As I took my first steps through the streets of Midgar, I couldn’t help but feel transfixed by what I was seeing. Previously only available in my imagination, the bustling Mako-powered metropolis was fully fleshed out in front of my eyes, ready for me to explore. Seeing places and reliving moments of a game that meant so much to me as a kid was, overall, a rather enjoyable experience. Yet, Final Fantasy VII REMAKE works beautifully because it’s not a simple retelling of an old story – it feels distinctly its own game.
Releasing on the PlayStation 4 on April 10th, Final Fantasy VII REMAKE is the long awaited…er…remake of the classic JRPG. Final Fantasy VII is considered by many to be the most influential game in the JRPG franchise, and fans have been clamoring for a remake or remaster ever since the PS3 tech demo over a decade ago.
Revealed at E3 2015, we learned that REMAKE would be episodic, meaning this installment of Final Fantasy VII REMAKE wouldn’t be the full story. Many fans have wondered what this means for the story and REMAKE’s length. Rest assured, there is plenty to do in this game, with the story and most of the side quests taking me close to 40 hours to complete. And with the way this REMAKE ends, you can believe it will have fans of the series talking about it as we await the next episode.
Final Fantasy VII REMAKE works, in my opinion, because it takes risks. This isn’t a simple retelling as I stated before – this is a true remake of the original game. Sure, the original story beats are there – you’re still playing as Cloud and start the adventure working for the eco-terrorist group AVALANCHE trying to rid the world of the Shinra Electric Company. Final Fantasy VII REMAKE doesn’t deviate too much from the original story for much of the early game, but that doesn’t always remain the case. Places such as the Wall Market retain many of the same story beats, but how you get there fleshes it out in a way that makes the whole sequence more enjoyable.
There are some drastic changes to the story many have come to love – almost as if Square Enix looked at Final Fantasy VII and decided they could do it better today versus 1997. Some of these changes are good – some we’ll have to wait to see how they play out. Either way, this makes Final Fantasy VII REMAKE feel distinctly new, which isn’t something I thought I’d feel going into this review.
This isn’t always a good thing, mind you. There are moments where boss fights and in the story that can feel way too convoluted and long – almost as if Square Enix was trying to pad for time. Indeed, some of the chapters themselves can feel downright exhausting to play through as you get later into the story making me wonder if they were truly necessary in their present form.
However, for the vast majority of my 40 hour playthrough I was transfixed, eager to explore every corner of Midgar, talking to every character and ensure I soaked in every detail. Final Fantasy VII REMAKE is a beautiful game to soak in as well. Each corner of Midgar felt alive, such as the dusty slums of Sector 7 or the neon glow of Sector 6’s Wall Market. Every where I turned there was something to do, someone to talk to – and for the most part each activity kept me wanting more.
The People of Midgar
Some of my favorite moments have come from simply interacting with the cast of characters I’ve spent the last two decades of my life remembering fondly. Characters like Tifa and Barret are still hanging around, and I don’t feel like much really changed with them in Final Fantasy VII REMAKE – not that that’s a bad thing.
What made me smile most was watching Biggs, Wedge and, mostly, Jessie get fleshed out in a way that makes their impact on the story feel much more meaningful. I felt like I got to know these characters in a way that never happened in the original telling. Learning about Jessie’s past, or seeing Wedge and Biggs interact with their cats – or help at an orphanage, respectively – endeared me to them even more as we moved through the narrative. Their contributions this time around actually felt necessary and impactful, and I'm really happy I got to know them more this time around versus simply being glorified extras.
Other characters, such as the tough-as-nails Marle, or the perfect embodiment of a "lad" Johnny bring their own flavor and help to flesh out the world beyond just the members of AVALANCHE. And in a story about saving people from the clutches of Shinra and its Mako technology, Final Fantasy VII REMAKE takes that notion and cranks it up a notch by letting you interact and, ultimately help the very people you're protecting. You'll do some mundane tasks, such as helping a young girl find some lost cats around Sector 7, but it was cool to see later on how some of these side missions were connected, one flowing into another.
However, Aerith is really the one who shined through the most in VII REMAKE. Always one of my favorite characters, I really enjoyed how Square Enix made her feel like a real part of the crew, giving her some amazing story beats and interactions with not just Cloud, but Tifa, Barret and more. Aerith felt like she came into her own, taking center stage as the true hero of REMAKE's story - powerful and stern when she needed to be, yet goofy and quick witted when the moment called for some levity. It was powerful to watch unfold before my eyes, and I'm eager to explore more of her character as the episodes move forward.
This is helped by Briana White’s amazing performance – in fact, the entire English voice cast as phenomenal throughout. Normally I play JRPGs in Japanese, but this was one JRPG I could not stop listening to the great V/O cast.
This is backed up by a stellar soundtrack. Final Fantasy VII always had some of the most iconic music in video game history – and all of the songs are present and accounted for. However, some of my favorite songs in the new REMAKE were stellar variations upon the themes, such as a minor version of Aerith’s Theme, or a jazzed-up version of the Final Fantasy VII Overworld title.
Final Fantasy VII REMAKE shakes up the combat, taking us away from the basic turn-based combat of the 1997 game. Instead, you’ll control each character, attacking each enemy by mashing the square button while you wait for your ATB gauge to fill. Once it does, you can use a combat ability, spell or item, depending on your need in the situation.
You can freely swap between characters in your party – and in fact sometimes that is necessary in order to overcome an obstacle or enemy. For instance, Cloud and Tifa are obviously great at melee and close range, but some fights require you to hit targets from a distance. Barret’s Gun Arm comes into its own here, and even Aerith’s magical attacks with her staff can help take out a pesky turret or hit a flying enemy in the distance.
Combat itself is fun – albeit a bit basic once you get the hang of the mechanics. The strategy comes into play when you’re confronted with enemies with different resistances, weaknesses and more that require you to use certain skills or magic to put them in a “stagger” state. Once staggered, your attacks will do extra damage, oftentimes spelling your enemy’s doom.
However, combat isn’t perfect, especially later on in the story. Some fights felt like they were simply unnecessary and bosses dragged on way too long – such as a chase scene through a sewer that saw you fighting waves and waves of enemies, only to tackle a boss with a ton of adds without a real chance to prep or heal beforehand. Additionally, swapping characters during combat is a great way to shake up the monotony of these long fights, but it felt as the game went on that the AI would simply rush towards whatever character I was playing, ignoring my AI party members, making it infuriating to do anything at times.
Fans of the original will recognize the Materia system immediately. Nothing really feels like it’s changed there – you slot Materia on your weapon and accessory, giving you command over elements and other skills or stat enhancements to help you in battle. Materia levels up with you as well, becoming stronger over the course of the experience, unlocking more powerful versions of the magic within.
You can also link Materia if your item allows, augmenting their power, such as Magnifying the power of a Healing Materia, giving you the ability to heal your whole party with a single spell, fully maximizing the ATB gauge spent. Summoning Materia is still rare, and with Final Fantasy VII REMAKE each character can seemingly only have one equipped at a time. Summons are only available in certain fights where the enemy is stronger than normal – i.e. bosses. It’s a little frustrating to go through the work of either hunting down this Materia hidden in the world, or in the case of summons like Shiva or the Fat Chocobo, fight them head on to earn them, and then you can’t use them like you did in the original game. Indeed, only one summon can be used in battle, meaning you’ll want to choose wisely when the gauge fills up.
Summons each have their own attacks as well, so while you don’t control them per se, you can issue commands to them using the ATB gauge of a character in the process. This does allow a degree of control I was thankful for – as a well-timed Heavenly Strike from Shiva can stagger an incredibly powerful foe that’s weak to ice. Once their time is up, summons perform an ultimate attack – such as Diamond Dust for Shiva or Hellfire for Ifrit – dealing massive damage in an impressive cutscene. I never got tired of watching pillars of fire engulf my enemy – it was so cool to watch every single time.
Weapons themselves can also be upgraded, unlocking stats, new Materia slots and more making your character and the weapon itself more potent in battle. Just because you have a new weapon doesn’t mean it’ll be the best one in your inventory as well. Each weapon has its strength and weaknesses. For example, Cloud’s Buster Sword can get incredibly strong through upgrades, yet I always felt he was weak with it came to using spells. However, when equipping a Mithril Blade later in the game it was the exact opposite. Being able to pick the weapon in your inventory to suit your need and playstyle definitely was a nice touch, and the level of customization both the Materia choices and weapon upgrades offer allows you to tinker and theory craft the best set up.
To Remake, or Remaster?
Many will be upset about the episodic nature of Final Fantasy VII REMAKE. With Square Enix taking what was essentially the first four to five hours of the 1997 original and fleshing it out to make a forty-hour experience that takes place entirely in Midgar, I can understand the concern – even calls that Final Fantasy VII REMAKE is incomplete. However, after my first playthrough, I don’t feel as though I didn’t get a full experience. Indeed, this feels more like a title that simply is waiting on a sequel – much like a movie franchise – rather than an incomplete game. I’m eager to see where they take the story from here, and I cannot wait to explore places like Wutai, Cosmo Canyon and more in later installments.
Personally, what is most interesting is how Square approached the remake versus simply retelling. Indeed, the company could have easily replicated the original 1997 game completely within a modern game engine and many fans would have been ecstatic. However, it really feels like Square Enix broke down the story of Final Fantasy VII to its base elements, rebuilding it with a modern twist and expanding greatly upon what was there – sometimes for the better, sometimes with middling results.
It’s the courage of Square Enix to take one of the most beloved stories in video game history and make it their own again that has me excited to not just play through this again but also looking forward to future episodes. By introducing new elements, characters and story beats that are sure to get fans talking, Final Fantasy VII REMAKE stands on its own. This was a true remake, not simply fan service. You can feel the game developer’s care in every detail, the dedication to the original seeping through, recreating iconic moments and dialogue from the original 1997 release (the staircase scene at Shinra HQ is still one of my favorite scenes in gaming history). Yet VII REMAKE takes this story and sets it apart from the original story, making it feel like a whole new entry into the whole Final Fantasy series.
In the end, Final Fantasy VII REMAKE is a fantastic game – one that fans of the original should play. The new story beats and incredibly jaw-dropping conclusion left me yearning for more. And while some might be bummed this is simply the first installment in an episodic series of remakes, I don’t feel gipped by the episodic nature here. After forty hours with the JRPG, I’m eager to go back to relive chapters of the game, finding collectibles and powerups I might have missed throughout my first playthrough.
It’s not perfect, but Final Fantasy VII REMAKE is the remake I was hoping for. The developers truly took the chance and are remaking one of the great RPG stories in gaming history, and it shows a confidence I’ve not seen in Square Enix in quite a while. Final Fantasy VII REMAKE is just the first installment of that new direction for the story, and it’s one I’m eager to follow moving forward.