The first surprise is how quickly the game starts: partly because it’s a console game, so there’s no tinkering around with graphics options as with Oblivion, but the intro movie is brief and fairly vague, before it sweeps you straight into the game, running from a train with a group of soldiers.
One of FFVII’s best tricks is its smoothness: there are very few ‘cut-scenes’ – most of the dialogue and events happen in game. It makes the story feel very natural, and gives the whole game a sense of cohesion.
It also makes the game feel perfectly modern, since in-game cut-scenes are common place now – Oblivion uses them really well – but at the time, it was relatively rare. The first PC game I remember doing it was Activision’s undeservedly obscure Interstate '76, which came out in 1997.
What surprised me was how little difference the graphics made to the whole experience. Whenever I’ve gone back to play an old game that I’ve played before, I’ve always marvelled at just how plain ugly the past could be. FFVII actually looks good though – beautiful might be stretching it a bit, but it’s still got its looks.
Partly this is because the art direction is brilliant; each scene has a fixed camera angle, which the game designers use to create some great effects, and the fact there’s no ropey, early, pre-HDR dynamic lighting means they can just draw in spooky shadows and sparkling light when they need it.
But the fact the graphics still worked made me wonder if my repulsion at old games wasn’t just another trick of memory, though – just as, when you see an old picture of yourself and you wonder how on earth you thought that haircut or that jumper was ever a good idea, there is an impulse that goes ‘man, how did I ever love such an ugly game? I remembered it as much cooler…’
It's the characters, stupid
The characters are the weakest part of FFVII’s graphics, as they’re done using polygons – about ten each, from the look of it – as opposed to the drawn backdrops. However, after playing FFVII for just a few hours, it was the characters that drew me in, and it is the characters, if anything, that make the game great.
Unlike modern PC RPGs like Oblivion (and even older ones, like Baldur’s Gate), in FFVII you are Cloud Strife. You can change your name, but as far as customising your character goes, that’s it, which is a huge contrast to Oblivion, where you can spend at least an hour tinkering with the shape of your character’s eyebrows.
However, I have to say, I think FFVII gets it right. Cloud’s character goes hand in the hand with the plot; in fact, the plot, to some extent, is an exploration of his character, and a look at how he acts when faced with evil.