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Final Fantasy VII Takes Adventure Games to New Visual, Audio Heights

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Here’s a wish for the all too rapidly approaching holiday season: As game makers crank up production and flood stores with titles, let’s hope just half live up to the standard set by the latest installment in the Final Fantasy series.

Final Fantasy VII for Sony Play-Station is one of those games that defies verbal description. It’s so full of overwhelming visual and audio goodies that it has to be seen and heard and ultimately played to be truly understood. Regardless of platform, this is intelligent adventure gaming at its best.

Packing three full discs, Final Fantasy VII follows the adventures of Cloud Strife, a mercenary signed on to help save a planet. Like all of Square Soft’s Final Fantasy adventures, the story unfolds and changes over time as players work their way through worlds that are full of magic and violence.

In past incarnations, these worlds never really lived up to the story or game play. On eight- and 16-bit cartridge-based machines, the scenery was flat. Screens scrolled up or down or to the side. Perspective was usually an awkward sort of top-down view that was tolerable only because most players were so engaged by the tasks at hand and dying to know what lies beyond the next boss.

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But on a 32-bit, disc-based machine like Sony PlayStation, the scenery and sounds take play to new heights. The worlds are so beautifully rendered that it’s tempting to sit and just stare at the screen for a few minutes. Fortunately, though, there’s little time for lollygagging because the game delivers top-quality action at every turn.

Fight sequences, long the most tedious component of adventure games, melt onto the screen and demand players’ full strategic attention--particularly as the story progresses and bosses become increasingly tricky to kill. Nice stuff.

In a way, though, it doesn’t really matter what a reviewer like me says about Final Fantasy VII--however lavish the praise, which it almost universally is. The game is well on its way to becoming one of the best-selling titles of all time.

In fact, so much attention--however deserved--has been devoted to Final Fantasy VII that it threatens to drown out another great title that had the misfortune of hitting shelves about the same time. Oddworld Abe’s Oddysee from GT Interactive and Oddworld Inhabitants is perhaps the first side-scroller on Sony PlayStation that’s actually a lot of fun to play.

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Side-scrollers filled 16-bit offerings, but as technology advanced and designers expanded gaming environments, those that survived pretty much stank. Abe works because designers made side-scrollers fun again, the way Shiny Entertainment did with Earthworm Jim.

How?

By creating an endearing main character and environments that are top of the line. Abe is a Mudokon slave working in a meat factory called RuptureFarms. Problem is, most of the Meeches, Scrabs and Paramites that keep the meat factory running are nearing extinction. So the corporate bosses decide to start packaging Mudokon meat instead. The problem becomes obvious.

Abe is a sweetie and players with any kind of heart will fall for him instantly. He’s sort of a cross between ET and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. The environments are as rich as players expect on 32-bit machines and the play is tough but fun.

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One cool thing about the game: infinite lives. The point is to explore, so designers didn’t want players to get frustrated early on. Over time, four other Oddworld adventures are scheduled for release, creating the potential at least for a following as strong and devoted as Final Fantasy’s. If Abe’s Oddysee is any indication, that’s likely.

Staff writer Aaron Curtiss reviews video games every other Thursday. To comment on a column or to suggest games for review, send letters to The Times, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth, CA 91311. Or send e-mail to Aaron.Curtiss@latimes.com.


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