When Square Enix took on the enormous task of remaking Final Fantasy VII, a JRPG that left one of the biggest cultural footprints in gaming history, it was met with much excitement and anticipation from a community of die-hard fans who hold it very close to their hearts. After all, this was a remake almost 15 years in the making, even long before its announcement at E3 2015. Now, playing Final Fantasy VII Remake from the perspective one of those die-hard fans, I am left fulfilled, overjoyed, and taken aback by the fact that it even exists, right now, on my console. However, all of this is punctuated with an asterisk that leaves the current package very fulfilling, but the rest of the upcoming parts in a strange state of uncertainty yet again.
Note: This review is completely spoiler-free.
By now, if you know the story of Final Fantasy VII, you should feel right at home with the remake too. Taking place in the booming industrial city of Midgar, an eco-terrorist group calling themselves Avalanche launch an attack against Midgar’s ruling corporation, Shinra, who are draining the planet of Mako, the life energy of the world. Their first bombing run has them enlist the help of one of Shinra’s former elite SOLDIERS turned mercenary, Cloud Strife, and it’s here, at the first bombing run beneath Midgar’s massive floating utopia, does this epic tale begin.
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As most already know, Final Fantasy VII Remake only encompasses the first section of the original game; the 5-6 hours you spend initially in Midgar. That arc is now fleshed out in the remake to accommodate a lengthier playtime of around 35 hours (which is how long is took me to complete the main story plus a few side quests). For the most part, it’s fleshed out rather superbly, with the right amount of attention given to aspects of the story that needed the extra weight. In particular, the characters Jessie, Biggs, and Wedge have been given a considerable amount of development as opposed to them merely being under-cooked fodder like in the original.
Square Enix also wisely uses this time to flesh out not only characters, but entire levels, aspects of the world-building, and character relations. In that regard, it actually strengthens the original game in ways I did not expect, and all pulled off rather masterfully too. This is thanks to some truly fantastic writing and character dialogue that just enhances the dynamic between the team beyond expectations. You see this in full effect with our main party consisting of Cloud, Barret, Tifa, and Aerith. With Cloud at the center, each relationship is given so much more care and attention, that it honours the original without ever betraying what made these characters so endearing in the first place.
…they’ve wisely chosen to restructure and rearrange certain important story beats so that [Cloud] has an actual arc in part one.
No one is given more development than Cloud in Final Fantasy VII Remake, and they’ve wisely chosen to restructure and rearrange certain important story beats so that he has an actual arc in part one. I can understand why this might be a point of contention with fans, but in order for this first part to feel like a complete and satisfying narrative package, it was an inevitability that liberties were going to be taken for it to work. Personally, I thought it was the right choice as it builds a far stronger connection between us and Cloud right off the bat as opposed to only getting to the meat of his backstory later on, like in the original.
As far as the interactions go – from Cloud and Tifa’s unwavering camaraderie (but it’s clearly flirting) to Barret and Red XIII’s heartwarming bonding – you just don’t get this level of intimacy in video games much, and I’m so glad Final Fantasy VII Remake chose to improve on it with some of the most well-written characters in gaming history.
If there’s one word that best captures the nature of Final Fantasy VII Remake, it’s “character”. From the actual characters, which include Barret’s loud heart of gold, Tifa’s protective yet strong personality, or Aerith’s uplifting purity and optimism, they’re all richly layered and an absolute joy to spend time with, even in basic interactions in between missions. The description of “character” extends to Midgar’s overall design as well. This is one of the most jaw-dropping fantasy worlds I’ve ever seen, with some stunning vistas that never failed to leave me in awe. Most importantly, Midgar’s iconic high-rise architecture, apart from being an ever-imposing and breathtaking view high above, is littered with the denizens of its inhabitants far below that have transformed its slums into bustling and lived in environments.
Unlike Final Fantasy XV which opted for the open world structure, Final Fantasy VII Remake takes the Final Fantasy XIII route and instead shrinks its numerous areas to segmented hubs each connected by long corridors. What separates this layout from XIII (thankfully) is in how the world is presented. It’s so densely packed with so much to see that you’re never bored while constantly being on the move, and you’ll be doing plenty of running from one end of the map to the other (until the almighty Chocobo fast travel is unlocked, of course). Luckily, these hub areas – while nostalgic and fun to explore during your downtime – are only the means to get you from one point of the story to the next, as the actual dungeons, reactors, railways, sewers, and various other landmarks all encompass a large majority of your playtime.
Midgar is a world that feels lived in, and all without sacrificing an ounce of character or charm.
Recognizable landmarks in the original like the Honeybee Inn. or Don Corneo’s mansion (or just about anything in Wall Market, really) are stunningly recreated with clear devotion to its source material, but surprisingly (or rather unsurprisingly) are vastly improved. Each section that spanned a few hundred feet in the original is now expanded to massive biomes all populated with interesting NPCs (that all have bonkers stories to tell), and some tightly packed alleys with shady vendors trying to sell you unholy things. Midgar is a world that feels lived in, and all without sacrificing an ounce of character or charm. In fact, with so much going on, from gyms with mini-games, bars with darts and karaoke, to colourful dance clubs (and a very questionable massage parlour), it strangely enough reminded me of some of the liveliest aspects of the Yakuza games.
Most of the main story levels are sprawling and often just as densely packed as the hub worlds, though you can also run into long stretches of empty corridors with seemingly nothing going on other than some pretty volumetric lighting. This tedium never settles in, though, as you’re always caught by surprise with enemy encounters that it never feels overlong or drawn out (save for a couple of sections in the mid-game where it’s clear they tried padding it out with remedial fetch objectives for the sake of play length).
The revamped ATB system feels like a fusion of XV‘s great real-time battle flow with the tactical turn-based combat of the original.
Where the bread and butter of Final Fantasy VII Remake‘s gameplay really shines is in its combat. This is, without a doubt, some of the best combat that the series has seen to date. The revamped ATB system feels like a fusion of XV‘s great real-time battle flow with the tactical turn-based combat of the original. You still freely control either Cloud, Barret, Tifa, or Aerith during battles in real time, but tapping into Tactical Mode allows you to slow time to a crawl so that you can pick from the familiar menu of commands like items, attacks, and magic. It’s easy to walk into a battle with XV‘s mindset and simply button-mash your way through, but the game very often punishes you for not thinking strategically, which is where it strikes that pitch-perfect balance of immediate urgency and planning out each move at an overwhelmingly fast momentum.
The brilliance of this system is that once you get the hang of it, it makes you feel accomplished. Each enemy, though daunting at times, each requires an understanding of their strengths and weaknesses and how best to exploit them. Many enemies have clear elemental weaknesses, sometimes brilliantly represented in their designs, which makes encounters fair as they stagger easily and leave wide openings. You’re constantly doing this juggling act in your mind as you bounce briskly through each fight, but as taxing as that sounds, it’s also the most rewarding and addictive battle system I’ve ever played with in a Final Fantasy game. I hope that Square Enix carries this momentum over to the newer entries.
…it’s also the most rewarding and addictive battle system I’ve ever played with in a Final Fantasy game.
Final Fantasy VII Remake luckily never forgets some of the better intricacies of the original’s combat, and uses it to full effect here. You still have materia, which act as your buffs that can slot various spells, magic, health boosts, and abilities into your weapons. This creates plenty of opportunities for diverse builds, such as my Cloud essentially being a mage, which means I had to naturally prioritize using materia (and subsequently, the right weapon) that best utilized elemental abilities for greater effect. However, the playable characters, in large part, are still faithfully relegated to filling overall roles like in the original. Barret is a long-ranged combatant, Tifa uses close-range melee, and Aerith is the designated healer and magic user.
The gameplay is all tied together with hours upon hours of some of the best-directed cutscenes in a Final Fantasy game yet. Tetsuya Nomura, a name both loved and loathed in the community, does a superb job at helming these gorgeously rendered cutscenes and amazingly choreographed action, which should come as no surprise seeing as he also directed Advent Children (a criminally underrated movie, if you ask me). The series has a knack for going over-the-top and often leans heavily on the “grandiose fairy tale” style cutscenes (I’m looking at you, XIII), but I appreciate how Final Fantasy VII – both the original and this remake – have always subdued the glamorous theatrics in favour of more grounded and cinematic visual storytelling. Well, as far as Final Fantasy games go anyway.
The game’s strongest aspects are so endearing and easy to fall in love with, that I almost overlooked some of its negatives. Almost. After much deliberation concerning some narrative changes, I was left with 1001 questions that took a bit away from the experience. What is sure to be the biggest talking point in the community is the ending. It’s true that a large chunk of the original game’s story beats and narrative turns are still unchanged, but the remake’s final chapter veers off course and changes the trajectory of things quite a bit. As spectacular as the climactic battles were, it all felt like Square Enix perhaps blew their load a bit too early, pardon my French. Thanks to the addition of another narrative device, it left me with a grim feeling of uncertainty for where the next parts could go, and that’s both an excellent thing if done right, but a tragic misfire if not handled with care (you need look no further than Kingdom Hearts for evidence of that).
As spectacular as the climactic battles were, it all felt like Square Enix perhaps blew their load a bit too early, pardon my French.
What would a Final Fantasy VII… anything… be complete without Nobuo Uematsu’s phenomenal soundtrack? The score is a highlight and some of the best composed music I’ve (yet again) ever heard for a video game. The accompanying theme on the main menu is enough to send even the most devoted fans into a fit of nostalgic euphoria. If you’re familiar with the original’s terrific score – but importantly, Advent Children‘s more electrifying and refined compositions – then you’ll adore the sounds of Final Fantasy VII Remake. The music hasn’t changed as much as it has been revitalized, with familiar melodies and themes made more orchestral and improved on significantly. It felt right at home in this universe, and I can’t praise the soundtrack enough for always bringing me to the brink of tears.
There’s still a genuinely enthralling experience that awaits you in Final Fantasy VII Remake. For as much as it rewrites the rule books of what a video game remake can be, it also honours the original in ways that will certainly please fans. The combat is captivating and entertaining, the visuals are often jaw-dropping, and the world design is top-class from a developer who is no stranger to vibrant and detailed worlds – with this almost being some of their best work. The elephant in the room is now how the divisive ending carries the rest of the parts forward. Its implications are pretty serious, so I hope Square Enix knows what they’re doing. Other than that, this is a resounding achievement in gaming, and one of the best re-imaginings for a beloved video game I’ve ever played. It has made me fall in love with video games all over again, and that’s something that speaks to the heart.
Final Fantasy VII Remake
Final Fantasy VII Remake is an enthralling, visually spectacular reimagining that honours the original while greatly enhancing it, though a divisive ending awaits.