It’s been more than 5 years since the original reveal of Final Fantasy VII: Remake. Long development times are usually a sign of a game that is going through “development hell”. Subsequently, the quality of said game suffers as the companies that are involved try to get the game out to recoup their losses, no matter what state the game is in.

Here we are now at the release of this remake, and you can tell by how faithfully this game has been reimagined and recreated that none of that time was wasted. While some of its original design choices have been plucked straight from the late 90s (for better and for worse), much of what made the game a classic has been honoured and revitalised. As cinematic as Uncharted, as strategic as any Final Fantasy game that has come before, and one of the most beautiful games I’ve played, Final Fantasy VII: Remake demands a place among Sony’s First-Party line-up as a must-have for PS4 owners.

Soldier: “It’s over!” Cloud: “That’s my line”

During E3 2019, a hefty gameplay demo was shown for Final Fantasy VII: Remake, and it’s slick presentation prompted me to give the original Final Fantasy VII a go. My enthusiasm from the E3 trailer quickly waned during my play time though. While the graphics were groundbreaking in 1997, going back to early 3D games is rough if you’re not ready to let your brain fill in the gaps. This game probably would have blown my socks off if I’d managed to install it all those years ago, but as it stood in 2019, from a fresh perspective, I found the combat and menu navigation slow, the characters lifeless and the traversal a bit dull. Unenthused, I finished my first play session and put the game down. I fully meant to go back one day, but never did.

I’m excited to say that once I started playing the remake of this game, I felt no such compulsion to put it down.

The visual detail and dramatic soundtrack helps to realise the city of Midgar, where the entirety of this game is set. The city is comprised of an upper level, where the more affluent residents of Midgar reside and go to work in their corporate, flashy jobs, and an undercity, 300 metres below them. The city is run by Shinra Electric Power Company, a power hungry business that has grown to control the city for its own benefit. Almost entirely deprived of natural sunlight, the undercity is full of the residents who can’t make it in the city above. There’s a camaraderie between the people of the slums as they all try to get by while living under the weight of the prosperous upper class. It’s an imaginative setting, one that features as an intricate part of the storyline.

Life in the slums can be gorgeous, yet heartbreaking

The game’s protagonist is Cloud Strife, a brooding, quiet, ex-military operative who wields a gigantic sword as big as himself. Hired by an old friend, he’s been tasked to help the Eco-Terrorist group Avalanche execute a plan to sabotage one of the Mako Reactors run by Shinra. Helping a bunch of vigilantes set and detonate a bomb in a crowded metropolitan area is a bold choice to have our characters start from, but the game quickly starts building a sense of mystery and intrigue, as we are shown glimpses of Cloud’s past coming back to haunt him, and political deception that has been newly added to this remake. It’s a gripping story, and the game allows for plenty of small moments for the characters to explore their own dynamics. They don’t always stick the landing in terms of how the characters interact, often leaning on tropey dialogue and character motivations, but for the most part, these small memorable moments help to broaden your perspective on the characters and world you’re spending time with. 

These characters really feel the weight of their actions

I often found myself getting frustrated with the characters and their dialogue during major story moments though. Strange things happen during this story, things that have me asking questions, but I would find myself shouting these questions at the screen while the characters brushed it off as no big deal. This didn’t stop me from wanting to play more of the game every day, but after some of the games later climaxes, I sat there waiting for any sort of meaningful debrief from our characters, and the most I got was, “Better look for the others”, as if nothing happened.

I’m pretty certain this is a symptom of the way this remake has been structured, and it’s a problem I don’t necessarily know how to remedy. The game’s original story has been expanded to allow for extra character moments, story and cinematic set pieces. The remake focuses entirely on the Midgar section of the original game, a section that took roughly 5 hours to beat back in the original. My playthrough of the remake took 40 hours, and while there are a decent chunk of sidequests to do if you choose, a majority of that time can be described as the critical path, full of cutscenes, dialogue and new material.

Because of this expansion, it would be impossible to have the characters go through a traditional evolution of resolving their inner conflicts and developing as human beings (or lab rat dogs) in this game, because we know that the story beats of the original game are still to come. I’m sure my questions will be answered when the rest of the series is released. As it stands, I’m happy to trade the expanded story and depth of character that we received from Square Enix for these occasional frustrations.

Anyone who has played a Final Fantasy game before will be able to tell you how incredible the pre-rendered cutscenes have always looked. Final Fantasy VII: Remake starts with an almost shot-for-shot remake of the original opening cutscene, and immediately I was reminded of what it was like to see amazing graphics that exceed your expectations, like when I played Final Fantasy X on PS2 for the first time. I thought the graphics potential of the PS4 had already been tapped, but watching the way the city of Midgar moves around Aerith in the main street is stunning. (You can watch the whole opening scene below, or start the video from where I’ve timestamped it for you. It’s gorgeous!)

These pre-rendered cutscenes are few and far between, but that gives the in-game engine plenty of time to show off. Environmental and lighting detail is so cohesively realised that most everything stands out. The shine of light across Cloud’s gigantic sword as he runs is so satisfying to watch. The way Aerith’s dress flows around her ankles is realistic to the point that I can almost guess what type of fabric it is. Even the downtrodden slums of the Undercity are gorgeous in their details, while still showing you how bad the occupants of each town have it. Save for a few wonky NPC facial animations and some occasional blurry textures, this game has a lot of beauty to show.

No mention of this game’s artistic merit would be complete without discussing the incredible particle and lighting effects that are present in every combat encounter. Nothing is half baked, with fire spells that combust with glaring brightness, and Barrett’s gun-arm throwing sparks to the ground with every bullet. Every character, enemy and boss has their own personalised effects. It all comes together in a way that normalises how spectacular each effect is, but each one is worth appreciating in it’s own right.

The only thing bigger than Cloud’s sword are the effects that it leaves behind

Final Fantasy games have always changed their combat systems between entries, and I’m delighted to see how they’ve approached this particular game. The combat blends the strategy of elemental types and status ailments with the real time pace and decision making of knowing when to attack, dodge, run, or swap characters. It allows for a deceptively deep level of gameplay, and feels like a whole new approach to combat.

When in combat, your Active Time Battle (ATB) gauge is always filling, with two segments for you to use. You can swap through your active party members at any time, and you will need to, as their ATB gauges fill much slower when they are being controlled by the computer. Attacking enemies with your basic attack doesn’t damage enemies that much, but it does fill your ATB gauge much faster.

We’ve come a long way (Cloud 1997 vs. Cloud 2020)

When you have a full ATB gauge segment, you can use an ability, spell, item, or special ability, while also slowing time down to a crawl as you make your decision. You can use this time to change your targets, instruct your other party members, and also take a second to get your bearings. All of these ATB abilities are much more effective at damaging enemies than your regular attacks are, and it’s here that the strategy of each combat encounter shines through. Exploiting enemy weaknesses allows you to stagger an opponent, where they become stunned and vulnerable to strong attacks. This is when you can let your team loose, and it becomes a smorgasbord of particles, abilities and frantic attacks as you lay into your enemy.

Each character has different move sets and proficiencies that lend themselves to certain loadouts. While Tifa and Cloud are both melee fighters, Tifa’s abilities focus more on staggering her opponents very quickly and using magic, whereas Cloud’s attacks will do more damage. Coupled with the Materia ability system (that allows for dynamic ability swapping between all your characters), and a weapon upgrade system that keeps your party on an even level throughout the whole game, each character’s differences become a pleasure to explore and figure out. If I had one gripe, it would be that the camera can be difficult to control when locked onto a target, and until I learned how to use it just right, the camera was a bit of hassle.

No, this isn’t the night sky, this is your weapon upgrade screen!

More than once I found myself feeling like I was bad at this game. That I didn’t get it, that I wasn’t doing it right, that I didn’t have enough control. Encountering a new enemy was always a challenge, and even though I could Assess them and learn their weaknesses, that only helped me with the strategy side of combat. Knowing that an enemy is weak to Ice attacks means nothing if you can’t stop them from incapacitating your party and forcing you to use your ATB Gauge to heal at every opportunity. I could only move past these moments after I did what the game asked of me, and learned.

The game’s insistence that you pay attention to your current adversaries and learn about them allows for a hard-earned feeling of success. The game makes it easy to fall into a groove, and then demands that you work yourself out of it by having enemies buck the trends that you had accepted as normal. Enemies that took you 5 tries to beat and had you ripping through your curative items can become pushovers with the right strategy and applied knowledge. This demand on you as a human being to learn had me thinking of Dark Souls style games on more than one occasion, where brute force tactics and an impatient mindset would hinder you more than it would help.

I actually restarted an entire boss fight once because I didn’t understand the enemy that I was fighting, and I was annoyed that I was progressing through the bosses fight without getting it. I hadn’t done what the game had asked of me, I hadn’t learned what to do, I had just managed to limp to the halfway point. If I made it to the end without understanding what I needed to do to win, I would have been disappointed with myself. So I took up the challenge set by the game, restarted the fight, and paid close attention to my opponent.

Even in the slums, nature can prevail

Outside of combat, navigation and story progression is relatively linear until you come to one of about 4 or 5 open segments. These areas are home to the shops, sidequests and optional battle arenas. The sidequests are relatively dry in terms of what it asks you to do, but the rewards for completing all sidequests in an area are quite generous, giving you things such as rare equipment or Materia for your trouble. They’ll also include more character moments for those who invest the time, so it doesn’t feel like the story progression is entirely on hold while you go feed grass to some chocobos. 

Running around town and through combat arenas gave me extra time to appreciate the magnificent soundtrack that this game has. I would normally mention a soundtrack in passing terms but the way this score has been handled is masterful (I’m listening to it while writing this review). It suits the story moments to a tee, the excitement of each boss battle is heightened to bombastic levels, and there are playful genre remixes of the original songs being played on jukeboxes throughout the city. Perhaps the most impressive part of this soundtrack is how many times they rearrange the old songs in different ways. Familiar motifs are twisted and developed into new themes that are as exciting and engaging as the last song you heard. Final Fantasy soundtracks usually make a strong connection with their fans, but this soundtrack sets the standard improbably high.

When it comes to character presentation, I have mixed feelings. On one hand, the character detail and performance is one of the crowning achievements of this game, but on the other hand, some of these designs are showing their age, specifically for most of the designs of the leading women. I can’t count the amount of times I rolled my eyes when a character mentioned going on a date with Cloud. Tifa’s design is almost untouched from the original game, a specimen sculpted by the male gaze. She has to punch and brawl her way through Midgar in next to no clothes, while Cloud gets to kick butt in his SOLDIER uniform. When she does change clothes, it’s into something even skimpier to appease the whims of one of the nastiest characters I’ve seen in a game in recent memory.

Tifa Lockheart in her default outfit. I hope it’s summertime in Midgar

As the original Final Fantasy VII is contemporaneous to the original Tomb Raider games, it’s easy to compare the looks of the original Tifa and Lara Croft, and wonder why Square Enix didn’t go for a more grounded look for Tifa in the remake, much like they did with the Tomb Raider reboots that started in 2013. As it stands, Tifa is there to be shown off, with camera angles and NPC dialogue that encourages you to gawk and stare at her impossible physique. This grew tiresome, and had me feeling pretty uncomfortable for the first half of the game, at which point the story took precedence instead of yet another shot of only Tifa’s exposed torso.

Couple this with some unimaginative villains and I couldn’t help but be a bit disappointed by how lazy and trope laden the story became. I was still compelled to continue playing, but the only villain who isn’t a man is your run-of-the-mill Femme-Fatale with an absured amount of cleavage who literally walks all over her subordinates. The villains you spend the most time with are clearly shown to be morally reprehensible for the sake of creeping you out, rather than showing any sort of character depth or complex morality. The only villain whose motivations and storyline are even vaguely interesting gets next to no screen time or exposition.

These sorts of character designs and decisions are not new or surprising for a game from the Final Fantasy series, but considering that the core design of this game was created in 1997, it’s hard not to feel like some choices could have been made to help the games story and aesthetic mature and line up with more current day values. The combat, visuals and soundtrack were all radically retooled to fit the modern era. Why weren’t the characters?

“Sleep… And dream the sweetest dreams…”

Despite my disappointments, I can’t stop playing Final Fantasy VII: Remake. While I’m left asking myself the question, “Why didn’t they handle this differently?”, on more than one occasion, I can’t deny that I’m very keen to keep playing while I wait for the next game to continue the story. The hard mode offers a great challenge for fights that I’ve already completed, and there are plenty of secrets to try and find. Also, I need to watch that ending again if I’m going to fully comprehend it. 

Final Fantasy VII: Remake is a triumph. This game elevates its source material to be something more than a rehashing of a beloved franchise. With plenty of new material for returning fans of the series and a compelling story for newcomers, Final Fantasy VII: Remake never loses its pace and demands that you pay attention to it’s daring combat system and intriguing story. Much like Game of Thrones, two versions of this game now exist with different takes on the story; it will be interesting to see who will go back and play the original, and who will just wait for the next remake entry. The end of this franchise may be years away from a conclusion, but I’m on board for the journey ahead of us.