes and the characters’ relation to them.

One of its most vital themes is humanity’s relationship to the planet and the conflict between nature and technology. Through its Mako Reactors, the Shinra Electric Company and its corporate executives are killing the planet faster than it can heal. To those of us now living in the shadow of climate change, it’s an eerily prescient treatise on humanity’s use and abuse of our natural resources.

Final Fantasy VII asks: Is the destruction of the planet worth our comfort? Are we too much? It’s a direct parallel to our own reliance on fossil fuels, made all the more impactful by the fact that Shinra is a monopolistic, world-encircling megacorporation, not some vaguely imperial nation of warmongers. Shinra is, in fact, an inspired recasting of that old RPG trope: Its executives abide in an imposing skyscraper, full of disgruntled secretaries and stressed-out interns, not some storm-cloud riding fantasy fortress.

That it towers over eight disparate sectors of slums, beneath “the rotting pizza”, is how the game informs us of the expansive gap between rich and poor. Even beyond Midgar, where Shinra’s influence is at is greatest, this gap persists. Junon is a tiny fishing town that struggles beneath the shadow of a colossal upper structure run by Shinra, who saw fit to staple a giant cannon to the side and call it a day. Corel, meanwhile, is a mining village devastated by Shinra’s paramilitary forces that also happens to lie beneath the Gold Saucer, an astonishing cavalcade of bombastic excess. It’s basically what would happen if you built Disney World on top of an Indian ghetto. Everything Shinra touches turns to dirt.

Part of the reason why FFVII engaged so well with its audience – why so many people attach superlatives to the eternally growing bandwagon of its reputation – is because its world feels familiar. A modern audience will inevitably find itself working harder to identify with the medieval kingdoms and magical crystals, but we live in a world of greedy executives and environmental decay and terrorism. The game reflects the real world and resonates with our own anxieties, both in 1997 and 2017.

But a world, no matter how compelling, needs characters to populate it. Of the nine playable party members, all but one (cough, Cait Sith) receive illustrative backstories peppered with layered development. Barret, the first black man in a Final Fantasy party, is a belligerent activist with a heart of gold and a machine gun grafted to his arm who fights to atone for his previous negligence. Tifa, Cloud’s childhood friend, is a premier martial artist who shares a tragic past with her old buddy.

Cid, the sixth of his name and second playable incarnation, is a chain-smoking should-have-been astronaut who verbally abuses women and commands the party to “shut up, sit down, and drink your GODDAMN TEA.” He’s a cantankerous bastard, a wordsmith to boot, and his brief spell as party leader midway through the second disc ends all too soon. It’s a difficult task to make a rampant misogynist so likeable but, somehow, Square managed it.

Even the optional characters have elaborate side-quests. Vincent, the Gothic pseudo-vampire who takes his grooming tips from Castlevania’s Alucard, plays a pivotal role in the JENOVA Project and renders himself comatose in a coffin for his shame. Yuffie, conversely – the hyperactive ninja wunderkind – attempts to steal the party’s materia in order to restore the glory of Wutai, a once-thriving city state that was conquered by Shinra in a war some years ago. Yuffie is a welcome relief amid the assembled misery of the other party members, and her persistent motion sickness is a source of amusement throughout.

But the cast is nothing without its lead. Unlike FFVI, in which an ensemble philosophy trumped the inclusion of a definitive main character, FFVII places the mantle on Cloud, a walking mass of complexes that came to define, for better or worse, the modern JRPG hero. Talking about Cloud is an article in itself, but suffice it to say that he is the embodiment of the game’s fixation on identity.

The game initially presents his weird ticks as a mystery, hinting that something is clearly wrong with him, but no one quite knows how to react or what to say about it. It’s an expansion of Terra’s existential angst from FFVI, manifested here as a broiling psychodrama in the pit of Cloud’s skull where memories explode out of his subconscious.

His explanation of his hometown Nibelheim’s destruction is riddled with holes, and only Tifa seems to know more. The realisation of just how insane Cloud is in Disc Two is deeply unsettling, underscored by Tifa’s confession that even she doesn’t really know who he is. He is also the only playable character without his own theme. The breaking and eventual remaking of Cloud is one of the narrative’s most brilliant devices, and it’s one of Kitase’s triumphs that he pulled it off with such aplomb.

Sephiroth is the cause of all this, of course. Discussing Sephiroth is a bit tricky, since he doesn’t actually appear in the game as much as you think he does. It might, therefore, be more beneficial to talk about Jenova instead. Kitase’s take on Lovecraftian cosmic horror, Jenova is a shapeshifting abomination from outer space that wiped out the nomadic Cetra tribe, a race of beings that could commune with the Planet, in a calamity two thousand years ago. Jenova is a cunning, nigh-immortal and remorseless killing machine that infects its victims with its cells and manipulates them to do its bidding.

Jenova is an inspired villain: an alien force of pure, unfathomable evil that cannot be reasoned with, cannot be bought and cannot, apparently, be defeated. It’s Chrono Trigger’s Lavos if Lavos could snap its quarry’s brains in half with memory-altering powers. Its name even reads as a bastardisation of the Tetragrammaton – Jehovah, or YAHWEH – with none of the benevolence. Jenova is terrifying in theory, but unfortunately she (if it is indeed a ‘she’) is gradually side-lined as the plot goes on, allowing her ‘son’ to take the spotlight.

Sephiroth, his name a reference to the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, is a bishōnen dream come true. His control over Cloud (and by extension the player) is the source of the game’s most discomforting moments, and the party falls into his traps wherever he lays them. He’s responsible for some of the series’ most enduring images, carries one of its most iconic weapons, looks cool as punch, and is generally slathered over to a cringing degree.

He is also severely lacking in motivation. He summons Meteor to wound the Planet in order to absorb the accumulated Lifestream and reach apotheosis, that much is clear, but why he’s doing this – what pushed him into this course of action – is either unexplained or made shambolically unclear. Initially, his goal is to wipe out humanity in warped vengeance for his ‘mother’, but this is before Cloud thwarts his plans by hurling him into a vat of lethal Mako. Five years spent in the Lifestream apparently changed his plans from genocide to exterminatus. Why? Is it actually Jenova pulling the strings the whole time? It’s simply too murky, prompting more questions than satisfactory answers.

The translation hardly helps matters. Notoriously botched from the beginning, the localisation team was under-staffed and overworked, resulting in a string of infamous grammatical errors (“this guy are sick”), bizarre idioms and critical mistranslations from the original Japanese. Entrusted to one man, Michael Baskett, the translation is frankly miraculous in how much it gets right, considering the hundreds of pages of dialogue, inventory screens and battle commands in need of localisation in the span of a few months. It’s so bungled, in fact, that a man spent five years trying to fix it.

One of the most controversial victims of the process is Aeris – or, canonically, Aerith – the last surviving Cetra. In subsequent interpretations, the character is often seen as a pious, demure, thoroughly typical JRPG doormat with nothing insightful or interesting to offer. In FFVII, however, she’s playful, impatient and, while somewhat aloof due to her connection with the Planet, does not allow that spirituality to dominate her character. She’s a lot of fun to have around and incredibly useful in battle, which makes her death that much more of a gut-punch.

Oh, you didn’t know?

To be continued on 31/07/17…

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