When considering a review of any video game, it helps to know the biases of the person writing it. In the case of Final Fantasy VII, I’ll get mine out of the way up front: at the time of its original release, it was my favorite game of all time, remaining in that spot for years. To be able to play it on a phone or tablet is something I never would have dreamed possible 18 years ago.
There’s also probably little I can add to a review of one of the most famous RPGs ever made. It’s possible that there are younger gamers discovering it for the first time, but my guess is that the vast majority of people considering buying this for iOS have played it before. In other words, you probably have an opinion on Final Fantasy VII before you’d ever fire it up on a mobile device for the first time.
So if you loved this game before, you’re going to find most of what you loved completely intact. The story is, if anything, even more sprawling than you remember, with twists and turns aplenty and lots of classic Final Fantasy melodrama. There are quite a few cutscenes and dialogue segments to break up the adventuring, and it’s easy to get immersed in all of it.
The Active Time Battle system is kind of an ingenious compromise between real time and turn-based RPG battles, proof that you don’t have to go to one extreme or the other. Likewise, the Materia system allows for flexibility on how you customize and equip your party. Both gameplay mechanics continued to evolve in later titles in the series, adding extra layers of complexity — but not always for the better.
Graphically, you need to put yourself back in the mindset of gamers from 1997. Final Fantasy VII was best in class in its era, both in terms of the in-game action and all of the animated cinematics. That might be the hardest concept for people who have never seen it before to grasp. It looks dated, but that’s because we’ve come a long way in that area since the PlayStation days.
What’s left, then, is evaluating Final Fantasy VII as a purely mobile experience, and here’s where it becomes more of a mixed bag. Not too many games release with a literal cheat button on the bottom of the screen, but this one gives you the ability to toggle random encounters (one of the bread and butter elements of any FF game) with just a tap. Purists will no doubt howl in outrage, but I don’t consider this a big deal. Use it if you want, ignore it if you don’t. The game is still plenty challenging, as you don’t get the base gameplay explained to you until about an hour into the story, characters don’t heal automatically between battles, and save points are further apart than you’d expect.
In one of the rare cases of me praising a virtual thumbstick, its inclusion also makes it easier to navigate the game’s vast world. Unfortunately, everything else about the user interface is less pleasant. With a touchscreen as a canvas, Square Enix could have made the iOS version of Final Fantasy VII a lot more user friendly when it comes to navigating menus and the like. Instead, it settled for a transparent overlay of the buttons from a PlayStation controller, meaning you end up having to do a whole lot of virtual button-pressing to accomplish certain tasks.
In fact given the option, I’d prefer a controller in my hand instead of trying to move around the Materia menu, to name just one example, with its on-screen counterpart. That’s another way of saying, “Floating Mickey Mouse glove, I wish I wasn’t seeing you again.”
It’s a little bit hard to fathom, and renders this version of Final Fantasy VII merely a port instead of something that could stand in its own. Perhaps it’s unwise to tinker too much with a legend, but Square Enix erred on the safe side here, and I wish it hadn’t. I’m fond of being able to spend time with this game again, but it’s not going to replace my memories of playing the original, even as they grow hazier with the passage of time.