Final Fantasy VII is one of the most influential roleplaying games of all time. Nine years after its release in 1997, Square Enix released a sequel that isn’t really talked about: the third person shooter Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII.
By the end of the 90s, Sony had firmly established themselves as producers of cinematic, epic game experiences. Metal Gear Solid, Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, and Xenogears boasted detailed narratives with cutscenes and production value commensurate with growing game budgets. Chief among these games was Final Fantasy VII. Critical reception was strong, and sales were equally impressive—in three weeks over half a million copies were sold. Leaping off this popularity, Square Enix announced the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII in 2002. It was a massive multimedia project that began with a CGI film called Advent Children and later added a proper video game sequel to Final Fantasy VII in the form of 2006’s Dirge of Cerberus.
Instead of another roleplaying game, Dirge of Cerberus was an action-packed third person shooter. It focused on Vincent Valentine, an optional party member from Final Fantasy VII. Following the events of Advent Children, a group of magically enhanced special soldiers called Deepground launch an attack against the world, and Vincent is the only one who can stop them. It was an odd swerve for the series, moving away from protagonist Cloud Strife and into unfamiliar territory.
The gameplay is an odd combination of action-heavy gunplay and RPG progression systems and customizations. It’s Square Enix’s first shooter, and Vincent’s movement is slightly stilted. He holds his gun arm stiff as a board, and his melee attack pops out too fast. Dirge of Cerberus is a snappy game, but it comes at the price of elegance. In cutscenes, Vincent can leap about gracefully; in gameplay, he’s far clumsier and hard to control although the awkwardness could partially be rectified with a USB mouse and keyboard. When the game was released in North America, Square Enix gave it an overhaul that added a double jump, increased Vincent’s movement speed, and shifted the camera from behind Vincent’s back to over his shoulder. This created a sense of speed lacking from the Japanese version, although it couldn’t completely redeem the stiff gunplay.
As if to compensate for the staid gameplay, the game’s production value and narrative are ambitious and hyper-stylized. Character designer Tetsuya Nomura embraced an anime sensibility that eschewed the sketch-book designs of Final Fantasy VII to create a colorful and flamboyant cast befitting the game’s melodramatic scale. The plot, initially concerned with Deepground’s war against humanity, gives way to focus on a core cast of villains called the Tsviets and their leader Weiss the Immaculate. Vincent is revealed as the bearer of the Chaos gene, enabling him to transform into a manifestation of the planet’s will and battle with the world consuming Omega Weapon. By the end of the game, he is flying about to battle abstract planet consuming demons. All the while, a soundtrack featuring pop hits from the artist Gackt wails in the background.
The story beats can feel excessive, but Dirge of Cerberus finds itself in offbeat, over the top excess. Final Fantasy VII straddled a line between action and melancholy, with a whiplashing tone containing theme park dates and crossdressing trade sequences alongside eerie murder and existential questioning. Dirge of Cerberus, while perhaps overambitious in scale, maintains a raucous tone that feels consistent overall even if it shies away from the self-reflective moments that gave Final Fantasy VII such long term resonance.
Playstation 2 games such as Dirge of Cerberus arise in a transition period after developers has acclimated to the third dimension but before genre conventions were slowly homogenized by AAA ambition. One of the game’s most interesting features was a Japan-only multiplayer mode that experimented with match structure and had a self-contained prequel narrative. Using Square’s PlayOnline service, players didn’t just compete in team deathmatch or capture the flag but also cooperated in large boss fights. It’s a mode as haphazard and bold as the main story, eager to test the boundaries of multiplayer space while maintaining a confident attachment to the narrative. Unfortunately, when the time came to release the game in North America, the mode was cut due to PlayOnline’s lack of popularity outside of Japan.
Dirge of Cerberus was an experiment that seemed doomed to failure from the start. It was Square Enix’s entry point into a new genre, tonally divergent from the beloved Final Fantasy VII, and while it was content to test the uncharted waters of console multiplayer, it did so too early. There’s been no real attempt to create a sequel or expand further down the Final Fantasy VII timeline since the game’s lukewarm reception in 2006. Instead, Square Enix has opted to remake their famous RPG with new systems and modern graphics. But for a moment, the company took a riskier path. It didn’t pay off, but it did create something wonderfully strange.