On January 31st, 1997, I was 11 years old. I had been gifted the Playstation just 5 weeks earlier as a Christmas gift, after spending much of 1996 pining after one as my friends enjoyed the original Resident Evil, Crash Bandicoot, Jet Moto and a handful of other notable titles. Talk of Final Fantasy VII had been making the rounds in video game magazines and the early iterations of online message boards, so I did my due diligence, saved, and snatched up a fresh copy at my local Funcoland (gone, but never forgotten).
My memories with Final Fantasy VII are likely aligned with those of countless Millennials – dozens of hours exploring a vast world (THREE DISCS?!), unforgettable music, memorable characters…a gaming experience that left a profound impact in the years to follow, cemented into the collective memory of gamers to such an extent that when a technical demo of the opening film was used to showcase the power of the PS3, fans erupted with excitement over the possibility of a remake.
This was denied, of course, for over a decade – until E3 2015.
It is said that scientists are still researching the hype produced during the reveal segment, as it is likely the secret to infinite energy lie somewhere in that formula.
But, I digress. The long and short of it is that the Final Fantasy VII Remake has long been viewed as a mythical creature of sorts – a standpoint that was marred when it was revealed that the remake would be episodic in nature.
As the fanbase giveth, so too does the fanbase taketh away, as Final Fantasy fans bemoaned their fate of buying a game – that had been effectively hyped for the better part of the last 15 years – in pieces.
Debates sprang up all over the internet about the structure of the video game industry in recent years, including DLC woes and the ever-relatable “incomplete game” criticisms.
Yet, while the magic of Final Fantasy could be dimmed, it could never truly be extinguished. As gameplay began to emerge, and demo reactions went live, the hype-train once again began to pick up steam…and that of course leads us to the eventual arrival of the game last month.
There, in the midst of this unique moment in history, with a pandemic leaving school halls empty and malls abandoned, gamers all across the country watched a blonde, spiky-haired mercenary named Cloud Strife do a front-flip off of a train, donning his iconic, oversized blade.
And a new generation of Final Fantasy VII fans were born.
In The Beginning
For those unfamiliar with Final Fantasy VII, allow me to set the scene: Remake takes place exclusively within Midgar – a massive city, powered by reactors of equal measure.
The problem? Well, aside from the staggering socioeconomic disparity of the city itself (we’re getting there…), the reactors are powered by Mako – which is understood to be the planet’s life-force…and something understood to be finite in nature.
This is of no concern to the Shinra Electric Power Company, who instead capitalizes on their energy monopoly to make a fortune for themselves, and provide a somewhat comfortable and entertaining life for those who can enjoy life on the plates – large sections of the city suspended by wire and pillars over a vast undercity of squalor and poverty.
Nestled in this undercity – in Sector 7, to be more precise – is a radical faction of eco-terrorists known as AVALANCHE. They aren’t exactly thrilled at the fact that Shinra is knowingly sucking the planet dry, and begins a campaign to dismantle the reactors. Wait, did I say dismantle? I meant blow up the reactors.
You play as Cloud Strife, a mercenary recruited by AVALANCHE to assist in this eco-terrorist campaign. His resume is brief, but powerful: being a former member of an elite military unit known as SOLDIER. Not only that, he belonged to the prestigious First Class, as he likes to remind folks often. A super-soldier of sorts, he’s just what AVALANCHE needs as they take their plans to the next level.
The leader of this faction, however, isn’t that impressed. Barret Wallace is committed to saving the planet through whatever means necessary, and taking in a former “Shinra doggie” wasn’t necessarily at the top of his list of things he wanted to do. He’s always keeping one eye on you in those early hours – and understandably so.
Also in this mix is Cloud’s childhood friend, and a longstanding target of gamer affection: Tifa Lockheart. She does her best to keep Barret in check, and does her best to contain her excitement when it comes to reconnecting with Cloud after his years of service to SOLDIER.
The trio is complemented by other members of AVALANCHE, specifically a tech-expert named Biggs, an ever-hungry softie named Wedge, and a flirty explosions expert named Jessie that has spawned an entire subset of memes in the weeks following the games release.
While other notable characters make appearances, whether they are brief cameos or implied presence, the final central character to note is Aerith Gainsborough. A flower girl by trade, she seems to have a talent for nurturing plants amidst the concrete and steel jungle known as Midgar. While you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a talented voice actor in Final Fantasy 7 Remake, Briana White’s performance as Aerith is truly impressive. The pressure on all of these actors was no doubt immense thanks to the tremendous anticipation that came with this game, but her ability to characterize Aerith in a balanced manner – equal parts sarcastic and witty, contemplative and somber.
With our cast in place, let’s dive a bit more into what Final Fantasy 7 Remake has to offer…
The More Things Change…
Those familiar with Final Fantasy VII may recall that the Midgar section of the original game spanned about 5 hours or so of the overall game. Sure, there was quite a bit to get done, but it was only the opening chapter to a much broader world – so you can understand folks resistance when they heard that Remake was going to strictly re-tell this part of the story.
Yet, Remake was able to do something spectacular, and transformed these first few hours into a 35-40 hour game in its own right, and in doing so have laid a foundation for one of the largest and most epic Final Fantasy games in the history of the franchise (we see you, FFXIV).
What’s particularly impressive about this feat is that the major pillars of the narrative remains largely the same. Those familiar with the original will find key plot-points and be able to string them together with relative ease. The “filler” is a more nuanced exploration of what actually went down.
An example: after what seemed like an almost overly successful first run at blowing up a reactor, Barret and the crew goes back in for round two. Now, in the original, while you did get flagged on the train and have to take an alternate route, once inside the reactor, things were pretty similar up to the planting of the bomb and the sudden and totally expected trap was sprung. Remake paints the picture very differently – leading you through paths underground, navigating power lines and a massive sub-structure before finally getting to the reactor in question.
While some would point to this as filler or “fluff”, I think it helps to fill in and paint a much more realistic portrait of a rogue group attempting to infiltrate a highly guarded power source barely days after another one was bombed.
There are also narrative based expansions, such as a side-quest you do with Jessie in order to get the necessary materials for a tweaked bomb on the second run. Expanded dialogues with Biggs and Wedge, combined with this secondary mission, really lend some narrative weight to the decisions that come later. It helps you feel more connected to this trio that, in the original game, you may have written off as “means to an end”.
Now, while many of the core pillars of the narrative remain intact for a good portion of the game, there is a pretty substantial change to the undercurrent of the story. It doesn’t take long to realize that there are forces involved in guiding our heroes (and occasionally the villains) to certain ends. The mystery behind these creatures, and what it ultimately means for the heroes and the path that they’re on, is an engrossing element of FF7 Remake. In the final couple of hours, some things are going to look seriously different…but as the credits rolled I found myself eager to continue piecing the narrative together once part 2 arrives.
This hasn’t been everyone’s experience, of course. You may find yourself wondering aloud to yourself: what the hell just happened? And you would be right to do so. Still, Nomura’s approach in (re-)building this world for us was definitely to take it in a direction he really couldn’t when the game was first released over 20 years ago. With the relevant media that has been released since then, including Advent Children and Crisis Core, it’s obvious that things are going to be just a little different…and Nomura isn’t in a hurry to explain himself.
For quite some time, Final Fantasy was exclusively turn-based combat. A relic from the days when a console could handle combat much better if you all could just slow down and wait your turn, thank you very much. While elements of the turn based combat were tweaked from one game to another, such as the introduction of Jobs/Classes, summoning magic and more, it was very much a system that was not broke, so nobody bothered to try and fix it.
While Final Fantasy XI was the first of the franchise to break out of that mold – indeed it broke out of the traditional Final Fantasy mold quite thoroughly – it wasn’t until Final Fantasy XII that you began commanding your teammates, or programming them with battle settings ahead of time. The evolution in combat continued, culminating with Final Fantasy XV, that featured a much more action-centric combat system. While FFXV suffered from other…challenges…many felt that the combat was a great, modernized approach to Final Fantasy in general.
Whatever hiccups remained in the combat in FFXV, I have to say that they were properly ironed out with Final Fantasy 7 Remake. While you control Cloud by default, you can toggle to any other member in your party by pressing left or right on the directional pad, and each member has a distinct method of fighting:
Cloud’s special ability (you activate this with Triangle) alternates between a more tactical “Operator” mode and the heavy-swinging “Punisher” mode. The latter moves slower, but swings harder and offers a counterattack when you block.
Barret is a ranged fighter – no real surprise for a guy that has a gun installed on his arm – and specializes in taking down ranged enemies with an onslaught of bullets. His special ability is firing even BIGGER bullets.
Aerith is primarily a caster, and her skills largely involve supplementing her magic abilities, including creating a ward that lets her double her spell-casting. Handy! Her special ability lets her charge up arcane energies for a larger attack.
Finally, Tifa is a brawler – and is undoubtedly the most fun to play. She offers a flurry of blows with her standard attack, and her special ability is a secondary strike that can evolve with the use of “Unbridled Strength” – essentially giving her a moment to focus her chi and open a fresh can of kick-ass.
Everyone’s standard attacks are free to use at any time, but for special abilities, including spells, you’ll need to use “ATB Charges”. Each character gets up to two charges at a time. While some of the more powerful abilities will consume both charges, most will only consume one.
Now, Final Fantasy 7’s original claim to fame was the introduction of the “Materia” system – orbs of energy that were affixed to characters weapon and armor in order to make certain spells available to them. These materia could gain their own experience points, and in time would unlock more powerful versions of the associated spell. While Ice materia would give you access to “Blizzard” to start, for example, later levels would unlock the more powerful “Blizzara” and “Blizzaga” spells.
This system has been left intact, with some tweaks made to emphasize synergy between different materia. Pairing up various status materia with the “Warding” materia can increase that party member’s resistance. After unlocking the Elemental materia, you can link elemental damage to your weapon, or vastly decrease the elemental damage taken if you place the linked pair in your armor.
Now, time to point yourself in the direction of some monsters and put these systems to work! The baddies you encounter unsurprisingly grow in complexity over time, until you find yourself issuing commands to your teammates for well-executed combos that exploit their weaknesses and push them towards a “Staggered” state. When an enemy is staggered, they take additional damage, and this is a central component of many of the boss fights – which are wonderfully balanced challenges in their own right. Once you’ve discovered what makes enemies “tick”, it’s thoroughly satisfying to act on them almost instantly, rendering what was previously a frustrating encounter into little more than an annoyance.
On the subject of difficulty, I know there was some buzz on the ol’ interwebz regarding the Easy setting, but this was a horse that was put in the ground over a month ago, so I’ll spare you the soapbox speech of why it’s okay to play games on Easy to begin with. Instead I will marvel at how Final Fantasy 7 Remake managed to deliver such a well balanced “standard” difficulty.
While I was able to triumph over most boss battles on my first try, they always felt frantic – as though the pressure never really went away. I wasn’t necessarily on “auto-pilot”, spamming skills that I knew were overpowered to whittle down my enemies quickly and easily. I leaned on their elemental weaknesses, closed the distance when I needed to, and toggled between characters to apply pressure both from range and up close in equal measure.
On the encounters that required a bit more focus and additional tries, yeah I’m looking at you Hell House, the satisfaction of victory was even sweeter.
I could see the final handful of encounters being particularly painful if at least some time wasn’t spent in battle simulators or pursuing side quests, but they’re not required.
Overall, the refined combat system combined with a well-executed difficulty level and mindful tweaks to the materia system result in a thoroughly enjoyable gameplay experience – complemented with a modified narrative that sets the stage for the additional parts to come.
Now, I know what’s likely gone through your mind at least once at this point: Hey dude, welcome to last month!
Tell me about it.
This review has been in draft mode for the better part of a month. I was playing through at a slower than usual speed considering…well, everything.
That being said, I was, and continue to be, thoroughly impressed with what Final Fantasy 7 Remake was able to accomplish: a true revival and reboot of one of the most beloved games of all time. RPG purists can continue arguing about its place on the list of “The Greats”, but it’s hard to argue the cultural impact that FF7 had on an entire generation of gamers.
Now, it got to do it again. While it may have been helped along by global circumstances (a pending article on Animal Crossing: New Horizons will touch on this in a bit more detail…) in the end, it turned out to clear an impossibly high bar.
I eagerly await what Nomura has in store for us next.