Review: Final Fantasy VII Remake

The reunion is here

Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Genre: JRPG
Platform: PS4
Rating: T for Teen
Price: $59.99

SquareSoft (now known as Square Enix) released the original Final Fantasy VII in 1997 on the Sony PlayStation. In 2005, when Sony demonstrated the capabilities of the PlayStation 3 during their presentation at E3, they chose to use a re-creation of its opening cutscene. Since that tech demo, many fans—myself included—clamored for a remake with the graphics of current-gen consoles. Fast forward ten years to E3 2015, and Square Enix officially announced a proper remake with a short trailer.

It’s hard to overstate the impact the original Final Fantasy VII and its anthology stories made upon me growing up. So when Square Enix announced the remake, it was a long-time wish fulfilled. However, I had a high bar for Square Enix to meet. They were up against fifteen years’ worth of expectations, and nostalgia alone can’t carry something with so many changes. The Remake would have to stand on its own.

So it begins

Content Guide

Violence: Combat is a vital component of the gameplay, but it’s very stylized, with no blood or gore. Some characters die off-screen. A scene shows a couple of characters get stabbed, though no blood is shown.

Alcohol/tobacco use: A character smokes cigars in a couple of scenes. Several characters drink alcohol at various points in the game. A bar serves as the protagonists’ hideout. There are references to drugs.

Spiritual Content: In many scenes, mysterious specter-like beings appear and sometimes attack characters. Ghosts of the deceased play a major role in one section. A group of people are searching for the “promised land” discussed in the scriptures of ancient people who could commune with the planet.

“Baaaaggiiiiinnnnssssss…”

Language: Strong language warning! FFVIIR includes S*** and its derivatives, A** and its derivatives, D***, G**D***, H***,  B*****d, and Bi*** are all used constantly, rivaling what one might expect from an M-rated title. There are also some instances of D**k and Pr**k.

Sexual Content: There is no nudity; however, several female characters wear revealing outfits. The masseuse Madam M and the Shinra executive Scarlet are two such examples. A recurring male character wears an open jacket instead of a shirt.

Wall Market is described as the “pleasure capital of Midgar.” At one point, the story brings the player to a nightclub called The Honeybee Inn. A bee-themed cabaret-style dance takes place here, andthe player guides Cloud through a dance routine with the owner, which some players may find unnecessarily sexual and offensive. Afterward, Cloud cross-dresses in order to infiltrate a mansion that doesn’t accept men. A character runs a personal human trafficking ring to find a “wife,” and lets his lackeys have the women he doesn’t choose, implying gang-rape. To maintain a T-rating, nothing explicit is shown, but it could be problematic for survivors of sexual assault.

Love it or hate it, Cloud’s got moves.

Other Negative Themes: Corruption. Certain protagonists see eco-terrorism as good and noble. Several antagonists (mass) murder civilians, seeing them as merely pawns.

Positive Content: Helping those in need, protecting others—even at the cost of personal health or safety—and showing mercy to one’s enemies.

Looks like downtown Vegas during the day.

Review

In Final Fantasy VII Remake (FFVIIR), you play as the mercenary Cloud Strife. Cloud is a former member of an elite group of warriors called SOLDIER, which belongs to the Shinra Electric Power Company. Long ago, Shinra developed reactors to refine  the source of all life on the planet, what is called mako in this game, into energy. That technology, and the private military force the company has built, have allowed Shinra to achieve near-total world domination.

The eco-extremist group Avalanche has recently hired Cloud to assist them in bombing one of Shinra’s mako reactors. They believe that Shinra is draining the life out of the planet, and if the reactors continue operating, the planet will die. Their mission starts a chain reaction of events that reveal an even greater threat to the planet than Shinra.

Always memorable, never a memory.

Presentation

FFVIIR‘s soundtrack includesseveral new songs, all of which fit the new atmosphere and events. But the highlight here is that Masashi Hamauzu and Mitsuto Suzuki brought back a large number of the original songs, updated to fit cohesively with the new ones. On top of that, there are a lot of collectible discs to be found throughout Midgar, each one an updated track from the original game, adapted to different genres, such as jazz or hip hop.  The metal rendition of “Fight On!” is my favorite.

The graphics are great, overall. Despite some flaws (more on that later), the game is beautiful. Certain areas and cutscenes are mesmerizing. With a modern aesthetic, it’s easy to experience how dirty sectors of Midgar are, considering their descriptions as slums. And looking up at the sky, only to see the underside of a giant plate is incredible.

Beautiful and unsettling

The voice acting is done well in most areas. Barret’s actor is the only part of the main cast who I wasn’t sold on at the beginning, mainly because I thought he overacted. Particularly in the first few chapters, when the actor delivers the lines where Barret is antagonizing Cloud, or is grandstanding about the evils of Shinra, he sounds like he doesn’t yet understand the character, and goes overboard. But as time goes on, he calms down and says lines more naturally. Most of the side characters and passersby also have good voice acting. Here’s a fun bit of trivia: the characters’ mouths move accurately according to the language selection.

Barret! I’m looking down!

Gameplay

The game is linear to a point, which has prompted some comparisons to Final Fantasy XIII. However, it does allow for a bit of freedom. While it may not be as open world as some players would like, there are elements of exploration that allow you to grind for XP, or look for and complete side quests. Most areas are like corridors  that are used to get from one area to another, while some areas, like Wall Market, are much more open, containing alleys and backstreets.

High profile AAA games like FFVIIR are often at risk of the developers shoehorning in meaningless filler side quests as a means to pad the playtime and justify the price. To a certain extent, Square Enix fell into the trap and created side quests that you can skip without much change to the story. However, I also believe that the quests are worth completing, as they contribute to the game’s overall worldbuilding by affecting other characters’ dialogue, and by later permitting exploration of areas previously inaccessible during the main story. Some even grant rewards of materia or special items. The quests just don’t impact the story to the same degree that Witcher 3’s side quests affect its story.

Tabloids aren’t journalism.

Combat (Weapons)

The battle system is challenging but fun, which is good, considering how many battles you encounter. At first, I was apprehensive about the combat style change. I loved the turn-based system of the original FFVII, and I feared the system here would be just like the one in Final Fantasy XV, which I’ve never liked because the button mapping is weird, using MP to dodge attacks irks me, and while the link attacks are good in theory, I found them clunky in execution. To my relief, Square Enix took the action-based system and transformed FFVIIR‘s combat into something new.

An Active Time Battle (ATB) gauge builds while you fight, and when it’s full, you can use either special attacks, magic (which consumes Magic Points, or MP for short), or items. While the gauge fills slowly on its own, you can help it along by attacking with standard hits, or taking damage (not recommended). Hitting an enemy with their weakness builds a stagger gauge, resulting in a temporary “staggered” state when filled. At that point, your opponent becomes incapacitated, and takes more more damage until the state ends.

During battle, you can switch control to a different character in the party, and each one has a unique style. For example, Cloud uses his sword for close combat, while Barret uses his arm-gun to hit enemies out of Cloud’s reach. Aerith uses magic to attack from a distance — which, it must be noted, is a lot more effective than bonking the enemy on the head with her staff, like in the original game. Her standard attacks don’t use up her MP, even though they’re ranged and non-elemental magic.

Reno: “Okay, so you’re good.”

There are three difficulty settings at the start: normal, easy, and classic, with hard mode unlocked after finishing the story. Normal is surprisingly tough in some chapters, but is overall a fair challenge. Easy and classic are the same difficulty, but classic mode allows the player to focus solely on using the ATB gauge by guarding, dodging, and attacking automatically. The player can still control each party member while the ATB fills, but it’s not necessary. Because it’s so similar to the other modes, I find “classic” to be a misnomer.

One more thing to note about the battle system is that as the player finds new weapons for each party member, a new ability can be unlocked. The more a character uses a weapon, the higher their proficiency level gets. That provides incentive to use each weapon, as the abilities can be incredibly useful.

For example, one of the abilities Tifa can get transforms her physical attacks into ice-elemental attacks. Several types of tough enemies have ice weaknesses, making that ability a boon when used against them. The apparent downside to this, however, is that by the time you find these new weapons, they may or may not have better stats than the weapon you currently use. However, that can be changed.

His bright orange hair is gone? That’s too bad.

In chapter 3, you obtain the ability to upgrade your weapons. To do it, you need to spend Skill Points (SP), which you earn in battles. There are various ways to upgrade each one, and the higher proficiency choices cost more SP. Most have upgrades that raise HP, some that raise attack power, and some that add materia slots. There are more, but too many to list here.

Upgrades offset the initial weaknesses of a new weapon. Depending on how many times you’ve upgraded, no weapon will be universally better than another. That necessitates careful planning and deciding whether to sacrifice points in one stat to raise another. Some weapons are also specialized, further adding to the need to strategize. Certain weapons, like Cloud’s iconic buster sword, have balanced attack power and magic power, while other weapons, such as Tifa’s Metal Knuckles, have a far higher attack stat than magic. On the other hand, all of Aerith’s staffs prioritize magic over attack.

One of the best parts of the upgrade system is that it’s flexible. The player can reset a weapon’s upgrades with all SP refunded as many times as desired through Chadley the researcher, who appears in every major area. Resetting allows for myriad combinations with which to experiment, and to decide which one works best.

Looks kind of like the FFXIII Crystarium.

Combat (Magic)

Materia allows the player to use magic and certain abilities, as well as adding other benefits such as increased health or higher magic power. Sometimes the materia slots in a weapon or armor will be connected, affecting how certain kinds of materia work. There are five types of usable materia, each with a designated color: command (yellow), independent (purple),  spell (green), support (blue), and summon (red).

Command materia gives special abilities, such as stealing an enemy’s item, or discovering their weaknesses. Independent materia can increase HP or MP. Spells can either be attacks such as fire or lightning, or support like cure or barrier. Support materia can be linked to other kinds to create strategic advantages, such as absorbing an enemy’s HP by attacking with the linked spell.

The weapons reflect the equipped materia.

Summons are used only against powerful enemies and bosses. The materia brings out huge creatures that temporarily fight alongside you. They attack the opponent on their own, but you can also use your ATB gauge to command them to use special attacks. When the timer runs out, or the party member equipped with the materia gets knocked out, the summon performs one last powerful ability and leaves for the rest of the fight.

I’ve always liked the materia system, and it delighted me to find that they didn’t change it drastically. It’s relatively straightforward and easy to learn, unlike the confusing mess that is the junction system in Final Fantasy VIII. The materia clearly states what it does, and equipping it usually raises some stats, like strength or MP. Gone are the days of needing to sacrifice HP and strength stats to load up a character with materia (thank Heaven). Unfortunately, maxing out a materia’s AP no longer yields a new one of the same kind.

I have mixed feelings regarding how the summons operate. Those who prefer to have more control over when to bring out a summon will likely take issue with the fact that the game decides when summons show up, rather than the player. Additionally, from my experience, it appears that after a summon leaves the field, none of the rest are usable for the remainder of that battle. On the other hand, having them fight alongside me for a bit helped tremendously on many occasions.

Ifrit has never looked better.

Other New Stuff

The characters in FFVIIR are more developed than they were during the same portion of the original game. Biggs, Wedge, and Jessie are given more screen time, which is intended to influence the player to grow to care for them more than before. Additionally, some minor characters, like the spiky redhead Johnny, play larger roles.

Get a load of this guy.

As for the main characters, they’re a lot more fleshed out as well. Almost all of them have more personality, and Cloud’s relationship with the others develops more organically. This game also more naturally portrays how Cloud’s motivations evolve from caring only about his paycheck, to having a personal stake in the fight. Plus, it’s nice to see Barret switch from gruff revolutionary to loving father and bond with Marlene. We saw a small glimpse of this in the original, but it’s more personal in FFVIIR.

He acts tough, but he’s really a big softy.

You also encounter several new characters, such as Marle, a landlady and friend of Avalanche, and Andrea Rhodea, a showman and owner of the Honeybee Inn nightclub in Wall Market. Some characters, like Don Corneo’s henchman Leslie, are more important to the story than others, but they each have their role, and all of them are interesting to meet. I hope we see them again in future releases.

Madam M is hands-down my favorite of the new characters.

Additional Details

Midgar feels much more alive in this game. At any given time when in a populated area, you see people crowding around shops and street corners. Even better, you hear their chatter as you pass. Plenty of people also look like they’re carrying about their normal, everyday lives.

The Midgar portion of the original game took around five hours to complete, depending on how long the player spent on the various quests. This first installment of the remake expands that to the length of a full game, upwards of forty hours, depending on how many side quests the player completes on their first play through. Most importantly, the new content doesn’t feel like it’s there merely to make the game last longer. The story now progresses more naturally, feeling neither rushed nor dragged out.

Does this look like the face of mercy?

A Small Flaw

There are some graphical issues relating to the environments. In various areas throughout Midgar, you’ll inevitably see some surfaces that are unpolished and blurry, most notably on doors and walls. During certain moments, the scenery in the distance is a bit rough-looking as well. Personally, it didn’t bother me, as the game delivered on so many other visual aspects, especially during cutscenes, that some blurry doors and plants were forgotten. However, it is an issue that a lot of players have complained about, so it seemed only right to acknowledge that it’s there.

What the game lacks in door detail, it makes up for in other ways.

Concerning Nostalgia

As a remake of a game beloved by so many, adoration for FFVIIR can’t be completely removed from nostalgia. It shouldn’t be; otherwise what would be the point of keeping so many things that were in the original? Alternatively, its mileage may vary. For some players, it may be a large part of why they enjoyed the game, and for others, it may not be a factor at all. After all, Square Enix said they wanted to appeal to both longtime fans and newcomers.

I realized after finishing the game that the changes and new content were the things I really wanted. Don’t get me wrong, the nostalgia is nice. But I found myself always excited for the next new thing. Summed up, the nostalgia was the icing, and the game for what it was, changes and all, was the cake.

Fighting is no excuse to not look sharp.

Conclusion

There is still so much more I could say, but this review is long enough already, and to say more would venture into spoiler territory. As stated at the beginning, I set a high bar for this game, and it met it in most ways, and exceeded it in others. Before I had even finished the story, I found myself wishing I could go back in time to when I first started it, just so I could experience it all again as new. A feat very few games accomplish.

The battle system turned out to be a lot more fun than I expected, most of the voice actors are great, and the new events and characters enrich the story. Most importantly, it’s simply fun to play. Is that not the purpose of video games?

Finally, the story is well-executed. With how much Square Enix expanded just this first portion of the story, it now feels like the original game’s Midgar section is a rough overview, and FFVIIR is the completed product. To put it another way, the original feels like the outline, the remake feels like the final draft.

The Bottom Line

While nostalgia can be a strong force for some players, Final Fantasy VII Remake is an outstanding title in its own right.

 

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David Koury

Writer and gamer residing in the wasteland that is Nevada.

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