To call Final Fantasy VII a “seminal” entry in the series is an understatement. Whatever your personal opinion of the game itself may be, it is an undeniable fact that it marked a sea change in how RPGs, and video games in their entirety, were viewed in the West. Formerly mainly the province of nerds and D&D fans – myself proudly included among them – the release of FFVIII and it’s critical and commercial success made RPGs a major genre going forward, and made being a fan of video games much more culturally accepted. It’s story, both in terms of maturity as well as scope, were likened as being more like a Hollywood blockbuster than “just a game.” For younger gamers that didn’t grow up in a world prior to FFVII, the thought that a game told a simplistic story, or sometimes no story at all, seems rare – but that used to be the norm. Not so after FFVII.
Even in the immediate years following its release and smash-hit success, fans have longed for an improved version of the game. For one thing, FFVII’s complex story of morality, compromise of ideals, and ecological protection versus societal progress, was not helped by a less-than-outstanding localization process. For those younger gamers out there, the days of faithful and well-done translations and localizations of Japanese titles are relatively recent. Instead, during 1997, most fans were just happy that this was a non-medieval RPG and thus didn’t have a horribly butchered “speakest thou ye old English” localization, ala earlier RPGs. As years went by, and specifically while Squaresoft – later super-RPG-publisher Square Enix – began to routinely tap their back catalog of games for remakes or re-releases, fan clamoring began to intensify for FFVII to get that treatment. Instead, SE decided to “expand” the FFVII universe with its “Compilation of FFVII” – a series of spin-offs and a sequel animated film. While each entry varied in its level of acceptance by fans and critics alike – with PSP prequel Crisis Core arguably achieving the greatest success – SE remained immune to the cries of its fans for a remake. When the PS3 specifications were released in the lead-up to that counsel’s launch, SE engaged in perhaps the greatest trolling of its fans ever, releasing a “technical demo” that recreated the iconic opening sequence of FFVII with jaw-dropping cinematic graphics.
Fans were ecstatic – this was it, this meant that SE was FINALLY going to use the license to print money they’d been sitting on and remake FFVII! Except…it wasn’t. SE proceeded to generate a not-insignificant level of ill will by releasing a statement that this was simply footage they’d put together as a technical demonstration for the PS3, and that they had no plans at that time for a remake of FFVII. And so it remained for several more years, until…
Finally, at E3 2015, Sony and SE announced that a Remake was in the works. But, as always with AAA game development, “in the works” doesn’t mean “anytime soon,” and it wouldn’t be until April 10, 2020 that fans would finally be able to get their hands on the first chapter of Final Fantasy VII Remake. Wait, did I just say “first chapter?” That’s right – while in development, SE announced that their “expanded” approach to the world, story, and characters of FFVII would be too big for one game to encompass, and so they had made the decision to break the original game up into distinct releases, with the first chapter covering only the portion of the story up until the point where – uh, spoilers, I guess, for a 20-plus year old game – the party escapes from the city of Midgar. For comparison, this portion constitutes approximately 8 hours or so of the original game’s run, which clocked in at anywhere from 40-80 hours depending on if the player engaged in it’s various sidequests and optional bosses. So, is this just a cash grab by SE aimed at a fanbase so rabid and passionate about the original title that they’ll pay for anything? Or is it the first steps into a more fully realized world?
I can report that it is definitely, categorically the latter. FFVIIR is a complete and full game all on its own, telling a winding and complete story and seeing it through to its conclusion, a conclusion that still serves as a leaping-off point into the next chapter. But how is that possible? How can an 8-hour segment of the original game serve as a complete 40-plus hour experience of it’s own over 20 years later? There are a lot of answers to that question, and some of them delve deeply into spoilers for the game and its story and ending – but the easiest non-spoiler explanation is through expansion of details. The world of the original FFVII was just that – a world, a planet, and the city of Midgar served as just one backdrop location within that greater world. It may have been the biggest and most complete city, but it was still just one city among many, one stop along the way. In FFVIIR, Midgar IS the world, and more than just that, it is a living, breathing character all its own. And then there are the supporting characters. The original FFVII began with ex-SOLDIER-turned-mercenary Cloud taking a job with the eco-terrorist group AVALANCHE to bomb a MAKO energy reactor that the group had reason to believe was harming the planet. The world was a different place in 1997, and while the original game did take some measures to obliquely address the moral quandaries of the “heroes” engaging in such a task, in 2020 the idea of presenting the heroes as terrorists was one that I honestly wondered how SE would get around. They blew my expectations out of the water, in more ways than one.
Your mission in Remake remains exactly the same – you begin the game firmly as a mercenary working for eco-terrorists. Their goals may be noble, but their actions have a very real cost, financially and in terms of human lives. But your cohorts have now been expanded and fleshed out from barely there NPCs to living, breathing characters, who become friends. They are likable, noble, fragile, innocent, jaded, so many things – just like real people caught in complicated circumstances. And unlike in the original game, the expanded scope of Remake affords you the opportunity to see all of this, to know them, to care about them – and to see them struggle with the guilt and toll that their actions take on them. You worry about the ever-mounting consequences that the group may face in their fight. And if you are a returning fan of the original, you ache while thinking about the possible future events.
That’s right – I did. This will not be a deep-dive, spoiler-filled review or discussion, but suffice to say that in addition to splitting the original story up into more fully-fleshed-out chapters, SE has introduced uncertainty as to whether or not this edition of Cloud and company are going to be bound to the same events as the original game. While this chapter adheres very closely to the events of the original, but with expanded events and world-building, the seeds are planted early on that something might be amiss. This gets expanded on as the story goes along, until the game’s conclusion leaves as many questions as answers going forward. I will say only this to avoid spoiling those that haven’t played yet – while I am a HUGE fan of the additions and the implications that they may have for the future of the story and characters, purists who wanted a faithful, beat-by-beat remake of the original story may be left grumbling.
So that’s the story and the world…but how does it PLAY?
Early on, SE made it clear that they envisioned a substantial revision to the original games ATB combat system. There would be no heroes in a line on one side, monsters across from them, and actions selected entirely from menus. I will be transparent here – I am a huge fan of old-school, turn-based RPGs, and the combat in the original FFVII was one of my favorite aspects of it. So I had a healthy bit of skepticism regarding the new, action-based combat system. But I am quite pleased to report that my concerns were unwarranted. It’s true, if you want a game that plays like the original, you won’t find it here. But the game now is a fast-paced and fluid take on the classic system, with each character having a unique base and special attack, and then learning additional attacks and spells from Materia, ala the original game. Those other attacks are still selected from a menu as before, with each one having an associated MP and ATB cost. MP as a statistic remains essentially unchanged from the original, but the ATB bar here fills with charges as your character engages in normal combat, and once enough charges are filled, the spells and special attacks can be unleashed by opening the menu, slowing time down to a crawl and giving you plenty of time to tactically decide your actions.
In addition, while you will only directly control one character at a time in battle, in practice you will be constantly switching between your active characters, using each one in order to most efficiently build up ATB charges and fill your enemy’s stagger gauge, until they are staggered and take increased damage while being unable to act in return. This is made even more engaging because each playable character feels very distinct from one another – from Cloud and his weighty swings of his gigantic Buster Sword, Barret acting like an auto-lock shooter with his gun-arm, Aerith and her entirely magic-based ranged offense, and Tifa’s lightning-fast martial arts strikes. This constant switching between characters and building then expending ATB charges results in a fantastic fusion of action-RPG button mashing and tactical menu-driven combat that is an absolute blast in action. Once again, purists of the original game will likely find it to be too far from the turn-based combat of that game, but even as someone who loves the original and its contemporaries, I had a fantastic time with the combat system in Remake.
What about the changes and expansions that were made to flesh the game out? Well, as we’ve already talked about, some of them are fantastic. There are entire main scenario sequences involving you and your AVALANCHE cohorts that are both fun to play from an exploration and combat perspective as well as fantastic at adding meaningful character development to what used to be paper-thin secondary characters. In contrast, there are the “sidequests” that are available when you reach a new hub area – and consist largely of fetch quests that have only a rudimentary story explanation, or kill X number of monster quests that have no story explanation at all. While from a gameplay perspective, these are just more opportunities to play around with the game’s amazing combat system, they are very apparent attempts to pad out the game time. With that said, there are an inoffensive number of these, and I enjoyed the combat enough to welcome any reason to utilize it.
There’s not much more I can say – and yet there’s so much more to say. I’ve been playing video games for over thirty years, and I’m about as close to an expert on Final Fantasy as anyone who doesn’t work directly at SE. What’s the final verdict on Final Fantasy VII Remake? Standing alone, it is a tremendous achievement, with echoes and callbacks that fans of the original will appreciate while also being a game that newcomers can come to and enjoy without missing out on too much. What about in comparison with the original, or going forward toward the future installments? Those are discussions we will have to wait to have until more people have had a chance to complete the game, as they involve enough spoilers and meta-discussions to fill multiple posts! For now – play this game. – EWE