A few weeks ago, Final Fantasy VII superfan Sam Brooks got to play five hours of the new remake. He interviews the game’s director, Yoshinori Kitase, and reports back on why the game isn’t just a remake, but so much more.
The opening moments of Final Fantasy VII are hard to forget.
We pan across a starry sky as a haunting piano plinks away. A woman kneels next to a vent, her face lit up by a light that looks equal parts radioactive and holy. Clutching a basket of flowers, she walks out of a alleyway and we follow, panning out to reveal a fully-fledged city. The title screen flashes: Final Fantasy VII. We zoom in to focus on a train hurtling through that city. A smash cut, and the train slows to a stop. Low polygon models hit each other, and then a spiky-haired blond man in purple flips from that train, wielding a sword at least as big as he is.
It’s the very moment that marked the series stepping into the spotlight. Almost immediately upon release in 1997, Final Fantasy became a ubiquitous brand. Millions of copies sold, television ads, billboard campaigns. Even if you’ve never ventured near a controller, you’d heard of Final Fantasy.
It’s a prominence that has never fully faded, even if it’s wobbled a bit with the maligned XIII, the mismanaged launch and slow rehabilitation of XIV, and the long gestating development of both XV and the Final Fantasy VII remake (referred to hereafter as Final Fantasy VIIR). Regardless, when that remake was announced five years ago, I found myself rushing down to EB Games to pre-order it and pay for it in full. Even while I have notes on the later editions of the game – basically everything since X-2 – I’ll still hand over my money to Final Fantasy. Branding is everything.
I watched the leak of news of this remake come out over the past year, through constant delays, and the clarification that the game would be released as a series of episodes, the first one covering the game’s most popular, and famous, location: Midgar. It’s a risky proposition – Midgar covers the first ten hours of a 40 hour game, and while it features most of the imagery and iconography that made the game famous, it’s not the part of the game that people remember most fondly. But then the first trailer dropped, and I was sold entirely. As far as makeovers go, this wasn’t just a guy throwing on a clean shirt to get ready to go out, this was a full Rachael Leigh Cook in She’s All That glow-up. I recently got to preview the game for a full five hours, and as I sat down to start Final Fantasy VIIR, I felt the same kind of wonder that I’d started the game with as a seven year old, and I felt myself getting legitimately emotional.
An eagle, in glorious 4K graphics, soars over the desert. A very stripped back version of ‘One Winged Angel’ whispers in the background, taking a cue from seemingly every movie trailer of the past ten years. The eagle flies over the city of Midgar, which looks like an actual city, complete with playgrounds (that weird slide thing with the protruding tongue? Yup! That’s there) and citizens wandering around. Compared to the original Midgar, which was seen largely at night and from afar, this Midgar is like watching an artist who has had to paint with their fingers finally getting their hands on a brush
It’s a full two minutes before the opening movie gets to that defining image: a woman’s face, lit up in green, as she walks out into an unforgiving city. Once more, as it did 20 years ago, the camera zooms out from her face to show the entirety of Midgar, looking like an actual city. The title screen flashes: Final Fantasy VII Remake. The camera zooms in. Those same characters that jumped out 30 years ago jump out, looking like slightly stylized real people. The spiky-haired blond hero flips from the train. The game begins.
Put bluntly, Final Fantasy VIIR plays in a way that makes Final Fantasy XV seem like it was a very expensive beta. While Final Fantasy XV was a bit floaty, and not as intuitive, Final Fantasy VIIR is so action-packed that it feels like a Dynasty Warriors game, which, to be clear, is a good thing. While classic mode remains, it’s mostly there for people who are in love with the ATB (Active Time Bar) of old, while the action-driven gameplay feels modern, and reactive, to a fault. It’s simple to grasp hold of – an ATB gauge fills over time, but is also charged up with regular attacks, and that gauge is used to perform special abilities and spells.
You can control any of the characters, each with a different playstyle. I got to play the core four: Cloud (spiky blond), Barret (man with gun as arm), Tifa (girl with fists), Aerith (girl with flowers). Cloud is the all-arounder, and playing like him feels like playing a weightier Sora from Kingdom Hearts, while Barret is a long-range fighter, as befitting the gun literally grafted onto his arm. On the other side of things, Tifa is a combo-based brawler and Aerith is a long-range support. What surprised me wasn’t necessarily the range of these characters, but how the gameplay shifted to make playing each a viable strategy, and each genuinely fun. It’s a total change from the gameplay of the original game, even if you’re changing it to classic mode. But if you want that game, go back and play it. This is 2020, and this game fits rightly into the kinds of games we play now – it’s reactive, immersive, and immediately accessible.
But that’s the gameplay. Square Enix are always gonna nail the basics. They’re always going to make a fun, mechanically robust game. They’re always going to make a beautiful looking game with an iconic soundtrack – there’s a reason why they do classical orchestra tours. The question is: Are they going to make a Final Fantasy that feels like a Final Fantasy?
Or, more importantly and pertinently here, are they going to make Final Fantasy VIIR feel like Final Fantasy VII?
While Yoshinori Kitase is not the man behind Final Fantasy, if you were making a Mount Rushmore of Final Fantasy’s most important people, he’d be a Lincoln or a Jefferson. He directed and wrote the scenario for Final Fantasy VII, VIII and was the producer and chief director of Final Fantasy X, arguably the three most successful games in the franchise. He’s unassuming in person, with a quick wit and a top-down sense of his franchise. Even speaking through a translator, you get the sense that this is someone who knows this story and how to tell it down to the very last pixel.
It’s a very strange experience to sit in front of someone who has been behind some of the most important pieces of art in your life – the kind of art that unconsciously forms the backbone and very definition of what you understand to not just be a story, but the kind of story that you yourself want to tell. Those middle-era Final Fantasy games are those stories for me. Epic stories of good versus evil, they’re romances in the classic sense of the word that also manage to tell intimate, emotionally authentic stories. Final Fantasy VII is, after all, less about saving the world from a power-hungry corporation and more about coming to terms with the past. Final Fantasy VIII is about dealing with the uncertaintities of being a teenager. Final Fantasy X is about all kinds of daddy issues, while Final Fantasy X-2 is, well, yeah. That’s about saving the world while dressing up with your mates. Some of them are just fun, you guys.
So when I talked to Kitase, I wasn’t necessarily interested in the tech. I couldn’t spot a game running at 60 frames-per-second at 4K even if you pointed it out to me. I was interested in how someone who made one of the most successful games of all time revisits that as an artist, with a range of new tools and toys at his disposal, and tries to bring it into a new world intact.
Sam Brooks: What’s it like coming back to a game that has been such a big part of your life so many years after the fact? How does that feel to you as an artist?
Yoshinori Kitase: I’m very happy to do it, but at the same time there’s a lot of hard work involved in it too – and a lot of challenges. I certainly feel like my big mission for this game is to recreate it as something that appeals to the current generation of gamers. It’s what, 23 years since we made Final Fantasy VII? The quality of the graphics then was pretty good, but now the realism [of the original] is not really where it has to be to grab hold of the modern audience of gamers. So figuring out how to reimagine and remake the game to really work for the modern audience was my big mission for this game.
From playing it just now what strikes me so much about it is that it feels like an incredibly lived-in world. That’s what it holds over from the original so nicely. Was it important for you to retain that?
As you say, that attention to detail was very important in the original. But even though we did pay a lot of attention to making the world, because of the way the graphics were – the stylisation and the level of abbreviation that was acceptable in games back then – when we took that to the newer, much more realistic modern graphics obviously that’s not going to stand up in the same way. We needed to add in that extra layer of detail and draw everything to a really fine line. That was something that, to get across to the new audience and to keep that level of reality, was something that the development team were really careful about and they were instructed to be very detailed in how they added that to the world.
Something that I’ve noticed is that it still has the same sense of humour, even though it’s handling some pretty heavy topics like environmentalism and later on, grief. Humour shifts so fast and so easily over the years – how do you make sure it stays in line with what is funny now, as well as what was funny back then?
I think it really revolved around finding that universal stuff that will always be funny and is really timeless, and working from that. But of course, the actual way that each of the individual gags and funny sections were presented was something we had to work on, and make sure that was presented in a way that would resonate with people today.
One of the big things about that is the original game was text based, there were no voices, so a lot of the gags and jokes were designed to work as something you read. When we went back to look over some of those and our scenario writer, Kazushige Nojima, looked into that, we felt that if you say these things out loud as part of a natural conversation they probably don’t work quite as well. So we had to go back and rewrite those as something that would work as spoken dialogue.
When it comes to plot and characterisation, how the fans have viewed those characters has shifted over time, and the cultural mass has settled somewhere that doesn’t necessarily reflect how they were actually written. A lot of people think of Aerith as a gentle flower, when really she’s quite fun and feisty. Or they think of Cloud as quite closed-off, but really he’s a huge weirdo. How do you make sure they stay true to how they were in the original game while still appealing to the fans?
With Aerith we didn’t do that much to deliberately change how she’s presented in the original, I think she’s quite close to how she was there. For Cloud there’s an interesting phenomenon there – the Cloud that most people know and have this image of is actually not the Cloud from the original game.
It’s from the sequels and the further games down the line, where we see him voiced and he’s perhaps much more easy to relate to as a character. But that’s the veteran Cloud, after he’s been toughened up by his adventures. The Cloud that appears in the original game, people often forget, is the youngest Cloud. This is still when he’s much less experienced and he was quite green really, he was a rookie. We deliberately try to show him in that light in the game, to show this isn’t the Cloud from later on, this is him before he developed as a character. That’s an important difference in the perception people have of that character.
Are there things that you can do now that you wish you could have done earlier? How does it feel to be able to hit those marks now?
I think the main thing is in the proportions of the characters. The technology we had when we made the original Final Fantasy VII was not really that advanced at the time, because the number of polygons you could render in the different sections of the game were not consolidated, they were all different. It meant that we had to show the characters at different proportions at different points in the story.
You had the world map, where you had quite stylized, small-scale characters with cartoony proportions, compared to that you had the battles where there were slightly more realistic depictions of the characters, then there’s the pre-rendered full motion cutscenes where you had the characters at their most realistic. It was a bit of a weird way of doing things. What I really like now about the remake is that because the spec is so much higher we can have every part of the game shown with those really high-spec, realistically proportioned characters for every little bit of the drama. It ties it all together a lot better, I think.
In the remake we’ve managed to have Cloud in full detail wherever he is, and you’ll be able to see the Buster Sword on his back with the little materia slots, and you’ll be able to see the materia you’ve got equipped in them. It works much better. On the other hand it means there’s a lot more work in making that look right in the world, so for example when Cloud is going to sleep he sits in the bed, he obviously can’t have his sword on his back there, so he has to take it off and sling it by the wall. There’s a lot of extra work involved in those little details, but we really feel they are essential to have that realism.
Final Fantasy VIIR is not the same game as Final Fantasy VII – it can’t be, and Square Enix wouldn’t have poured millions upon millions of dollars and years of development time to replicate what’s already there. It’s more helpful to think of Final Fantasy VIIR as an adaptation rather than as a remake.
In Final Fantasy VII, there’s one screen that I’ll never forget. After AVALANCHE, the eco-terrorist group that Cloud has joined, blows up the Mako reactor in Sector 1, they all split up to make their way to a getaway train. As Cloud, you walk down through a town square. The level of detail is incredible for a game released in 1997. There’s a town clock, little steps on the way down to the fountain, and lights dot the streets. It doesn’t look like a real town, but it looks like a painting. We fill in the gaps ourselves.
This same screen in Final Fantasy VIIR is extended to a full half-hour sequence. After AVALANCHE – now environmentalists rather than the straight-up ecoterrorists they were in the original – blow up the Mako Reactor, they all still split up, but you now get to see how that action has devastated Sector 1. Cloud walks through bystanders who are panicking, and clambers through the wreckage of the explosions – up fire escapes, across broken buildings, and past injured people. It’s harrowing stuff, and it gets the player into the world of the game immediately, as that one screen with its then-incredible level of detail did, way back in 1997.
The game is just so much… more, in every way. Square Enix have confirmed that this first part of the game is expected to be as long as the original game, even though it focuses on the first quarter of the story. It remains to be seen whether they can replicate that attention to detail and sense of immersion for the rest of FFVII, a game that was as expansive and epic as you could get back in 1997. The three sections I played – the first reactor, the second reactor, and a boss fight – were more of everything.
This was most evident, unsurprisingly, in the longest section I played. Characters like Wedge, Jessie and Biggs, who have become popular in the fan community, now have a lot more texture and depth; Jessie is way more flirty and fun with Cloud, Wedge is more than just the bumbling fat sidekick, and Biggs is more than a generic tough guy. This goes right down to the hair on Barret’s arms. In the 90s, we had to make up for the lack of texture with imagination. Now, technology is letting the artist bring us into their imagination.
There’s also the little subtle adaptations of the story, little changes that don’t change the overall arc, but throw in something unexpected for fans. What was once a brief auditory hallucination for Cloud is now a full-blown, playable, visual hallucination, and allows the moment to be less foreshadowing and more forepotlighting, and it works in the game’s favour. AVALANCHE being ecoterrorists has always been an awkward sore spot when revisiting the game, and changing them into environmentalists-gone-wrong is a clever way to keep the story intact but give more space and room to play with it. It’s the platonic ideal of when George Lucas went back and put special effects into all the original Star Wars game; it’s what was always intended but they were limited by the times.
Final Fantasy VIIR generates the same kind of feeling I had when I was seven years old, playing the original game. If it can provide a sense of wonder for me, the kind of person who has played so much Final Fantasy VII that I could navigate that fictional world better than my own real life one, then I’m jealous for what the hell it can do for someone who hasn’t ever seen it before.
Final Fantasy VIIR comes out on April 10 for PS4 . The writer’s travel for this event was paid for by Square-Enix.