Final Fantasy VII was a highly popular game in 1997 and the PlayStation presented a huge leap in technology that made 3D games a reality so let's see how SquareSoft managed the jump from 2D to 3D.
Final Fantasy VII starts out with 3 protagonists: Cloud, Barrett, and Tifa destroying a Mako Reactor. Mako is the Lifestream of the planet processed into liquid form so that's why the reactors must be destroyed... or something like that. Meanwhile, the evil corporation Shinra is trying to find the Promised Land by doing cruel experiments on Aerith then Cloud and company pursue Sephiroth across the world because Cloud wants revenge for the destruction of his hometown, Nibelheim. It's a long story that's difficult to follow at times which is typical of Final Fantasy games. In my Final Fantasy VI retrospective, I mentioned that the party members all lost something important to them and that seems to hold true in Final Fantasy VII yet they still must find the strength within themselves to save the planet.
Final Fantasy VII uses the ATB (Active Time Battle) system. This system is used in many Final Fantasy games and it means that your party waits until the ATB bar is full before they can act. ATB can be intimidating for some players; in fact, I remember I was turned off from playing Final Fantasy X-2 back in the day because of it. If this sounds like you, you'll want to change the ATB setting to "wait" in the config menu. That way, enemies won't take turns while you're browsing your items and magic. Speaking of which, I recommend visiting the config menu before starting any Final Fantasy game because there are usually a bunch of useful options there.
What's new in Final Fantasy VII is the addition of Materia that you can use to augment your gear. Some equipment pieces have no slots for Materia while others can have up to 8. You start with a few simple Materia and can eventually use elemental Materia such as Fire, Lightning, and Ice to do magic attacks, Restore to heal, and Steal to snatch stuff from enemies. There are also a few oddballs like the "All" Materia and I wasn't sure what they do exactly but it's something that you can easily figure out with a little online searching. Eventually, you'll find more advanced Materia and by that time, you'll have a good grasp on the combat system.
The first 8 or so hours take place in the city of Midgar which features cool action-packed sequences like the train hijacking. Anyway, you sneak into Shinra HQ by taking the super-long stairs, of course; get arrested, escape, and then there's that bit where you flee by motorcycle. By the way, there are lots of cool mini-games like this throughout Final Fantasy VII. Finally, you'll leave Midgar and find yourself on the world map. Wait; there's a world map and you don't get to see it until you're this far into the game? That blew my mind!
At this point, you can't go far as you're stuck on the eastern continent. However, there are still a couple of cool things that you can do. In the swamp near Midgar, there's a powerful monster called the Midgar Zolom. Early on, it's very strong but you can beat it with some smart preparation. You can also do some Chocobo breeding near the ranch and play a fun tower defense mini-game at Fort Condor.
Exploring the massive world is fantastic in any Final Fantasy game and it is here, too. About two-thirds through disc 1, you get a boat that you can use to start sailing around. The boat can't sail everywhere and it's tedious traveling by rivers and oceans but it's better than traversing on foot because you don't initiate any random encounters. At the start of disc 2, you acquire an airship called the Highwind and you can use that to fly almost anywhere with ease. If you explore enough, you can find awesome secret areas and there are also 2 secret characters that you can recruit. While you're at it, try and keep an eye out for chests while exploring various caves and dungeons. You'll find plenty of gear and Materia and some of it is permanently missable which can be a real bummer.
When you're strong enough, there are 3 optional superbosses: Ruby Weapon, Emerald Weapon, and Ultima Weapon. You better be well-prepared before taking on these monstrosities. Also, I'd have to kick myself if I didn't mention Gold Saucer. It's an amusement park with mini-games like Chocobo Racing and Battle Square. Actually, to be honest, the mini-games are pretty humdrum except for Battle Square which is a series of increasingly difficult battles where you can only use Cloud. The further you survive, the better the rewards are.
The worst part of Final Fantasy VII and the aspect that'll turn many people off from playing it is its graphics. I can't deny that it looks ancient but at the same time, many parts actually look pretty good; particularly, the cutscenes. It also has some catchy battle music and the last 2 bosses of the game (Jenova Synthesis and Sephiroth) have their own epic scores if you're patient enough to get there.
Overall, Final Fantasy VII is a very solid RPG. However, I didn't enjoy it as much as VI, X, or XII. Final Fantasy VII looks extremely dated now and X and XII offer a lot more post-game challenges which I thoroughly enjoy. Here's hoping the remake is awesome!