It’s finally here. Final Fantasy VII: Remake, perhaps one of the most anticipated titles in videogame history has finally arrived. If you’re a JRPG fan you’ve probably been living in a state of excitement ever since the 2015 announcement, so let’s see if the game can meet our high expectations. (Full disclosure: this review is written by a long-time fan of the series who has played the original game multiple times and while it will be low on spoilers, I do hope that most people reading this will be somewhat familiar with it )
If you don’t feel like reading all of this, feel free to skip to the conclusion.
Final Fantasy 7: Remake (henceforth called FF7R to save my poor typing fingers some energy) has been building a steady amount of hype over the years but there is one elephant in the room we need to address right away: Yes, this is an episodic game and the first entry only plays out the part of the story that takes place in Midgar. Please let me start by reassuring you: this is perfectly fine and you’ll get more than your money’s worth out of it.
There was only so much the PS1 hardware could handle and the story needed to be conveyed through expensive FMVs or blocky characters with unspoken dialog boxes. Not only does FF7R build upon the foundations of the original by adding new content, it also succeeds in explaining the story better and inserting more human emotions.
The game starts with the famous bombing mission where our hero Cloud is enlisted as a mercenary to help Avalanche, a group of eco-terrorists, to blow up one of the Shinra reactors that is draining the planet of its life energy. In the original game, I felt like I was helping out a good cause. In FF7R we are confronted with the aftermath and see a city burning and everyone is talking about the lives that have been lost. Kind of makes it hard to feel like a hero, doesn’t it?
As far as openings go, being called a terrorist and a murderer sure sets the tone. What’s extremely effective this time around, is that the game is fully voiced by a marvellous cast and we actually get to see the facial expressions of characters (though NPCs are obviously less detailed than the main crew).
Now let me dive right in with a little nitpick on this matter: Since FF13, we’ve moved away from having to press a button to initiate a dialog with non-essential NPCs but since groups of them are usually closely packed together, prepare for a wave of voices & text whenever you’re in a populated area. (EDIT: I discovered a setting where you can at least turn off the visual text on the side of the screen) This does have one benefit though: when you DO have an input prompt near an NPC, it’s a sign that one is important for the main story or side-quests.
Yes, that’s right, they’ve added side-quests. But let me assure you: most of them help the story in some way or at least have a bigger effect than just some experience and GIL.
As you can see in the image above, the side-content is relegated to certain chapters. I really think Square Enix has hit the nail on the head with the pacing of this game: People said FF13 was too linear and that FF15 was too open and lacked focus/urgency. Well, say hello to the perfect blend: after a few linear story-heavy chapters, the game will each time set you loose in a slightly open environment to take on a list of quests and help Cloud get some rep as a mercenary.
There is an amazing feeling of progression. I can’t stress enough how important this is, especially in an RPG, to see your characters grow & improve (even though the enemies do the same so the net result stays pretty much the same). There will constantly be some kind of ability unlocking, level increasing or other such metrics improving.
Let’s start with the obvious ones: Defeating enemies gets you experience (which levels your character), AP (which levels your materia: magic, abilities and passive upgrades) and GIL which you can use to buy new equipment. The latter two do have some limitations in this title: there are far fewer Materia orbs to be bought or found and each character only has a handful of weapons. It’s pretty awesome to visually see the equipment on your character outside of battles though, I know that’s not a recent development but it’s still something I appreciate a lot. Especially because we can see the materia slotted into the weapons.
Now, while there aren’t that many weapons in the game, they do have multiple uses. When you level up or get certain items through sidequests, you’ll get Skill Points that can be spent on passive upgrades like increased attack power, additional materia slots (my go-to unlock) or other fun improvements. It’s reminiscent of how the character levelling was handled in FF13.
Best of all is that Skill Points are earned for every weapon, so you get to also improve the ones you didn’t have equipped, which saves you from a lot of unnecessary grinding. If you don’t want to spend too much time in this menu, you can even let the game assign Skill points for you.
Each weapon also has a unique ability for your character to use in combat. If you use it long enough or perform certain actions as required, eg: Stagger an enemy or deal the killing blow, then you’ll master that ability and will get to use it even if you have another weapon equipped.
Something else that will affect how you fight, are the Battle Intel Reports. Chadley, a young Shinra employee who wants to destroy the company from the inside out, will be giving you various tasks to complete. Examples are “use Assess on 20 enemies”, “Stagger 10 different types of enemies” etc. Each successful report will result in a new materia for you to use and every now and then you’ll even be able to unlock new Summons after you fight them in VR simulations.
Anyone who has played Final Fantasy 7 before knows that one of the most exciting things in the game was unlocking a new Summon. These deities cost a lot of MP to call forth but they have a devastating effect on the battlefield. The only issue with them was that they had long animations you had to sit through every time and that they kind of made regular magic irrelevant. (I know I had at least 2-3 summons equipped per party member near the end of my last playthrough)
In FF7R, you can only assign one Summon per character and you’ll be happy to hear that they don’t take up a regular materia slot. You also don’t have to use MP. Instead, you’ll only be able to use them during harder battles. They join the fight and diss out some big elemental damage and you can use your ATB bars to activate their bigger attacks. When their time runs out, they’ll use their signature move like Shiva’s Diamond Dust or Ifrit’s Hellfire.
Now we’ve come all this way but we haven’t really discussed the combat system in detail yet, have we? No? IT’S FANTASTIC!
Back in 1997, a Final Fantasy title was synonymous with Turn-Based combat but Tetsuya Nomura, the director of FF7R, thought this would no longer be a valid system in the current day. They’ve been experimenting more and more with the formula since FF12 and the last major entry was a full-blown action RPG with Noctis zipping around the battlefield and dissing out teamed attacks with the other chocobros.
What they decided upon ended up being a mix of both, with some influences from Kingdom Hearts. You’ll control the party member of your choosing in real-time combat with dodging, blocking, attacking and character-specific specials. Each hero has their own playstyle with Aerith specialising in magic & healing, Cloud being an all-rounder, Tifa getting up-close with her fists & feet and Barret being able to shoot enemies from afar (useful against airborne enemies) – I advise you to switch the leader of the party every so often, it makes the game even more fun to play than if you were to stick to Cloud.
Get in a few hits and your ATB bar will start filling which you can then expend to enter Tactical Mode. This will slow down the combat to use Abilities, Magic or Items. It looks AMAZING in action and really gives you ample time to make the right decision.
If you’re playing in Normal difficulty, you’ll have to apply all of your available tactics and think carefully about the Materia you equip, how you approach fights and more, should you want to have a chance at besting your opponents. The game isn’t a walk in the park and I found myself switching who I controlled all the time to pick the best possible ability or magic to use and I still found myself running low on potions and Phoenix Downs.
In Hard Mode they’ll even take that away from you as it won’t let you use items, even outside of combat. My recommendation is to start the game in normal and consider switching to easy for a few harder fights if you’re getting too frustrated with them. (it lets you change the difficulty from the menu) and leaving Hard Mode for a New Game + experience that will offer a true challenge.
Boss battles, in particular, will require a well-planned approach, with the fight against Airbuster even letting you take away augmentations from him in advance (you get to use keycards that can make him slower, stop him from using his Big Bomber attack or get items that will help you in battle). Each boss fight is a treat and I was surprised to discover that Hard Mode even gives them new abilities and modified attack patterns.
Finding all of the keycards as mentioned above takes a little exploration, as you won’t just find all of them lying around on the straight path to the next control unit. FF7R does a decent job at making even the linear parts feel just a tiny bit more open because they’ll hide rewards for those who take a small detour.
Sadly, most of them will just be regular items or a bit of extra cash, but in the beginning of the game these common finds are actually still useful. Just don’t expect to find new gear or exciting materia every few feet.
I can’t stress enough how much I enjoyed the pacing and variety in FF7R. Like I mentioned earlier, you’ll have open exploration areas after a few linear chapters and they even throw in some fun minigames or chapter-specific challenges to change things up. Let’s take a look at them now, as they’re worth mentioning!
The first one is an optional darts game where you have to substract points from the total score until it reaches exactly 0. The aim of the game is to do so in as few throws as possible. You’ll get a trophy for your efforts and Wedge will even reference it later on in the game if you took the top spot.
The second one took me by surprise. The motorcycle chase is a well-known scene from the original, but they let us get our ride on much earlier in the Remake. Chapter 4 early! The gameplay will see you slashing enemies to the left or right side and also introduces a ranged attack and an area-of-effect type of ability. Check it in action below, it’s a blast!
A bit later into the game, we’ll be challenged to an optional game of whack-a-box. The concept is simple: just hit the boxes to rack up points before the timer runs out. Hit red boxes to get extra time. Get a high enough score and you earn som unique items. This challenge was a really fun distraction and kind of easy too. Even the harder version when you return to the Sector 5 slums later on is a breeze.
Next, we have another returning minigame from the original: Squats! The way you perform these has changed a bit though and it’s a lot harder this time around. You’ll have to press Triangle, Circle, Cross (I know, I know, I call it “X” myself, but let’s go with Playstation’s official naming convention to humour them) and then Square in order. Easy enough, but after a few go-arounds, the inputs will disappear and you’ll have to use the visual and audio cues to continue, while the pace keeps increasing and your rival starts getting a lead on you.
When you revisit this gym in Wall Market at a later date, the challenge will be updated to pull-ups, same setup but instead of going around, you’ll get a random pattern to follow. It took me well over 20 tries to beat the pro.
The last one is perhaps my favourite minigame and I wish it was a full-blown rhythm game in its own right: Cloud has to dance! Simply press the buttons that are on-screen with the correct timing.
It’s simple yet so gosh-darn fun. I wish there were multiple songs to choose from and I hate that this isn’t a mini-game we can trigger whenever we want. If you like rhythm games as much as I do, make a save here before starting the big scene in the Honeybee Inn. (speaking of saves: The game has a great autosave feature and you can save at pretty much any time to one of the 10 available save-slots)
Here is the full Honeybee Inn scene for your enjoyment. Cross-dressing Cloud and all!
It takes balls to put the protagonist through such weird situations, but it’s in moments like these that the game truly shines + it offers a welcome comedic relief from a story about hardships and loss. The world of Midgar is a pretty bleak one for the lower class living in the slums: Disasters will happen, friends will die. And you’ll care. My god, will you care!
The emotions portrayed in FF7R feel all too real, as do the main characters you befriend. I can’t press enough what a stellar job the voice actors and script writers have done here, going deeper both on existing scenes from FF7 but also introducing us to wonderful characters like Leslie or Madam M.
You should see the scene where she loses her temper in the Corneo colosseum and swears a mouthfull. It’s brilliant!
Speaking of swearing, it’s back! The original game kind of shocked me as a child, not so much with any particular words, but the very fact that it dared to include them. Most of the swearwords in FF7 were replaced with random $!%£ signs but that was arguably worse as my filthy teenage mind filled in the blanks with rather creative vocabulary. Seeing even Aerith, an angel descended on earth (well, an Ancient on Terra) let out a “Shit” in FF7R not only took me by surprise, but it was also super endearing!
I was never too big into Aerith and was expecting to be “Team Tifa” again this time around, but I’ll be damned if the performance by Briana White didn’t win me over. I mean, look at this scene and tell me she didn’t earn your respect, trust & everlasting love:
Cloud’s romantic endeavours seem to be somewhat of a red thread throughout the game, as you’ll bounce from love interest to love interest and most of the time his main motivation is “save the girl”, like a true knight in shining armor. What was originally a “love triangle” now briefly evolved into a love quartet (is that a thing?) as Jessie gets a lot more screentime and becomes a full-fledged character with a backstory and motivation of her own.
They all feel like living, breathing humans and I understand all too well why it took this long for the timing to be right for the Remake to be made. Visually the game is a stunner. You need only look at the examples above to see the detail put into these characters, each undeniably resembling their source inspiration but with an updated outfit or look to them.
The areas that used to be painted backgrounds have been brought into the 3D world by artists who used the opportunity to show the Midgar and the slums from angles that you could only glimpse before. Though I do regret that the game is restricted to Midgar only: You’ll spend a large part of your time in the slums which look mostly brown & grey, giving them a bleak vibe.
But it’s befitting of the game and it only helps to make the more important environments stand out. These locations are equally true to form and it’s nothing short of a shot of nostalgia straight into your veins when you first visit them. This is gaming gold and I don’t think there is anything more powerful for me, personally. (again I repeat: this review is written from the perspective of a long-time fan)
Some environments really got a lot of extra attention, and I spent countless additional hours in the game, taking all of it in. But at the same time I noticed some content missing for reasons I don’t fully understand. Take the secret underground meeting place below Tifa’s bar, Seventh Heaven, for example. You see Barret and the rest of Avalanche using the pinball machine to get there, but you’re never able to see it for yourself while it was in the original game.
On the flip side, most of the locations have expanded and traversing them is done in improved ways*. I can recall a few frustrating traversal issues, in particular, the clumsy climb up to the plate from Wall Market. In FF7R this has been replaced by a fun segment with rope guns.
*Going on a small tangent here, but I wanted to talk about the fluid way you can move through the levels: obstacles you can overcome will be visible through an indication that you can hop over or crawl under debris, and even in crowded areas, Cloud will weave through the commoners not entirely unlike Ezio pioneered in the Assassin’s Creed titles.
The train graveyard is yet another setpiece I wasn’t too big of a fan of in FF7, yet here they took the liberty to add some extra story beats and freaking Ghost graffiti!
Sadly, I can’t only sing the praises of the visual department. While I had to play the game on an original PS4 (my PS4 pro shut itself down each time upon trying to load the game), there were some issues with textures not loading properly and from what I’ve read online, the better hardware doesn’t exactly fair THAT much better.
On environments, it’s not always that obvious and usually, it’ll load by the time you get near the object or building in question, but on quest-givers, it can be really distracting if their clothing texture pops into existence mid-conversation. I bring it up only because I noticed it so often during my playthrough, but I can’t say it really took away my enjoyment of the game.
Loading, loading, loading… Done!
There are also the usual assets being re-used that you probably won’t notice until the game rubs your nose into it. Especially when the NPCs get copy/pasted a few times in the same area is when you’ll turn your head and do a double-take.
Next up, before I forget: we can’t very well talk about a Final Fantasy game and not mention the stunning soundtrack now, can we? FF7R not only remade the story, characters, combat system and visuals but it also did a number on the music. It builds upon the strong base of the original and reworks timeless classics into tracks that are more dynamic. While in boss battles, you may notice the soundtrack picking up in pace as the fight gets more intense or slowing down when you enter Tactical Mode and that must have been quite a work of labour to achieve.
I’m always terrible at expressing myself when it comes to how music makes me feel, but I fully understand that the nostalgia wouldn’t have hit as hard as it did if it weren’t for this amazing music direction. There is also a rather welcome side-activity that lets you buy records throughout the game to play on juke-boxes. A nice touch!
All in all, FF7R does a fantastic job on every front and there aren’t that many things I’d change. Yes, there may be some texture issues or an NPC re-used in the same environment, but that doesn’t hold a candle to the stuff it does so, so right. If you’d let me change only one single thing about it: I’d have liked to have moment just before the grand finale that allowed us to explore anything we might have missed. But in the absence of that feature, there IS a New Game+ and a Chapter Select, letting you keep everything like levels, gear and other things you’ve worked hard to collect.
Final Fantasy 7 Remake is a love-letter to the source material. It does a much better job at telling the gripping story and makes you truly feel for the inhabitants of Midgar. Lay to rest any worries you may have had over its length as well, as this first “episode” will provide you with a full game’s worth of content. It’s a true masterpiece and has quickly jumped up to the top of the list as my favourite entry into the series.
*Disclaimer: A digital PS4 copy has been provided by the publisher.