It's hard not to fall in love with Final Fantasy VII
all over again. Even I felt something shift in the black cockles of my heart. The first twinge comes from seeing that stupidly overlarge sword on the main menu, jammed into some spot-lit ground as that
harp arpeggio floats in.
Full-blown nostalgia arrives seconds later, when your brain expects shitty 320x224 pre-rendered FMV but gets 4K in-engine visuals that your 1998-self simply couldn't have fathomed. Let alone consume.
When you come back down from this initial Cloud
nine reaction though, and objectively look at Final Fantasy VII Remake
, does it measure up with its modern franchise stablemates?
Before I answer that one, let's get the newbies up to speed on the general gist of FFVII
. Setting-wise it's a cyber/steampunk hybrid that centres on Avalanche
, a group of underdog eco-terrorists out to end the planet-draining megacorp known as Shinra
. Your three-person party is drawn from the motley quartet that is Cloud (angsty, distant merc), Tifa (old friend/flame), Aerith (new flame mystic with fancy lineage) and Barret (hothead leader). I'd be remiss if I didn't say that the latter's modern interpretation can skirt into Robert Downey Jr/Sgt. Lincoln Osiris
territory at times.
“Full-blown nostalgia arrives seconds later, when your brain expects shitty 320x224 pre-rendered FMV but gets 4K in-engine visuals that your 1998-self simply couldn't have fathomed."
Getting your eco-terrorism on in Remake
is a very different affair this time around. Back then you'd get incessantly jumped by invisible enemies in battles that would use the Active Time Battle system. Translation: turn-based. Today you can spot your enemies a mile off and can mash them to death in real-time via a two-button combo system. Your ATB gauge still charges in the background however, and you can effectively pause time, target specific enemies and use your pent up aggression in the form of Spells (if you have any Materia slotted to equipment) or unique Abilities tied to your current weapon. It's all a lovely mix of tactics and action, though not exactly revolutionary in the context of the wider Final Fantasy
The good news is that while Remake's gameplay simply brings everything up to a more modern speed, some serious effort has been put into going above and beyond in the visual and narrative departments. The first upgrade is bleedingly obvious; the city of Midgar
has been lavished with love and is insanely detailed. This is the best-looking FF to date and I love how close to the original vision they've kept things. The sense of monolithic scale to this reactor city is gobsmacking and that impressive macro is matched by intricately detailed slums filled with chattering NPC residents.
Likewise, it's great that Yoshinori Kitase hasn't been afraid to expand the original script in order to let events unfold at a more leisurely and measured pace. With Remake intended to be volume one in a series of games, this first chapter covers about 50% of the first disc of the 1998 original. At this rate it’ll be some time before we get to the big finale in Disc Three, that said a lot of narrative newness has been injected to turn this into a “full FF experience”. For example, the 1998 story had you meeting Aerith in her church-garden at roughly the one hour mark. This fateful encounter occurs after a full 10 hours now.
Cloud takes his time getting there for quite a few reasons. Firstly, a lot of time is spent on a new subplot centred around Jessie and an exploration of her home life and motivations for civil disobedience. FFVII always gave you the option to flirt with her here and there, but that's been ramped up in Remake. You could be forgiven for thinking the game was setting her up as a romance option.
“It's great that Yoshinori Kitase hasn't been afraid to expand the original script in order to let events unfold at a more leisurely and measured pace."
Other less meatier chunks of story are presented in a dozen or so subquests. We're talking minor detective work on slum heroes and villains, plus the odd supernatural urban mystery that doesn't take too long to unravel. If nothing else, they're worth completing for the chance to nab sweet gear or to trigger a unique mini-boss fight to grind Materia XP.
Last but not least, you can take part in mini-games like playing darts, doing some pull ups, squats and a few other things not worth writing home about. Tiny little gameplay palate cleanses also come in the form of the odd vehicle section, stealth and some low-hurdle puzzle moments. They're generally forgettable, and won’t piss off too many purists as they don't overstay their welcome.
In terms of length, which is how we used to - and probably still do - talk about RPGs, you're looking at about a 35-hour run on Normal. For me that was an every nook and cranny kind of effort – all sub quests and every optional battle beaten (both in the various simulators and the dedicated Wall Market arena). While this may feel a little on the short side compared to something like 2016's Final Fantasy XV, you do get some post-credit content to chew on. Expect a fuller combat simulator to unlock as well as a hard difficulty that contains unique collectables and challenges.
As for downsides, there aren't any massive flaws to speak of. Personally, I think Final Fantasy newbies will love this story, but they should go in expecting a jarring tonal shift into WTF-ville at around the halfway point. I'm talking mission objectives that suddenly turn stick-in-the-mud, socially inept Cloud into a riffing and bebopping Miles Davis. Also expect some truly bizarre enemy types to jack in the box out of left-field too. The super deformed, primitive 3D graphics of the original meant Kitase and his artists could get away with some weird inclusions -- designs I figured might be reimagined or removed completely here. The team at Square Enix
has instead, leaned right in on the loopy.
Other small niggles can be found in the less than optimal upgrade menus (think: a series of planets that are awkwardly positioned and difficult to select). And while Materia management in the first three quarters of the game is a cinch, towards the end your team roster is often forcibly changed on you. The rub: Materia won't level up if it's attached to out of party heroes. So, expect to grumble as you go menu diving to shift your favourite Materia across and back and forth time and again. Having saveable equipment sets could have taken the annoyance out of this.
“Final Fantasy newbies will love this story, but they should go in expecting a jarring tonal shift into WTF-ville at around the halfway point."
Speaking of getting your slots on, being locked out of Materia management in battle feels counter-productive. A few times I had to manually reload a pre-fight checkpoint just so I could reconfigure my heroes to have the “correct” Materia needed to assess/steal unique things from once-in-a-game foes. Remake expects you to be Loot Nostradamus or miss out.
Those minor quality-of-life missteps aside, Final Fantasy VII Remake is still an absolute gem, polished to a high sheen and worthy of slotting into any serious gamer's collection. Granted, if you've been keeping up with the Final Fantasy franchise recently, it won't feel like Square Enix has reinvented the gameplay wheel. However, it sure did reinvent the wheel of time. Without saying too much, what we have here is a divergent “defy destiny” tale that's sure to wrong-foot veterans.
In that sense, Remake represents a must-play “what if” riff on an all-time classic. An impressive and thoroughly revitalising Phoenix Down cast onto a true masterpiece of gaming. Whether Kitase-san can continue this upward trajectory to fashion a legitimately new masterpiece from an old one remains to be seen. Only time, more sequels (and a shitload more Blu-ray discs and/or HDD space) can answer that one. But for now, this is the best Cloud gaming experience money can buy.