A Work of Art
I gotta be upfront and honest for a second here. I had some difficulty sitting down to write this review. Part of the issue was pulling myself away from this game to sit down and actually write about it. The other part was getting my thoughts written down without inadvertently coming off as a gushing fanboy. There’s a lot to say about Final Fantasy VII Remake, and I highly regard the original both as a good game (despite issues that haven’t aged well) of which I have many fond memories of and is also an important milestone in JRPG history. Avoiding spoilers for first time players was tricky as well, but I’d like to think I’ve tried my best here. So, without further ado, what did I think of Final Fantasy VII Remake? In a nutshell, it was well worth the 15-year wait.
It’s hard to imagine that with how popular the original Final Fantasy VII was that many people going into the Remake hadn’t played anything FFVII yet. To be fair, though, it has been over 23 years since the original release, so it’s to be expected that this will be the case. So, while trying to be as spoiler-free as possible, the story of Final Fantasy VII can be summarized as: Players assume the role of Cloud Strife, mercenary for hire. The freedom fighting group Avalanche hires him to take down the Shinra Corporation, who is using Mako energy to power the city of Midgar. Midgar is a giant city suspended hundreds of meters above the ground where the well-off live while the poor suffer in polluted, monster-infested slums down below. Unbeknownst to everyone but the Shinra higher-ups and Avalanche, Mako is actually the life force of the planet itself. When that energy runs out, the planet will die. Eventually, the scope of the game goes beyond Shinra’s greed and ambitions, and each of the characters has their own trials and tribulations they go through along the way. The characters and more modernized setting really helped Final Fantasy VII cement its place as a JRPG to be remembered.
Final Fantasy VII Remake seeks to follow the same core story, but offers massively fleshed out character arcs, and expands on the story far deeper than Square was originally able to do back in 1997. The downside of this massively expanded story is that it’s stretching the game into three parts, with the first part of the Remake being relegated to the “Midgar Arc.” Even so, Square Enix have crafted a full game’s worth of content, even with this chapter being the first third of the overall story. The original game’s Midgar segment usually amounted to around maybe 5 or 6 hours, depending on how long you took exploring and grinding. In the Remake, however, the full game clocks in at approximately 40 to 50 hours, with a plethora of post-game content if you wish to keep digging deeper. In my current playthrough, I’m at 75 hours playing through Hard Mode (more on that later). Even considering that this first installment is essentially the first third of the entire Final Fantasy VII story, this is one massive game Square Enix has made here.
These Slums are POPPIN’
Final Fantasy VII Remake has a ton of subtle environment details and a lot of people wandering the world, making it feel truly alive.
Almost exactly like the original, the game opens up with the Avalanche crew along with Cloud infiltrating the Sector 1 reactor to sabotage it. The instant you start the game up, the first thing you’ll notice is just how breathtakingly detailed the characters and, for the most part, the environments are. Square Enix has utilized Unreal Engine 4 for the core framework of the Remake trilogy, and it is used astoundingly well here. Characters have minute texture details in their hair and clothes, and they blow in the wind with stark realism. Their pores and veins are subtly rendered onto their skin textures. Shaders and light sourcing are beautifully done. In particular, I was taken aback at how nicely done the lighting was crossing between train cars on the way back to the Midgar slums. The reactors, towns, and homes you visit have a sense of scale about them that seemed to be lost in the pre-rendered backgrounds of the original game. Vents, tubes, and advanced machinery make up the reactors. Organized neighborhoods, clean streets, and nice cars line the streets of the Midgar residential districts. The slums are filled to the brim with junk, dilapidated buildings, and downtrodden people. As a whole, Midgar is a beautifully rendered city both above and below, with some exceptions.
The next thing you’ll notice is how engaging the combat is. You’re immediately introduced to Final Fantasy VII Remake’s combat system right after the opening cinematics, and I have to say Square Enix found a nice equilibrium here. Many fans were concerned when it was revealed the Remake would be eschewing traditional turn-based combat in favor of the more action-oriented system found in Final Fantasy XV. On paper, it sounds not very fun (for the record, I was okay with XV’s combat, though it had some growing to do), but in practice, it works very well. The square button unleashes standard attacks for each character, with triangle offering improved attacks that deal a bit more damage. These attacks fill up your Active Time Battle gauge (ATB for short, a staple of Final Fantasy games for a while now), which consists of two slots by default. When these are filled up, you can unleash special skills or cast magic spells to deal elemental damage, debuff enemies, and buff or heal your own party. Time slows down to a crawl, much like selecting weapons in Doom 2016 and Doom Eternal, offering you plenty of time to think carefully about what skills you want to utilize to bring your enemies down. Final Fantasy VII Remake has a large number of enemies and bosses on hand, some very strong. So, you’ll definitely want to capitalize on weaknesses to bring them down as quickly as possible. Another cool feature is that each character plays differently, which was a shortcoming of the original where everyone could be essentially made the same with Materia customization. Cloud and Tifa are your close-range aggro machines with Tifa being a bit faster, and Aerith and Barrett are your long-range attackers with Aerith having more of a focus on magic attacks.
Speaking of weaknesses, also making a return in a more refined form is the stagger gauge featured initially in Final Fantasy XIII (as well as a few others since). When battling enemies, attacking them fills up an orange gauge beneath their life bar. You can throw them off balance either by doing large amounts of damage, exploiting weaknesses, or other conditions sending them into a “pressured” state, which fills up the gauge faster. When the bar fills up, the enemy becomes staggered, and you and your team can wail on it to do massive damage, with certain attacks increasing the damage multiplier, which in turn can make short work of the monster you’re trying to take down. Limit Breaks, super attacks featured in the original Final Fantasy VII, also return here, which can also deal catastrophic damage to enemies. In short, though the combat system may seem basic, there are a lot of options on tap to dole out damage.
Fire in the Hole!
Final Fantasy VII Remake’s combat is fast, frantic, and fun. Classic and Easy difficulties make the action more turn-based
For fans who want a more streamlined or traditional RPG experience, there are Easy and Classic modes available. Both modes put less focus on the combat and more on the narrative and story. The difference between Classic and Easy is that in Classic Mode, your characters attack automatically while your ATB gauge fills up and pauses while you select commands. It’s sort of a cross between an auto-pilot mode and turn-based combat, in a way. For fans who want a little more challenge out of their time with Final Fantasy VII Remake, Hard Mode is unlocked after completing the story. In Hard Mode, enemies deal more damage and attack both more aggressively and with new moves and patterns. Additionally, you can’t use items at any point – even outside of battle. Benches that you use at rest stops also only replenish HP instead of both HP and MP in other difficulties. It’s a very challenging experience at first, but when you get the right setup and groove going for managing combat, it gets a little easier. I’m currently on Chapter 14 in Hard Mode, and there have been a few fights that made me need a stiff drink afterward, to put it mildly. At least there are plenty of rewards for players that tackle the challenge.
After a few fights, the game starts introducing the primary characters making up Avalanche. Aside from the very imposing Barrett, you have the adorable and extremely flirtatious Jessie, big happy guy Wedge, and the cool and oddly Charlie Sheen-esque Biggs. These were, of course, characters featured in the original game; but they had admittedly small parts in the overall scope of the game. With this entry solely focusing on the Midgar portion of the story, Square Enix has taken a ton of creative liberties to flesh out character details and backstories that weren’t touched upon originally. Most notably, the Avalanche members, which made them far more endearing to me than they ever were originally. Final Fantasy VII remake also adds a bunch of new characters to further flesh out the world, especially the slums below Midgar. Even villains like Reno and Rude of The Turks (Shinra’s special operatives) are further explored, and other villains like Don Corneo and Hojo are made appropriately skeevy and unlikable. This is further accentuated by the astoundingly good voice acting. I actually preferred the English dub as a whole because the actors were just THAT good. The Japanese cast is pretty star-studded as well, with many actors from the Final Fantasy VII Advent Children feature film reprising their roles. In my personal preference, though, I just felt the English actors fit better, especially for characters like Barrett and Biggs.
Your first glimpse into the expanded world is exploring the Sector 7 slums with your childhood friend Tifa. Marle is a stern but loving old lady who runs the apartment building Tifa, and in turn, Cloud stays at. Wymer runs the neighborhood watch, which keeps an eye out for monsters and issues your first set of side quests to you. Chadley is another new character who is a defected Shinra intern gathering intel to develop new materia so you can use new abilities and spells. Materia was the system used for magic and skills in the original Final Fantasy VII, and it makes a return largely untouched here. Materia is divided up into five different colors: Green for primary magic, Blue for spell augmenting, Yellow for skills, Purple for ability and stat boosts, and Red for summoning powerful monsters to help you fight. In total, there are a few dozen different kinds of materia, and each gains AP to level up as you use them.
Final Fantasy VII Remake has dozens of materia to find, including summons. Some are obtained oddly early compared to the original.
Materia slots into your weapons and armor, with better weapons and armor offering more slots. Your weapons can also be upgraded to add more slots to them or connect slots together to combine certain Materia effects. Some materia can only be earned from playing the story, finding them while exploring, or by completing intel requests for Chadley, who also gives you summon Materia after you fight said summons in “VR Battles.” These fights feel similar to fighting the Guardian Forces in Final Fantasy VIII, except for the combat system being different this time, obviously. The summon battles are rightfully challenging depending on your level, but the rewards are pretty well worth it as summons can turn the tide of battle very quickly. On top of this, properly configuring your materia loadout to capitalize on enemy weaknesses can make or break your party, especially with a certain couple of fights that haunted me my first playthrough and subsequently on Hard Mode as well.
After getting introduced to the newly freshened up Sector 7 Slums, you’ll notice that things start to take a slightly different turn than the original story. The core elements remain the same, but certain things happen differently. You raid a Shinra stockpile for some explosive compound and fight a new SOLDIER (Shinra’s Mako-powered super-warriors, of whom Cloud used to be a part of) by the name of Roche. Upon starting the next mission, the Avalanche team actively decides to leave Cloud and Tifa out of their plans. That is until some mysterious specters show up and after some tampering make Cloud and Tifa take Jessie and Wedge’s place. You’ll see a lot of these mysterious ghosts throughout the game, and without getting too spoiler-y they play an interesting and rather subversive role in the overall story of Final Fantasy VII Remake. It’s at this point that you’ll start to notice that the “Remake” moniker in the title isn’t so much referencing the game of Final Fantasy VII being remade, but the story is being remade as well. It’s frustrating having to withhold details in the name of not wanting to spoil things, but the game does set itself up in the end that the story can go in any direction Square Enix wants to going into the next two entries. Definitely an interesting, yet risky move on Square Enix’s part.
Even with new characters and story events, Final Fantasy VII Remake has a metric ton of fanservice in the over 40-hour campaign.
Despite these differences, veteran Final Fantasy VII fans shouldn’t be discouraged that they won’t have anything to love here, as the Remake is FULL of fanservice in mostly the best possible ways. Again, without trying to get too spoiler-y: there are certain bosses that were rare enemies in the original, and they work fantastically as bosses. The one in Wall Market, in particular, had me dying from laughter even though said boss was an absolute nightmare to fight. On the subject of Wall Market, that entire chapter as a whole was masterfully done and was possibly my favorite out of the entire game. When Square Enix said they wanted to update certain segments in that section of the game to be more in line with modern sensibilities, I was a little concerned. Thankfully, those fears were unfounded as everything still feels very “Wall Market,” and then some. The Honeybee Inn, in particular, was absolutely fantastic and hilarious while still being tasteful, despite a disturbing lack of Mukki. Even minor things like the weird robot arms laying around in the collapsed On top of the already ludicrous amount of visual fanservice in Final Fantasy VII Remake, the soundtrack is host to a number of the best tunes that fans will remember, and are masterfully arranged in ways that will draw new fans in. Those Who Fight Further and the remix of The Oppressed stuck out to me, but there is a metric ton of great music here. I want to keep on going into more detail about just how much Square Enix put into the Remake, but I honestly think doing so would spoil the game too much. It’s best if you experience the game yourself with as fresh a mindset as possible.
Though Final Fantasy VII Remake has an absurd amount of polish to it, some areas could have used further polishing up. There are some rough NPC animations and world textures in parts. The biggest offender to me is the skybox looking down at the slums of Midgar. In some parts, you can tell it’s a flat rendered texture, and it can look pretty bad and blurry depending on how you look at it. The game can also be pretty linear. Though the game feels large, there are really only a few areas you can freely explore, and for the most part, they’re straight paths with a few offshoots here and there. Granted, there were only a few primary areas you visited in the original Midgar as well. Still, it seems like these same sections were taken and artificially lengthened with only a couple legitimately new areas added in between. This is made worse by numerous slow-walking segments that serve to add some character interaction and exposition, but it further pads the game out a little more than it needs to.
Certain new things added to the Remake, in particular Roche, seems to be a throwaway character as he is only in the game for the one chapter you encounter him in. There might be a possibility he is in future games, but it’s kind of a waste he wasn’t utilized more here. Other things like certain summons being earned way earlier than you would originally is also an odd design choice to me. Your party AI is decent in combat, and you can switch to other characters on the fly, but there are times where the AI can place itself in harm’s way and take damage before you can get to them. This didn’t happen to me too much, but it does happen, and there, unfortunately, any adjustments you can make to their AI, even setting AI partners to focus on offense, defense, or magic, is absent. The camera can also be obtrusive at times, though this can thankfully be adjusted. In terms of future games, with how the ending plays out (again, trying to avoid spoilers), Square Enix can take the game in any direction they choose. The ending already feels “Kingdom Hearts-ish” enough as is, I’m just hoping that the creative direction doesn’t take the overall narrative into an incoherent mess. As long as the core story is the same with some new twists and turns to keep things fresh, I’ll be good. This may seem like a lot that I brought Final Fantasy VII Remake down for me, but with the overall scope of the game, these issues are very minor, and in terms of the Level of Detail issues, they can be fixed by patching, hopefully.
A Triumphant Return
As a whole, Final Fantasy VII Remake is a grand start to a trilogy that has the potential to be a solid hit for Square Enix. I plunked down a healthy chunk of change for the First Class Edition from the Square Enix Store, and I believe I definitely got my money’s worth here (though to be fair, most of the cost of that edition was the Cloud and Hardy Daytona figures). Many moments made me remember my first time playing through the original Final Fantasy VII back in middle school. Playing an updated version of a childhood classic made me smile and laugh more moments than I could count. The narrative direction the story seems to be going towards is a risky one but could seriously pay off if Square Enix plays their cards right. While there are some minor qualms that bring the game down a notch from being a “perfect” Remake for me, it’s clear to see that an enormous amount of time and care went into making this. I’m all aboard for the next two chapters of this epic and can’t wait to see where Square Enix goes next. I’m just hoping it won’t take another decade to get to the next part, and the next chapter fixes technical issues from this first portion of the game. Final Fantasy VII Remake is a helluva ride, and whether this is your first foray into the world of Final Fantasy of you’ve been an FF fan for decades, there should be plenty here to like.
Final Verdict: 4.5 / 5
Available on: PlayStation 4; Publisher: Square Enix; Developer: Square Enix ; Release Date: April 10th, 2020; ESRB: T for Teen; MSRP: $59.99 (Standard), $79.99 (Deluxe)
Full disclosure: This review is based on a personal Playstation 4 copy of Final Fantasy VII Remake purchased by the reviewer