Also up in the air: Will Nomura and Kitase be able to fix some of the glaring problems with the original? Final Fantasy VII is one of the greatest games of all time, but it’s not one of the best games of all time. That is a key distinction for a title that has had a fair share of flaws smoothed over by nostalgia.
To be sure, the original game offers Square Enix some superb ingredients in cooking up a remake. Series composer Nobuo Uematsu was doing the best work of his career; the stirring, mournful main theme, the oft-heard battle theme, and the “Duel of the Fates”-esque “One Winged Angel,” which plays only once, during this fantasy’s final fight, are as good as any music in any game. And the original game’s story, following protagonist Cloud Strife and his merry band of eco-terrorists, set a new standard for interactive narrative. Final Fantasy VII contained the most famous (and spoiled death) in video games and culminated in a trippy sequence where you walk around in Cloud’s memory, represented by branching dioramas where you piece together the truth about who Cloud really is.
But Nomura and Kitase have their work cut out for them in fixing Final Fantasy VII’s rote gameplay.
Turn-based RPGs like Final Fantasy VII are all about strategy, and the only real strategy in the original is to use weak attacks against weak enemies, and save your magic points, which you have a limited pool of, for strong attacks against strong enemies. That’s it. Final Fantasy VII offers some mild diversions in the form of occasional motorcycle combat, real-time strategy, snowboarding, a brief submarine fight and some light environmental puzzles, but 95 percent of the gameplay is turn-based battles, and 95 percent of those are spent in autopilot either choosing the basic “attack” or healing your party members if they need it. If Final Fantasy X has the finest battle system in all of turn-based RPGs, Final Fantasy VII has one of the worst.
The biggest missed opportunity is with powerful spells called summons, in which you call in a mythical beast to aid you in combat. In the 2000 RPG “Chrono Cross,” also made by Square, you have to carefully plan your attack and get a long sequence of actions right before you can use a summon; it is rare that you successfully wrangle the stars into alignment, and thus immensely satisfying when you do. In Final Fantasy VII, all you have to do to pull off a summon is choose “summon” from the menu. The summons look incredible — witness the more-than-a-minute-long attack called Knights of the Round — so the game successfully makes you feel powerful. But it never gives you the opportunity to feel heroic, or even clever. Nomura and Kitase should find a deeper way to involve the player so that these events feel every bit as game-changing as they should.
Modern releases of Final Fantasy VII include an option to speed up combat by a factor of three, and after turning it on, you quickly learn that you almost never need to turn it off to more carefully manage the flow of battle, such is the monotony of just attacking and healing over and over. This speed boost is greeted by latter-day players as a crucial “quality of life” improvement. It doesn’t matter how many oakleaves you’ve acquired in 22 years; when letting the player essentially skip the gameplay is treated as a godsend, you don’t have a very good game, and fans deserve a very good game in the remake.
It is also critical that, over the remake’s many chapters, Square fixes the original game’s arbitrary systems of progression and reward.
Several times, especially in the draggy, directionless middle third, the original leaves you with no idea where to go or what to do next. In modern open-world games such as Grand Theft Auto V or The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, such freedom is a virtue, but Final Fantasy VII’s trajectory is strictly linear, so you’re either progressing or you’re not. And in a game whose hook is not gameplay but progression, fighting battles with no purpose is no fun.
The few times I got stuck while recently revisiting the original, I would consult an online walkthrough to get me back on track. Perusing the walkthrough, I would look back at the section of the game I'd just completed, and see a wealth of material I had missed, and had no prayer of ever finding. A typical directive was When you're in Tifa's room, make sure to play a certain melody on the piano, or you won't get an awesome piece of equipment later. I had gone to Tifa's room, and even pressed A in front of the piano! I must not have had Cloud looking at it at the exact right angle to get this huge reward.
The original game locks far too much content, such as recruitable characters Yuffie and Vincent, behind unintuitive gatekeeping. Behold the process by which Yuffie is recruited: You have to find her in a forest, an incident based on pure luck, beat her in a fight, and then correctly answer five questions with two options each and no rhyme nor reason to the answers. This means someone playing the game without a guide could have to find Yuffie, defeat her and answer her questions 32 times before jumping through the hoops exactly right and getting to enjoy playing as her (and experiencing all of her dialogue). The remake shouldn’t hold players’ hand, but it should give you a fair, clear chance of experiencing all the fun the game contains. (Plus, they’ll have to fill all these full-game-length chapters with something!)
The good news is that, as players of the advanced copy can attest, Final Fantasy VII Remake is shaping up to be a huge improvement on the original, with a hybrid combat system that will have you approaching enemies and hitting the attack button in real time — rather than choosing attacks from a menu — but occasionally pausing the action to issue commands to your party members. If it’s anything like the hybrid combat system Bethesda Softworks has devised for its modern updates to the turn-based “Fallout” series, it will be endlessly engaging for both action and strategy lovers, and the world will finally have a Final Fantasy VII that’s not just great but good, too.
Ryan Vogt is a multiplatform editor for The Post’s Opinions section.