Final Fantasy VII Remake – Don’t Go Remakin’ My Heart
I figure that approximately 90% of Final Fantasy VII Remake reviews will begin the same way; providing context around the reviewer and their experience (or lack thereof) with the original game, a now 23-year-old PSX title that is often hailed as one of, if not the greatest JRPG of the 32-bit era and a gateway to the genre for many impressionable gamers, myself included. FFVII was hugely formative for me personally, shaping my tastes in gaming for at least a decade following my first 100+ hour love affair with it on the PSX and subsequent completions across PC and PSP. This sort of credibility check is almost mandatory, so fervent is the adoration for this title and the expectations placed upon FFVIIR to do the impossible and create a product that exceeds the original game so spectacularly that it outshines the meteoric brilliance of nostalgia itself.
This is a goal Final Fantasy VII Remake fails to reach in a few ways and instead suffers for its source material as much as it succeeds because of it, becoming a Final Fantasy VII – not the Final Fantasy VII. Key locations and story points are mostly present, but the road taken to reach them has been expanded upon or diverges significantly as to provide a richer experience befitting a 30+ hour game that riffs on source material less than half that length. While I will tell you that this game starts with Cloud Strife leaping onto a train platform and ends with he and his companions fleeing along a desolate stretch of road, I won’t be covering the story in depth in this particular review. It may seem like a cop-out, but a significant amount of my enjoyment came from the juxtaposition of beats that hewed close to the source and those that defied my expectations. It’s an odd experience, to have things ‘ring true’ to the way the original game made me feel rather than align with its actual events, something that anybody playing Final Fantasy VII for the first time via this version won’t get to experience. Overall, I do applaud the developers in how well some of the expanded elements work, particularly new scenes and areas which further the relationship between Cloud & Tifa, Barret, Aerith and the other members of eco-terrorist group Avalanche. That’s not to say it’s perfect – some hammy dialogue and character actions that don’t line up with internal motivations break this mood on occasion, quickly smothered by a blanket of nostalgia over a particularly stunning vista or reworked music track.
Final Fantasy VII Remake is a visually stunning game, as much due to the art direction of the original still holding up so well as to the power of Unreal Engine 4. The entire main cast is rendered in loving detail, the art style deftly sidestepping the uncanny valley whenever the odd mouth animations threaten to break the spell. Performance-wise, the entire experience is a bit of a mixed bag – frame rate was rock solid throughout, but I had many low-res textures and skyboxes pop up here and there, suffering even further in comparison to the level of detail that surrounded them. Still, there’s very little that compares to the underside view of the ‘plates’ of Midgar looming over the slums below, enough to make this longtime FFVII fan swoon. The dev team have made attempts to hide loading via the frustrating trick of slowing your characters walking speed in conjunction with snail-pace transitions through debris which obscures the view of the upcoming area, a concession which has me more excited for the SSD based storage of future console generations and what this will mean for developers. The audio team have hit it out of the park, with both sound and music riffing on the original elements to provide a score containing reworked versions of many songs as well as gorgeous orchestrations of ‘Aerith’s Theme’ and ‘Main Theme’ amongst others. One thing that JRPG’s do better than many other genres is to ensure their music sinks to your very core, no doubt a bi-product of 2-3 minute looping tracks that play across 80 plus hour endeavours. Every time – every. damn. time – a song came on, it was like a nostalgia spear driven straight through me. This is a soundtrack I used to fall asleep to, the spectral image of 13-year old me splayed across my bed, corded PlayStation controller in hand transfixed by a CRT putting out mono sound suddenly rising from memories I’d forgotten by the power of song. I lament that this key element of the entire experience is going to be lost on those playing this game for the first time, as I truly believe it is one of the most arresting elements of FFVIIR.
One of the earliest questions surrounding the production of this remake was how the battle system would be tackled. Surely the classic ‘Active Time Battle’ system was far too much of a relic to expect modern players to put up with it? Whilst there is a ‘Classic Mode’ on offer that mimics the menu-based combat of the original (albeit only at the Easy difficulty setting) I chose to play using the newer system on offer which will feel very familiar to players of Kingdom Hearts 3 and Final Fantasy XV, borrowing heavily from those games and providing a one-to-one input experience. It’s faster and flashier but sadly often inaccurate due to the way animations work – attacks can’t be cancelled out of, meaning that it’s impossible to block or dodge mid-combo and can lead to some very frustrating scenarios. Party AI is next to useless, which may be a feature rather than an oversight as it forces players to take direct control of each character during combat and jump between them, firing off skills and spells as necessary. Akin to the Persona series, there is a much greater emphasis on enemy weaknesses and ignoring them is at your own peril, with some encounters impossible to overcome unless you play by these rules. Boss battles have also been overhauled to be as cinematic as possible, each featuring multiple stages and occasionally shifting scenery which is a feature I would love to see carry over to future entries in the genre. I can’t imagine boss battles in other JRPGs approaching the level of ‘epic’ present in FFVIIR if they don’t.
Inherently tied to the combat of FFVIIR is the ‘materia’ system, which governs magic imbued by small materia orbs socketed into weapons and armour and has been radically altered in what I assume is a bid to balance the game out somewhat. The biggest change is the way you acquire materia, or perhaps I should say don’t – it is no longer possible to ‘birth’ a copy of your materia by ‘maxing it out’ as was the case in the original FFVII. Instead, there is a finite number of each materia to be found during exploration or purchased in shops. This fundamental shift leaves no way to stack multiple copies of materia which could potentially break combat completely, but also actively discourages grinding. Furthermore, summon materia is also much less viable and no longer spammable – each character is limited to one orb of summon materia which is single use during specific battles, denoted by a purple ‘Summon Meter’ that generally appears during the second or third phase of a boss battle. Summons are no longer a single powerful attack either, but rather act as a guest AI party member for a timed period and, like companions, can be directed to attack enemies. Once their timer runs out, they perform a final ‘ultimate’ attack which is a lavish recreation of their original FFVII attack sequence. While it does have issues, overall I’m fairly satisfied with combat in FFVIIR and would recommend playing on the Normal difficulty during an initial run to get the full feel of it, as Easy does away with a lot of the strategy required.
We have to take the good with the bad unfortunately, and thus we get to my biggest issue with FFVIIR; its linearity and pacing, the latter of which is wildly inconsistent and hampered by some additions that actively detract from the enjoyment. On reflection, the extremely linear nature of this ‘remake’ is justified – after all, FFVII was itself a very linear game during the opening Midgar section, which then juxtaposed against the open world to enhance the scope and scale of the game in contrast to those early hours. FFVIIR doesn’t reach that point, so therefore its confined spaces, invisible walls and blocked-off areas don’t get recontextualised at a later point – they’re a corridor you’re funnelled down towards a dead end rather than an open door. In this way, FFVIIR tends to feel more akin to a late PS2 era JPRG in terms of world design rather than more recent entries like Xenoblade Chronicles 2. This is compounded by abysmal pacing in some areas, where the action takes a nose-dive in service of expanding the world and character relationships of the original. Some of this is welcome, such as Clouds interactions with Jessie, Biggs and Wedge which make subsequent events and actions more believable. Others, specifically those with Aerith which seek to rationalise her character as the primary love interest in the mind of the player, are a tad too obvious. It’s almost as if I can see the wheels turning in the developers head as they sit in a story meeting, where it became obvious that “between Point A and Point B, the player via Cloud really needs to fall for Aerith, so let’s make that happen, no matter how heavy-handed it feels”. Spread across the course of 18 chapters, FFVIIR is in no way paced or divided neatly, with some chapters barely an hour while the longer ones stretch across to four or more. There are three chapters which in particular are hampered by the addition of side quests, which seek to enrich the world and characters but struggle to shake off the fact that they are almost without fail a tedious fetch quest, combat encounter or combination of the two. If this is the route subsequent sequels in the FFVIIR series will take, Square-Enix will need to ensure a lot more care is put into the writing and purpose of side quests as they compare very poorly against the rest of the game.
I have to admit my feelings vacillated wildly throughout my 33 hours of Final Fantasy VII Remake, with some soaring highs offset by a few low points. What Square-Enix have crafted is better described as a reimagining than a remake, a visually arresting yet excruciatingly linear “corridor JRPG” that brings to mind some of the most criticised elements of Final Fantasy XIII whilst also improving upon the action-based combat of Kingdom Hearts and Final Fantasy XV. I enjoyed many parts of Final Fantasy VII Remake, although it’s not a revolutionary entry in the JRPG genre by current standards and benefits greatly from nostalgia which it trades upon both frequently and knowingly, helping to build a bridge over the less appealing parts. I could feel it trading off my nostalgia, the cynic in me assuming that this was the only currency it had to trade-in. Upon reflection though, I’m glad I played through something that allowed me to reconnect with such a formative part of my gaming history and one which I had perhaps forgotten how much mattered to me; stripped back from my world-weary façade is a deep abiding affection for a title that showed me games could be as important on a personal level as films and literature. Final Fantasy VII Remake didn’t deliver everything I could have hoped for, but I doubt it ever could, as fickle as memory is.
Final Fantasy VII Remake was played on a PS4 Pro with code kindly provided courtesy of Square Enix.
It was whilst toiling away in the bowels of the now mythical Australian Gamer forums that Stephen’s attempts at writing were recognised by then up-and-coming Matt ‘Hewso’ Hewson as “not terrible”. Since then he has contributed to such sites as The Age’s now defunct Screen Play, the now-long retired Black Panel and currently serves under Editor-in-Chief Hewso for Player2.net.au, at least until the pattern of decline obvious in his previous engagements is picked up on by Hewso and he is exiled from games journalism forever.
Writes on Yugambeh land.