In 1997 Squaresoft released arguably the most important Role Playing Game of all time, Final Fantasy VII. It was a benchmark not only for RPGS but for video games categorically. The characters, battle systems, sprawling story, graphics and music elevated expectations for future video games across the board. Beyond that it was a large part of the launching pad for the Sony Playstation’s dominance. Its extreme demand and popularity helped to propel the global install base of Playstations by sixty percent in six months. Simply put, Final Fantasy VII was a masterclass video game, and one that fans have been desperate to see remade to today’s modern sensibilities. Twenty-three years after its initial debut the reunion with Final Fantasy VII is finally here. But after decades of waiting for its arrival, how does the return to Midgar fare? Was it worth the wait, does Remake improve on our nostalgia drunk memories and can it possibly live up to the expectations? The answers to these questions are far more complicated than I ever imagined.
Remake more or less takes the first act of Final Fantasy VII and expands upon its initial six to eight hour play time to create a full-length RPG experience (I logged 32 hours for my completion time). If you’ve played the original and are wondering how you could make the first location of FFVII into something that can stand on its own feet you’re not alone. Square accomplishes this by implementing much stronger story-telling and character moments while shuffling the deck with new events and plot changes to keep you balancing through your playtime familiar faces and new surprises. Paper-thin side characters from the original such as your Avalanche comrades Biggs, Wedge and Jesse now receive backstories and even their own side quests in some instances to make you truly feel for the plight of those living in the Midgar slums. The story is told so well and all of the moments carry more meaning and weight as they happen because of the expanded connection with the world.
The battle system tosses aside the slow turn-based battles of the original in favor of a more action oriented and hands-on combat more akin to Final Fantasy XV. You have complete control of your party during combat in a fantastic marriage of real-time action and turn based styles. The game gives you complete dynamic freedom of movement on the battlefield complete with dodges and blocks. The square button unleashes physical attacks while a press of the cross button pauses the action in glorious bullet time while you navigate your battle menu to use items, spells or Limit break attacks. In addition to that a tap of your d-pad instantly toggles the character you are controlling on the battle field while your partners are given to the ai for control. The result is some of the most satisfying combat I have ever experienced in an RPG. It’s quick, exciting, easy to understand and never once had me feeling like I wasn’t in complete control.
Materia also makes its return and it fundamentally functions the way you remember. You pair magical orbs to your weapons and armor which instill on your character a host of spells and abilities. Certain Materia can be paired with others to provide enhancements and the more you use your Materia the more powerful it becomes. Leveling up your Healing Materia for example grants you stronger spells in its category. My only complaint on the Materia in this game is that there weren’t as many as I would have liked, which is understandable as this is a “part one” game. Also the Summon Materia are more restrictive than they previously were, only allowing you to unleash the powers of your summons during certain Boss encounters. Summons once called upon roam the battlefield attacking at will and will respond to special attack commands from you which become available periodically as you fill up your attack meter. Overall Summons are wonderful if not a little tethered by their limited usability.
I cannot speak on Remake without mentioning the pure artistry on display. Not only does this game take full-advantage of the PS4 Pro, delivering truly impressive and beautiful imagery, but this game is one of the best directed games that I have ever played. Every frame of every cutscene puts the camera exactly where you would want it to be, panning landscapes, slowing action at just the right time, and focusing on critical moments that make your eyes simply water with delight. In addition to the visuals the music in Remake is a breathtaking recreation of Nobuo Uematu’s original score that makes your heart absolutely pound as your nostalgia kicks into hyperdrive.
But with all good Role Playing Games, the soul of Remake lies with the story and its characters. This is where Square plays with your heart strings and expectations the most. If you think you know Final Fantasy VII, you’re wrong. Characters convey more than ever before, betray your expectations when you least expect it and yet sometimes quote the original word-for-word. All of this results in Remake being a blend of nostalgia and mystery. Each character comes on screen with a fate pre-ordained by how I played them twenty-three years ago, yet somehow as the hours went by with Remake I lost a sense of inevitability and embraced this journey with all of my heart.
In closing Final Fantasy VII Remake is a game that challenges the ideas of what you want or expect from a remake. You do not need to have played the original to enjoy it, however this game both rewards players who are well versed in its story as well as slaps your hand if you come in expecting to know where it’s going. Square has managed to be both faithful and defiant to the world of Final Fantasy VII with Remake and leaves you, as the player, wondering both what destiny lies ahead for our heroes as well as sitting on the edge of your seat waiting to revisit what you already know comes next.
Simply put Square Enix has threaded the needle. They’ve somehow managed to be everything to everyone in a video game experience that is unlike anything I have ever played before. Final Fantasy VII once again is First Class.