** Spoiler warning - if the title wasn't obvious enough, this contains plot spoilers for Final Fantasy VII. If somehow you've managed to avoid them this long, and intend to keep avoiding them, then read at your own risk. **
Despite being a fairly avid console RPG fan I've never played Final Fantasy VII. There are three reasons for this:
1) As I've probably noted too many times - I wasn't into the PlayStation when it was new and didn't really start playing it until 2003.
2) I played Final Fantasy VIII first, hated it, and vowed to never play another Final Fantasy game made after 1995.
3) Without even trying I've already read all the major plot spoilers.
The third reason is the one still sticking around today. I've come to learn that Final Fantasy VII and VIII are different enough that my opinion on one shouldn't apply to the other. I'm readily willing to admit that Final Fantasy VII is probably a great game that I'd enjoy. Playing it just seems so very pointless though because I already know everything important that happens.
Final Fantasy VII has a rabid following that insists on mentioning it every chance they get. Poor Wikipedia, ostensibly a reference site, is littered with references to Final Fantasy VII in articles that couldn't seem to be more unrelated. For example, one day I was on Wikipedia diagnosing myself with multiple personality disorder when I stumbled across a major Final Fantasy VII spoiler. Yes, somebody legitimately thought Final Fantasy VII was relevant to an article about mental illness.
You can't read about subatomic particles, cartoons starring Adam Carolla, Norse Mythology, or Mandy Moore without catching a Final Fantasy VII reference. It's like a virus that has slowly spread to every article it can.
When I (or possibly an alternate personality) recognized this infestation, I (or possibly we) decided to try assembling the storyline of Final Fantasy VII from Wikipedia articles not about Final Fantasy VII.
To go a step farther - no articles about any Final Fantasy games, movies, characters, developers, or whatever were included in this search. There are references from general gaming articles but for the most-part these are entries which should have nothing to do with video games whatsoever. Since Square has a propensity for reusing themes and archetypes, I'll be using my experience with their other 90s RPGs to piece these nuggets of information together into a semi-cohesive form.
And no, I didn't spend weeks on end reading every Wikipedia article - a simple Google search for "Final Fantasy VII" site:en.wikipedia.org does the trick quite nicely. 2,380 results, seriously people?
Anyway, enough rambling, here it goes...
Final Fantasy VII is set in the world of Gaia which is Earth-like4. All life on the planet is bound together by something called the Lifestream20. It seems to work something like the Force but localized to one planet and without the whole moving objects with your mind thing. There is an alien being called Jenova that is draining the Lifestream from Gaia 27. I assume this plot element isn't revealed until about mid-way through the game. The concept reminds me of Lavos from Chrono Trigger and likely isn't considerably different.
The cities of Gaia, maybe not all but at least major ones, are self-contained and dominated by mega-corporations. The government is merely a puppet for the corporations that have all the actual power. I enjoy the Shadowrun setting so this aspect of the game sounds appealing. The Shin-Ra Electric Power Company is one such mega-corporation which has a significant influence over events in the world. 3
The main character of the game is Cloud Strife who has spiky hair and wears a large protective shoulder plate5. Cloud had a very traumatic childhood which included the death of his close friend Zack. He wished to repress his negative experiences to the degree that he replaced his persona and memories with those of Zack14. Like the Jenova thing, this is likely revealed a couple hours into the game.
Mr. Strife is involved in a love triange with two women. The first is childhood friend15 Tifa Lockheart who is attractive12 and owns a bar called 7th Heaven8. I'm picturing her like Marle from Chrono Trigger.
The other lead female is Aerith Gainsborough who sells flowers15 and fights with a staff35. In later spin-offs she's voiced by Mandy Moore7 and Mena Suvari36 which implies she's young and small-framed. She is an orphan34 which almost certainly comes up in dialogs. Character wise, she reminds me of Relm from Final Fantasy VI only much older because it would be really creepy if she wasn't.
Of the two, Cloud has feelings for Aerith and regards Tifa as more of a friend. Tifa may have unrequited affection toward Cloud and stays with him throughout the game because of this.
The main villain of the game is Sephiroth1. Although he's supposed to be a total bad-ass he is voiced by Lance Bass22 in later spin-off games. I'm guessing he's cut from the same mold as Kefka and is a flamboyant type. Like Kefka, he has extremely powerful magical abilities capable of destroying the entire world6.
Unlike Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI, Final Fantasy VII seems to have a small number of playable characters. The entire playable cast might be as small as 3-4. Despite that, there are a number of minor characters you interact with. Some may join your party for a brief time but none seem to be part of the "main" team.
One possibly-playable character is Cid Highwind who fights with a trident31. There are also two hidden characters named Yuffie Kisaragi and Vincent Valentine26. During the course of the game the party also encounters a race of ancients who aid them19.
Reno25 is a member of a group called the Turks who oppose the main party at some point 17. I have no clue if he's actively working for Sephiroth or an independent part of the story.
Although not a plot element, I wanted to take a second to talk about the battle system. The foundation is based on the Active Time Battle system used in Final Fantasy IV and Chrono Trigger. New to the system is the concept of a limit breaks which is a powerful counter-attack that is invoked when a character takes great damage21. Each character has a unique limit break as far as I can tell.
There's also a special attack called "Lucky 7's" that is invoked when a character in the party has exactly 7777 hit points. They go into a berserk state where they repeatedly strike opponents for 7777 damage. The downside is the character drops to 1 hit point after the battle. 9
Characters gain magic and increase their statistics by using or equipping Materia which is a crystallized form of energy tied to the lifestream of the planet11. This concept seems similar to the espers found in Final Fantasy VI and VIII.
The game begins in the city of Midgar which is a massive enclosed self-sustaining city that is raised above the ground2. The population is divided into many sub-sections of the city that meet in a central area24. One of the first mini-bosses in the game is demon named Eligor who resides in a part of the city called the Train Graveyard37.
The party soon joins up with a group called AVALANCHE who are opposing the Shin-Ra Electric Company. They have found that the Shin-Ra Electric Power Company discovered a new way to produce power by draining the lifestream from the planet and converting it into something called Mako energy.29
The party leaves Migar and travels to Nibelheim23. During that travel there is a swamp where they fight a serpent called the Midgar Zolom 24. At some point I'm positive the party travels around the world by Chocobo and airship but there are no references to either in the articles I read.
The party continues their quest to bring down the Shin-Ra Electric Company. They meet a man named Reeve Teusti, a scientist maybe, who aids them with a remote controlled robot cat named Cait Sith. Cait Sith rides on a mechanical moogle and has a megaphone10. That sounds ridiculous but the execution has to be better than what I just described. Anyway, this feline robot helps the party avoid many traps33.
The party encounters Sephiroth who kills Aerith. This occurs over a cinematic cutscene15. This is probably one of those "meeting the last boss before you're ready fights that you're supposed to lose" events that is used in many of RPGs. They find that Sephiroth has summoned a meteor that will destroy Gaia6. I can't find his motivation for doing this but he's the bad guy so why not.
The remainder of the game is centered around the party searching for magic capable of stopping the meteor and weapons capable of defeating Sephiroth.
Final Fantasy VII contains several mini-games and optional sidequests. These seem to be larger and more involved than any previous installment in the series.
There are powerful ruby and emerald weapons that can only be found in optional sidequests where the party has to defeat difficult mini-bosses.16.
There is a sidequest where Cloud needs to collect articles of women's clothing to fool a male character into spending the night with him. Along the way a minor character named Mukki tries to pick-up the cross-dressing Cloud. 13
There is also a snowboarding mini-game18. Although I have nothing to confirm this, I think it first appears to travel between two locations and then is available to try again if the player wants to beat their best time. Yes, I'm assuming this based off the racing game in Chrono Trigger.
The party confronts Sephiroth in the final battle. Cloud hopefully has the Buster sword30 at this point which is the most powerful weapon he can equip.
Sephiroth fights with the Masamune30 which is in about 100 other Square games. His limit break is called Super Nova28 which, as the name implies, causes the sun to supernova and destroy the planet32. I have no idea how he plans to survive either this or the meteor he summoned but there has to be an explanation somewhere in the game. Maybe he just plain doesn't care whether he lives or dies.
Ultimately the only way to counter Sephiroth's meteor is with the spell Holy6.
So there it is, Final Fantasy VII. Let the hate mail begin.