Final Fantasy VII Remake review – an imperfect yet incredible blend of old and new Cloud Nine

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Summary

Although it suffers from a few questionable decisions and a lack of polish in certain areas, Final Fantasy VII Remake is a great revival of a beloved classic, boasting a strong story, sublime presentation, an engaging cast of characters, and tremendously addictive gameplay.

Final Fantasy VII Remake is currently exclusive to the PS4.


It was only a matter of time. Remaking classic games with today’s technology has proven extremely successful in recent years. On top of drawing in the established fans, this strategy introduces younger generations to acclaimed works like Crash Bandicoot, Spyro the Dragon, Resident Evil, and Shadow of the Colossus with a level of polish and detail unheard of in the old days. With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that developer Square Enix now applies this approach to arguably their most iconic and beloved game, Final Fantasy VII.

Originally released on the PlayStation in 1997, this JRPG was widely praised as a benchmark for video games, pushing the boundaries of storytelling, characterization, and presentation that the medium could achieve. In addition, the game boasted an in-depth magic and customization system, allowing players to combine materials for different attacks, spells, power-ups, and monsters to summon. All of this made the turn-based combat a strategic and personalized affair that was immensely satisfying to gamers. Most apparent of all, however, was the title’s radical aesthetic departure from its predecessors. The colorful fantasy visuals of previous entries had given way to a foreboding steampunk world and intense character designs which fueled many an anime cosplayer.

As such, remaking such a landmark work is a pretty tall order, and the decision to split the tale into multiple episodic adventures is an ambitious move that could prove disastrous in the long run. So, does this gamble pay off?

What happens?

The story of this first installment takes place entirely in Midgar, a massive city divided into two levels. On the lower level lie the poor, forced to live in rundown buildings and cramped shantytowns. The top is reserved for the upper class, those citizens who can afford more humane lodgings due to working for the Shinra Electric Power Company. This colossal corporation is the dominant power in the city. It supplies energy, advanced weaponry, and a military police force to maintain order in Midgar. Unfortunately, this comes at a high price: the energy for these projects comes from a mysterious substance called mako, the lifeblood of the planet that Shinra carelessly siphons through their reactors.

In response, the ecoterrorist group AVALANCHE begins bombing the mako reactors to stop Shinra from sucking the planet dry. Reluctantly hired to aid them is mercenary Cloud Strife, formerly a member of Shinra’s elite warrior division known as SOLDIER. Even this is not smooth sailing, though, as the self-doubting warrior finds himself haunted by visions of Sephiroth, a SOLDIER war hero who supposedly died years ago.

Let no one say that the developers didn’t have enough material. Although this first remake entry only covers a fraction of the original’s plot, the structure definitely lends itself to a full narrative. As such, the developers sought to expand the tale from 4-5 hours to a full-fledged 30-40-hour adventure. For the most part, they succeed at this goal.

Colorful Characters

Among the greatest strengths here are the characters. Our protagonists are effectively developed over the course of the game, all with their own strengths and weaknesses to overcome. When these strong personalities interact, it makes for somewhat turbulent yet ultimately satisfying character dynamics.

Even seemingly inconsequential players, mostly remembered for dying in the PS1 title, leave a much greater impression here due to the time spent getting to know them. Some of the game’s best moments are when the characters are just talking, as it provides natural insight into their daily struggles, what they do to lift their spirits, and their opinions of the world around them, thus making them more human and the story more investing.

A gripping tale to free a living world

Said story is fleshed out well, proceeding at a slow yet purposeful pace. You feel the weight of every victory celebration and every devastating defeat. Yeah, it’s cheesy at points, but it’s more charming than cringeworthy. Plus, because the plot takes more time to unfold, it’s able to more fully convey the size, significance, and complexity of a guerrilla resistance effort.

Through both narrative interactions and bystander conversations, you gradually become acquainted with Midgar’s residents, gauging public opinion and digesting the ramifications of Shinra’s actions, those of AVALANCHE, and even your work as a merc. All the more fitting is that the world changes around you as the tale progresses. Not only does this make the city seem more believable and organic, but it also strengthens the sense that you as the player have a tangible impact.

Impressively, even with the main story being extended so heavily, only a few areas feel like deliberate padding. The most egregious example occurs during one of the mako reactor raids; you have to run around this maze of walkways to turn off three gigantic lights so that the elevator has enough juice. Riveting.

Time to explore!

Another avenue to kill time lies in the side quests. While these help you learn more about the trials and tribulations of the common man and even affect certain story interactions down the line, many of them lack the depth of those in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, an Elder Scrolls game, or other open-world RPGs. Most of them amount to going somewhere, killing some enemies, and coming back. Although there are a few more interesting ones that lead to some exciting encounters, it would have been nice if these had been the rule and not the exception.

Despite that, I’d rather them be here than absent, as they help to break up the linearity. In lieu of a massive world with wide-open spaces, Final Fantasy VII Remake goes the Kingdoms of Amalur route, presenting a labyrinthine series of corridors that occasionally open up for side quests, alternate routes, puzzles, or town exploration. This makes sense given the cramped conditions of the setting, but it understandably might deter those looking for a more open landscape to get lost in. What we have here is a guided experience that gives you just enough agency to prevent you from feeling too restricted.

There’s no “I” in “Team”

The real freedom comes from the engaging gameplay, which carries even the most lackluster side quest. The combat is a mix of the turn-based strategy of old with a contemporary hack-and-slash fluidity. You can move freely around the environment and attack enemies with melee strikes, but this is only the first step.

Over the course of the battle, you build up your ATB gauge. When you have enough, you can open your command menu to unleash a special move, cast a spell, or use an item. Time slows to a crawl when you’re in the menu, so you have ample opportunity to plan your attack without killing the flow of the fight.

It’s a bizarre combination, and it should have been a disaster. After all, we’ve seen the horrific results when Square Enix previously tried to merge turn-based and real-time combat styles. I’m looking at you, Final Fantasy XIII.

However, it works surprisingly well. Framing regular attacks as the pathway to commands is an effective way of maintaining the momentum and keeping you on the offensive, and organically alternating between them makes each fight a ton of fun. On top of that, your other party members also fill their ATB bars during battle, so you can either take control of them directly or issue commands to them remotely to hammer home the sense of teamwork.

It can be overwhelming at first, but you’ll soon grow adept at multitasking, delegating different commands to your allies while staying one step ahead of the enemy yourself. Before long, you’ll conquer even the toughest foes through skill and coordination. There are few things more rewarding than meeting a seemingly insurmountable boss monster, discovering its weaknesses, and exploiting them through a devastating three-pronged assault from your whole party.

Collect ’em all!

All of this is given further novelty by the extensive materia system. These glowing orbs of mako contain elemental magic and various stat increases. Infusing your weapons and armor with them grants you spells and other advantages. What’s more is that linking certain materia yields unique enhancements, such as magnifying your healing spells or adding fire-based damage to your melee attacks.

Not enough materia slots for your liking? Simply upgrade your weapons to unlock more. As you level up your characters, you can spend the resulting points on specific perks for your weapons. Depending on the weapon, these can range from damage boosts to magic resistance to even new materia slots. Each weapon also comes with a new ability; gaining proficiency with the weapon grants you that ability permanently, regardless of whether you have the weapon equipped. This brilliantly incentivizes trying new equipment, but it also means that you can maintain your favorite weapon in the long run without any stat penalty. You won’t encounter that age-old RPG problem of finding an ugly sword and reluctantly using it for its higher attack power.

This game provides so many neat elements to play with that customization quickly becomes addictive. You’ll constantly find yourself swapping out equipment and materia to suit your ever-evolving play style, making for a personalized and gratifying experience that challenges you to discover its depths. Unlike some other RPGs, I couldn’t help but answer that challenge.

Insert evil laugh here.

Now, we come to the game’s noticeable flaws, the recurring issues that sometimes rear their ugly heads and undermine an otherwise solid title. First and foremost, the antagonists leave a lot to be desired. The higherups at Shinra are so cartoonishly evil that it’s impossible to care about anything they’re doing. Granted, we do see some humanity from the lower-level employees and ground troops, and this adds a welcome bit of gray morality to the conflict. Unfortunately, the shallow suits at the top might as well have pencil-thin mustaches to twirl whenever they’re onscreen. They already have their fair share of evil cackles.

You could argue that this is the point and that these guys are part of the story’s corporate satire, but they’re not played as such. Whenever the game cuts away to them, their scenes treat them as serious villains almost entirely devoid of irony, and they simply don’t have the dimension to justify that.

Playing it straight would have made more sense if they’d been given actual depth a la Thomas Durant from Hell on Wheels or Al Swearengen from Deadwood, men who acknowledge their ugly actions yet assert that they’re a necessary evil. If society wants to accomplish momentous feats while remaining comfortable in its bed, then it needs individuals willing to sacrifice their own morality to get the job done.

Incorporating this idea into the Shinra execs would have naturally extended the ever-present questions about the end justifying the means, something that the AVALANCHE members regularly grapple with. Showing us how the two sides are similar in this area, in turn, would have made their clashes more compelling. Alas, no.

What just happened?

There’s a reason that Sephiroth is seen as the primary antagonist of Final Fantasy VII. Despite staying in the shadows for most of the tale, he’s an infinitely more interesting character with a far more intriguing backstory than the paper-thin Shinra suits. He also quickly establishes himself as a more imposing threat, both physical and psychological, and he remains so here. However, the way he’s forced into the story, especially toward the end, is laughably nonsensical and entirely out of place.

Tetsuya Nomura is lambasted for his convoluted storytelling as much as he’s praised for his designs and gameplay, and you can definitely feel his presence as the writer-director with these narrative changes. I know what he was trying to do, and on some level, I commend him for attempting to redefine what a remake can be. Sadly, it doesn’t work. The narrative additions involving Sephiroth are messy and make for thematic whiplash.

The whole tale centers on questions surrounding environmentalism, ecoterrorism, and corporate exploitation. Then, at the eleventh hour, the heroes start yapping about time, destiny, and whether history is set in stone. It would be one thing if this turn had been set up, but the most we get are these mysterious wraiths that periodically show up. Even then, this subplot goes absolutely nowhere until the final hours of the game. Again, the ideas behind these aspects are intriguing. They’re just not organically integrated into the story; they stick out like a sore thumb.

What’s wrong with your face?

That also applies to parts of Midgar. For the most part, this sprawling city looks incredible in its intricate construction, atmospheric lighting, and sheer scale. From the darkened industrial sections to the makeshift shantytowns to the glamourous Wall Market to the haunting moonlit trainyards, the whole metropolis is a feast for the eyes. Moreover, the scope is conveyed well enough that you need only look at the vast backgrounds to realize just how small you are.

As impressive as it is, though, it also sports several objects and surfaces with shockingly low textures. Sure, every game has a few spots where the graphics falter somewhat, and we can forgive the occasional hiccup. However, this title suffers from that in virtually every other scene.

You’ll be running along, admiring how gorgeous everything looks, when you suddenly come across a guy with a zombie face or a door that looks like low-res JPEG. There’s immense attention to detail in this city; I just wish it was rendered more consistently.

To be fair, the presentation partially alleviates this. For all his narrative faults, Nomura continues to show his strength as a director, keeping the shots lively and often zeroing in on the most meaningful movements and nuances. It makes the lighthearted bits more energetic and injects a Tartakovsky-esque gravitas to the dramatic scenes. Providing the icing on the cake is the catchy music, dynamically contributing to both the grandeur and quirkiness on display.

Why do you sound so different?

Once again, though, the audio department is where I also have to fault the game. Rather than bring back the mainstay English voice actors—who’ve played these characters for almost two decades in Final Fantasy VII spinoffs and crossover titles like Kingdom Hearts—Square Enix hired a whole new cast for this remake. After playing through the entire story, I can safely say that there was no reason to get rid of the old guard. Admittedly, these new actors all do their jobs well (except for the guy voicing Zack Fair, who thankfully only has a couple of lines), but none of them accomplish anything dramatically that the previous actors couldn’t have done. Guys like Steve Burton, George Newbern, and Andrea Bowen could have delivered this dialogue with significantly more weight than what we have here.

The only one who’s equal to (or possibly better than) her predecessor is Britt Baron as Tifa, AVALANCHE fighter, and Cloud’s childhood friend. Not to rag on Rachael Leigh Cook, as both of them maintain the inquisitive playfulness and motherly warmth that we’ve come to expect from the character.

However, Baron’s voice also carries a weathered maturity and conviction that’s perfectly suited to someone in this unforgiving environment. Despite these complaints, I acknowledge that my beef with the newbies may be a personal nitpick in the grand scheme of things.

Final verdict

Overall, the flaws likely won’t stick with you after finishing this title. What you’ll remember instead is a thoroughly enjoyable and engrossing experience that brilliantly updates an iconic classic. It takes a number of risks in changing time-honored traditions and story beats, but many of those risks pay off. Simply put, the developers keep the stuff that worked, but they also mix it up in interesting ways to help it feel fresh and new. Sporting a poignant narrative, appealing characters, and deeply absorbing gameplay, Final Fantasy VII Remake stands as a daring yet ultimately rewarding reimagining that never forgets its roots. That, and it’s just a really good time.


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