I vividly remember a feeling of awe during the original Final Fantasy VII’s opening cinematic, that moment when the music peaks, the camera pulls back and the logo blazes across the Midgar backdrop. Then, the snap-cuts to the speeding train, the descent back into the darkness of the city, and it begins. While the rest of the game was an unforgettable journey for so many people, that was the single greatest moment of excitement for me, at about 90 seconds in.
I could not say the same about the remake. Yes, the intro is a banquet for the nostalgic, perfectly reworked and built upon, incredible to look at, and my heart-rate was through the roof when they previewed it back in February. But there were countless genuinely thrilling moments in this game, from the first time I realised I can pan the camera up to take in the full, grim detail of the underside of the plate to the broken, beautiful vista as I clambered towards the story’s finale. That is something special.
The more things change
Lest we forget, this isn’t a remaster, it’s a remake. I’m not going to cover it all but they’ve changed a lot, and while not everything is for the better, you have to respect the effort.
The first thing I noticed was the scale. Environments are both immediately recognisable and dramatically enlarged and transformed. Rooms have four corners now, and you can see them all. Corridors, streets and junctions have been broadened to provide space for you to acrobatically beat the crap out of anything you come across, and journeys from A-B aren’t artificially elongated by loading times, they’re just longer. Each area you visit is fuller than before, with kids, cats and dogs underfoot, pointless yet believable conversations to be had with locals, huge piles of debris on the floor, graffiti, posters and grime on the walls. Midgar felt imposing in the original, in this it’s goliath.
In fact, the whole game is big, but sensibly so. Not an 80-hour epic like some JRPG addicts would’ve hoped for, but not a casual jaunt either. Not open-world in the modern sense, but with enough freedom at times that you can imagine what it’ll feel like outside the city. The story compels you along a path that occasionally feels strict, but is usually paced well enough that you aren’t likely to care.
The much-discussed new battle system didn’t grab me right away, and early-game you can definitely get by with some educated button-mashing. Gone are the random encounters, but Materia, the ATB gauge and Limit Breaks all slot seamlessly into a new system that gives you full control over whichever team member you like, and even keeps the others out of trouble fairly adeptly. It’s reminiscent of Final Fantasy XV, less the disorientating teleportation, plus some heftier impacts and combos, with character-switching providing access to unique abilities that make for four very different play-styles. Retaining a nod to the turn-based system synonymous with RPGs of old, time slows down when you’re choosing commands to give you time to strategise, or in my case, look around the battlefield and take artfully posed screenshots.
Later on, once it clicked, I was typically using Barret & Aerith in support roles, building ATB and unleashing something big or calming things down, while Cloud & Tifa chained combos, spells and dodges in choreographed carnage. It’s a battle system that feels a bit one-dimensional at the outset, but grows and grows until, with a bit of practice, you’ve got something that’s far more fluid than Bloodborne, more technical than The Witcher, and more entertaining than any FF game to date. Three of the (hard mode) boss battles are among the toughest challenges I’ve ever completed in a game, and it was exhilarating to finally suss out their strategies and execute them within an extremely narrow window of opportunity.
In terms of character progression, the main update comes from a fairly unremarkable skill tree and points-based system attached to each new weapon you find. These can have a pretty big impact on your approach to different fights if you choose to dive in, but auto-upgrading your initial equipment is an equally legitimate strategy for the majority of the game. Alternatively, you could do the reasonable thing and pick the nail bat.
So, which bits missed the mark? Quelle surprise, there’s too much filler. Dull fetch quests intended to add life to those dramatically improved areas and NPCs you come across are often rote, which is especially disappointing when you realise that there would’ve been more than enough game without them. Make no mistake, a lot of these chores are optional, but what kind of psychopath plays a Final Fantasy game and doesn’t do the side quests?
There are also some currently inexplicable changes to the plot, or major events within it at least. I say “currently” because these diversions are absolutely incompatible with the story we’re familiar with, and while the conclusion hinted at why, we don’t really know what they’re planning to do next. I’m not masochistic enough to attempt to explain it here but in a nutshell: small Dementors act as “arbiters of fate”; time is possibly fluid; and there are occasions in which you are battling to either change or maintain the course of destiny. Got it? Great, moving on.
At this point I’m so committed to the success of these remakes that I have to trust the process, but even beyond this generous application of artistic license, there were several moments that felt plain weird. Without giving anything away, one in particular - which in the original game managed to be genuinely suspenseful and chilling - got an excessively purple makeover in 2020, and felt a bit limp as a result.
The more they stay the same
23 years have passed, but you’re still Cloud (spiky chap, sword), you still reluctantly join AVALANCHE (eco-terrorist bunglers), you blow some Shinra (evil corp) reactors up together, get in a spot of trouble for it, scenes ensue.
The success or failure of this game hinged on Square-Enix’s ability to - forgive the technical jargon - not fuck this up. Final Fantasy VII is an enduring success because it is packed full of consistently strong features, from the interplay between characters to the chaotic mini-games, the quality of the soundtrack to the depth and intrigue of the cyberpunk setting. The bulk of this needed a 2020 refit rather than a brutal reconstruction, and this is the task that the developers absolutely nailed.
The central characters and key locations from our first journey through Midgar have all been given an extremely loving upgrade, to the point where it’s genuinely difficult to pick fault. Cloud, Barret, Tifa & Aerith have each grown into their roles, and dropped a few of the heavy-handed traits that were necessary in the absence of detailed animation, real acting or, y’know, noses. The myriad acquaintances in their orbit have been turned from useful furniture into real people, with lives and opinions you find yourself more than a little interested in. Fan-favourites the Turks, Shinra’s absurdly cool black-ops group, are still absurdly cool - but you can actually see it now. And the game’s true villain - Sephiroth - radiates so much menace it’s hard to see how they’ll fit any more in, but we all know they’re going to.
Aerith’s house and the church in Sector 5 are stunning, they must’ve taken weeks to model. Seventh Heaven is the perfect pub - solid and homely, Wall Market is a neon migraine populated by scumbags, and Shinra HQ is a terrible, gleaming steel and glass fortress. There’s a surprise contender for best photo op towards the end of the game, as you climb above a field of debris at sunset, but truly there are numerous contenders and the environment artists deserve huge credit. It’s an extremely impressive, varied and dynamic setting, and I must’ve taken hundreds of screenshots of it.
The soundtrack and voice acting are both fabulous, with a couple of odd exceptions. The voices are nearly flawless but Barret’s script and manner, despite being faithful to the original, is somehow less convincing when the curses aren’t in speech bubbles next to a quivering stack of brown and green polygons. Likewise the music, otherwise a strong contender for the best OST ever, is soured by two tracks from the Collapsed Expressway section which made me want to mute and/or throw something at my TV.
As you’d expect, the fantastic beasts and machines you come across (friend or foe) have all been super-charged beyond the darling PSX’s wildest dreams. Chapters tend to conclude with a big, set-piece boss fight, usually enacted over 3-4 increasingly intense stages, and these are invariably great to look at. There’s just enough diversity in them that the pattern doesn’t grow tired, and revisiting them on hard mode - where the fights require real prep and focus - makes you appreciate the detail even more.
What I have shown you is reality. What you remember, that is the illusion.
Before we go, I’ll pay a cursory visit to the most controversial bit of this whole project: the “it’s only half a game” argument. Why didn’t they redo the whole thing? Why has it taken so long? Why would I pay full price for a fraction of a story I’ve already played? If you find yourself asking any of those questions un-ironically after seeing it in action or even reading this review, I can’t help you. Nobody can.
Sure, people who haven’t completed the original five times on three different consoles may be harder to please than I am, it’s true, but I’m also tempted to say that this remake isn’t really for those people. It is essentially a brand new game, and yes they’ve changed a lot of elements that purists hold dear, but it’s still an incredible achievement to have balanced the competing forces behind this project, the strongest of which must’ve been the weight of expectation.
How many other games have over 20 years of hype building up to them, or have been shamelessly begged for by such an ardent fanbase? Not many. This is a delicate combination of fan service, gentle upgrades and significant narrative and mechanical overhauls, which together produce a final package that very, very nearly makes sense.
Not everything is perfect, or even great, but the overall experience they’ve created is a remarkable one. Rebuilding such an iconic game, one where the distance between ambition and technology made space for us to embellish the world in our own ways, was always going to be risky. But like a movie adaptation of a particularly dear book that somehow manages to cast the heroes even better than your imagination did, this is a delightful surprise. As a fan, it’s humbling to find so much more life in something you thought you’d wrung dry.
The wait for part two is going to be long, but part one made me believe that it’ll be worth it.
See you in 2024. Ish.