There is an important caveat that any review for Final Fantasy VII Remake should carry. Did the reviewer play the original and how much did they love it? In my case, I did play the original and it’s one of my most cherished entertainment memories.
While some kids had Star Wars, I had Final Fantasy VII. Like many who hold fond memories of the original, it was my first true story-driven gaming experience after years spent running plumbers through pipes and hedgehogs through rings. And just like that franchise, it was a cultural landmark. Its advertising was famously attention-grabbing and it broke ground for 3D cinematic storytelling (at least on consoles).
Also, like the epic Lucas birthed, it has been rebooted decades later. And the reaction will likely be as polarized.
What Is It?
The Star Wars comparisons are intentional. This is, in many ways, the Star Wars of PlayStation – if not gaming as a whole. It has persisted in culture for decades after its launch and characters have been introduced to younger generations through other properties (just like Star Wars). Moreover, it’s a remake that’s been teased and anticipated for the better part of 15 years and drew tears from fans the world over upon its reveal in 2015.
FF7 Remake covers issues as real as environmental degradation and as fantastical as mysticism.
For the somehow uninitiated, Final Fantasy VII Remake tells the story of a mercenary, Cloud Strife, hired by an eco-terrorist organization called Avalanche. The adventure starts in the quasi-futuristic steampunk city of Midgar, where Avalanche systematically attacks the Mako reactors that are powering the city at the expense of the planet in an analogy for oil and global warming even more appropriate 23 years after its initial release.
So what IS it, really? In the end, it’s arguably the most audacious remake in gaming history. It takes a roughly 5-9 hour portion of the original game and expands it to 30-50 hours (depending on side content), introduces a new battle system, and adds elements to the story that will either delight, confound, or enrage fans.
Why Should I Care?
If game releases in the age of coronavirus suffer the same fate as The Last of Us Part II, this will likely be the most talked about game of 2020. It offers some of the most entertaining and bizarre battles of the year, features a story that elicits tears from even first-time players, and takes you on a rollercoaster of emotions that range from panic to delight. And while that rightfully sounds like an endorsement, it’s far from perfect.
The battle system in Final Fantasy VII Remake is perhaps the most welcome addition to the game, unless you’re a turn-based purist. This is not a judgment of those who hold those beliefs. They have an understandable point-of-view. They believe action games may be fun, but they don’t require the tactical thought of turn-based games. While historically true, that has certainly changed over the years with games like Dark Souls, Nioh, and Horizon: Zero Dawn, among others. All feature action-packed battles that require a thoughtful approach. While FF7 Remake isn’t as reliant on reflexes as those games, it’s the first entry in the series that truly provides moments that make you feel that similar blend of action and strategy that’s been missing from Square Enix’s attempts at building action-based battle systems in recent years, which have all been plagued by either too much action or too much thought. FF7 Remake, however, hits the “Goldilocks zone.”
That said, the battle system does have flaws along the margins. In battle, you can swap between party members at any time, but can only fully control one member at a time. As you attack enemies, you build up your Active Time Battle (ATB) gauge which allows you to open a command menu that temporarily slows the action to bullet time. From the command menu, you can initiate special abilities, cast magic, use items, and issue commands to other party members while maintaining control of your primary character. Once you get the hang of it, it flows smoothly. Better still, each character truly feels unique because of their play style. Cloud makes you feel like the sword-swinging hero you’ve envisioned for two decades. Tifa is pulled straight out of Tekken, and the times when you control her transport you into a different style of melee combat that is just as satisfying as Cloud while feeling completely different. Barrett offers the benefit of range and powerful special attacks, but at the expense of mobility. Lastly, and most surprisingly, Aerith provides not just powerful spellcasting, but formidable standard attacks from range. It’s a welcome change from the original game, which made most characters feel almost interchangeable when carrying similar materia combinations and made Aerith a liability because of her poor defense and inability to offer much in battle aside from magic support. When it’s hitting on all cylinders, it can be a fast-moving balancing act that blends together perfectly as you coordinate attacks, navigate around enemy attacks and traps, and find the rhythm that Square Enix has failed to deliver with almost all of its battle systems over the past decade.
Each character comes with a range of skills that provide lots of choices for how to attack.
Yet, as exhilarating as it feels when it’s all clicking, those moments are relatively short-lived. Characters controlled by the AI in your party are prone to make questionable decisions, such as stand directly in melee range of an enemy despite being equipped with a ranged weapon (you will find yourself constantly cursing at Barrett for having a gun, but insisting on shooting it two feet away from an enemy ready to counter with a brutal attack). Adding insult to injury, you’ll often want to swap to those characters at certain points in battle in order to have them use curative spells and items, only to find them unable to choose any commands because their ATB gauge fills less rapidly than the characters you control. These tradeoffs are likely intentionally included – especially the slower ATB gauge – to incentivize the player to swap between characters frequently, but it often results in sudden swings of momentum that cause you to frantically throw away your plan of attack as you rush to fix their mistakes. It doesn’t happen all of the time, but enough that it’s a frequent frustration. On the positive end, it keeps you on your toes and constantly aware of everything happening in a battle, but at other times makes you feel more at the mercy of the AI than in true control of battle flow.
Feeling a lack of real control, in fact, is a common problem in the game. Those titillated by the scope of the city promised by its opening aerial shot will likely end up disappointed by the final product. It’s a beautifully constructed world filled to the brim with unique – if visually uninspired – NPCs who add wonderful ambiance to its streets. As you pass citizens, you’ll be able to overhear surprisingly interesting exchanges that add to the lore of the city and change over the course of the game, making the world feel truly lived in. And you will be able to live in it, but only in the exact areas the game allows. The truth is that FF7 Remake is overbearingly linear. While linearity can help better deliver a cinematic experience (see: Naughty Dog), this game will simply not let you go anywhere you aren’t supposed to. Any time you start to even contemplate exploring a part of the map that’s just outside of the immediate area, the game throws up an invisible barrier with a giant “WARNING” icon alongside it.
For all of its grand scale, FF7 Remake severely limits areas you can explore.
Making the play area feel even more constrained are the giant arrows pointing toward entrances, exits, ladders, and crawl spaces. Before you ever have a chance to question, “where should I go next?” the game flashes an arrow along the ground making it clear (and there’s no option to remove them). It’s a shame, because FF7 Remake does such an incredible job immersing you in its world and characters, only to remind you at every turn that the experience you’re having is being fully directed down a particular path that makes everything feel smaller than the scale its grand production promises.
In between those annoying boundaries, however, is one of the most charming gaming worlds in recent memory. There are the expected JRPG caveats: characters often defy physics as in many animes, voice acting can tilt toward caricature at times, and, particularly noteworthy in this remake as opposed to the original, there are bewildering plot elements that often make events more confusing than interesting. Despite all of that, FF7 Remake has some of the most engaging storytelling in this console generation. In addition to meeting amusing characters that liven up your playthrough and reappear throughout your journey, this remake nails the most important characters: the central ones. Any fan of Final Fantasy VII over the years has likely engaged with most of what’s described as the FF7 Compilation, which includes movies like Advent Children and spin-off games like Crisis Core. To put it simply, they all mostly suck. They often contain interesting ideas, but are all dragged down by, at times, downright bad voice acting, awful reinterpretations of the characters, and some of the worst dialogue ever written. In fact, the Final Fantasy series as a whole often contains interesting core stories that are marred by poor storytelling. That is not the case here. Aside from a couple of moments, every single character is wonderfully drawn and each scene is expertly directed.
FF7 Remake is home to one of the most vibrant and interesting game worlds, unlike what newcomers may have seen in extended fiction like Advent Children.
Out of everything in this remake, the competence of the storytelling is the most surprising. Most fans are likely hoping for a story that isn’t as cringeworthy as Advent Children and at times as well told as the end of Crisis Core. This is so much more.
For roughly 95% of its playtime, FF7 Remake rivals the best storytelling in the medium, and deeply enriches both side characters and plot points that are breezed over in the original, such as Jessie’s observations about the first bombing mission and the different opinions about Avalanche among the populace. Though there are minor changes to the core story, everything is lovingly replicated and the elements that are changed or added usually do so well even if executional details are somewhat dissatisfying. For example, one of the major additions to the story featured in the trailer – dementor-looking spirits that occasionally interfere with the game’s events – are eventually explained. Though they make sense in context and serve exactly their purpose, you can’t help but feel annoyed by both their look and presence.
Where the story goes will be a surprise even to the most die-hard fans, and the ending in particular includes new elements that will drive some people absolutely mad – either at themselves for not being able to figure out what’s being communicated or at Square Enix for making those choices. Those choices will draw reactions that will be polarized and subjective, but they’re undeniably bold. At first pass, they seem like meta-storytelling decisions only meant to subvert expectations. Upon further analysis, they’re perhaps much more thoughtful. There’s no way to get into it without diving into spoilers – which we will do in an upcoming feature article – but for those who have finished the game, we suggest listening to the deep dive spoiler discussion from Easy Allies for a great breakdown of what the creators were likely aiming for.
Your adventure takes you to locations that truly capture both your imagination and the scale of the world.
What Makes It Worth My Time And Money?
If you’ve ever had an even passing interest in Final Fantasy VII over the years, this is worth getting… with some preconditions. Let’s break it down:
Love the original, but think it was sort of a beautiful mess? Buy this immediately. You’ll probably love everything they’ve done.
Love the original and want to strangle any Square Enix employee who dares to mess with perfection? Probably wait for a discount, but definitely play it and keep an open mind.
Played a bit of the original, dug the characters, but were bored to death by the combat? Definitely buy, but possibly wait for a discount because this is only Part One of a likely trilogy and probably isn’t worth dropping $60 for an incomplete story.
Never played the original, but think it looks cool? Definitely wait for a discount, unless social distancing is leaving you bored out of your mind.
FF7 Remake tells a story that’s epic, intimate, and humorous all at once. It’s essential gaming.
Despite committing 2,000 words to this review already, there are still things left untouched. That tells you a lot about the scope of this game. On the positive end, the materia system is fantastic and New Game Plus offers lots of value after completing the main game, including Hard mode, secret bosses, and more. Combat is almost always engaging, with even non-boss enemies coming in a refreshing variety that encourage you to mix up your play style, and can be surprisingly challenging when several different enemy types appear at once (in the original game, you could beat most non-boss enemies using standard attacks on repeat).
On the negative side, there are expanded areas that feel a bit overstuffed and blunt the pacing of the game and story. For example, the new Train Graveyard section from the original is expanded to include a couple of bosses and extra plot points. It’s fine in a vacuum, but feels out-of-place given the context of what’s happening at that point in the game. Side quests – like most games with side quests – leave a lot to be desired, but often unlock extra story sequences that are only seen once completed.
In the end, Final Fantasy VII Remake is a massive achievement. While its final chapter will likely stir controversy, everything that comes before it is some of the best gaming around.
So what’s the verdict? Unless you truly hate any restrictions – there is no jumping, areas outside of the main missions are blocked, and the way forward is oppressively linear – this game may not be right for you and you should definitely check out the demo and some playthroughs on Twitch and Youtube before commiting.
For everyone else, this is an essential experience that further involves you in the culture and history of video games itself.
NOTE ABOUT THE SCORE: The finale leaves things so unsettled in the short- and long-term, that it stops the game from reaching the higher end of our review scale. If they land this plane when it’s all said and done, this could easily be retroactively considered a 5 out of 5. But when considered alongside the gameplay issues and pacing problems mentioned, the execution of the final chapter and the number of new elements thrown in at the end results in a chaotic conclusion that will leave too many too confused to be fully satisfied. Personally, this reviewer believes they will conclude the full story in a satisfying way, but Square Enix’s track record is too inconsistent to give a full vote of confidence.