I’ve long maintained that Final Fantasy VII doesn’t deserve the throne it holds for so many players as one of the greatest RPGs ever made. It’s a fun adventure with memorable characters and an unforgettable soundtrack. However, it did very little new for the genre, and I’ve always thought that its popularity is largely due to being in the right place at the right time. Releasing during the early PlayStation era when new 3D graphics convinced many players to give RPGs a try, its popularity was established mostly due to being so many players’ first major RPG.
When Square Enix released the Final Fantasy VII Remake on PS4 last year, however, I finally became a believer. All of Final Fantasy VII’s strengths are still here but enhanced, with many of its rough edges sanded off. Even better, the development team took major risks, pushing the boundaries of what a remake can be. This makes for a game that will keep even series veterans on their toes. Everything great about that earlier PS4 release is still here in the PS5 version, Final Fantasy VII Intergrade, and even more small issues have been cleaned up. It would be great if Square Enix had done more to embrace the newer system’s abilities, but this is still a wonderful adventure well worth your time.
A Classic Adventure
Like in the original, you play as ex-SOLDIER Cloud Strife. Haunted by his past, he now works as a mercenary and has been hired by a group of eco-terrorists named Avalanche. They believe Shinra, a power company that effectively runs the government of their home in Midgar, is destroying the planet and have to be stopped. They’re willing to take drastic measures to do so. The game starts with you helping them plan a bombing in a major city after being recruited by your childhood friend Tifa. This is the sort of plot which might struggle to be made today if we hadn’t all become so used to it over the last 24 years—still, it’s impactful, especially with some new enhancements.
Most of the time, a remake means taking the core of a game and making it prettier. Square Enix certainly did that. They take far more chances than the average remake, though. Throughout your quest, your actions will frequently be interrupted by a group of wraith-like creatures who fight to keep you on the path of the original game. The characters fight against those bindings and eventually break out in a huge way. Many parts of Final Fantasy VII Remake change, some in relatively minor, though still impactful, ways. Characters who had a small role in the original, like Avalanche members Wedge, Biggs, and Jessie, are fleshed out and given new life. They’re some of my favorite characters in this version, bringing real humanity to the group beyond their leader.
Other changes impact the core of the game and make us doubt what is to come. Some of the later parts of Final Fantasy VII are memorably tragic. After playing this game, I have to wonder if I can change things for the better. Then again, this could all just be setting me up to hope, only to have it mercilessly snatched away.
Speaking of the leader of Avalanche, Barrett is one of the few missteps in the game’s modernization. Mostly in how it doesn’t bother. Barrett in the original game was certainly a beloved character, but he was also problematic. It isn’t that he’s an unlikeable character. He’s deeply passionate about the planet, a loving father, always there for his friends. He’s someone you definitely want to have your back. He’s also presented as a jive-talking stereotype, as he was in 1997. If anything, the new version makes this more pronounced due to the mostly excellent voice cast. Actor John Bentley does what he can to add shadings, but the dialogue and tone of the character just don’t allow it. While an update would have certainly frustrated some fans, it’s a shame that a game that is so bold in taking risks with its story passed on doing so here.
Fight For Midgar
Combat in Final Fantasy VII Remake is all-new, bringing elements of traditional turn-based battle and infusing them into a fast-paced, hard-hitting action game. Each character has their own feel in combat. Cloud fights with his sword and is fast and fluid. Tifa fights up close with her fists and can feel just brutal. Barrett is your ranged character who, despite being slower, is essential in many sections. Flower merchant Aerith (who fans of the original might remember as Aeris, a name change for the original US release Square Enix amended many years ago in other products and continue here) is mostly someone you’ll use for magic at a distance. They all have an excellent, distinct feel. You’ll need all of them at varying points of this game.
Swapping characters on the fly feels easy, and giving commands based on an ATB (active time battle) system which feels familiar to the series is smooth. Controlling your whole party just works, in a way I rarely feel about similar combat systems.
The change made to the summons is my biggest issue with combat. Instead of calling them when you need them, summons now only trigger at specific points in specific battles. It makes these powerful characters, one of the few links between the series’ different games, feel inessential. It’s fun when they show up, but they so rarely do so.
A Challenging Remake
The biggest challenge Remake had to deal with, and one it only partially overcomes, is adapting what was originally only the first part of Final Fantasy VII into a full game. The story here lasted me over thirty hours, yet in the original game, you would have reached this point in under ten. Some of the methods they took, like expanding characters, work. I loved how the game isn’t afraid to take a detour. Going home to meet Jessie’s family could have been cut, yet it might be my favorite segment of the game. It drives home what is being fought for here.
So do Intergrade’s stunning visuals, which bring a blocky late 90s polygonal mess to stunning life. An already mesmerizing game looks even better on PS5, with fantastic lighting, improved animation, and much better texture work around the edges.
Other detours are less successful. Motorcycle sequences just didn’t do much for me, and each one feels less fun than the last. The early chapters of the game, after the famous opening, drag on with busy work, and there’s a long section in the middle which could have been cut down in a big way. It’s hard to sell people a fifteen to twenty-hour RPG, though. I wish they had tried. The excellent gameplay keeps things fun, but when it has momentum behind it, Final Fantasy VII Remake Intergrade is a game few can match.
The famous score by Nobuo Uematsu has never sounded better. New orchestral recordings are marvelous, and new remixes put fresh takes on old classics. I’ve actually been listening to the score while writing this review to put myself in the mood, and there isn’t a single track I’ve felt any desire to skip. Little musical touches invade large parts of the game. Perhaps my favorite is how the series’ victory theme makes an appearance. With combat happening in real-time, with no loading in or out, there’s no wrap-up to play it over. Instead, certain characters will hum it after a battle from time to time. Even more of this would be welcome. It never failed to make me smile.
The move to PS5 is smooth, but Intergrade doesn’t bring a lot that’s new for those who already played Remake. It’s, of course, far better looking. You also have two performance modes to choose between, which are a nice touch. The graphics mode is the prettier of the two certainly. Little details like enhanced hair animation are almost distractingly pretty. I prefer the performance mode, however. The combat there hits an incredibly smooth 60fps. While things feel fine in graphics mode, once you feel the difference, it can be hard to go back. Things still look great either way, so I was glad to make the trade-off.
The other major difference is the new Episode INTERmission, a side story starring young ninja Yuffie. Intergrade is her first appearance in the Remake, and she’s highly memorable. For full details of what to expect there, you can check out my separate review. I will say that it’s well worth your time for those who purchase Intergrade.
A few other small differences are present. A new photo mode can be fun to play with, but it’s very bare-bones. The PS5’s SSD makes loading times feel like nothing, but they weren’t terrible in the original either. Little use is made of the DualSense, which feels like a missed opportunity. You do have the option to transfer your save from the original game, but it’s far more complicated than I’d like. You have to update (or reinstall) the original PS4 version to upload your save, to then download into the PS5 version. Enough other PS5 upgrades have used similar systems that it is possible this is a limitation of the system, but it’s still a pain.
Let’s talk for a moment about how you’re going to play Intergrade. For those who are new to Final Fantasy VII Remake, it’s the same as any other game. You buy Intergrade for full price. It comes with the core game and the INTERmission side story. If you already purchased the PS4 version, you can upgrade for free. Digital owners will simply download it, while physical ones will need to insert a disc. This does present one potential problem. Those who bought the game physically but chose a digital-only PS5 will be out of luck.
They’re not completely alone. PlayStation Plus subscribers received Final Fantasy 7 Remake for free in March. Those who downloaded it there and didn’t purchase it don’t get the free upgrade. They’ll have to pay if they want it. Those who get the free upgrade also don’t get Episode INTERmission, though it is available as paid DLC.
No matter how you play it, Final Fantasy VII Remake Intergrade is a stunning success. While it doesn’t take as much advantage of the PS5 as I’d have liked, this is still the best version of this excellent remake. I’m a huge fan of the bold new direction they’re taking this version of Final Fantasy VII in, one which has even a veteran of the original game on the edge of his seat waiting for part two. Whether you played Final Fantasy VII in 1997, 2020, anywhere in between, or even if you never played the original, you owe it to yourself to check out our favorite game of 2020.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: PS5 (reviewed); Publisher: Square Enix; Developer: Square Enix; Players: 1; Released: June 10th, 2021; ESRB: T for Teen; MSRP: $69.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a retail copy of Final Fantasy 7 Remake Intergrade.