Hype is a tricky thing. No sooner is a game announced than media outlets have mapped out every single detail before your very eyes. It's no new phenomenon either. Final Fantasy VII was no stranger to the effect, yet somehow not one person knew what to expect when it arrived on European shores. Chalk it up to inexperience. Nothing quite like it had been seen before by the masses and for many they simply could not have imagined what awaited them. It was a magical adventure – beyond anything that had preceded it. You did not play Final Fantasy VII, you lived it.
The story built around the central character Cloud Strife and revealed layers of depth defying common notions of what a videogame was. Initially appearing to be a cold hearted mercenary his visage slowly dissolves to expose that he has a far greater purpose to play. The mystery of Cloud's background and purpose becomes the key focus for the journey through this new world. We experience things as Cloud does, drawn ever further into the thickening web of intrigue- punctuated by some highly effective twists along the way.
It soon becomes clear that there is far more at stake than a small group of freedom fighters trying to cripple a domineering corporation. Each encounter drip feeds a new piece of information. Hints of what is to come fuel the fervour to press on without ever fully enlightening players as to what the hell is going on. Cleverly paced and well scripted, you remain on the edge of your seat stretching forward to see what is around the next corner. Many a time we picked up the controller with the intent of only seeing out the next encounter only to find ourselves squinting through eyes grown intolerant to strong light as the sun rose the next morning.
Combat follows the tried and tested turn based RPG format. Characters wait for their timing bar to fill to become active. At that point they can then unleash all manner of destructive forces upon your foes. The most spectacular of these are gargantuan creatures, summoned from the magical 'Materia' that forms around the land to fight by your side. While players were taken aback by the epic summoning of magical creatures, the cut scenes truly stole the show. At the time of its original release in 1997 the graphical artistry and animation blew away everything else.
Everyone who played the game knew this was more than simply something special; this was a historic moment for gaming in the West. It pushed the boundaries to such a degree that at the time it seemed impossible anything else developed for the Playstation could ever surpass it.
This being a story set against a backdrop of a fantastical cyberpunk world, both high-tech weaponry and devastating magic are freely available. Attaching 'materia' to equipment and weapons gives any character access to its magic. Materia has both good and bad effects introducing the need to strike a balance in order to stop characters from becoming weak and easily killed. As a result players form parties built how they want and are not forced to shoehorn characters into a predetermined mould.
Years have passed, and graphically the game will not carry the impressive awe for newcomers it had to those fortunate people who played it in its time. Furthermore, the pace may seem a little slow to the uninitiated. However, give it a few minutes and you find the story suffers not from the ills of aging. You're quickly engrossed and any 'faults' melt away. Its hypnotic grasp remains strong regardless the age of its appearance.
While the graphical wonder of the title may fade, the excellent musical score rings true as ever. Sweeping music completes an epic adventure and Final Fantasy VII has it in abundance. Moving scores accompany every scene perfectly heightening the mood and emotion. Indeed, while walking through the Snow Mountains you may be tempted to turn the heating up a little as the music works so well it drags you down into the icy caves with it, and it is a cold place down there.
Final Fantasy VII represents one of a select group of titles that transcends its existence as simply a 'game'. It started a shift in the gaming tastes of Europe (as it likewise did throughout the western world), it opened our eyes to what was possible with the power of a thirty-two bit console, it made us think what could be achieved in the future. Arguably, no game before it had such an emotional impact on gamers. We fought, we cried, we drove onward for revenge and we remembered every minute of it. Those who were there in that first week when it was released already know why this game is an historic title.
For newcomers the title proves as enjoyable as ever. Alas, it is doubtful the euphoric sense of elation - the almost indescribable feeling that no game had ever created before (Maybe Occarina of Time), can be similarly recaptured. Final Fantasy VII represents a moment in time. Where were you when it happened?