Final Fantasy VII Remake – A monumental, occasionally maddening achievement

THIS review will not contain spoilers and was written having played the game on a standard PlayStation 4. For a full tech breakdown of the differences between PS4 and PS4 Pro, check out Digital Foundry’s excellent video on the subject.

Final Fantasy VII Remake should not exist. The original work, perhaps the most sanctified of videogame cows, stands as a touchstone of both its genre and the medium, a singularly influential piece of art that dominated its zeitgeist as much as Super Mario Bros. 3 or Grand Theft Auto V did theirs. It did not need a remake. Frankly, no matter the quality of the art in question, nothing ever needs a remake, and certainly not one of the most important videogames in history. Put simply, it means a lot to a great deal of people.

There is no doubt that certain aspects of the original could have been improved, of course, most notable of which is the infamous translation, single-handedly achieved by Michael Baskett in a cramped Squaresoft USA office with a six-month deadline. Even without the wonky translation, character variety in battle is almost non-existent, the difficulty is a little too low and the affectionately-named “Popeye arms” of the characters’ field models looked hilarious even for the time. Nonetheless, despite its flaws, and perhaps even because of them, FFVII embedded itself in the popular consciousness in a way that few games have or likely ever will.

So, when Square Enix showed off a shiny tech demo that reimagined the iconic opening in 2005 for the then-upcoming PlayStation 3, it kicked off a hotbed of internet discourse that can be summarised thusly: “REMAKE WHEN?” Never mind that the six-month production of the 100 second-long demo had scuppered plans for a PS2 release of FFXIII, sparking a chain reaction of delays that only just seems to have abated; never mind the existence of the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII, a multi-media project intended to expand the game’s enthralling universe that only succeeded in diminishing it – none of it mattered. Fans wanted a remake. They demanded a remake.

The original’s director, Yoshinori Kitase, has expounded at length – for years – on the number of requests he’d received for a remake. The fervour only grew. In 2012, then-company-president Yoichi Wada outright stated that the series would die if Square Enix capitulated. Earlier that year, character designer Tetsuya Nomura said they wanted to focus on new titles. Rumours spread. Every time a prominent gaming expo would roll around, it would surely be the one where the floodgates would open and The Remake would emerge like Venus from the foam, bathing the world in its divine, Mako-irradiated glory.

It never came. “Maybe next time,” people would say. “It would take a lot for it to happen,” said Kitase, in conspicuously coy fashion. Later, in 2014, Square Enix announced that Final Fantasy VII would finally grace modern consoles, bigging up the game’s inestimable legacy, and proceeded to unveil… a port of Final Fantasy VII. (This video is beautiful in hindsight.) After that stunning display of hype-killing skulduggery, dejection began to set in. Maybe it wouldn’t happen after all, fans thought. Perhaps Square Enix would stay true to their word after all.

They didn’t.

Final Fantasy VII means a lot to a lot of people. You don’t need to watch seven hours of reactions to the E3 reveal in 2015 to know that; honestly, 30 seconds is all you need. For what ultimately amounts to two minutes of vague narration over CG footage, it’s an astonishing outpouring of emotion, even now. 10 years of speculation had come home to roost: The Remake was happening. It was actually happening. Being Square Enix, of course, they proceeded to muddy the waters with the announcement that The Remake would be “episodic” in nature.

No one knew what this meant and there would be little clarity on the subject until 2019, when Kitase stepped up to explain: “Each game in the project will have a volume of content comparable to a standalone Final Fantasy.” In that time – December 2015 to June 2019, the company released Final Fantasy XV; endured “extraordinary losses”; collaborated and promptly un-collaborated with CyberConnect2; announced a release date; delayed a release date, and then… it actually came out. It’s almost surreal to say it. The chimera existed, and it arrived on two Blu-Ray discs.

2018’s Shadow of the Colossus remake was, for all intents and purposes, a 1:1 recreation of the beloved PS2 original. Despite the over-the-shoulder perspective, 2019’s Resident Evil 2 retained the same horrific atmosphere and narrative beats of its 1998 counterpart. Final Fantasy VII Remake is – from the ground up, in every possible sense – an entirely different beast from the original, condensing the three-to-five-hour Midgar opening section into a full-length, 18-chapter, 40-hour experience in its own right. The similarities between FFVII and FFVIIR are nominal. This is not your childhood.

And even if it isn’t, FFVIIR has another audience: the Final Fantasy novice that has never played any of the games in the series, let alone its most influential member. Nomura, Kitase, writer Kazushige Nojima and co-directors Motomu Toriyama & Naoki Hamaguchi were all tasked with making the game accessible to the uninitiated, and so the core premise remains the same: a tactiturn mercenary named Cloud finds himself working for Avalanche, a group of environmental terrorists attempting to stop autocratic mega-corp Shinra from draining the planet of Mako; or, literally, its life essence.

Like the original – and almost every subsequent Final FantasyFFVIIR kicks off with an almighty bang, seamlessly transitioning from the iconic opening sequence into a raid on one of Shinra’s Mako Reactors. This is where the similarities both begin and end. The most obvious and immediate change is graphical, of course; it’s difficult to quantify how exponential the leap in visual fidelity between the 1997 original and 2020’s remake is, but suffice it to say that FFVIIR is unbelievably beautiful and a high benchmark for console visuals. Later in the game, when the player finds themselves among the sprawl of the Midgar slums, with the upper plate looming far above, the level of detail even surpasses the pre-rendered backdrops of the original.

It’s incredible to see subtle details like the GUN sign outside the Wall Market weapon shop be recreated in such painstaking, high-definition fashion. The character models receive equal amounts of care, to the point where individual pores are visible on Cloud’s flawless anime face, while his infamous Buster Sword is riven with identifiably distinct scratches and kinks. The fluidity of the characters’ battle animations in particular makes the original – itself a revolutionary leap forward at the time – seem prehistoric by comparison. Square Enix have always been an industry trailblazer in this regard – sometimes to the detriment of their actual games – but this is on another level entirely.

For all the environmental splendour, the visuals shine brightest in the heat of battle. While FFVIIR retains the Active Time Battle system of its ancestor, its battles are no longer turn-based. In fact, they’re a combination of FFXIII, XV and, most strikingly, Nomura’s own Kingdom Hearts. As is traditionally the case, menus drive the combat forward, and there are few examples as streamlined and easy to use as FFVIIR’s. While standard attacks are performable at any time, menu-specific commands, including items, spells and special abilities, are tied to the two ATB bars.

When one or both are filled, all the player has to do is press X to slow time to a crawl and select the appropriate command. The ability to move the camera around during this time leads to some breath-taking, frame-it-on-the-wall moments of graphical wonder, as particle effects and sword swings swim through stoppered space, but more importantly it provides the player time to analyse their surroundings and plan accordingly. (Quite why there isn’t a Photo Mode in the game is a mystery to me.)

Since item usage takes up a stock of ATB, the player can’t mindlessly spam Mega-Potions or Phoenix Downs when the chips are down, like they could in FFXV. Instead, they’re required to dodge, block, counter-attack, position themselves away from sweeps and, above all, actually think about what they’re doing, which is the highest praise I’ve afforded to a Final Fantasy battle system since FFXII. It even borrows the Stagger mechanic from FFXIII, which rewards players who maintain pressure on the enemy. No two foes behave the same, either, further emphasising a strategic approach. Combined with the customisability of the returning Materia system – effectively, equipping levellable spells and perks onto equipment – there’s a tangible depth to battles that was absent in the original outside of the super-bosses, especially when Hard mode is unlocked upon completion.

As mentioned previously, character diversity in combat was one of the original game’s greatest shortcomings. Save for Aerith’s Limit Breaks and Materia load-outs, there was effectively zero difference between any of the characters when it came time to tear an enemy apart. In FFVIIR, each character has their own, unique play style and set of abilities that distinguish them from their peers. Cloud is the traditional all-rounder; Tifa is the glass cannon, close-range fighter; Barret is the long-range tank, and Aerith is the versatile mage, each complementing the other’s strengths and weaknesses.

Beyond menu-specific abilities, each character has access to a special technique tied to the Triangle button. Cloud will shift between Operator and Punisher mode, the latter of which allows him to perform devastating counter attacks from a block when he’s not flailing his sword at seven swings per second. Barret has a charge meter that eventually peaks at Overcharge, providing him with a triple shot, while Aerith’s Tempest wreaks havoc on a stationary target. Tifa’s, however, is a treat: her Triangle attack differs depending on how many times the player has used Unbridled Strength. Once you get the hang of it, chaining combos together with her is a giddy sensation.

When the player masters the ability to switch between characters on the fly (incentivised by increased ATB gain for whomever the player is directly controlling), combat becomes a truly exhilarating experience. This excitement is amplified when it comes to the bosses, almost all of which are ferocious, balls-to-the-wall slugfests with dynamic phase shifts and shifting tactics, demanding that the player think on the fly or be wiped out. No fight ever feels unfair; all it takes is figuring out a plan and executing it to the best of their knowledge, while god choirs and electric guitars wail in the background.

And how about that soundtrack? FFVII’s OST, composed by Nobuo Uematsu, is one of the greatest of its kind, even when confined by the original PlayStation’s limited hardware. Pieced together by Masashi Hamauzu and Mitsuto Suzuki, FFVIIR’s orchestral re-arrangements of these tracks are nothing short of astounding, especially when the tracks seamlessly shift in and out of the fabric of bosses. The best example is a spoiler for the endgame, but the next best thing is during the Airbuster battle. Simply listening to it on YouTube is intense enough, but experiencing it in the throes of an insane showdown with what was once a goofy polygonal bucket is – and I do not say this lightly – jaw-dropping.

There are setbacks to all this fidelity, of course. Whether it’s due to the Unreal 4 engine or the ageing PS4 architecture, the (obvious) load times can take upwards of a minute to complete, and there are numerous examples of muddy textures on less obvious assets. For some reason, this is most obvious when looking at the apartment doors in the Sector 7 Slums, which wouldn’t look out of place in a PS1-era game like King’s Field. Further, the NPC character models are laughable, their stock animations and flapping bin-lid mouths jarring with the awe-inspiring beauty of the more prominent characters.

The subtler load times are more jarring. Traversing these beautiful landscapes is usually a joy – to see Midgar rendered in such loving detail is incredible – but it comes at a cost. There are numerous instances where Cloud and co. have to shimmy through small gaps, or crouch under fallen wreckage to proceed, and they fundamentally exist to mask loading times that may have taken away from the player’s immersion. (Happily, the game maintains a crisp and consistent frame rate in and out of combat.)

The problem comes in their ubiquity, and it’s only made worse when the game forces Cloud to awkwardly swing across monkey bars like an arthritic C-3PO. Compared to the seamless acrobatics of battle, the animations outside of it are sometimes slow and ungainly, at least when it comes to interacting with the environment. These ‘interactions’ are like wading through treacle and, at their worst, they can kill the pace of an otherwise thrilling scenario and stand entirely at odds with the game’s (mostly) excellent cutscene direction, where characters can apparently flip and spin all over the place like cyborg ballerinas.

Pace is not the game’s strong point as a whole. True, the chapter structure allows the narrative to expand its scope beyond the original’s, but some chapters are, frankly, a drag. Even in the more consistent chapters, the amount of times that the game forces the player to walk at a snail’s pace in order to listen to dialogue or ‘interact’ with a set-piece is excessive, especially on repeat playthroughs. The game’s localisation is overall stellar, including the voice-acting, but the inability to skip these walk-and-talk sections is an odd oversight given the freedom afforded to the player in battle.

Outside of battle, there isn’t really much exploration to speak of. For the majority of those 18 chapters, the game railroads the player down (stunning) steel corridors, peppering the path with setpiece after memorable setpiece, while the other chapters focus on exploring the various sectors of Midgar. These more exploratory chapters emphasise side-quests and world-building, culminating in a seminal re-imagining of the sleazy Wall Market – now contextualised like the Manhattan from Escape from New York – that bears a striking resemblance to the Kamurocho of the Yakuza series, complete with interwoven side-stories that hold some surprising rewards and cameos. The game’s linearity is the apparent cost of expanding Midgar’s handful of screens in the original to the neo-noir leviathan of its modern incarnation, but it’s only really felt in those slower chapters.

The writing and characterisation is perhaps the main reason why the game doesn’t flag as much as it otherwise might have. Considering this is the same creative team that brought us the Compilation, it’s a pleasant surprise to see that, after 23 years, they really do understand the characters they created after all. Without going into too much detail for spoiler-related reasons, Nomura and his team have somehow recaptured these characters’ idiosyncratic charm. It almost feels unfair to single Cloud out as the best example, given that the rest of the main cast are realised with similar aplomb, but they’ve managed to retain the original’s terse, no-bullshit demeanour while also hinting at the awkward goofball underneath. There’s a reason why so many people came to identify with Cloud’s plight over the decades, and FFVIIR understands that beautifully.

But there’s much more beneath the surface, isn’t there? That’s all a pre-amble. FFVIIR markets itself to newcomers and nostalgia-chasers alike, promising the former a modern way to experience a landmark in gaming culture for the first time; for the latter, it’s a chance to rekindle their passion for an old favourite in an entirely new context. I stress again – this first part, over the course of 35+ hours, covers the opening five of the original game. This is a grand project, uniquely so, and perhaps that’s why FFVIIR might be the bravest example of videogame duplicity since Metal Gear Solid 2’s Raiden bait-and-switch.

It is a captivating, subversive, occasionally maddening piece of work that seems destined to provoke wild midnight debates among fans and newcomers alike, long after the furore of its belated release dissolves into the collective unconscious of these extraordinary times. It has been crafted by a team of brash and unreservedly arrogant artists determined to deify the original game while simultaneously exploding it, with the kind of excruciating detail and clear intent that only a group of particularly driven lunatics can hope to achieve.

And this is lunacy: abject, all-encompassing madness. In cinematic terms, this is the equivalent of systematically dismantling Citizen fucking Kane and presenting it as the same film. FFVIIR fools you into thinking that you are, indeed, playing a loving reconstruction of one of the most revered examples of the art form, in gorgeous new graphics and cracking voice-acting and brilliant combat, before pulling the rug out and warping everything you thought you knew until it’s completely unrecognisable from what it once was. This is videogame vigilantism, with a $100 million budget, perpetuated by people with none of the fucks and all of the fucks to give.

But that’s all dependent on whether you’ve played the original version. For the uninitiated, it’s impossible to say whether this is the definitive way to experience the wonderful fever dream that is Final Fantasy VII until all its constituent parts have hit the market, whenever that may be. In any case, FFVIIR won’t replace the original by any stretch, but it does provide a suitably gargantuan alternative befitting the series’ legacy, with a denouement that’s already as outrageous and contentious as… well, the original game’s.

Regardless of its future reception, and the nature of its successors, Final Fantasy VII Remake is a staggering achievement that will put Square Enix – and, perhaps more importantly, Final Fantasy – back to the forefront of videogame development. After a decade and a half of false starts, missed deadlines and half-baked divergences, the series feels rejuvenated. It’s still rather surreal to think that re-treading – and, indeed, trampling across – the hallowed ground was what it took to galvanise the franchise, but here we are. In this most insane of years, it’s somehow appropriate that we’re able to look up and down at Final Fantasy VII Remake and declare: “I can’t believe they didn’t cock it up.”

And they really didn’t.

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