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Final Fantasy VII (NS) Review

Nearly 22 years ago Final Fantasy VII was released in North America to levels of previously unseen critical, and commercial success for a game of its genre. FFVII drove the blooming J-RPG genre into the mainstream turning the now nearly defunct genre (as far triple A titles go) into the most populated, and perhaps successful of all genres during the 32-64 bit era.

Final Fantasy had been a successful franchise before the 7th installment, the genre itself had been viable during the SNES, and Sega Genesis era. Titles like Chromo Trigger, and Final Fantasy VI had positioned Squaresoft as the premier J-RPG developer in the world.

The competition from other developers was healthy and fierce. Lunar 1 and 2 (Sega CD, PS1, Sat) were every bit as good as FFVI. Namco had started its (now long running) Tales Series, and Enix its Star Ocean Franchise.

The JRPG genre differed from others in two key areas. The cohesiveness of its game worlds, and the ability to tell long and complex stories featuring realistic interactions between characters by way of written dialog boxes.

The hardware of the times allowed JRPGs traditional over the top view point to present credible cities, and overworlds. It was a stark contrast from the side scrolling platformers of the era which failed to provide the same level of cohesiveness and ‘realism’ in their worlds.

Enter the Golden Era…

The PS1, Saturn and N64’s arrival marked the beginning of the 3-D era. Out of these systems the one most capable of truly smooth, and impressive full blown 3-D worlds was Nintendo’s behemoth.

In one of the most mind numbing, and erroneous hardware decisions ever made in the industry; Nintendo decided (mostly out of greed) to go with Cartridge as the media format for its N64. A mind numbing move indeed, as its competition had gone with the cheaper yet almost infinitely larger (in storage capacity) disc based media.

The mistake opened the door for Sony to begin its reign of dominance in the home console market and effectively ended Nintendo’s run as King…permanently.

It is not a secret that Square decision to take FFVII over to the PS1 was a huge driving force behind Sony’s success. Upon first glance, it is easy to see why Squaresoft made the move to PS1. Aside from a better financial deal with Sony, FFVII was just an impossibly large (in file size) game for a cartridge to hold.

FFVII would be released in 1997 on 3 discs, each CD had a 700MB capacity, while Nintendo’s largest cartridge (RE2) had a maximum capacity of 64 MB of storage. While the N64 was much better than Sony’s machine when it came to rendering 3-D worlds, the tech wasn’t yet sufficient to realize Square’s ambitions for FFVII’s look. Quite simply a place like Midgar would have been impossible to render in 3-D on the 90’s. Square decided that prerendered back grounds would have to be used, along with cinematic CG cut scenes in order to portray their vision of FFVII.

Prerendered backgrounds were rendered in SGI workstations, and then used on the PS1 as backgrounds for the polygonal characters to traverse in. The technique looked fantastic in that era, and saved precious hardware resources, but ate a big chunk of space thus making an N64 version of the game an impossibility.

While pre-rendered backgrounds are not true 3-D graphics, FFVII did feature a fully polygonal overworld map, and battle stages. The series would keep this look for the reminder of the PS1 gen. It should be stated that 99 per cent of the traditional RPGs of the era that were fully polygonal didn’t, in reality, play much different from the 2-D RPGs of the previous era, as the games kept the top 3⁄4 camera view with smaller buildings in relation to the character’s size in order to maintain the classic “RPG” look, and perhaps more importantly to over come the handicaps of the PS1-SATURN Hardware.

This was important because it made Square’s pre-rendered backgrounds for cities and dungeons an efficient and beautiful way to present its games while not looking out dated. This was specially true in 1997.

FFVII’s sold 9.72 million units becoming the 2nd best selling game for the system (behind Gran Truism). If  we include digital and PC sales, it has sold over 11 million units (2015), perhaps it is the best selling PS1 game of all time when that is considered.

The importance of these numbers cannot be undermined. FFVII made J-RPGs a profitable venture, every PS1 FF sold over 5 million units, even Chrono Cross, Star Ocean the 2nd story, Xenogears and Tales of Destiny managed to break the 1 million unit threshold. Those were impressive numbers in those days, numbers that the genre doesn’t touch these days in the quantity that it did in the mid to late 90s. We can add Pokemon and Dragon Quest to that list of multimillion sellers. Quite simply FFVII made for RPGs what Halo and CoD did for FPS in the 2000’s.

In the 32-bit era J-RPGs remained the only genre capable of delivering cohesive worlds with rich stories. This would change as tech improved, and Western developers took risks that the Japanese didn’t during the 360-PS3 days, but FFVII was the critical and commercial success of its era, an era dominated by the JRPGs.

So How does it look on the Switch?

As good (or as old) as it does on the PS4 remaster. To put it bluntly SquareEnix has been lazy with their Remasters, and FFVII is unfortunately not the exception. Square sells this remaster for 15.99 a steep price for a 22 year old game and yet…. J-RPGs haven’t advanced much in 22 years. A fact that becomes obvious when playing Octopath Traveller, Square’s newest best selling Switch RPG. OT is a HD 2-D work that in many ways is less ambitious than FFVII. The Tales of Vesperia remaster is probably the best RPG on the system not named FF.

So yes, FFVII’s somewhat clearer backgrounds (thought not HD) and HD polygonal upgrade during the Battle stages, and the Overworld are worth the price of admission simply because great artwork doesn’t age, and the game simply doesn’t have much competition on the system.

In a strange twist of fate, FFVII’s once glaring visual weakness in the 90’s; the ultra deformed, cute, squatty characters out side of the battle stages, have actually in a my personal opinion aged better than FFVIII’s hyper realistic ones.

Their clean simplistic look translates better into HD. The weakness of the visual package is now are the backgrounds which remain in standard resolution, and makes the newly HD models of the characters look a tad odd when traversing through them. The CG scenes remain in standard definition and to be honest I didn’t have much of a problem with this since the Switch Screen is small enough to mask some of the problems associated with resolution.

In the end FFVII remains a visual product of its time, which can be a good thing if you are able to get past its low res pre-rendered backgrounds.

A Timeless tale

The main reason for my obsession with J-RPGs from 1994-2006 was simply their stories. No other genre could compare when it came to story telling. A good RPG felt like playing through a good anime series, the customary grinding (present in most RPGs) was made bearable by the constant thirst of finding out ‘what happens next’ in the story.

Well back in 1997 FFVII was louded for its epic and engrossing story. Truth be told, FFVII might have been the first RPG to feature serious transcendent themes. FFVI had a pretty decent plot, with interesting characters and few well remembered plot twists, yet it was more of the same ‘band of out casts unites to topple a powerful Magitek Empire…and later a clown turned god (I am serious) yada yada’ FFVII unsurprisingly features another band of outcasts working together in an effort to topple another evil empire.

Upon deeper inspection however, the story goes to places most games wouldn’t dare to. To start FFVII features prominent pro-environmentalism, anti-capitalist messages. A lot of people back in the late 90s compared the Shinra to power hungry real world governments. I was 13 in 1997, and my then limited socio political knowledge didn’t allow me to completely appreciate the eerie similarities.

FFVII is that rare science fiction work that wows the viewer when some of the events it predicted come to fruition decades after its release as we shall see further down this review.

 The Shinra Electric Power Company rose to power by harnessing the planet’s lifeblood and turning it into ‘Mako’ for energetic purposes.

Mako serves its purpose as the game’s symbolic Oil or Nuclear Power. Meaning that there is a clear critique against companies, and countries exploiting the planet’s non renewable energy sources for financial gain. Now back in 97’ those themes didn’t really resound with me as strongly as Cloud’s relationship with the villain and mainly his relationship with Aeris (Aerith in Japan).

Back in 97 I was mesmerized by the implications, and the mind blowing prospect of Jenova being a being from outer space. Genetic engineering and cloning also were key elements that drew my interest in its grandiose plot. It is not a stretch to say that FFVII drew inspiration from classic works like Godzilla and Frankenstein.

FFVII was as big a leap from FFVI in terms of the ambitions of its plot, as FFVI was from its predecessors. Squaresoft’s giant problem has been the fact that it hasn’t surpassed FFVII’s story since. FFVIII introduced a melodramatic teen soap opera plot that was borderline nonsensical. FFIX actually fixed the localization issues, and lack of humor that that series had suffered from since its inception. The 9th installment is probably the most polished and refined FF that has ever been made, and yet while it does extremely well with it’s fantasy plot, it never manages to capture the imagination in the way that FFVII’s plot does.

Now in my 30s, playing this simple remaster, I can appreciate its plot in a new light. Today in 2019, FFVII’s storyline and world mirrors the current global situation in a closer manner than it did back when it was released.

Midgar is an advanced City run by Shinra Inc. And its president President Shinra is a businessman running the most powerful empire that planet Gaia has ever seen. Midgar as the capital city of the Empire is an interesting if some what scary dystopia. It is scary because a case could be made that it is not too far from being a harsher mirror image of the United States, and its territories in 2019.

Shinra is not dissimilar to Trump in both appearance and profession. Both are business men at the helm of powerful military empires. Whether their approach towards business and ruling a country is similar is up to the eye of the beholder. The bigger truth is that the game conveys a pro environmentalist anti extreme capitalist message. Capitalism, and socialism after all are sides of the same coin. When greed and lack of human empathy manifest themselves both are equally as devastating for its people and greed seems to be one of FFVII’s main themes.

Midgar has upper class living areas for the rich above the plates, and lower class citizens living in the Slums under the plate. The middle class is either very small or has completely disappeared. Human and drug traffic manifests itself in the Slums thanks to a criminal organization run by Don Corneo, who is allowed to continue his criminal ways because of his connections to the government (sound familiar?).

Midgar is as fully a realized city, as you could get back in 1997 and perhaps it is one of the most polished places in the game. Aside from the socio political themes already mentioned, the Shinra keeps pumping the Life Stream out of the planet in order to convert it to Mako energy. This is killing the planet, which once more produces an eerie comparison to today’s global warming crisis.

The story puts you in the shoes of Cloud Strife a former member of SOLDIER; Shinra’s elite military force not to be confused with a regular soldier. Cloud is suffering from amnesia, and yet offers his services as a Mercenary to an anti government group called AVALANCHE. The aforementioned group is hell bent on saving the planet by destroying Mako Reactors, and as such your quest begins as you are hired to help them in the destruction of one of these reactors in Midgar.

Needless to say AVALANCHE’s operations are of a dark if terrorist nature, and as such the game from the very opening act begins to ask complex questions about what should be, and shouldn’t be done in the name of what seems to be a Noble cause pursued by flawed individuals with compromised morals.

The story is full of instances of institutional deception, war, cover ups, love, and death. To delve deeper into the plot would be to spoil major points which I won’t do here. Beyond the social and environmental themes that have helped to keep FFVII’s story relevant 22 years after its release, the main story is a Sci Fi tour de force that still entertains.

Cloning, genetical engineering, names and constant references to Judaism still captivate the imagination in the same ways that it did back in the late 90s. FFVII’s had the most revolutionary plot of its era (Xenogears might have something to say about that obviously), and it remains excellent in that department.

If there is a down side to the way the story is presented for modern audiences, it is in the lack of voice acting and in the average Japanese to English translation.

The voice acting I can overlook, as most games those days simply didn’t have it… in fact the series wouldn’t get voice acting until the 10th installment on PS2. The translation is a little harder to overlook.

For starters one of FFVI’s much talked about weaknesses was the awful original translation. It boggles the mind that Square didn’t bother in aggressively perfecting this important element in what would become the JRPG with the highest budget in their PS1 era. FFVII was, and remains a story heavy JRPG and as such, it deserved a better effort.

The translation to be fair isn’t bad, but other games around its time had better ones, and for this remake I was hoping for a new, and improved effort. But like the Pre rendered backgrounds little was done in an effort to improve it. Major grammatical mistakes such as that one famous Aeris line “This guy are sick.” Have been fixed, but the rest remains as it was for better or worse.

Classic FF style of Play

FFVII was revolutionary in its time both graphically and Storytelling wise. Contrary to popular belief though, FFVII didn’t not revolutionize or change the way RPGs or even the FF series played.

It played just like FFVI with the typical minor changes in spell and ability systems, in the grand scheme of things it means that as far as exploration goes you have towns, and dungeons you get to traverse in between town visits, and a massive over world that connects everything. In terms of gameplay, random turn based battles are the order of the day and grinding is a must in order to level up both the characters, and the Materia that they equip.

If all of that sounds familiar is because it is. That’s the same pattern of play that JRPGs have relied on since the late 80s and it is present in FFVII. FFVII does feature a large 3-D overworld full of secrets that can be explored by land, air, sea and even under said sea.

In 1997 this type of scale in a JRPG was impressive and because the genre hasn’t really advanced much since then it remains enjoyable.

Your party gains levels with EXP attained from defeating monsters in random encounters. Your party has set inborn skills depending on their character. Cloud was a SOLDIER and as such uses the customary Broadsword as his main weapon, while Barret has a gun attached to his arm…so he attacks from a distance with bullets.

In terms of innate abilities each character has 4 levels of limit breaks (Special abilities that are used during Battles once the limit gauge is full. The limit gauge fills by getting hit by enemies.) The abilities are not gained by EXP but rather by how many enemies each character has defeated. Limit breaks are useful during tough Boss battles as they can deliver massive damage to enemies, or in the case of Aeris massive healing opportunities for the party.

The game does feature the unique Materia system, Materia is crystalized Mako and it allows its user to gain specific magical abilities. So in order to learn and utilize magic spells and even summons, different types of materia have to be equipped to weapon and armor slots. AP points in battle level up the Materia to make stronger spells. There is more complexity to this system when delving deeper into it.

Materia can enhance the users stats and in some cases also negatively affect things such as HP and MP. Combining different sets of Materia can produce different effects and results which are key defeating some of the later optional bosses. Without a guide in hand experimentation is key. 

Gamers accustomed to current open world RPGs will find grinding tedious, and gratification a slow painstaking process, and yet the Switch version adds two bonus additions to the game. One makes grinding an easier, quicker endeavor and the other pretty much breaks the game.

The best addition for modern players looking to bypass some of the inherent annoyance of random battling, and turn based systems is the ability to speed the game up by 3x with a simple press of the analog stick. I can’t stress enough how much this alleviates the pains of grinding by making battles a quick process. Obviously this means that enemies also attack with greater speed, but for run of the mill overworld foes this is the best way to play FFVII today while in the midst of grinding sessions.

For the less serious enthusiast or those old-timers who just want to replay the story as quickly as possible there is an additional option with the opposite analog stick that simply gives your characters unlimited Limit breaks and auto health. This option literally breaks the game, so for first time players I wouldn’t recommend it, but alas it is here and it is also a useful mechanic during the long grinding stretches.

There are some puzzles here and there scattered thought out the quest, and some difficult boss battles but nothing out of the ordinary for the Final Fantasy veteran or JRPG veteran gamer in general.

The one area where FFVII shined and still does is its miscellaneous activities and minigames. No FF game in the first 10 installments and perhaps no RPG of its time (Ocarina of Time being the exception) features as much side stuff to do as FFVII.

There is a competent strategy mini game, a somewhat amusing snowboarding game, a Road Rash lite type of motorcycle fighting game, a battling arena, a hoops game, a submarine game, surprisingly deep chocobo breeding quest tied to a competent chocobo racing game. Two hidden characters with deep plot implications. Hidden optional bosses and materia.

Some of those elements have to be accomplished in order to get to others, but the fact that there is so much extracurricular stuff to do was a welcomed addition then and it remains engrossing.

Gameplay wise FF didn’t break new ground but it had so much stuff to do, that it has aged particularly well in that department. While FFVII doesn’t have the deep customization options for the party members that FFV did with its job system, the sum of its parts make it a more engrossing enjoyable experience than any other FF before or since.

Spectacular Music

FFVI to me has the best all around soundtrack of the series and yet FFVII has two of my favorite game tracks ever. Part of the reason FF lost its luster to me after the 10th installment was the departure of Uematsu as the series composer, his brilliant work from FFVI-VII only serves as a harsh reminder of this.

While the soundtrack here is not yet orchestrated, the quality of sound is a clear step up from the SNES days with wonderful tracks that accompany every scene and environment. Aeris’s theme, the main theme, and Sephiroth’s theme during the final battle are the reason why people pay money to go to Uematsu’s orchestrated concerts.

The soundtrack remains a 10/10 to this day. Good music doesn’t age.

A Must Have

I still own my original PS1 copy of the game, but the ability to play it on the go and with tweaks like the 3x speed option make the Switch port of the game my favorite way to replay this fine classic.

While the world awaits a remake that might never live up to the original’s greatness (post Sakaguchi Square hasn’t made great FF games, even Crisis Core in some ways devalued FFs original story), the best way to play FFVII remains to play the original’s remaster.

At 15.99 Square could have done more of an effort to spruce up the pre rendered back grounds and translation, but the fact remains that at 15.99 FFVII remains a better, and cheaper game than Octopath Traveller, and a cheaper alternative to Tales of Vesperia which at this point is as a whole a more pleasing experience than the 1997 legend. Aside from Vesperia, FFVII is the best J RPG on the Switch, and a worthy purchase.

Gameplay: 9.5–Hey it’s classic FF, or at least 94-00 classic FF gameplay. The materia system is rewarding, as are the sidequests and extracurricular activities. The ability to speed the game 3x its Normal speed is a Time saver and a game changer in terms of enjoyment. The game encourages exploration and in a genre distinguished by its linearity that is a rare and welcome feature indeed.

Graphics- 7.0–HD polygonal characters, overworld, and battle stages make this a better looking version based on the original game. The squatty characters during exploration will turn some people off but I didn’t have a problem with them. The backgrounds remain at standard res and that’s were my deduction in the score comes from. Even then, the artwork has aged well and it is easy to appreciate why this was in 1997 such a big deal in terms of visuals.

Music: 10–The music remains as powerful as I remembered it, along with FFVI this was Uematsu’s best work. With headphones while playing my Switch the soundtrack sounds even more glorious than it did on my old TV set.

Story: 10–FFVII established a standard in story telling that still holds up well today. The fact that many of the themes remain, and even gained relevance 22 years after its initial release makes the game more than worthy of a play through. At its most simplistic core, the story between Cloud, Aeris, Tifa and Sephiroth remains a gold standard which at the time inspired more Fan Fictions than any game before or since. Even minor party members have detailed background stories that tie into the fight against the Shinra.

If there is one thing that makes FFVII still worthy of your time and money today, that one thing is its story. Inconsistency in pacing, and what seemed to be a rushed 3rd disc ( or in this case final section of the game) are not enough to diminish the best story that Final Fantasy ever told.

Replayability: 9.0–JRPGs suffer in this category for the most part because once the story is over…well, its over. But FFVII offers so many side diversions, quests and things to do in comparison to the rest of that particular genre that it merits over 30 hours of gameplay after finishing the story.

Overall: 9.5–The Graphics haven’t aged well, but the rest of package remains an engaging one, it is the best JRPG on the Switch right now (along side Vesperia) and one of, if not the best JRPG of all time depending on who you ask. At 15.99 it is also one of the cheapest quality titles available at Nintendo’s E-shop. A must buy for new JRPG enthusiasts, and for old school players like me a convenient way to revisit the classic.