My prior associations with Final Fantasy VII weren't positive: Hey, look! We're pimping out all our female characters! (I've realized only recently how much the horny teenage attitude of the 32-bit generation led to me getting out of then-current video games for a good while.) Fans seemed awed at the incorporation of sci-fi technology in an RPG setting, which was old news to me as a Phantasy Star fan. They were psyched at how "grown-up" the game was - look, look, you're playing as terrorists, and your little chibi avatars can say "damn" now! Above all, they were in love with Final Fantasy's new polygonal art style, which surely spelled the death of those kiddie pixels forever. (It also came from Sony, whose U.S. division was heavily invested in an "RPGs suck & aren't cool enough for our system" narrative at the time.) I know the main story beats by osmosis, but the whole enterprise seemed tryhard. I never actually played it.
At the seven-hour mark - just outside Midgar, at the party's first step into the larger world - I can say that the game embodies everything that was wrong, but a lot that was right, with the 32-bit era. It has been so long in my mind as the symbol of the former - the prizing of polygons over the optimal artistic choices; the obsession with a 12-year-old's idea of "maturity"; treating women like garbage - that I might not be able to engage with it fully. But I am enjoying it currently, and I can see, in some way, why everyone lost their minds about it a couple decades ago.
For one, the polygons do look damn good. The game effectively uses transparencies, sharpness, a dark palette punctuated with bright contrasting hues, and a strong combo of 3D and lovingly-detailed and lived-in prerendered backgrounds to make this eyecatching, cyberpunkish, colorful & sharp yet undeniably bleak world. It must have come across to others how the sleek, futuristic setting of Phantasy Star II felt against Nintendo's offerings. The game also uses camera pans and angles to good effect to emphasize scale and add a grandeur or ominousness to its locations and break out of the "tiny chibi characters in dollhouses" RPG overhead view. (Again, I've seen this before in a Sega RPG - Lunar: Eternal Blue, most notably in its opening - but FF7's usage of these techniques in overworld travel, when you have control of your character, is groundbreaking.) There's a story and atmosphere here that would've been an utter revelation to those raised on SNES RPGs alone: your "heroes'" opening move of blowing up a power reactor kills innocent people and ultimately does nothing to advance their environmentalist cause. The all-powerful company they're fighting levels their own neighborhood in retaliation and pins the blame on them, cementing their reputation as pariahs instead of scrappy, inspiring rebels; some of your allies die in a fruitless attempt to save the neighborhood, and one, in her last breath, accepts it as a form of punishment for the innocents killed in the reactor explosion. This world on a course toward death - its people are too fallen, the forces at work too vast, and the rot too pervasive - and the only thing the people can control are their reactions in the face of doom.
("Anxious Heart," by the way, is a superb unofficial theme for the unresolvable, inescapable moral tension of this section: endless anxiety, with no rest to be found, ever.)
In a way, though, the level of dialogue writing here ain't up to it. In the aftermath of the leveling of the heroes' home sector, there's an exchange where Barret's raring to fight still, but Tifa hesitates. Her reluctance, coming on the heels of Jessie's last words, suggests that she, too, might be reconsidering her past actions and future path - but the game invokes none of this beyond her noting that she has to figure out her "feelings." The script is still Super Nintendo-limited and kiddish in ways.
Also, there is a good deal of the stuff I lamented. The Honeybee Manor quest to pimp out Tifa or Aerith (or a cross-dressing Cloud) but not really but kind of takes up a good portion of the early game; everyone gets saved/saves themselves in time, but there are a lot of smirky hee-hee near misses in the sexual assault department (the party members who aren't picked are passed around to the other men in the mansion). There's also a lot of ambient unfortunateness in the area: Cloud is told by a passerby to take Aerith and "sell" his "heifer" to the mob boss; Cloud visiting the Honeybee Manor as a john hints at him having an unwanted sexual encounter with a man while he's unconscious, though the scene is played so unclearly (and for "laughs") that it's hard to suss out what's going on. In the Shinra headquarters, there's a scene where the mad scientist Hojo locks Aerith in with what he thinks is a feral beast (actually Red XIII) in the hopes that he'll rape her. Elsewhere in idiocy, a guard calls someone the r-word.
I like most the little moments of tenuous life in this dead world: Aerith's informal garden in her crumbled church, fed by the light from the collapsed ceiling above, or the moment where Cloud comes across a playground and Aerith, pleasantly surprised it's still standing, sits down on the slide, with Cloud joining her. I'm surprised with Aerith, actually: she's been flanderized over the years through her famous sacrifice into a Madonna born to die, so elevated and holy she's devoid of humanity. In the actual game, while she has a clear connection to the spiritual, she's full of life, bursting with love and enthusiasm for the world - as she should be.
I had heard that FF7 was the end of FF dungeons, with the previous games' labyrinths replaced with dumbed-down one-way paths. That's not quite the case; while the labyrinths are gone, they're been replaced with the intriguing choice of very dense spaces that are difficult to navigate. They're best represented by a dungeon in Midgar that consists of a single-screen junkyard, where you have to figure out how to negotiate your surroundings in order to get through: walk on top of a girder to get over a berm, get into the cab of a crane and reposition its to lead you over, etc. - dealing with random encounters all the while. I enjoy this approach: it's distinctive and offers the challenges of a dungeon (and some new, more puzzly ones) in a more compact format.
I was surprised to find that combat actually does feel like an evolution of FF6's in some ways - not only in mechanics, but in feel: the camera starts out from the classic side-on FF perspective but then swoops dynamically through the battlefield to highlight the action, as is its wont in this game. It genuinely did feel kind of good, in a purely nostalgic sense, to be back at that royal blue "Take All" post-battle item screen. I recall being extremely skeptical around the game's release at the interchangeability of the characters, and I don't think those concerns were unwarranted - though it hasn't become a huge issue yet (and though I haven't taken scrupulous notes), all the characters seem to act at roughly the same speed, cast magic at roughly the same effectiveness, and, save for Aerith, do around the same damage to enemies. So far, they've been distinguished mainly by their Limit Breaks, a mechanic I do quite like: the gimmick of them being powered by characters getting hit, with harder attacks adding more to the bar, lends a great turn-the-tables mechanic to the proceedings, and Limit Breaks trigger frequently enough to play a major part in your tactics. (It's like someone took Desperation Attacks and said, "well, why don't we make it so that someone actually sees them?") And they're at least a little more individualized, to make up for in part how no one has a unique special ability: Cloud does reliably big damage; Barret does big damage but also has an option for an MP drain attack; Aerith offers very useful group healing that is always welcome and has saved the party on more than one occasion; and Tifa's uses this slot machine mechanic that is...not great, honestly, but it's neat to see how her fighting-game combo adds more moves and becomes longer as you level up.
The gameplay has a few aggravating habits, one of them being how it constantly unequips all your goddamn characters. This is ostensibly to let you reoutfit your current crew with your best equipment as your party composition changes, but it more often leads to characters charging into battle with no Materia or spells, as the party switching happens so damn often in this early stretch of the game. FF7 also likes to break up the RPG with a variety of minigames - check out our non-menu-based action! - but they're just frustrating due to Square just not being very good at other types of gameplay at this point: they're plagued by very poor hit detection (that motorcycle escape) and bad signaling ("press the buttons simultaneously" in the reactor). Also, combat is slow in parts. The spell graphics take sooo loooong, and the intro to combat is Chrono Cross-level lugubrious.
As mentioned, I knew about the reactor explosion; I was not aware of the plate falling to crush Sector 7. I knew about the Shinra HQ break-in and the group getting captured, only to wake up and find that Sephiroth has slaughtered their captors; I was not aware that President Shinra died in that attack. While the Shinra break-in was a neat sequence gameplaywise - a blitz of battles (I chose to rush the building; I'm not here for sneaking missions), a series of puzzle floors, and then several bosses at the end, including a neat dueling-elevators tank battle where you can hit the boss only via ranged attacks - I think the climax storywise fell flat. For one, keeping random battles during the sequence where your party wanders alone about the blood-soaked corridors in the silent aftermath of Sephiroth's slaughter, saved from doom by something unknowable but clearly far worse, shatters the tension of what should be a bravura sequence. While I can get behind the idea of showing of what the main villain is capable for an extended period before revealing the man himself, I'm not sure it's working here, as it's leaving too much of a vacuum in the personal hero-villain dynamics. The Shinra executives are not an engaging bunch of bad guys, and as they're just a bunch of suits, not fearsome Magicite-infused warriors, the question of "why don't the heroes just kill them?" is always on the table. Ditto the Turks, despite their rep as these invincible badasses who inspire instant surrender in our heroes; they have no presence, and the one time we did fight one, he plinked us a few times with a peashooter, then turned tail in a chopper. This leaves the big reveal for the break-in sequence as Rufus Shinra, and while Cloud tries to hype him up ("This is the real crisis for the planet!"), his feline bodyguard proves a tougher customer than him. Cloud himself, for that matter, is not that interesting at this point; he compares poorly in terms of personality to every other party member, and his history with Shinra doesn't present much of a hook right now beyond a simple, poorly-sketched revenge plot. (The voices he's hearing are more confusing than intriguing and do little to enhance the story.) The world state created by Shinra and the actions taken by the resistance, as well as their attempts to grapple with the ramifications, are interesting, but the cast involved with Shinra activities is not, despite the game's attempts to convince otherwise.
People are saying that the soon-to-be-released first volume of the remake has to consist of Midgar only. I don't see how that's possible without the significant addition of content - unless the game really is about seven hours long, which I suppose you can't put past Square these days. Anyhow: I'm now out in the bright, big overworld, and I actually don't know what happens next! We seem to be on more typical RPG plot fare, as we've learned that Shinra wants to use magical girl Aerith, Last of the Ancients, Whoever They Are, to locate the Promised Land, where I imagine they will blow up the Mana Tree. We're supposed to head for a town called Kalm, and I recall - from reading fan-translated game scripts posted on GameFAQs before FF7's U.S. release - that Cloud (or "Claude," as those scripts called him) provides a big exposition dump about his past here, but beyond that, I don't know exactly how the story unwinds for the next bit. Onward!