My first playthrough of Final Fantasy VII Remake was intoxicating. In its pacing, side content, and creative friction between reverence and innovation, it has problems. But it would be dishonest of me to claim I noticed most of them until some way through my second run.
On that first visit to this new Midgar, I was enthralled and grinning like a fool in love at 40 hours of spectacular fan service, right up until an ending that, to be blunt, absolutely cacks itself with the explosive intensity of a firework display at the final hurdle.
Fireworks are fitting, though. This is as much celebration as reimagining, though a celebration alive with much less cynical fan service and much more thoughtful iteration than you might expect.
The series has felt self-conscious about its roots in turn-based combat for a while now, and it filled me with relief and joy as a lifetime fan to discover that Remake’s combat feels like a sweet spot, the series’ turn-based past making peace with the obvious anxieties about relevance that resulted in FFXV’s disappointing battle systems.
Remake’s real-time, pausable combat is tactile and electric with absurd, chaotic, impressive visual flair. This, while being demanding and layered enough to make tactical consideration a must for success. It’s arguably one of the best systems the series has seen, and engaging enough that I’d love to see the mainline games adopt this style going forward.
If length or value was ever a concern, I’m happy to report that Remake – despite covering a fraction of Final Fantasy VII’s narrative – is a robust, generous RPG in its own right. A few flat fetch quests aside, the majority of side content serves to give you more opportunities for the excellent combat.
Discovering and upgrading new materia (gems that imbue you with different magical powers), and creating builds for some of the game’s tougher optional combat encounters becomes a compulsive, enjoyable focus all by itself. After finishing, you’ll unlock a Hard difficulty, where learning combat’s intricacies is a necessity.
Perhaps most surprisingly, Remake preserves much of the original’s idiosyncratic spirit. Not just through the re-creation of plot points, but through tone and direction. Oddly off-kilter conversations, confusing abruptness, and tedious but faithful navigation minigames confirm that Remake understands the spirit, not just the machinery, of the original.
Talking of machinery, though, it’s disappointing to find that something of Midgar’s distinctive look has been lost in the update. While landmarks like Aerith’s house and the church are stunning to encounter, aspects of the more industrial areas like the reactors and Sector 7 slums have been scrubbed until dull, losing their beautifully chaotic scrap bricolage and creeping organic-industrial squalor in the quest for clean realism.
This is partly a problem of perspective. While fully 3D, pannable environments can still be breathtaking, something of Midgar’s atmosphere is lost without its predecessor’s bespoke, pre-rendered backgrounds. If the original was a collection of scenes, this is very much a collage of areas. Vaster, but less deliberate and evocative.
If the stages are whitewashed though, the central drama is heightened. In all my numerous runs through the original Final Fantasy VII, I have never been this angry at Shinra, or as invested in the fate of terrorist/freedom fighters Avalanche’s B-team.
Remake can be a bloated, self-indulgent slog, but it does some wonderful things with that self-indulgence. Simple story beats are siphoned of their momentum and stretched out over hours, while character moments are given time to breathe, meaning those same story beats hit almost as hard, just in different ways. The context for certain characters or plot elements is abandoned in favour of recognisability or unearned stakes, yet the most minor elements of these characters’ personality and visual designs are given much more care and attention.
Put simply, and perhaps somewhat heretically, Remake’s version of these characters’ opening arcs is far more human and interesting than the original, even if much of the constant excitement and novelty of that game is sacrificed in the process.
The game’s entire relationship with fan service is both strange and unavoidable. In language, clichés have a freezing effect on meaning. Everybody has their own idea of what a phrase like ‘swift as the wind’ or ‘mind-blowing’ means, so when we opt to use these phrases as shorthands for complex experiences, the experience itself is shrunk down and simplified to fit in the parameters of the cliché. When Orwell wrote about the reduction of language for political ends, this is what he meant.
Things that are ‘iconic’ have much the same effect. I am a fan, and I enjoy being serviced. But getting waited on hand and foot gets uncomfortable after a while, as if you’re being denied the opportunity to have your own experiences. Or, in Remake’s case, to form your own emotional bonds or favourite moments instead of being told what should matter to you.
Still, I genuinely feel that everyone who loves Final Fantasy VII should attempt to experience Remake at least once. Even when it fails, it serves as a valuable and fascinating counterpiece to the PlayStation classic, one that’s sure to evoke conversation and consideration over why the original remains so beloved.
The extended run time means every single main character, and some side characters, are given much more personality, heart, and pathos, and it feels every bit the love letter to long-time fans. There is also a SoundCloud rap remix of the Chocobo theme, and it slaps. Uh, squawks.
FFVII: Remake is an armoury of double-edged swords. A sacrifice for every improvement, but still, on occasion, sharp enough to cut right to the heart of what made the original special.
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Release: Out now