The remake is a chance to introduce this new, fresh set of ears and eyes to a story that launched the PlayStation and the Japanese fantasy genre to global success. But it’s also a chance for those who played the original to bathe in nostalgia. Having played the original Japanese release in 1997, I am soaked in bias. So first, let’s get to what I can describe most objectively: the gameplay.
It moves like a PlayStation game
The biggest gameplay shock of all is how much developer Square Enix turned a Final Fantasy game into a third-person Sony PlayStation adventure game. That means it feels less like a classic role-playing game, and more like Sony’s recent stable of celebrated stories, like God of War, The Last of Us and Uncharted.
The original Final Fantasy VII played with perspective, thanks to the use of static, rendered backgrounds and camera tricks. But like Nathan Drake or Joel, you experience Remake’s in-game story elements by walking through them as characters talk. As a narrative device, it’s effective as a way to reintroduce players to the steampunk vision of Midgar. In the city of Midgar, the planet’s resources are being siphoned away. Like classic literature, a calcified class system is marked by three levels: the upper level where the elites roam, the steel plates that separate the city while keeping it together, and life on the “ground floor,” where the poor struggle to survive.
The change in perspective matters. The original game only told of the class struggle, but it’s different when you see it actualized by the big, steel plate in the sky, obscuring the poor’s view of the sky and the sun. The oppression feels more real than ever.
If you don’t know by now, this Remake only covers the Midgar section of the original game, a five-hour expository segment that’s been stretched to a 40-hour adventure today. It was the most linear, narrow part of the original game, so it should be of little surprise that this game follows similar, familiar beats. But certain parts of the game that only took minutes to complete are now stretched out to full-sized maps, filled with enemies, puzzles and new character-centric stories to fill the time.
You don’t move through these sections quickly. Quite the contrary, Square Enix filled certain beats of the story with breathers for the player to roam the city and do the odd side quest. While it’s certainly a value add to have more things to do, what’s there isn’t always interesting. Most of the side quests truly feel like small errands, hunting monsters, finding items and the like, with uninteresting stories and throwaway characters attached. A few side quests will delight, but not enough. While Final Fantasy may be role-playing royalty, the series in recent years has struggled to make optional content interesting. The Remake finds them still struggling.
It fights like a dream
Square Enix finally nails one thing they’ve been trying to get right: the combat. Even before the seventh game, the Final Fantasy creators have been diligent in reworking and reshaping how we fight in role-playing games. The seventh game’s leap into 3D was key to the franchise’s global success, as was its “active time” systems to keep the combat moving, despite being driven by menu choices. Final Fantasy XIII moved to a more beautiful and more automated system. Final Fantasy XV was more involved, but still too hands-off for most people’s tastes.
The Remake finally strikes a balance between engaging, action-rich combat and thoughtful, menu-driven strategy. Standard combat plays like a simpler version of a character action game, ala God of War or Devil May Cry, with more complex, powerful actions being performed through menu choices. The battle will practically freeze in hyper slow motion as you navigate menus to do a special ability or cast a spell, lending each battle dramatic, cinematic flash frames.
Switching between your party members is practically mandated, as certain enemies will require different positions and tactics. The game’s special effects are particularly busy and explosive, so it’ll take some time to get used to this system while in the thick of battle. But getting used to it yields that simplest of role-playing combat rewards: that feeling of being a battle conductor. While the side quests may be boring in story content, they just give you more excuses to master a deceptively deep, wonderful evolution of the classic Final Fantasy combat system.
The camera remains the biggest technical hurdle. Fights move so fast and fill up so much of the screen, it can be hard to tell what’s going on or where to move, particularly in the game’s tight spaces and corridors.
The story changes will divide
Yes, there are spoilers in a retelling of a 23-year-old popular story. Like a Star Wars movie, it’s hard for anyone to give a transparent opinion of Remake’s story without delving into too many details. In a nutshell, the game’s plot largely follows the first five hours of the original game. Of that you can be assured.
You can also be assured that this is a full game. It took me about 30 hours, and I rushed through much of it. They added new scenes, new characters and new moments, none of which I will dare to mention.
But it’s these changes that will be the subject of much debate. And it’s impossible for me to know how these additions affect the story’s impact on virgin eyes and ears. It’s only been a few days, and I’m still parsing through my own feelings on it.
For experienced players, you’ll know where the changes are. They will add alarming new tension to a familiar story. It almost feels like the storytellers wanted to appease old fans, but also give us something more to chew on. And it’s entirely subjective if we even wanted anything more. For story purists, this might disappoint. These changes go well beyond the already-egregious “Greedo shot first” controversy of the Star Wars films. Prepare for lots of discussion. Later this week, my colleague Christopher Byrd will shed light on his experience as someone who never played the original.
What I can confidently say is that this is the best written Final Fantasy in years. The series has always been criticized for many storytelling woes, from translation errors that plagued the original to stilted, awkward voice acting. None of that is present in Remake, which benefits from the original game’s excellent pacing, steady world building and emotionally earnest characters. The dialogue is sharp and natural, a rare feat for role-playing games, even moreso for the franchise. Final Fantasy fans who loathe the lofty, ethereal characters of recent games will be relieved to know that Remake features the most emotionally present characters since the original game.
The main cast’s quirks are explored and expanded upon, and the original intent of each character finally shines through. Aerith’s English voice actress Briana White is a standout, bringing requisite Disney princess cool and charm to gaming’s most beloved extrovert. Cody Christian as Cloud finally interprets him not just as a mopey, introverted tough guy, but also as a self-assured cocky young man with a humorous, self-aware streak. The updated graphics bring new nuance to each character’s faces, communicating quiet, unspoken character moments the original low-polygon puppets could not. Barrett’s characterization and voice remains a sore point, but that fault stems from his original portrayal as a blaxploitation cartoon character. Some of that is softened, but he’s still very much the Mr. T caricature he was in the original’s early story.
Classic musical motifs will come and go during key scenes new and old, and many times I had to grab my chest, overwhelmed with emotion. Directors Tetsuya Nomura, Naoki Hamaguchi and Motomu Toriyama do outstanding work at getting to the core of each moment. It’s manipulative, but masterful, heart tugging. Old songs and locations are finally given the scale and grandeur they deserved. And it’s uncanny how well the new theme “Hollow” fits in with the rest of the composition, a welcome return by series composer Nobuo Uematsu.
And it’s laugh out loud funny. Even Cloud somehow managed to nail the funniest line. Finally, we have a Final Fantasy games we are laughing with, not at.
In the end, the Remake is somehow both a faithful and wild re-imagining of the first few hours of a classic story. Even if its changes rankle purists, there’s enough here to melt the heart of even the most cynical fan. The changes will take time to process, debate and, for some, decry. And by the end of the experience, Square Enix leaves open questions that even it can’t answer today. What will the next game look like? Will they add even more changes? Will it be just as linear? Nostalgia can often threaten to veer into anxiety, as is the case with Remake.
But it’s all worth it, just for the sentimentality and earnestness of its small, beautiful character moments. Final Fantasy VII Remake gives permission to soak in how we remember old, familiar moments of our lives, even if they’re not quite the way we remember them. It’s a story about the comfort that nostalgia brings in an uncertain future.