Final Fantasy VII is one of those popular games that you never stop hearing about in the gaming community. Everyone talks about it, often hyping it up to be “one of the best games ever made”, largely due to its influence on the industry. I didn’t shy away from the spoilers (they were nearly impossible to avoid), and from what I saw of the game (plus the movie and spin-off games), it did look really good. A dark, steampunk fantasy game? Sure, sign me up!
But it got to the point that the hype and popularity seemed to be overrated. I noticed this particularly after I played Final Fantasy IX for the first time a few years back. I adored Final Fantasy IX, and yet it got little to no recognition, and the game I kept hearing about was Final Fantasy VII. I got tired of how constantly it was talked about, and pushed it away as a result. I’ve recently played through the game, so I can now formulate a more concise opinion about the game. When I was younger, there were aspects of the lore and characters that I used to like based on what I read and saw in the spin-offs, but now after playing the game I’ve realized the game hasn’t aged as well as its popularity would suggest (and not just in graphics mind you).
The thing I noticed the most about Final Fantasy VII is how the characters a product of their personality. This might sound weird, but when you consider that most of the characters in the game are barely developed outside of their defining personality quirk, it makes them not very well-rounded characters.
First, we have hot-headed jerks like Barret and Cid, although Barret is barely redeemed because of his daughter. Then we have the annoying, unexplained cat spy of Shinra, Cait Sith, the grating and self-absorbed Yuffie, the quiet and mysterious Vincent, the selfish and inconsiderate Aerith, and finally, the confused and brooding protagonist, Cloud. The only characters I like in this game are Tifa, Red XIII, and Zack (yeah, he doesn’t really count since he’s dead, but he’s still better than the majority of the cast) because they are actually well-rounded developed characters that have their own story arcs, no matter how big or small. The rest of the cast is a product of their personality quirks, and don’t have any depth beyond that.
Now, before I have people getting upset about how I don’t like Aerith even though she tragically died, or how Cloud is such a tormented character (I’ll get to him in a bit) – here’s the thing. I actually used to sympathize with Aerith dying. She seemed to be an important character to the story that fans really loved. Not only that, but it’s rare for games to kill of main characters these days, and it was certainly more so when Final Fantasy VII first came out. When I first started the game, my thought was, surely she had to be such an endearing character or her death wouldn’t have meant anything, right?
What I realized after playing the game is that she was neither all that important or likable. Yeah, she was the last Cetra, but what did she really contribute to the plot? All she did was tell everyone what they already knew – that the planet was dying and in pain. That’s it. I don’t really count her prayer as a contribution at the game’s finale because, not only was she long dead by that point, but we had no idea what she was trying to do until the end because she had to go running off by herself and get killed in the process. How is that helpful?
Furthermore, Aerith is far from the kind, sympathetic character I thought she was. From the moment she was formally introduced in her church, Aerith is childish and inconsiderate, constantly forcing the stupid, unnecessary love triangle with every line of dialogue she utters. Now that I’m older, a major thing I expect from video games is to have good characters, and seeing them develop and change as the game progresses. Aerith is a very stagnant character – and while you can argue that her death limited her potential for character development, that’s no excuse to have a character with an unlikable personality who doesn’t grow or change at all in the time span that they are alive in.
There was a time when I was convinced that, had I played the game not knowing about her death, that I would have probably loved her character, and so I tried to keep an open mind when I actually played the game. The problem I had with her was not even the knowledge of her death – rather, the issue I had was how poorly a character she was written. A character can still be endearing and lovable even if the player is aware of their fate. In particular, my mind goes to Xion from Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days. Despite knowing what her fate would be, I found that Xion was still developed in a meaningful way that contributed to the story and the other characters.
The challenge with writing good characters is knowing how to develop them outside of their personality quirks, and to focus on their interaction with the other characters. For example, Zidane’s quirk in Final Fantasy IX is his flirtatiousness. However, his character is written in such a way that his quirk does not define him – it’s an important part of his personality, but his character’s virtuousness and compassion is grounded in how he interacts with the rest of the characters. Because of this, he’s still such a great, renowned character that is celebrated even today – after all, there’s a reason he made At the Buzzer’s Top 25 Male Video Game Character list rather than Cloud.
Aerith was defined by the love triangle she instigated, and because of it she was the character I despised the most in the entire game. She chased Cloud around like a lost puppy, and the only time she had the illusion of being helpful was communicating with the planet (if anything, the knowledge of her dead ancestors is more helpful than she ever was), and even then we don’t know anything about her race either. Why were they annihilated in the first place? A single line of dialogue explaining that they were hunted down for whatever reason isn’t good enough, game writers. Aerith was far from a likable or sympathetic character for me because of the way she was written, and for a character whose death is still talked about twenty years later, I found very little to be truly sad about in the context of Final Fantasy VII.
The character that suffers the most from being defined by his personality quirk rather than being fleshed out and well-written is none other than the main protagonist, Cloud. Cloud’s whole dual personality issue is…not great. It’s not even an issue of how it’s handled – in fact, the way that his fake persona and memories were broken down with the help of Tifa was awesome and easily my favorite moment of the game. But the problem I had with it was more of how it influenced his interaction with the other characters. I used to really sympathize with Cloud’s guilty conscience and “lone wolf” attitude, but these days I find that he’s not very likable.
Characters that are stand-offish and indifferent to the wants and needs of the other characters is not something I like to see in a character, and certainly not the main protagonist. Combine this with the fact that any hint of coolness or likability Cloud has attributed to Zack, and his true personality is much more sullen and uncertain, and Cloud is far from a strong protagonist.
Despite the fact that Cloud isn’t a good protagonist, part of the fun in video games is the dynamics between the heroes and the villains and how they play off of each other. Final Fantasy VII however contains possibly one of the worst villains I’ve ever come across in fiction, and in this case it’s not the villain you love to hate. Because Sephiroth is supposedly so acclaimed as a “good villain”, I expected a lot out of him, but instead got one of the most useless villains in fiction ever.
So before I get flamed for hating Sephiroth and his stupid hair, let me just say that for a villain to be good, they need to be involved and relevant to the core story. Take Kefka from Final Fantasy VI for example. He is definitely involved in the story, and his villainy makes him memorable and provides the player motivation to want to take him out. He destroyed the world after all, I think that’s reason enough. It’s for reasons like this that we love to hate villains, and at first I had hope Sephiroth would be the same way.
In the beginning, Sephiroth had the potential to be a really hated villain in terms of being well-written, interesting, and making the players want to kill him at the end of the game. It’s not every day a villain gets away with murdering a major party member, and while I may have cared less, Aerith’s death gave the party a huge boost in motivation to kill Sephiroth as well. But what does the game do? It reveals that Sephiroth has actually been dead the entire game! Wait, what? So he hasn’t really done anything bad at all, it was just Jenova? Why should I hate him at all then?
That, right there, is why Sephiroth is an overrated villain. Because he’s been dead the whole time, the game completely kills any reason for the players or cast members to be invested in defeating Sephiroth. Why, when the main villain should clearly be Jenova? Not only that, but it also makes him a severely underdeveloped villain as well. We don’t know anything about him in the present day, outside of him going insane in flashbacks, so why should we hate him? There’s no reason to because he’s not related to anything that’s happening in the story.
While Final Fantasy VII tries to justify this bait and switch of villains by trying to make it as obvious as possible, it doesn’t work here. There are lot of games that pull this reveal (see: almost all Zelda titles) and in most cases, it adds depth to the plot. In the case of Zelda, it often works well because it gives the player a reason to hate the villains, especially the ones trying to revive Ganondorf. They commit a lot of atrocities in their attempts to bring back their master, and the games do a good job of developing this devotion and loyalty to make them dynamic and interesting.
In Final Fantasy VII, this dynamic is reversed, with the revived Jenova being more interesting, dynamic, and a villain you love to hate while Sephiroth sits around being dead the whole time, creating a very stagnant, boring villain. As a result, Sephiroth is pretty bland by villain standards, and he doesn’t deserve to be called a good or well-written villain at all.
Not only are the characters in Final Fantasy VII only so-so, but the story is also more convoluted than it should be. I actually really liked a lot of the ideas behind the story, but the game did an extremely poor job of explaining any of those points in a meaningful way. It never took the time to explain what was happening outside of a single line of dialogue before never touching the subject again, and it was frustrating.
Finally, Final Fantasy VII’s ending is arguably the most unsatisfying, abrupt endings I’ve ever seen in gaming. There’s absolutely no resolution for any of the characters, no loose ends are tied together, and having the game fast forward five hundred years doesn’t help either. What if the movie didn’t exist, and fans were left with the confusing, completely open-ended conclusion that the game has? I want to see where the characters end up, and being forced to watch a movie to get any of that satisfying resolution is lazy on part of the game writers regardless of the reason.
I have a lot of gripes with Final Fantasy VII, but with this said this game certainly does have strong moments that make me understand why people love it as much as they do. To an extent, anyway. The story does manage to be interesting and urgent when properly explained, the music is fantastic, the battle system is some of the best in the series, and again, I have to emphasize what a great character Tifa is. Despite her questionable character design and being surrounded by a rather lame cast of characters, she really makes the game worthwhile because of how much she grows and develops.
I don’t adore the game like some people do nor do I think it’s the “best” game ever made – that’s ridiculous and something of an insult to the gaming industry given how there are stronger, better games than Final Fantasy VII out there. Despite all of that, I can see how the game made an impact on the industry at the time of its release. Let’s just hope that the remake takes more time into expanding on the story and characters.