For many players of a certain age, Final Fantasy VII was a game that changed everything. It was a spectacular and epic experience that was full of impressive cutscenes and plot twists, one of which became the medium’s most famous twist. It was an indicator of what video games could be, mature experiences that could have an emotional resonance. This would help to solidify video games as a serious pursuit instead of just a child’s pastime. It became a huge success, and the sequels have all tried to match this to varying degrees of success. Now, it’s blocky characters and poorly translated script have aged the original considerably. A remake has been mooted for years, and now it has arrived with much hype.
Developed by Square Enix, the Final Fantasy VII Remake is a role-playing game where the player takes control of Cloud Strife, who is a mercenary. He has been hired by an eco-terrorist group called Avalanche who are fighting against the company Shinra, whose reactors are draining the planet of its life stream. Set in Midgar, a city where the rich live in an upper plate that leaves the slums below in its shadow, Cloud is joined by a group of characters, including his childhood friend, Tifa, the leader of Avalanche, Barret, who has a gun for an arm, and a flower seller named Aerith.
What impresses straightaway is how fantastic the game looks. The game opens with an extended version of the original’s introduction, Aerith’s face fills the screen, and the detail and expressiveness on her face is remarkable. Usually, games suffer from problems regarding the uncanny valley, but in this game, the characters’ faces look natural. The camera pans out, and the detail and scope of the city of Midgar is awe-inspiring. This fidelity continues once the game starts, all main characters and enemy designs look great and well detailed. However, whilst this is probably the best looking game I have ever seen, there are some inconsistencies in the environments and NPCs. Some environments can sometimes seem to have a lower resolution with blurrier textures, and NPC characters can look basic. It seems that with the main characters boasting such a large amount of detail, sacrifices had to be made elsewhere. For me, this was not too immersion-breaking, and considering how great the rest of the game looks, it was worth the price. In terms of how it compares to the original game, everything has clearly been modernised, with a switch to a contemporary third-person perspective, a move from a top-down perspective. This new perspective does a great job of selling the oppressive feel of living in the shadows of the upper plates; you look up wherever you are, and they are always there.
Characters are also modernised but retain their familiar appearances. Characters are now fully voice acted, and though dialogue can be on the nose, and Barret can come across as a caricature, for the most part, everybody sounds fine with voices that fit the characters. The game excels when it gets this balance correct, between the familiar and the new. This is best encompassed by the soundtracks, which are redone versions of the old themes, plus more drastic remixes and some new pieces.
This extends to the battle system, which works in real time where the player can dodge, block or attack, similar to the system found in Final Fantasy XV. The active time battle elements of the original are incorporated when it comes to abilities and magic, and for these the player has to wait for a bar to fill before using them. Each character has their own set of abilities, and magic is equipped using different materia, as was the case in the original. Players can switch between characters to use their abilities and magic. Early on, this felt like an overly busy system, especially so against bosses that were quick and changed their attack patterns, but by the end, I was managing this well without thinking about it. I only died a handful of times during the game, so I would say the battle system is pretty intuitive and manageable once you get used to it. For those who do have trouble with juggling all these elements, there is a classic mode that makes all the real time elements automatic so the player can concentrate on abilities and magic. Overall, I ended up really enjoying this new battle system and appreciated the elements that were retained.
So far, I have been very positive about the Final Fantasy VII remake and the various changes that have been made. However, when it comes to the story and the structure of the game, it is not so clear. Despite being labelled as a remake of Final Fantasy VII, it only covers the Midgar section of the original game. This amounts to around 6-7 hours in the original’s 60-hour run time. Here, this section has been stretched out encompassing a full game, one that I completed in approximately 40 hours. For the most part, the remake follows the plot of the first game, and the extra time spent here has its benefits. Certain characters are further fleshed out, and the extension of certain areas makes the city feel alive. However, the game does suffer from padding. Side missions have been added, and whilst these aren’t the worst I’ve experienced in an RPG as they are pretty simple to complete and usually don’t require the player to leave the area the quest was given in, most are inconsequential and lack interesting twists.
The pacing is also inconsistent, time spent in certain areas seems to drag on too long, and when the pace should be picking up, the game can slow to a crawl. The worst offence of this occurs when the player reaches the Shinra building. In the original there was a sense of escalation as events ramped up, in the remake this is ruined by the addition of a late dungeon that is frustratingly drawn out. Story elements from later on in the original have been pushed forward in this version, and whilst these will make sense to players of the original, new players could be confused, and the motivations of a certain villain will be unclear. Obviously, in future parts the idea is that there will be a pay off, but end game events raise questions about whether these threads will ever be resolved and who this remake is for. Late game events need the contextual knowledge of the original to have an impact, but in the same way, it may lose fans of the original.
Despite these misgivings about the story and the structure of the game, I did enjoy the game. As a bit of a Final Fantasy VII veteran, it was a joy to return to this universe with characters I have loved for years, and the game did a great job of updating the setting and the look of the characters, with graphics that are the best I’ve ever experienced in a game. The battle system works well with its balance between the new and the old, which also applies to the soundtrack. However, as much as I did still enjoy the story, the balance between the old and new is not as successful in this respect, leaving a game that I feel falls between two stalls and at times feels drawn out and has pacing issues. It’s not that change is a bad thing, but by signalling that further changes may be made in future instalments, for me it makes the concept of remaking Final Fantasy VII moot.
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: 10th April 2020