After five years, the Final Fantasy VII Remake has finally appeared. Sam Brooks reviews the highly anticipated remake, looking back while leaping forward.
Remakes have been around so long as we’ve been making art. We’re used to them, whether they’re new retellings of old myths, covers of old songs, or complete reimaginings of old films. But a video game remake is a different thing entirely.
A pop song released in 2020, at the basic level, sounds like a pop song from 25 years ago. By contrast 25 years ago, we were amazed if a game was in 3D. Now, games are expected to be online, have open worlds, run at 60fps and allow for achievements and agency, all at the same time. That’s doubly true of a triple-A game. It’s where the technology is, and the culture around the form expects it. By which I mean, gamers expect it.
If you’re remaking a game released 20 years ago, you have to do it from the ground up. A mainstream video game in 2020 doesn’t play anything like a game from 2000, and if it did, people would riot. Or at the very least, not buy it. If something that old gets remade, it’s because people want to experience it in a whole new way, to see it reimagined with modern gameplay and graphics. And yet it still has to be recognisably similar to the original, because gamers are about as forgiving as Star Wars fans. Any change to gameplay, story or design, can be taken as a personal attack, even when following current trends, and sometimes especially when following these trends. “It’s not the same, so now it sucks” becomes the party line.
So, the Final Fantasy VII remake, first teased in 2007 and confirmed in 2015, is stuck between a rock and a hard, gamer-shaped, place. It’s a big-budget, highly anticipated title in a franchise that desperately needs a unanimous hit, after the phoenix-like rise of Final Fantasy XIV (literally titled Reborn) from near unsalvageable ashes and the slow burn fizzle of Final Fantasy XV.
The original Final Fantasy VII, released in 1997 for the PS1, might be one of the most beloved games of all time, but there’s no denying it’s dated. While the world and characters are rightly praised and still hold up, the story, gameplay and translation absolutely do not. Hell, you needed to change discs through the thing (although ironically, even this new episode ships on two Blu-Ray discs). Basically: what was once groundbreaking is now, charitably, merely robust. So how does the new version compare?
To answer one of two important questions: The Final Fantasy VII Remake (hereafter FFVIIR) is excellent. It’s the first time since Final Fantasy X that I’ve felt like I’ve been playing a real Final Fantasy game, and not a dodgy stab in the direction of one. It updates the classic, turn-based RPG gameplay of the original into one of the most fun, reactive and deep action-RPG systems I’ve ever experienced. It splits the difference between directed, cinematic storytelling and mission-driven, hub-based gameplay better than any game in recent memory. Similarly, it is one of the few RPGs that I’ve seen use its cinematic nature in inventive ways, combining cinematography, sound, and gameplay to fully immerse the player not just in the game and the world, but in the head of the player character. It has some of the most detailed, fully-realised vocal performances in a mainstream video game, aided by a new technology that allows facial expressions to match up with vocal performance. Advent Children this is not.
The other important question: How different is it, actually?
Well. It’s the same, but more. It has to be. Since Square Enix announced that this release would not in fact be the entire game remade, but the first episode in a series, focusing specifically on the game’s first area, Midgar, fans were concerned. Would we get a 10 hour one-and done, or an endlessly padded experience with repeated assets, fetch and collect missions and other tactics that developers have used to fill out empty open world experiences?
FFVIR is neither of these. It starts where promised, with spiky-haired mercenary Cloud Strife being hired by eco-warriors AVALANCHE to take down Shin-Ra, ruthlessly draining the world of its natural resource: mako energy. It also ends exactly where promised, but it expands that sliver of the original game out into a full 30 hour experience, not including post-game content. Characters who had a handful of lines are given more room in the story, especially fellow AVALANCHErs Biggs, Jesse and Wedge. Characters and plot points are added, again to flesh the story out. Crucially, nothing is changed and nothing is removed. If there’s a character you love, a moment you’re dying to see in full 4K or even a monster you might have an inexplicable affinity for, they’re here. (To answer the question for diehard fans: Yes, Wall Market is back, and no, it is not toned down at all. It’s goddamned delightful.)
An example: The first mission, in which AVALANCHE take down a planet-destroying reactor, is largely the same. Even some of the maps are identical to the original. But there’s more texture – you can read posters, you can see the neon-red wires coiled around railings delivering power, you can see the smoke coming off the radioactive-green mako.
When the mission’s done, rather than two screens of wandering through the devastated Sector 8, there’s a full sequence where Cloud walks through throngs of people, each chiming in with incidental dialogue, and you actually see, hear, and feel the impact of those explosions on Midgar. Buildings are on fire, entire bridges have fallen out, people are crying and wondering where people are. It’s a harrowing sequence, just as it should be. It takes what the original game merely gestured at, and lets us experience it fully. The game does this constantly. The sequence in which Cloud and Aerith meet again, skipping across the rooftops of Sector 8, is a highlight of the entire game – light, funny and breezy in a way that games of this nature rarely are.
The only thing that is noticeably changed, rather than added to, is the gameplay. While you can play on Classic, with the turn-based system of the original, it feels like driving with the handbrake on. FFVIIR is unashamedly an action RPG, closer to Kingdom Hearts or a Platinum game than its clear predecessor, FFXV. The four characters you’re given – slasher Cloud, shooter Barret, puncher Tifa, and healer Aerith – play noticeably differently, and half of the joy is in switching between these characters in order to take down your bosses. Even random battles remain fun because of this interplay, but the bosses are a highlight, with all the cliches present. My controller was held tight, my breath was short, and it felt genuinely exhilarating in a way that, frankly, the original game never did.
The other change, such as it is, comes from Square Enix’s approach to the story and their characters. Whether through an intentional change in philosophy, or a more robust translation, the game has a much clearer sense of what story it’s telling and what it means. The environmentalism of the original game runs much stronger through this one, and is a lot more complex. Barret’s militarism, especially, is critiqued in a way that’s much more nuanced than I expected.
In fact, all the characters are given more room for complexity than before. To some extent, that’s a result of the later story elements from FFVII being savvily frontloaded this time. But it’s also, frankly, through better writing and more space to deploy that writing. The relationship between Tifa and Aerith, the two female leads, is the most exciting consequence of this. It’s rare to see a mature, complex relationship between two women in any medium, but especially rare in gaming, and it’s a treat to see Square Enix go back to the blueprint they made 20 years ago to develop this relationship further.
My only real concern is whether Square Enix can sustain this energy for the rest of the story. The first episode of this remake (and it is technically episode one, even though it isn’t titled as such) covers the first five hours of what is originally a 50 hour story, adding texture and detail to fill those five hours out to 30. It’s a credit to the narrative design that very little of those extra hours feels like padding.
But Midgar is the tightest and best known part of FFVII, and arguably of the entire franchise. The first episode of this remake manages to have it both ways – it feels tautly designed while also giving a sense Midgar’s full scope, and gives the player just enough agency to explore without feeling directionless. There’s a few times where the story slows down to add in another level – and they do feel like levels – but these are scarce, and I suspect they might not feel slow to someone approaching this story for the first time and not, say, the tenth. It’ll be a challenge for the creative team to keep this quality up through the ropier parts of the original story. Golden Saucer, anybody?
A lot of the world and the texture was already there for the developers to work with. In the code, if you will. The story of FFVII gets messier from here, and choices will have to be made: do they cut, do they change, do they add to it? One of the larger additions, Dementor-like creatures called The Arbiters of Fate, seem to be a sly, meta-comment about what the developers are and aren’t allowed to change. It’s the one addition that has the potential to hit the wrong note; I can easily see many diehard fans looking at this as a little bit too much Kingdom Hearts salt on their Final Fantasy fries. Me, I could always do with more of this sort of commentary from our mainstream games. The more we experiment with storytelling, especially in this form, at the top levels, the more exciting the entire genre will become.
What Square Enix will do next is, of course, all speculation. Right now all we’ve got is this 30 hour game, released after five years of hype – and, frankly, suspicion. FFVIIR dispels the suspicion and lives up to the hype – this is not just FFVII, but what FFVII could have been. It feels like the idea that everybody at Squaresoft had back in 1997. Limitations can be great for artists – they tend to breed creativity. But freed from those limitations, armed with modern technology, the Final Fantasy creative team is able to achieve what they originally set out to do. It’s like watching an artist who’s been stuck with black and white for so long finally get the chance to work in colour.
If you can somehow mentally remove it from the original game, as many new fans will hopefully be able to do, you’re left with the best action-RPG in years, with some breathtaking design, some world-class world-building, and charm to burn. It feels like the first season of a great television show. But even if you, understandably, can’t remove FFVIIR from that 20 year old shadow, then it’s still the best glow-up possible. It takes what was there and upgrades it, never messing with what originally made it special. It only adds, never subtracts.
It’s still Final Fantasy VII. But it’s bigger, better, and made not just for now, but made to last.
This game was played on a review copy from Square Enix. It was completed once on Normal Mode.
Final Fantasy VII Remake is released on April 10 on PS4. It’s available for online pre-order at the Playstation Store now.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the day's best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.