The Final Fantasy VII Letters, Part 3

Our Hero, Our Villain

Games Features Final Fantasy

From: Kirk Hamilton

To: Leigh Alexander

Subject: Re: Our Hero, Our Villain


Ah yes, the gameplay. FF7 strikes me as a game in which, for the most part, the gameplay styles are pretty strictly delineated between “passive” (conversation) and “active” (combat). But then, that’s really an oversimplification, isn’t it? In reality, the game has a lot of weird levels of in-between going on—it’s at its most confounding and awkwardly charming when it’s wandering through some weird grey area between fighting and reading.

Though I love the enemy design and boss battles, so far I’m finding combat itself to be pretty boring, mechanically speaking. While I value the clean simplicity of its design, I also feel listless with most random encounters. It simply doesn’t hold a candle to Chrono Trigger, which I’ve realized is my favorite turn-based combat system. As much as I enjoy FFVII’s combinable materia (it’s similar in some ways to this enjoyable new game Magicka I’ve been dabbling with), I think I prefer the way that Chrono Trigger designed its combat system by allowing the characters themselves to combine. It emphasized the teamwork and brother/sisterhood that made the game’s story resonate with me, and moreover it was fun and had cool animations.

That said, I do like how easy it is to keep track of everything onscreen in FFVII. One thing that I didn’t like about FFXIII was the insane amount of information that was onscreen at any given time—there were numbers on top of numbers, numbers flying off of enemies and party members, numbers littering the screen… and yet no frame of reference, no way to tell what anything really meant. When my party fights in FFVII, I have a very good sense of how strong the various attacks are, how difficult an enemy is, and just generally of what’s going

As a side note, the clean combat engine contributes to the main reason that I found Sephiroth so terrifying. Young Cloud does a piddling amount of damage to some tough enemies, and then Sephiroth strikes once with his sword and does something like 3000 damage… yikes! You said you wondered why it is that Sephiroth resonates as he does—I think you’re onto something when you suggest that it’s because he was a hero before he fell. The “Must-Fail Fight” is a common trick in JRPGs, but I’m not sure I’ve ever fought a “Can’t-Fail Fight” before. It was such an effective trick—we know that Sephiroth is scary and dangerous because of his blood-soaked offscreen debut at Shinra HQ, but something about having our first real onscreen interaction with him one of alliance, of standing by his side as he lays waste to foes we couldn’t hope to match on our own… it makes quite an impression.

Back to gameplay. I want to bring up the game’s… peculiarities, for want of a better word, which are myriad and occur with surprising frequency. Just when was it that the Final Fantasy games lost this sense of bizarre fun? I don’t mean “fun” in the standard sense like I’m having fun, but more like the game seems to be having fun on its own. There are these segments in which I’m forced to time a jump, or ride a dolphin, or do an unprepared military routine… what in the hell is going on there?

I’m curious: When you first played this game, do you recall what your reaction was to those parts? As best as I can tell, the first time something like that happens is back in Midgar, when Cloud must press a button at the same time as his party members in order to open a door. As the game told me to press square to time Cloud’s button-press, I thought “Oooookay… a quicktime event?” Between the lag and the terrible audio cues, it took me about a dozen tries… and the whole time I was grinning and wondering, “Are these guys for real?”

The jumping sections are even worse, since the 2.5D backdrops make it supremely difficult to gauge depth; it’s like trying to navigate a 2-D avatar through one of those magic-eye pictures. I must’ve jumped off of that cable beneath Shinra HQ at least thirty times… each time wondering if I was even standing in the right place at all.

But all the same, there’s no punishment for failing those segments, and they have this peculiar, almost campy charm about them. I’ve been thinking a lot about “camp” in games, and have found a great amount of it in many of FFVII’s non-core gameplay segments. The entire bit in Junon where Cloud dresses up like a Shinra Soldier and bumbles his way through a parade… it almost played like farce, with the running from place to place, the mistaken identity, the lack of combat or real danger, the heinous march music on a loop… what exactly do you think was the intent of the designers there?

It’s the kind of segment that would’ve been left on the cutting-room floor these days, if it even made it that far. But there’s no question that FFVII would suffer without it, and so I wonder if making a game leaner and meaner is a good thing, or if it has the kind of positive effect on sales that most publishers assume?

I’m also playing the much-talked-about Deadly Premonition at the moment, and that game is a lumbering mess of convoluted, ridiculous gameplay elements that somehow comes together to form something more interesting than a similar-yet-polished game like Alan Wake. I feel similarly about the differences between FFVII and FFXIII. Without wanting to head too far down that particular comparative rabbit-hole, I’ll say that when I reviewed FFXIII a year ago I called it “unbalanced and strangely unfinished, like a beautifully constructed, lustrously polished chair with only two legs.” I’m fine with rethinking my past conclusions, but now that I’ve played FFVII (and a clearer spiritual inspiration for FFXIII there is not), I believe my conclusion to be truer than ever.

But where then does that leave us? Would FFXIII seriously have benefited from having some broke-ass non-combat gameplay inserted just to change things up? Can a game’s ragged edges really be seen as points in its favor? I know that there is no need to be prescriptive here, and I acknowledge that these things must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. But the fact remains that I often find myself enjoying Final Fantasy VII not in spite of its jankiness, but because of it.


Coming up in Part 4: The “camp” of FFVII, and the surprisingly communal way we play the game.

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