Review by Matt S.
Where do you even start in talking about something like the Final Fantasy VII Remake? As a remake of a game with an almost unique gravitas as being a masterpiece and work of art, it was a massive risk on Square Enix’s part to take on the task of modernising it. Their team would have gone in knowing that if they changed anything in the “wrong” way, they would ruin the original game for people – many of whom will have found and defined their love of video games through the original Final Fantasy VII. At the same time change was essential, because as much as people love Final Fantasy VII, that turn-based combat design, top-down isometric aesthetic, and unvoiced characters was never going to fly as a blockbuster in 2020.
So I say this with some trepidation, because I know that the changes that Square Enix have made to the game will upset some people, but on balance, Square Enix nailed this. For all the modernisations, this feels very much like a return to a Final Fantasy that I grew up loving, and before we talk about the themes, the combat, the aesthetics, or anything else, I just want to make that clear. I had more pure, uninhibited fun playing this than pretty much anything I’ve touched for quite some time. It’s a gorgeous, beautiful pulp fantasy, and I was very much wooed by it.
I didn’t necessarily think while I was playing this, though, and to be upfront Final Fantasy VII’s biggest problem is that it’s a gorgeous, beautiful and also dumb pulp fantasy. The original game wasn’t exactly subtle either, but it had its nuance, most significantly that it cast the characters that the player was in control of as eco-terrorists, in both mind and action. For those who haven’t played the original Final Fantasy VII, this is no spoiler – the entire genesis of the narrative spins around Cloud, Barret and the Avalanche citizen military group setting out and succeeding at blowing up “Mako” reactors because, while those reactors provide the citizens of Midgar with power and energy, they’re also sucking the life out of the planet.
For that, Avalanche were genuine eco-terrorists, even if they were fighting for the right cause, and the less-than-subtle parallel to the real-world concerns about resource use and humanity’s impact on the planet is more pertinent now than ever. It would have been entirely appropriate, even necessary, for Square Enix to leave that theme in there untouched. However, as moral philosophy, the justifications for eco-terrorism, and the response by the authorities, is a complex, challenging one, very much unsuited to the modern world of Hollywood content and passive entertainment. So instead Square Enix decided to turn Avalanche into scapegoats and martyrs. Without giving anything away, intent to commit eco-terrorism is about as far as Cloud & co. get this time, before being utterly victimised by the big bad at the heart at it all. It’s easy to understand why Square Enix would take this path, because now the heroes are uncomplicated in their heroism, but when you’re being out moral-discoursed by Marvel’s The Avengers, you’ve probably veered a little too far towards children’s book thinking.
Now with that being said, Final Fantasy VII is not without narrative depth. One of the key recurring themes throughout the entire franchise has been a discussion of determinism – do we have genuine control over our fates, and if not, what are the implications of that? It’s an especially useful theme for Final Fantasy to muse over, because these games are always hyper-linear in narrative and there’s an interesting meta-tension within the theme where the characters are talking about “changing fate” versus your knowledge that no matter how well you play, you’re not going to be able to do that. Final Fantasy VII is a particularly good application of that, thanks to backstories of characters that I can’t actually discuss in the context of a spoiler-free review, so we’ll save that discussion for later down the track. What I can say is that if anything, the wordier and more cinematic approach of Final Fantasy VII Remake does that particular theme greater justice and ultimately becomes the more interesting angle by the rather spectacular finale (remembering that this remake is actually only “part 1” with more to come at a later date).
The other thing that Final Fantasy VII Remake pulls out of nowhere is that it has an emotional core and a truly lovable bunch of characters. The original Final Fantasy VII’s cast were constructed from a limited bunch of blocks to run on basic 3D hardware, assembled into a vaguely human shape, and while a lot of people did love them, I personally didn’t care much for any of them (and yes I do include that scene, for veterans following along). My disinterest in the characters has in fact been the principle reason that I have over the years counted FFVII among my least favourite of the series. But what an effect production values have had. Gorgeously rendered and animated characters and universally exceptional voice acting (protip: use the Japanese voice track and subtitles) creates such meaningful and believable interactions between the characters at every moment. It gets ever-so-slightly heavy handed at times, but given that Square Enix managed to make Cloud’s entire harem each flirt with him in different enough ways to make them all unique personalities, and was even able to get some humanity into Barret, the rich tapestry of characters makes for some wonderful dynamics, amusing moments, and bawl-worthy scenes of sadness that doesn’t relent over the game’s 30-40 hour run-time.
What impressed me most of all was the way that Square Enix managed to turn tiny bit characters from the original into interesting people. I am talking about Biggs, Wedge, and Jessie (especially Jessie, because holy heavens above do I love her), who each have a tiny handful of lines in the opening chapter of the original Final Fantasy VII, but in the remake share almost as much screentime as the playable characters. We learn about Wedge’s love of cats, of Jessie’s family and her dreams of being an entertainer, and we can just admire Biggs for every second of screentime that absolutely gorgeous dude smolders through. We were promised in the lead up to the release of this game that we’d learn more about the Avalanche crew, and while it turns out that the motivating reason for that was to indulge a bit of emotional manipulation, I loved those narrative arcs. And I can’t stress this enough – I really, really, really love Jessie. Sorry Rikku and Vanille. Jessie’s my main girl now.
Any moment in which Final Fantasy VII Remake is telling its story, or at least actively driving players on to the next moment in the story, it’s at it’s best. That accounts for about 80 per cent of the game. The game is broken down into 18 distinct chapters, most of these are either a single “dungeon” to make your way through (and these are universally excellent), or a story-driven “downtime” chapter, usually within one of the world’s towns. We’ll talk about the combat shortly, but outside of the dungeons, towns are where the other 20 per cent of the game threatens to mar the overall experience. Not all of them, mind you. Sometimes you’ll get marvelous and rare quiet moments to indulge in the vivid world that the game offers, such as a chapter that takes place in a red light district where, among other things, you’ll fight in a colosseum, participate in a decadent night bar dance extraordinaire, dress Cloud as a woman in infiltrate the “palace” of the pervert town boss, and then proceed to beat the snot out of him.
Other “rest” chapters, however, are poor. They’re “open” areas where you have the opportunity to take on some small side-quests for locals, and while those are usually necessary for the experience and rewards that they provide (FFVII Remake doesn’t feature random battles and offers precious few “grinding” opportunities in dungeons), they’re also the kind of fetch quest nonsense that people got sick of a generation ago. Thankfully there aren’t all that many of them – a icon-filled map a-la Assassins’ Creed this is not – and I know that quest structure isn’t the strength of Final Fantasy in comparison to, say, a Witcher 3, so to fixate on these sidequests is to miss the broader picture. However, the utterly mundane nature of these chapters disrupts the narrative pacing and it’s quite blatantly clear that the only reason they’re there is that otherwise Final Fantasy VII would be a 20-30 hour JRPG, and as we all know, the gamers would be complaining about the lack of content then. Truly Final Fantasy VII Remake is the perfect example of how the endless demand for endless content in games is harming otherwise supreme examples of storytelling.
Thankfully, and blessedly, by the time you’ve moved to the next section, you’ve already forgotten about that moment of monotony. It’s the dungeons where the action heats up, naturally, and while Final Fantasy VII Remake is going to be polarising here, but it could never be accused of being dull. The action-based combat system feels like an extension of what Final Fantasy XV was driving towards – it’s “turn based” in that there’s a specific flow and rhythm to attacks and counter-attacks that will make you stop seeing the game as an action game within the first couple of hours, but purists are still not going to enjoy the shift away from the static “side against side” match ups of traditional Final Fantasy. Each dungeon is themed nicely – with the train graveyard having a different tone to the sewers, which in turn feels different to the hidden underground laboratory, and each knows when it is about to outstay its welcome – you get in, solve a couple of puzzles, fight the area’s enemies just frequently enough to become familiar with them by the end, and then square off against the bosses. It amazes me that the very same game that would be willing to kill its narrative momentum with useless fetch quests in the “downtime chapters” would also be so finely tuned towards keeping momentum through the dungeons, but it’s quite easy to see where the development team invested the majority of their time.
The bosses are the real highlight of Final Fantasy VII Remake. Every single one is larger than life in some way, and every single one has a mountain of health and challenging attack routines to wrap your head around. There are a couple of moments through the game where bosses double up on one another to become a gauntlet that can become exhausting, but those also tend to be the narrative highlights and the presence of so many memorable boss battles so close to one another structurally helps those moments remain memorable. The real trick to boss battles is to build up a “stagger” gauge by figuring out what attacks they are weak to and then spamming those on them. Once staggered you get a merciful few seconds to go all out on the boss (and heal your party), before the stagger gauge is exhausted and the boss leaps back into action. JRPG fans will find nothing about that system unusual, or, if we’re being frank, beyond the basic, but Final Fantasy has always been a series that endeavours to bring new players into the fold, and I do think that this game’s combat system will do that. Assuming, of course, that those players are able to see past the visual deception and not try and play the game as they would a Devil May Cry or Souls-like.
Final Fantasy is also famous for its summons – the ability to bring massively powerful creatures into the battlefield to let off attacks that are so spectacular they look like they should be breaking the system trying to run them. FFVII Remake is no different there, and summons are earned by defeating them in battle as though they were boss battles. It’s with these summons, both battling and using them, as well as the occasional “joke” boss that we see the real personality of the Final Fantasy property have its moment to shine. With the main plot being almost too earnest at times, coming up against a giant house as a boss battle is a clever wink to people who have fond memories of killer houses just randomly showing up as enemies in the original Final Fantasy VII. It’s also so ridiculous that you don’t need to have played the original to get the joke. Likewise, engaging in an intense battle with fat chocobo so you can earn him as a summons is a veritable delight and, again, even if you’re not familiar with Final Fantasy as a series, the chocobos are adorable enough that you’ll just get their appeal. Other recent Final Fantasies have been increasingly pushing their more light-hearted series traditions right to the periphery, to the point that they sometimes feel like they’re there out of obligation rather than any particular series of series continuity, but Final Fantasy VII Remake does do its level best to indulge them, and as such the game feels more “classical” as a Final Fantasy, even with that combat system.
Finally, it should go without saying that Final Fantasy VII is a spectacular looking and sounding game. That much is obvious just from the screenshots, but the impact of being able to look up in the sky and see the disc of the “upper world” hanging over the population of the slums like a sinister Sword of Damocles is, all in itself, an incredible bit of world-building. Characters are uniformly gorgeous, as mentioned before and that “somehow superior to real humans” look fits lovely with the “fantasy” angle that’s right there in the title. Many of the environments are ruined slums, and therefore there’s a lot of browns and the messy, clashing colours of trash piles, but it’s deliberate and technically pristine, and then makes those scenes where you escape it for just a moment, such as the red light district or Aerith’s rare flower-filled garden, all the most potent.
Perhaps the best way that I can describe just how much I’ve appreciated Final Fantasy VII Remake is this: The original Final Fantasy VII was my least favourite in the series, but after playing the Remake, on a whim I loaded up the original game. Within the first couple of hours I was already so much more invested in it this (10th, if not more) time around. Being able to visualise the action of the original through the lens that the Remake has provided me has made the game more vibrant, interesting, and emotionally engaging. I don’t necessarily see FFVII Remake as a replacement to the original game, as remakes generally are. It’s a complement to it, where the developers have built on the world and characters in such a way that it’s like two sides of a single coin – for me, at least, without one, the other doesn’t exist. Making me fall in love with the original Final Fantasy VII is something I never thought Square Enix would achieve, but we do live in the strangest times.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review.