In 2005, the whole Final Fantasy fandom was thrown for a loop when Square Enix released a clip that featured the remade intro for Final Fantasy VII for the PlayStation 3. The fandom collectively cheered so loud that it could audibly be heard around the world, only to eventually be silenced, as Square revealed it was nothing but a tech demo, showcasing the graphical capabilities of the PS3.
At E3 2014, nearly 10 years later, Square took the stage with classic Final Fantasy 7 scenes playing in the background, which of course had fans on the edge of their seat, myself included. Was that footage going to morph into current-gen footage? Was this the remake reveal we were all hoping for? No, it was an announcement of the original Final Fantasy VII coming to current-gen consoles. It wasn’t until E3 2015, where fans would get their first glimpse at what would become, Final Fantasy VII Remake.
I start this review with that quick history because for fans like myself who adore the original and wished for an updated remake for years, Final Fantasy 7 Remake was undoubtedly one of the top highlights of any E3 announcement, possibly ever. The stakes were high though. With such a beloved game come lofty expectations, perhaps even unreasonable ones. The real question is, did Square Enix meet them, or fall short?
Final Fantasy VII Remake is a curious game because, despite its title, it’s not actually a remake for two reasons. For one, it’s not the complete game, a point I’ll return to much later in the review, but it also isn’t a “remake” in the strict sense of the definition, because while events, for the most part, do remain the same, the ending of Remake diverges heavily from the first, among some other notable things I’ll get to later as well.
Square has done an impeccable job at bringing Midgar and its inhabitants to life. Cloud and the gang get a fantastic makeover, that certainly benefitted slightly from the 2005 film Advent Children, but 15 years later, those looks solidified in Final Fantasy VII Remake with everyone still completely recognizable, even when put side to side to their 1997 polygon counterparts.
Even Barret who is downright comically proportioned in the original game looks downright badass with his gun arm, shades and over the top voice brought to life by John Eric Bentley. Speaking of voice actors, seeing all your favorite characters recite many classic lines you only ever read in blue speech bubbles before, is definitely a highlight that brought a smile to my face many times during my playthrough, and every actor did a stellar job at bringing all those characters to life.
Given that this game only covers the Midgar portion, Square added in some new storylines for characters. This fleshes out the likes of Jessie, Biggs, and Wedge, a lot more than the original further pads out the game’s run time. Not all are home runs but Jessie specifically gets an awesome side story that fleshes her out in ways I didn’t expect. People often argue whether Tifa or Aerith is “best girl”, but I’d argue that “best girl” is definitely Jessie.
When it comes to optional side quests, I’m generally a big fan, as I’ll usually take any extra content to extend the time of a game I’m enjoying. However, I can without a doubt proclaim that Final Fantasy VII Remake’s side quests are pretty terrible. They amount to nothing more than fetch quests with payoffs that are almost never worth it with some exceptions. Even more, all of them are inconsequential to the overall plot, adding no additional context to anything or anyone you’ll likely care about.
Midgar itself is also appropriately stunning, but not in a glamorous kind of way. After all, most of the time is spent in the lower, more poverty-stricken sections such as the slums. In typical Square fashion, they spent no expense bringing each and every location to life in a way that almost makes it seem like a real place. There are certainly standouts like the Wall Market which is probably the best and most interesting section to explore in terms of visuals and story events but as a whole, it is impressive how each place has transitioned from its 1997 static screen to Final Fantasy VII Remake’s living and breathing locations.
While Midgar’s recreation on the PlayStation 4 is visually stunning, the structure is much less interesting. Anyone who has played Final Fantasy XIII will get huge corridor flashbacks here because outside of the main hubs, nearly every other location you’ll be venturing through is a narrow corridor, with very little room for exploration. Many players didn’t love XV’s switch to an open world which was largely empty, but I think striking a nice middle ground of that game’s openness and Remake’s corridors would have worked wonderfully.
I’m also not sure who at Square thought it was a good idea to give literally every single NPC flavor dialogue as you run by them. While it can provide some great lore for the area you’re in, chances are, unless you’re walking by them slowly, you’re only hearing the first few words of every single NPC you run by.
Music to my ears
Which is the perfect segue to the audio segment of this review, and more specifically, the music of Final Fantasy VII Remake. Words cannot and will not express how amazing the soundtrack turned out. While new players will certainly find it appealing, the soundtrack itself is almost tailor-made to evoke many different emotions from those who played the original. Whether it’s the many renditions of ‘Aerith’s Theme’ that play in key moments, or the gloriously orchestrated battle themes ‘Those Who Fight’ and ‘Those Who Fight Further,’ that always managed to pump me up for every single fight. It’s not an over-exaggeration that I’m just as hyped for the soundtrack to officially release as I was for the game to release.
A combat system worth gushing over
Easily my favorite part of Final Fantasy VII Remake is the combat system, which seems like it was cut from the same cloth as Final Fantasy XV but refined to an absolute sheen.
Despite being able to move Cloud and the gang in real-time, and perform basic attacks, the turn-based portion is still there thanks to the ATB gauge. These bars will fill up gradually, and faster when you take control of the character and allow you to perform special abilities, cast spells and use items. Whenever you opt to use an ATB gauge, the combat will slow down to a near crawl, giving you time to choose what skill you want to perform.
Switching characters is also done on the fly with a press of the D-pad, and you can even command the other two characters while pressing the L2 or R2 buttons. For those who like to keep things moving and rely less on stopping time to choose abilities, you can map specific skills and items to one of four button combos. Sure, it is limiting, especially later when characters have over 4 spells and over 4 abilities to choose from, but it does give you the ability to quickly pull off some of your best and hardest-hitting moves.
Impressively, every single character you can battle as, of which there are four in Remake, has their own unique mechanics. Cloud swings his giant sword wildly and is able to switch between a fast but weaker Operator stance and the slower but hard-hitting Punisher stance. Barret can charge up a special shot that not only does incredible damage but also builds up an enemy’s stagger gauge. Tifa is fast and nimble, pulling off combos and enhancing her stance which can eventually lead to more powerful attacks. Aerith meanwhile sticks to long-range spells while being able to charge up a move called Tempest that does increased damage but travels slowly.
If there’s one misstep with the combat of Final Fantasy VII Remake, it’s that there is no “Gambit”-like system from Final Fantasy XII, or the ability to set your characters to perform actions in specific situations. Unfortunately, the characters you’re not controlling are dumb as a brick, and basically require you to micromanage all their actions for them to be effective in battle. It would have been nice to have Aerith at least know to occasionally heal you when needed (though Auto Cure Materia somewhat helps) or to have characters know to pull off their abilities when they’re staggered. While I like the ability to switch on the fly, sometimes it’s just too hectic and would have appreciated my party being somewhat smart.
One of the bigger critiques of Final Fantasy XV’s combat, besides its lack of complexity, was its difficulty. Players could get through most battles by simply holding a button. Let me assure you, that is most certainly not the case in Remake. Boss fights are a daunting challenge, and up to a certain point in the game, difficult without being frustrating, and always kept me at the edge of my seat. Even some regular enemies later on are no cakewalk either, so if it’s difficulty you’re looking for, you’ll get it in spades here.
However, 3/4ths of the way through Final Fantasy VII Remake, a large difficulty spike in both standard enemies and bosses occurs, to the point of frustration. Like I’ve mentioned, I love the combat system. I enjoyed its complexities and ramped up difficulty because it required me to stay on my toes, keeping my characters healed and pumping out abilities to deal a lot of damage. But at some point near the last quarter, enemies go from difficult to frustrating. Having finished the game without switching to Easy mode at that point, I regret that choice now due to the growing frustration after each cheap death.
Kotaku has recently made headlines by publishing an article claiming that Easy Mode is too easy. I won’t comment on the article’s overall purpose, but in it, they describe the situation where they opted to switch to Easy Mode, and it wasn’t a boss fight, it wasn’t even a critical junction in the chapter. It was a simple room where Tifa and Aerith, on their own, had to battle a group of bloodhounds. Just like Mike Fahey, I too couldn’t fathom how to beat that part, and grew increasingly frustrated. However, unlike Fahey, my stubbornness literally didn’t allow me to switch to Easy Mode, and while I was proud of myself for finally overcoming it, I ultimately hated myself for not making the upcoming bosses easier because they certainly didn’t seem fair.
What’s more is that battles aren’t random, nor can they be essentially grinded for XP, meaning everyone will more or less finish the game at a similar level. If you’re having issues with a boss, you can’t simply leave and get stronger by gaining a few levels, as was doable in the original game. Here, you have to make do with what you’re given, and in the latter part of the game, that just didn’t seem all that fair to me.
While grinding isn’t possible, character and weapon growth have been slightly altered. Each weapon has its own leveling system where you use accumulated points to raise various values such as attack and magic attack, raise your characters HP and so much more. It adds a great layer to each weapon and makes them all unique from one another. Furthermore, every weapon has its own unique ability which can eventually be mastered and used by other weapons as well. Materia makes a comeback from the original and can be slotted into weapons and gear, and provide each character with anything from powerful spells, character augments, special skills, and even powerful Summons.
It’s only Part 1 though, right?
If there’s one thing that ultimately bummed me out regarding Final Fantasy 7 Remake has to do with a few things, but ultimately can be summed up to only containing the Midgar portion of the original. Square hasn’t been shy about this fact and most of us knew that going in, but I can’t help but feel that someone will see a “Final Fantasy 7 Remake” box at a store, and think that they’re getting the full game, when in fact that’s not the case. Worse yet, it’s not indicated anywhere on the box. No messaging that states “Part 1” or how many parts this game is supposed to have.
Instead, the game ends in epic fashion that completely diverges from the main game, which is why I’m even hesitant to call it a Remake, and more a Reboot, but the final scene goes full Marvel with a black screen that might as well have said: “Cloud and the gang will return.” The events of that ending will also seem largely nonsensical with the exception of those that played the original, leaving new players scratching their heads. There are a lot of scenes that happen earlier in this game, but without the context, their existence is largely unnecessary with the exception of pure fan service.
The game is also about half the length that Square initially suggested, having finished it around 35 hours. While that length seemed fine, if not too long for the Midgar section, due to some unnecessary padding, I would have liked to see the fat trimmed and instead give us a larger scope with events that happened after Midgar.
Despite those disappointments and Square’s lack of appropriate messaging that this is only Part 1 of a larger story, I still largely enjoyed my time with Final Fantasy VII Remake. The exciting combat system, the ridiculously amazing soundtrack and a Midgar that was a joy to look at and run through all combined to give me a fuzzy feeling inside I only ever got from playing the original. I constantly found myself smiling when key events I remember from the original game happened and loved how Square brought them to life in Remake.
I have a feeling that those who have never played the 1997 PS1 classic will probably walk away from Remake liking it a bit more. They have no expectations of what happens after Midgar, or why Cloud is having constant visions and headaches, or Sephiroth’s true goals. Knowing the events of the full game ultimately made me wish it didn’t end when it did. Let’s just hope it’s not another six years until we can experience the next big chapter in the Final Fantasy VII story.