Review: Final Fantasy VII Remake

6 Apr 2020

Lengthy story-based games, like JRPGs and visual novels, are typically the kinds of games I’ll never replay. Between the fact that my time for games is limited and the shear amount of new titles out there I still need to play, I find little reason to go back and re-experience a story I’ve already played through.

What can lure me back in, though, is the promise of something new. Changing up the core story, adding new characters, completely overhauling aspects of the original game…if there’s a major change that refreshes the experience, you may have my attention.

Last year’s Tales of Vesperia Definitive Edition pulled me in due to including story and character content that wasn’t in the original Xbox 360 release I had already completed. The official English release of Little Busters! got me to re-read a 60-hour-long visual novel as it included three brand new stories that the fan translation I had originally read didn’t cover. Give me something new, and I’ll give you my time.

Enter Final Fantasy VII Remake. The original VII is a game that I’ve played multiple times, back when I was a kid and both had the time and lacked the cash to buy other games. I loved the game, and I know most of it inside and out. When Remake was announced I was intrigued but hesitant…if it was just going to be a simple retelling of the original, then I wasn’t going to be in much of a rush to check it out. It’s a story I’ve already experienced before, after all.

My tune quickly changed, though, as Square Enix began revealing just what exactly was going into Remake. New gameplay? Expanded sequences? Brand new story?

Count me in.

Developed and published by Square Enix, Final Fantasy VII Remake is set for release on April 10th, 2020, for PS4.

Whispers of the Planet

The core story here in Remake is the same as the original FFVII. You’re put into the shoes of Cloud Strife, who used to be a member of an elite military group known as SOLDIER. Now, though, he is working as a mercenary. The game opens on him working a new job: assisting eco-terrorist group Avalanche in destroying an energy reactor in the city of Midgar, which Avalanche claims is destroying the planet by sucking the very life out of it.

First off, I can confirm the scope of the game that Square Enix had mentioned: the entirety of Remake takes place in the city of Midgar, a portion which only accounted for the first few hours of the original FFVII. Square Enix set out to expand this portion into a full game, extending and building on the original story to do so.

Starting with some of the more unchanged aspects: for the core cast, Remake returns the characters to their personalities from the original game. Gone are the sad and brooding Cloud and perfectly pure and innocent Aerith from the various Compilation of FFVII releases. Here in Remake we finally get to see the snarky and occasionally goofy Cloud and the teasing flirtatious Aerith make their returns, a reminder that FFVII was never this overly-serious somber story everyone remembers (and extensions like Advent Children would lead you to believe).

In fact, all of the more off-the-wall moments from the original are present here in their full glory. Most notable is the entire Wall Market sequence, which I played through with a goofy grin on my face the entire time. Despite the darker tones at its core, Remake faithfully carries over the light-hearted stuff as well, rather than trying to drag the game in the self-serious direction of many modern entries in the series.

In story terms, the additions Remake makes are, for the most part, both welcome and engaging…though it depends on how much of a purist you are for the original release. One of the more promoted changes is the expansion of Biggs, Wedge, and Jessie into fully fleshed-out characters. These three are fleshed out enough here that newcomers unfamiliar with the original would likely believe they were always a part of the core cast. With full personalities, hints of backstories, and varying motivations, the three Avalanche members step up to “full cast member” gracefully.

Not every new addition hits it out of the park, though. Another major change seen in Remake‘s promotion has been cloaked ghost-like beings known as “Whispers” that show up at various times throughout the game. Unfortunately, discussing anything beyond their existence is stepping into spoiler territory, but their integration into the story isn’t always the smoothest and is likely to be…controversial.

Some of the new characters introduced in Remake come out to be ultimately pointless, as well. A few hours in, the game introduces Roche, a SOLDIER obsessed with motorcycles who decides that Cloud is now his rival somehow. He shows up, fights you a couple times, and then vanishes from the story completely, never to return. Knowing that Remake is the first game in a series, Roche may vary well return to play a bigger part later but, taking the game on its own, he could be plucked from the story and nearly nothing would change.

Unfortunately, the same can be said for returning cast from the original VII as well. Red XIII, part of the game’s core cast, only shows up a few hours before the end of the game and isn’t a playable character. Most of Shinra, including Palmer, Scarlet, and Reeve, only get a few scenes. Palmer is the worst off, showing up only three times (once easily missable) for a few seconds each time. These issues are mostly due to cutting Remake off at the end of Midgar, as all of these characters get most of their development through the rest of the game in the original. I would argue, though, that characters such as Palmer and Scarlet would’ve been better off being saved for future entries, rather than being hardly more than cameos in Remake.

Massive Swords and Fleet Feet

The greatest change in Remake comes in its core gameplay, and the statement I’m about to make here may be controversial, so hold on: the gameplay here is leagues better than the original FFVII.

The Final Fantasy series has been moving away from its turn-based roots for a while now, experimenting with blending traditional menu-based JRPG aspects with more involved action gameplay, but it’s never quite managed to pull the mix off gracefully. That is, until here with Remake.

Remake is an action-RPG at its core. Each character has a basic attack mapped to square, a special mapped to triangle, as well as a blocking maneuver and a dodge roll. Attacking enemies builds your ATB bar (a holdover from FFVII), and once a portion is full, you can pause the action and bring up a more traditional JRPG menu to access special attacks, spells, and items.

In action, I was surprised at just how graceful this fighting system is. It begins a bit slow, when you’re only controlling one or two characters with a few skills. Once you’re a few hours in and have more abilities unlocked, battles can become wild displays of controlled chaos as you flip between characters to maneuver them and pop off specials and spells.

The “pause to access specials” thing reminded me greatly of the Tales series, which may be why I was able to adapt to the engine here so quickly. Tales games typically require the player to pull up menus mid-battle to access spells and items, so I was already used to the start/stop gameplay on display here in Remake. If you’d rather not worry about menus, you can assign a few skills per character to button combos, essentially turning Remake into a full-on action game outside of rare instances.

Truly, though, I’d be happy if Square Enix continues to use and refine this engine for future Final Fantasy games. I think they’ve finally stumbled on a JRPG/action blend that works.

Along with the story, towns and dungeons have also been massively expanded. A few monster-infested areas that were only a couple screens in FFVII are now full proper dungeons here in Remake…and they can be hit or miss. While some, such as the Train Graveyard, present some interesting layouts and mechanics, others feel like obvious padding, stretching along dull hallways with very little to see. These moments brought me back to Final Fantasy XIII, a game that I did enjoy but did have exhaustingly linear dungeon layouts. There’s also one dungeon you have to run through twice for some inexplicable reason.

The few towns you get to explore are also populated with side-quests. These are completely optional (aside from a few in Wall Market), although the game does encourage you to take them on. Unfortunately, they’re not all that interesting, mostly permutations on “kill some monsters” or “find some characters.” They are, however, worked into the story well. Much of the game focuses on Cloud trying to up his reputation as a mercenary and, in taking on these side-quests, chatter from NPC slowly goes from “who’s this weird guy with a massive sword” to “oh, it’s that merc that’s helping everyone around town!”

If there’s one aspect of the original that didn’t seem to convert completely well to Remake, though, it’d be the Materia system. FFVII‘s Materia system allowed for some wild experimentation, being able to pull off occasionally game-breaking stunts with the right layout of Materia. It was built around a turn-based system, though, and doesn’t seem to translate perfectly to the new action-focused systems of Remake.

You still attach Materia to your weapons and armor to gain access to spells and abilities, and the Materia do still level up to unlock more spells. The failing comes in support Materia and links. Throughout my playthrough, I only came across four or five different support Materia, and I only ever found one to be useful – this game’s stand-in for the original’s “All” Materia, allowing spells to hit multiple targets. Others include one that protects a character from status effects of the linked Materia (link with Poison materia to protect from poison statuses, etc), one that causes AI-controlled partners to follow up your attacks with the linked Materia (which I never saw actually happen), and one that increases how fast the linked Materia levels. I didn’t see any opportunities for mixing up wild and interesting combos, leaving the system to essentially be “I want this character to have these skills” without going much deeper.

Livin’ in a Materia World

For those that have played the demo and seen the trailers, it should go without saying: Remake is an absolutely stunning game to look at. It really is amazing what Square Enix is able to wring out of a base PS4 without even a touch of slowdown or dropped frames.

Aside from some occasional facial animation oddities (the lipsynching deforms the whole lower face on characters sometimes), a few rough textures you have to be actively looking for to spot, and one or two moments of glitchy hair physics, Remake is easily one of the most spectacular-looking games I’ve seen running on my PS4. Everything is nearly seamless, too; you’ll likely only come across loading screens in between chapters, as they’re rare-to-nonexistent in the middle of them.

Moving on to audio, the soundtrack here is simply spectacular. There are a metric ton of remixes of original tracks here, as well as some beautiful new songs woven in. The composers also do an excellent job of creating leitmotifs from a few tracks (notably Aerith’s Theme and One-Winged Angel…of course) and weaving them throughout the story.

Voice acting leave little to complain about as well. It was a bit odd getting used to all the new performers here, as Square Enix decided to switch out the cast that had been voicing these characters for years in VII spinoffs and cameos. The vast majority turn in excellent performances, though. The only negative standout for me was the actor for Tseng, who didn’t turn in a bad performance, but it just didn’t sound quite right for the character.

A Satisfying Reunion

Remaking one of the most beloved games of all time is a tall task. Changing the story of said game is a dangerous one. While I expect the story Final Fantasy VII Remake is telling will wind up being somewhat divisive, for me, it was an excellent experience from front to back.

Remake keeps the core of the original, sprinkling in some references for die-hard fans, and takes the plot in some new directions, which is perfect for people like me…the people who prefer something new over just experiencing the same thing again with a fresh coat of paint.

It is obvious Square Enix had to do a bit too much padding to expand the Midgar section of the original to the length of a full game, but Remake recovers from these stumbles quickly. I do hope that future entries in this soon-to-be series will better adapt the Materia system to the new gameplay engines, as well as hopefully make better use of characters that went extremely underutilized in this release.

Overall, Final Fantasy VII Remake is a stunning game and absolutely worth your time, so long as you go into it with an open mind and don’t expect it to stubbornly adhere to a nearly 25-year-old tale. I, for one, am rabidly excited to see where future entries will take this story.

~ Final Score: 9/10 ~

Review copy provided by Square Enix for PS4. Screenshots taken by reviewer.