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  • Writer's pictureStan Morris

A Comprehensive Review of FF7 Remake


After two decades of fanfare and anticipation alongside countless spinoffs and supplemental materials, the Final Fantasy VII fans finally got their long awaited wish- a modern HD remake of the original Final Fantasy VII. At least, that is what the title of the game would lead you to believe.


Released in April 2020, Final Fantasy VII: Remake delivered a look at the legendary world of FF7 with what could only be described as a benchmark presentation in modern day graphics and cinematics coupled with contemporary game design principles and, as is to be expected in many titles of the era, cinematic expressions of visual art that would make the average gamer of the late 90s and early 2000s weep in awe. Yet, despite these achievements, there are a few glaring factors that detract or derail the promised experience that fans have been waiting for. The end result is a divisive marvel of technical achievement and awe inspiring visuals that, despite all its splendor, misses the mark in a few critical ways. That all said, a more comprehensive breakdown of the hits and misses would do more justice than ambiguous preambles.


Remake or Unmaking?


First and foremost, before anyone considers playing FFVII: Remake, the most important question to ask is if that person has ever played the original Final Fantasy VII, or at least experienced one of the many retellings of that story. Following that question, one must then ask if they have also experienced the additional materials created in the years that followed, ranging from Advent Children to Crisis Core, along with everything in lore taking place chronologically in between. The reason this question is so important, as many fans found out the hard way, is that the title of “Remake” is a touch misleading. While most were expecting a contemporary upscale of the original FFVII, what we have instead is what could be called a “secret sequel”. 


Though the title does retread the same old ground in the city of Midgar, players will notice rather readily that there are a number of creative detours that take place in the game’s narrative that grow more and more egregious as the story progresses. One would not fixate so much on this topic if it were not so deeply ingrained in expectations and presumptions made for a title whose name is literally “Remake” rather than “Reinvented” or, as the narrative itself may suggest, “Unmade”. 

There seems to be a recurring fixation among a great deal of Japanese stories that all fall back to James Cameron’s Terminator films. Namely, the notion of defying fate despite a set future. This concept is critically relevant in the case of FFVII Remake, but unlike the original Terminator film whose relationship between past, present and future seems relatively malleable, the events and story of FFVII Remake almost demand that the player have experienced the original Final Fantasy VII proper, lest they be left confused and curious about why certain elements of this story seem so fixated upon specific outcomes and events, and why the game features a heavy-handed plot device that recurs throughout the story in a way that is immensely jarring and out of place, and perhaps only tolerable if you go in with knowledge that Remake is not a remake in the traditional sense, but instead a retreading that seems to bear some canonicity that ties it to the original game’s timeline of events, yet outside of said original events as if we have shifted between two parallel worlds.

Now that we’ve addressed the glaring elephant in the room, we can explore the other elements of the title without too much fixation upon that elephant.


Gameplay



It is rather concerning to say that gameplay seems to be less and less important to the medium of video games as the years tread on, so naturally one must wonder how a remake of a traditional turn-based Final Fantasy title that utilized the ATB (Active-Time Battle) system manages to play out. Fortunately, the game’s director is Tetsuya Nomura, and while that name comes loaded with certain expectations of certain character and narrative design trappings, it almost always also means that the game’s actual gameplay will be acceptable at worst and extremely fun at best. In the case of Remake, the gameplay falls in a comfortable “fun” with very  few notable gripes.


The game features a set of gameplay options, namely Classic and traditional Easy – Normal – Hard settings which seem to be the standard way to play. 


While in normal gameplay, the player has control of one to three party members that can deliver attacks to enemies and move freely around the arena. The player may only directly control one character at a time, though is free to swap control between the party members at any time. The bulk of this gameplay will be centered around mashing the standard attack button until a sufficient amount of the ATB meter has been filled, allowing the player to take a more direct action from the traditional command list. In essence, normal attacks are free action, while most other actions such as spells and items are tied to this ATB resource. Some actions require more ATB than others, so players must strategically manage this resource so they can perform their most optimal actions in battle.


Party members not directly being controlled by the player will act independently with AI behaviors so that they might assist in battle and build up their ATB meter, but will not execute any ATB related actions until commanded to do so by the player. This could almost be described as a sort of juggling act of alternating between each party member so that they might all generate more ATB faster. Balanced gameplay has the player swapping between each of them regularly to make the most of their team’s composition and positioning.


Incidentally, while there is freedom of movement horizontally, along with dodge rolling, the game does not have a jump button inside or outside of combat, and there are a few moments when traversing areas where something as simple as a chest high wall can impede progress, despite the abilities of the cast during cutscenes to leap several meters into the air with ease. Instead, aerial foes are locked onto and, in the case of melee attacks, are indeed reached with a great leap into the sky utilizing an auto-targeting approach to combat. 


One of the greatest flaws of the original FF7’s job design was that it failed to make any particular character feel unique aside from their limit break and weapon of choice. This problem is readily addressed in Remake thanks to the unique actions tied to each character, along with the skills that are gradually unlocked through the use of different weapons. In the case of Cloud, wielder of the absurdly large Buster Sword, players have two stances that can be switched between at will, one allowing for swift movement and blocking, the other offering slow but heavier hitting attacks. Tifa, likewise, has a command action that simply throws an uppercut, but can be enhanced twice using ATB to raise her attack and change that action to a more advanced attack. Barrett, the gun-armed ranged character, feels almost like he lives his daily life as Megaman in this title with most of his actions tied to different ways to use his unique armament, though some melee options are available. Naturally, his command action will switch between a powerful shot or a more head on melee attack, depending on the weapon. Having covered all of these examples, we might as well also address the only other playable character, Aerith, whose attacks are all tied to slinging magic from her staff or charging up a more powerful attack with her command action. These characters really feel distinct, and can fall into more neatly defined classes thanks to their combos in battle and weapon abilities. Ironically, the iconic Limit Breaks do return in Remake but will not see much use outside of very long battles or boss fights.


Combat is typically about identifying the best times to use each character’s unique command action between normal attacks and ATB expenditures. Those expenditures are limited to the abilities a character has unlocked and the materia that character has equipped. Going into both of these in order, each character finds weapons throughout the game that only they can equip. Doing so will grant them a unique ability that, when used enough times, eventually becomes permanently learned. This is actually quite fun and makes hunting for and trying out new weapons a rewarding practice. As characters level up they will also unlock skill points which can be used to buff the character in the game’s unique weapon tree, with each weapon having its own unique list of unlocks. This process can be automated, but it is sometimes worthwhile to hand pick which unlocks happen when going for a specific build, be it more attack power or even more materia slots.


On the subject of materia, this is the second half of character customization that really has a huge impact on gameplay. Just as in the original game, characters can only cast certain spells and abilities when they have materia slotted onto their equipment. This also means the number of slots on that character’s gear limits the total amount of materia they can bring into battle. Materia itself, as before, comes in various types ranging from elemental options such as Fire and Wind to more stat-oriented materia for more HP and so on. The reason materia matters so much in this game is because of the presence of various weaknesses and strengths on enemy combatants. It becomes routine to use Assess materia to learn the weakness of an enemy so that the party can prioritize that particular type of attack to cause the enemy to stagger more quickly.


The stagger gauge is a very large part of combat in FFVII Remake and seems to be extremely similar to the break gauge later found in Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origins. Attacking enemies can cause this gauge to fill, especially when using attacks that focus on their designated weaknesses, be they elemental or otherwise. When being hit with enough attacks relevant to their weak point or vulnerabilities, they will enter “pressured” status in which the gauge can be filled more easily. Once it is filled, the enemy will typically collapse to the ground and take significantly more damage. This is also the most ideal time to expend ATB meter on attacks from the entire party, usually making quick work of most enemies or quickly decimating the health bar of a boss.


Rounding out the discussion on gear, players won’t have to spend too much time choosing, as each character only has three pieces of equipment— weapon, armor, and accessory. This simplicity is extremely welcome and falls in line with the original game as well. The biggest chore will be choosing between materia, and in some cases making sure to swap critical materia between characters who won’t be in the same party during gameplay, which regrettably happens from time to time if not constantly mindful of who is holding what during a sudden change in party composition. This same problem was often in the original FFVII as well, funny enough, though swapping materia between characters is now tremendously easy to do.


Looking back on the last several paragraphs of this review, one might get the impression that there is great depth and consideration that went into the combat system of Remake. They would be correct. Accounting for materia and weaknesses, when to block and when to go on the attack, and even positioning when avoiding enemy attacks or trying to strike, players will have plenty to chew on, and likely have fun doing so. Comparably adjacent to what it feels like to play a Kingdom Hearts game with its command list always active, there is a lot of overlap in how combat is executed between the two, though Remake’s biggest difference is, ironically, more forgiving than the original VII’s ATB system thanks to how the game slows down time to a near stop while the command list is open, allowing players time to navigate it comfortably and without extreme urgency save for those perfectly timed dodges or counters. It’s a very comfortable balance of old and new, accommodating action and turn based fans in a single stroke.


Presentation


Despite how much there is to say about the combat system in Remake, combat is not the entire experience. Much of the game kowtows to the cinematic approach that so many games adopted starting in the 2010s and now overwhelmingly lean on in the 2020s. For every action-packed fight against Shinra’s latest abomination, there are also a handful of slow-down moments in which the player character will stagger through a dimly lit corridor so as to progress the plot or meander through designated locations until triggering the right flags to progress. These sequences are not entirely unwelcome the first time someone might experience them, but in any subsequent replays they will no doubt be a blight upon the experience that slows down progression. It could be considered a necessary evil to include such scenes, but I am firmly in the camp that believes any sequences that are essentially interactive cutscenes should always be skippable. All the same, presentation is a huge cornerstone of FFVII Remake that makes it stand out as exemplary, and it would be remiss not to sing its due praises.


In remaking FFVII, the developers have given players a Midgar that is entirely rebuilt for the modern audience, and that means extreme visual fidelity and atmosphere that can only be described as painstakingly crafted. From every broken husk of metal to each flower petal, the iconic locales of the original Final Fantasy VII have been faithfully recreated in a way that wows and awes. Those who have not lost their spark of wonder that can be incited by a glimpse into a fantasy world so beautifully created will no doubt experience that wonder upon their return to Midgar. While so many games fail to truly inspire a sense of scale to the worlds they belong to, Midgar feels more massive and robust than it ever has, though as a consequence of that immeasurable detail, the developers have perhaps imposed too much of it upon the player. 


This is where we get to the biggest flaw in Remake’s gameplay: the pacing and padding. It may be true that a player could, in theory, barrel through the main scenario and ignore all of the side content of the game, but at times the main scenario itself is littered with overlong sequences that seem to just drag on without end. It could be described as a plate of exquisitely prepared food that is, with each bite, just as savory and flavorful as the last. Yet, despite the splendor of this plate, one can still only stomach so much in a single meal. Many of VII Remake’s chapters feel much like the chef is force-feeding you more than your appetite can handle, resulting in a bloated and overstuffed malaise that makes you regret having ordered it. What feels like wonder soon becomes wear. It is possible to have too much of a good thing, and this game may be the poster child for that very affliction. It is one thing when the player is afflicting themselves with it by going on a long series of side-quests, but when the game forces it upon the player that becomes a whole different matter.


At time of completion, I had clocked over 38 hours into FFVII Remake. That seems like far too much time for a game that exclusively spans the first act of the original title. Perhaps, had I not tarried in side-quests toward the end of the experience, I might not have reached such lengths, but a good chunk of that experience felt almost abusive and simply unnecessary. Three particular scenes from the main scenario come to mind: the journey to Sector Five, the Train Graveyard, and The Drum. Each of these felt like an utter slog that tried my patience and honestly even made me physically ill from psychological Mako-poisoning. I had heard similar criticisms about the game many years ago when it first released, and can now firmly say that they were not hyperbole. It seems abundantly clear to me that the developers thought it necessary to pad out the experience to compensate for the fact that it was only the Midgar section of the story, but I fail to see any need to draw out long, winding hallways of repetitive scenery to hamfist extra gameplay into an otherwise immaculate experience. It really is a case of not knowing when enough is enough, and a portion of the game’s climax, which features the iconic bike chase sequence from the original, seems to have been designed so as to make sure anyone who had fond memories of that mini-game would no longer remember it fondly. 


Ironically, while I found the original FF7 to have far too many mandatory mini-games, it feels as though Remake strikes the balance just right, with only a few moments in the story demanding it.

Narratively speaking, it seems clear that this was a story made for people “in the know” rather than anyone who is approaching FF7 for the first time, and the creative liberties taken with its plot and retelling do not fall short of what some would simply call fan-fiction. It feels cliche to say this after so many others have already poured out these same criticisms over the years, but by the game’s end it truly feels like any sort of efforts at grounding the game within its own reality are just entirely out the window. Even as someone who loosely understands what is going on by the end of it (a feat in and of itself) I cannot help but feel utterly dumbfounded by the audacity of the team to try and outdo the absurdity that was Advent Children. The character motives are all perfectly intact up until the game’s final act, teetering into nebulous territory. Earlier in this review I mentioned the double-edged sword that is Tetsuya Nomura, though credit for writing goes to Kazushige Nojima and Motomu Toriyama. Given the past work of each of them, credits including Kingdom Hearts and Advent Children in particular, it feels only fitting that the story went the way it did. 


As a silver lining, the team did a splendid job of fleshing out Avalanche more than the original work did, along with giving more importance to those characters whose original roles as window dressing now feel much more alive and vibrant. Speaking of window dressing, two locations that caused my jaw to drop were Aerith’s house and the Wall Market, and as someone who remembers what they looked like in their original incarnations, the new look and feel are simply beyond expectations. The abundant side-quests do a lot to both flesh out and pad out the slums of Midgar, including a menagerie of entirely new characters that seem to exist just for the sake of making the slums feel more alive, but I believe it is best to simply say less is more, and by over-exposing players to the handful of areas in the game, these areas suddenly lose their shine and become tiresome, which is just a shame. I will never experience that wonder and awe of turning the corner and seeing Wall Market at night for the first time again, yet if I ever see Wall Market again it may be a touch too soon. Despite that, it is no doubt home to where most of the flavor in this game awaits. Don Corneo in particular was the height of character presentation thanks to both his animation and sound, and the Wall Market itself feels almost like someone wanted to really capitalize on the sensations of Yakuza’s Kamurocho. The Honeybee Inn itself felt very much in that same vein as well, particularly when Cloud and company must venture within to progress the story.


As with any other, a large portion of the game’s presentation also falls to its sound, and while I could talk at length about that, I don’t feel it is entirely necessary except to say that the team nailed it without exception. There is not a single criticism I have about the game’s voice direction or sound direction, from sound effects to music. Sure, maybe one line read here or there wasn’t 100% perfect, but there is only so much perfection one can demand. The biggest flaw I can think of comes explicitly from my own fatigue for the Wall Market theme after spending so much time questing and wandering in its many winding streets. The game’s musical arrangements, from collectible tracks to new takes on old classics are broadly speaking, pure delight. Having over 20 years of memorable material plus the work of Uematsu as a base allows for a great deal of potential, which thankfully did not fall short. Perhaps more use of Fight On! would be my only request. New takes on the Turks Theme as well as the various ambient songs of various locales were pleasing to the ears.


Seven Seconds Until The End



It is difficult to measure VII Remake as a standalone title because it not only stands upon but entirely leans into the shoulders of its predecessors. The story cannot be considered coherent or complete without prior-knowledge, and that has me wondering what it would be like to experience it entirely absent the knowledge of those prior entries. Tragically, its story is arguably its weakest of the main talking points, yet the game is so beautiful that I would almost forgive that entirely just to be able to keep looking at how pretty it is. At the same time, so much of its quality is dampened by excess in an effort not to underdeliver that it over-delivers in a bad way. Characters seem to have lost their way compared to their original incarnations, and the eternally famous Sephiroth is likewise painted all over the game at various points despite his appearance in the original title being extremely limited through the events of Midgar. It just feels like the entire thing falls apart by the end, and it is hard to imagine anything getting back on the rails after the narrative pushes so hard to get that train off the tracks.


Despite these shortcomings, which no doubt seem egregiously harped upon in this review, it would be remiss not to emphatically insist that people get their hands on FFVII Remake. It is simply too great of a technical marvel to not be experienced. It manages to push the boundaries of what a stunning Final Fantasy title could look like, and captures the spirit of Final Fantasy that, in my mind, made it a name brand of real power during the 90s and 2000s. Its gameplay is both tight and fun, its presentation is stunning, and its success at presenting the long awaited high-fidelity remake of one of the most beloved titles in all of gaming simply cannot be dismissed no matter how off the rails the story goes by the end. That padding is a symbol of pride and insistence upon showing every detail, and while I disagree with that decision, I understand why they did so. With all the time, budget and effort that goes into such a work, it is only natural to want to keep players engaged with it as long as possible.


If the story insisted upon one thing, it is that the future of this IP and franchise is not set. But for those who wanted to see Midgar the way fans always dreamed of seeing it, Final Fantasy VII Remake, for better or worse, delivers on that dream.

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