That's right: Final Fantasy VII is not at the top of this list. Read on before you sharpen your pitchforks and fire up your torches, though.
Its glowing reputation is well-deserved, just like with Final Fantasy VI. The story is a true epic in the most genuine sense of the word, spanning a plethora of varied locations and encompassing numerous memorable characters, both just and evil. The setting is wildly different from anything that came before, but unlike Final Fantasy VIII, it's vital to the story and characterization.
Industrialization's gritty dark side is fully realized, where it was only hinted at in the previous installment, and it allows the developers to explore it in more depth -- Shinra's merciless grasp on the entire world at the expense of both people and environment, the problems that arise from experimentation without ethical guidelines, and the nature of individual identity and what it means to be human in the midst of all of this.
The cast is varied, but small enough to focus fully on each, which is vital for a story of this magnitude. Focused as it is on character, though, important members like Tifa and Barrett are ultimately rather static in comparison with Cloud, which is a shame, given the material present to work with. Additionally, as good as the story is, it is also prone to being convoluted at times, a problem plaguing some later games in the series as well.
The game continues tweaking what VI started in terms of mechanics as well, replacing Espers with Materia and erasing differences between skills and potential growth -- except with Aeris, of course. Along with limit breaks, it makes battles less of a challenge than they should be, to the point where being limited to three party members really isn't too much of a big deal.
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