Looking at Final Fantasy VII – Part 1: Graphics and Audio

So, Final Fantasy, good franchise. Some solid games, some great games, some not so great games. The series has some fans, some ‘haters’. Personally though, I love the series. But I am not blind in my passion; I understand and see many of the flaws too.

One of the games in the series (which you all know); Final Fantasy VII is by far the most popular and also the most polarizing. It is either seen as the greatest high the series and that JRPG’s had reached in general (which is incorrect), or the worst that Final Fantasy can be, what JRPG’s are, and what Square-Enix does (which is also, incorrect).

So what is Final Fantasy VII? A fantastical story, charismatic heroes and villains, visual depth and splendor a wonderfully crafted world or, clichéd, ugly, boring and poorly made… well, it’s neither. Of course it’s neither, it’s actually a solid but dated game, which has the (ironically) negative stigma of being liked…as well as some very stubborn fans…

I’m going to look at it now, and look at it objectively where possible. Let’s look into a game that is single handily thought to be the shining light of a genre, franchise and company...but also the game that is the destroyer of companies, genres and franchises…and worlds I guess…

I’ll give a little background on my perspective, so you can see where I am assessing it from. It will also help you point out any bias I may have if it does appear at any point;

I first experienced Final Fantasy VII shortly after release. It was a game I was following closely in magazines before it came out, as I was already an avid gamer. I wasn’t entirely conscious of Squaresoft at that point, and didn’t really think too much about companies and developers, I was around 13 years old.

I didn’t play it alone during this first experience. A close friend owned the game, and I watched him play and helped in areas. Later on, after he finished, I borrowed the game and played it through myself. I later bought the game, and played it to finish once more. I have completed the game 3 times in total going from start to finish now.

Okay, with that defined, we can start to take a look at the game. Let’s start off with the graphics! It’s easy!

When released, the character and vehicle models used to navigate the areas and the maps were ugly even then. But the pre-rendered areas were decent enough; some of them actually looked very cool. Midgar looked great in some places, especially when climbing up the wall to the Shinra Building. The invisible walls on the pre-rendered areas were annoying at times, because it seemed unnatural, but it wasn’t a deal breaker and it wasn’t the only game guilty of this. Capcom did this with Resident Evil too. It certainly looked better environment wise than a lot of other JRPG’s, and a major step up over the 16-Bit era.

You could be a fan of the pixelised 16-Bit graphics. I like them. I love the look of A Link to the Past and Tales of Phantasia. I’ve always been a fan of SNK’s games like Metal Slug and The King of Fighters, and some of that is due to the very cool pixel work that had been done in those games. But not every 16-Bit game did have great graphics, or even if they looked nice as stills, the animation didn’t work or it just seemed stilted. Final Fantasy III/VI was a good example of this. As pretty as the art was, some sheen was removed due to everything being so rigid. Games like Chrono Trigger and Secret of Mana did much better, but because they are pixel based, there is always going to be a limitation on the level of detail when the resolution is set. And with this, a limit on what is feasible to show.

During battle, it moved to more anatomically accurate models. These models were actually pretty good, and it was made all the more impressive to see the weapons change too (as they had in the past). Some of the bosses and enemies looked very cool and well detailed (Neo Bahamut, Ultimate Weapon, Diamond Weapon). I think more than the actual models though, was the grandeur of the direction at times. Getting and using a Summon for the first time was an event, it looked very, very special (although a little annoying after time), but in comparison to previous titles, seeing Ramuh rising from the ground on a rocky mound while lighting struck as the camera panned, was pretty impressive to say the least.

There is then of course, the FMV’s. They looked great. I remember a few instances where I would save the game just so I could re-watch the Weapons appearing, or watch Diamond Weapon blast Midgar. This stuff looked really, really cool…although, it was not perfect…

There were a few instances when there would be FMV’s which featured the blocky version of the character models, this just looked really bad when it happened. And not just bad, disappointing too. It really broke any extra layer of ‘realism’ the FMV’s could bring. Even though this was the case, there were far more exciting FMV’s than there were ones that slipped up due to some ‘odd’ choices. For every "why’s there no blood?" there was a badass final stare down.

If you look at technical quality, there were graphical bugs. There were loads of instances of clipping. It was certainly rough in places.

Comparing it to modern day visuals, you would have to say that the game looks pretty terrible. Even a few years on and on the same platform, Final Fantasy VIII looked much, much better in all areas. In the same year of release, Breath of Fire III came out too, and that looked really good and represented the JRPG very well. But it did lack FMV’s and more exotic effects, and honestly, it did make it seem less impressive visually that FFVII, regardless of the actual consistency and quality.

I think for now, that covers the visuals! Moving on, and we’ll take a look at the music and the audio in general.

The sound effects did a pretty great job, especially the way they fit into the impressive Summon cutscenes. The effects of the terrain breaking, breath being blasted and the howls and growls were well implemented. There were some odd sounds (a number of ‘breath’ attacks, Funny Breath in particular), but it was incredibly varied for a game of such a large scope.

The Bolt cast effects, or general slashes felt good. Bahamut’s build up to firing the Mega Flare sounded powerful, it sounded like something was on the edge of boiling over and blowing up big time! It actually came together really well, and sounded great. The menus clicked and beeped well, your actions were accompanied with sounds. It was a polished audio performance from the development team.

The only time it felt off was when the characters in the FMV’s would be mute, it killed part of the effect. Again, FMV’s were pushing a realism of sort, or something closer to what was seen in movies and animation. Everything looked more lifelike, but the lack of voice – which is understandable – impacted these scenes. Another aspect was during some area or overworld exploration. Bar some ambience and music, there were no footsteps or general environment interaction audio wise. But this wasn’t a deal breaker, it wasn’t something you would notice and often games even now miss out a lot of the more nuanced effects.

Along with these pretty kick ass effects – and some of the technical limitations – there is probably the most famous video game soundtrack of all time. Although it is probably more well-known because it is the Final Fantasy VII soundtrack rather than it just being a great soundtrack, it is still actually a great soundtrack!

There are some standouts, like the One Winged Angel, but that isn’t so much because of it being a good piece, it’s more about how it works within the context of the game. That piece also tends to overshadow everything else from the game too, which is a real shame because there really is some amazing music. But the best aspect of the soundtrack is the diversity. There is so much music in the game, and it caters to all of the scenarios that are run throughout the adventure. When released, I can’t think of many other games that matched up to it in this regard.

Here are a few examples of diversity and quality:

Forgetten City:

Final Fantasy VII OST - You Can Hear the Cry of the Planet ~ Forgotten City Theme (via PeyserConley)

Wall Market:

Final Fantasy VII OST - Oppressed People ~ Wall Market Theme (via PeyserConley)

Gold Saucer:

Final Fantasy VII OST - Gold Saucer (via PeyserConley)

Jenova:

Final fantasy 7 song Jenova Absolute (synthesis) (via rkosym)

Cosmo Canyon:

45-Cosmo Canyon-FFVII OST (via Tsai57)

Overall, one of the greatest strengths of the game, and one aspect of it that does stand the test of time is the sound design and score. Not only is it of a high quality, it’s just so incredibly vast and diverse. Sure, this is more common nowadays, but such a top draw score which is so diverse really isn’t a common thing. How many games do you travel from a City Slum, to Mining Town, sail the ocean to a Holiday Resort, and then also manage to see Mountain Top towns, Eastern styled villages and golden Theme Parks? Modern games don’t have this eclectic mix, they often don’t need it. They are style on and around a specific local and theme. Final Fantasy VII threw this out the window and mish-mashed everything. It could be considered poor and inconsistent direction; it could also be one of the reasons why it is a game that so many are fond of.

So we have covered audio and visual. And my conclusion is that as impressive as it may have been at the time, there were still some poor visual choices and it was far from the best looking game available even then. With age, it’s even worse. It hasn’t aged well at all. Something that looked as rough and downright bizarre as it did at times is never really going to mature with age. It’s an ugly game; it just has some cool things to look at.

For audio, it may not be anything special now in regards to the effects, but the soundtrack is still a good collection of varied pieces. Although not all memorable, and some quirky, they did fit with the locals of game. Even now, there is something there to listen to, and if you have played the game, you’ll know that every song can be placed or it triggers an aspect of the game that you can remember. That’s something quite rare nowadays, when game scores tend to be sweeping themes rather than diverse interludes.

Sheesh, this was originally going to be a single piece, but it just kept going and going. I’ve only had a chance to look into a couple of simple things too. Hopefully I have time not too far away to look into the rest of the game. Things like the Story, Characters, Gameplay and Design. I’ll have a think about it.