Before I dip my head into a barrel of industrial strength gel and heave God's own letter opener onto my shoulder as Cloud Strife, I have a chat with Yoshinori Kitase. This legendary creator of the 1997 original article starts with a detailed outline of what his Final Fantasy Remake project is all about. Long pitch short: in an industry where lazy “remasterings” are pooped out for a quick buck on the reg, what he's proposing is damned ambitious.
We're looking at a full reimagining of the original Final Fantasy VII. Kitase-san wasn't going to be satisfied with a 1:1 remake or remaster in the standard sense -- he and his team wanted to go above and beyond to create the sort of experience people would expect from a game that's this beloved.
“My ultimate objective with this game is to deliver the world of FFVII to a completely new generation,” Kitase tells me. “We want to use cutting-edge technology to make this the definitive RPG for that generation.” He also tells me that Final Fantasy VII Remake works hard to cater to returning fans. For those coming back to play Final Fantasy VII again, Kitase says, all the memorable, original, and surprising moments can be re-experienced in “new and different ways”.
“Long pitch short: in an industry where lazy “remasterings” are pooped out for a quick buck on the reg, what [Square Enix] is proposing is damned ambitious."
I press him further on this. Particularly on how he hopes to keep the impact of what I called “one of the biggest gut punch moments in all of video gaming”. Sadly, he kept coy on that. Spoiler territory, I guess. Looking beyond that, Kitase says that Remake goes well beyond the tale that was told in the original. Expect to dig down deeper into the characters and this kooky little world. In order to realise this level of detail in world-building, Kitase and his team have taken an astronomical amount of development time and produced a ton of game data. Incidentally, this is why this section of the original game is going to come out on two jam-packed Blu-ray discs.
To clarify that a bit better, Kitase says that Remake will have just as much volume of content as any other mainline, numbered Final Fantasy title in the franchise. Because the team has taken that approach and because they have that volume of content in there, they've been able to remake “absolutely everything fans loved about the original and wanted to see again without having to cut it down”.
Now if you didn't grow up playing this, the narrative here is as straightforward as it is timeless. Our hero is Cloud Strife, an aloof merc who's packing a sword that's about as large and improbable as the architecture of his hair. Initially an outsider, his role soon shifts to recruiting vital resistance team members to overthrow a planet-raping conglomerate called Shinra.
Combat is quite a bit different from the turn-based out-of-the-blue random battles that plagued us in 1997, but the gist of these real-time fights still revolves around knowing the strengths and weaknesses of your party members. Typically, that crew will be comprised of Cloud, the hack 'n' slash fighter who is good for close combat encounters, and his pal Barret, a gun-armed fighter who can cap anything out of ol' spiky hair's range. Barret also fires out unnecessarily angry one-liners like he's some sort of love-letter to Robert Downey Jr,'s Sgt. Lincoln Osiris.
Flanking those two less-than-firm friends is Tifa, a martial arts expert who packs the same old punch while being considerably less...er endowed than her original design (which apparently angered some fans). And this band of usual suspects is rounded off by Aeris – also called Aerith if you prefer the Japanese canon or you have a speech impediment. She's a skilled magic support character who's, well, just cheery as hell.
“Combat is quite a bit different from the turn-based out-of-the-blue random battles that plagued us in 1997, but the gist of these real-time fights still revolves around knowing the strengths and weaknesses of your party members."
“Part of the strategy is knowing which character to use in [our new and] quite hybrid battle system,” explains Kitase. “It blends strategic, menu-based commands with one-button input action-style gameplay. Essentially, we've taken the traditional ATB battle system and included a new variation on that. It's been enhanced and tweaked to make it easier to use and to allow you to perform a much wider variety of really cool and flashy action moves. Also, any characters you're not in control of are handled by AI, though you can issue them commands, too.”
Obviously the Materia system has been slotted back in again and gets addictive in no time. In layman's terms: you find chunks of special orbs about the world and equip combinations of these to your heroes to really customise their style to your preferences (think: new magic attacks, summon “super attacks” and new command abilities).
I have to say that I love what's on offer here. Yes, Remake is leaning more towards an action core, but players who do want to take it slower and think about their next move, tactically, can opt for the Classic Mode. Basically, time will slow down and you can ponder whose arse to kick next (or which of your fallen pals need to be “Phoenix-ed” back from a stupid decision). I tried both flavours of play – bashing out the violence with shortcut buttons, and the OG menu-based variant which semi-automated all my blocking and basic attacks. End result: the latter felt remarkably true to what I grew up with, and the former felt like a fun and fresh way to do it all over again. I could see myself happily replaying this game twice to experience both.
So how long will this adventure last? Difficult to say at this point. In this first chapter of the Remake project, you'll experience from when your plucky band of rebels do their first eco-terrorist attack in the fascinating city of Midgar, right up until the point where they escape said metropolis. Interestingly, Kitase tells me that when he was redesigning this iconic play-space he focused on the three key phrases that inspired him 23 years ago. This is a “dark location” with a “modern steampunk vibe” and it's also very “bare and eclectic”.
“I have to say that I love what's on offer here. Yes, Remake is leaning more towards an action core, but players who do want to take it slower and think about their next move, tactically, can opt for the Classic Mode."
I'm not sure what he means about “bare” as I'm quickly amazed by how many NPCs there are in the moments between levels. Almost every one of them has a little visual story and animation that rewards my stop-and-smell the roses approach to the code. It also must be said that the visual upgrade to the environments is phenomenally detailed – weirdly, up until now we I haven’t really talked about just how good Remake looks. Midgar is a lived-in place that's lavished with clever lighting techniques (and other visual effects) that really do create an atmosphere that brings out its uniqueness as a location. Go in expecting something that errs on the side of those OG stylised aesthetics, rather than sheer photo-realism.
“The reason why we decided to focus the story on Midgar is because it really is the most definite, the most representative of Final Fantasy VII out of anywhere in that world,” Kitase mentions to me in passing. “And we also are starting out planning and development work on the second game in the project as well.”
Honestly, as a diehard fan of the 1997 original (who's generally resistant to change), I went into my three-hour hands on a tiny bit sceptical of the Remake. I was won over in seconds though. Somewhere between the moment the battle tune kicked in and when I used Cloud to kill two Shinra train guards with one almighty “no-looker” backwards slash.
It's abundantly clear that Final Fantasy VII Remake isn't some weaponised nostalgia trap that's bottled next to none of the original's lightning. I felt the static of it as I leapt off that train, and my arm hairs stayed raised until they kicked me off the PS4 three hours later. There's love in this steampunk engine and I think Kitase and his team are well on track to re-earning the “masterpiece” title for a second time.
I simply can't wait to join the resistance all over again.