The world has fallen under the control of the Shinra Electric Power Company, a shadowy corporation controlling the planet’s very life force as mako energy. In the sprawling city of Midgar, an anti-Shinra organization calling themselves Avalanche have stepped up their resistance. Cloud Strife, a former member of Shinra’s elite SOLDIER unit now turned mercenary, lends his aid to the group, unaware of the epic consequences that await him.
The story of this first, standalone game in the FINAL FANTASY VII REMAKE project covers up to the party’s escape from Midgar, and goes deeper into the events occurring in Midgar than the original FINAL FANTASY VII.
Publisher – Square Enix
Platform – PlayStation 4
Release Date – April 10, 2020
WARNING: This review contains Medium spoilers for Final Fantasy VII Remake.
Picture the scene. It’s over two decades ago, just prior to the turn of the most recent millennium, in the year of 1997. A Japanese game company called Squaresoft (Now Square Enix) has just released the latest instalment of its long-running and increasingly misnamed series of roleplaying games, Final Fantasy 7 (FFVII). The world of console gaming is never going to be the same.
Its combination of beautiful graphics, engaging gameplay, excellent music and an involving story culminated in a ground-breaking product that resonated with audiences on a worldwide scale. A massive critical and commercial success, the game brought Japanese roleplaying games into the mainstream of western gaming culture and is also credited with helping increase the worldwide sales of the (then upstart) PlayStation console from 10 million units to 16 million units inside six months.
Its release was a significant event which has produced an enduring legacy, with its sales on other platforms in the decades since still making it the biggest selling Final Fantasy of the series to this day, with a correspondingly large base of dedicated fans, including the writer of this article.
This avid fanbase had been whipped into something of a frenzy in 2005 when a shot-for-shot remake of the opening sequence of FFVII was played at E3 as a tech demo for the PlayStation 3 to show off its graphical capabilities. It was just a tech demo, and no game was in development, but the fandom fire had been lit and the cries for a remake of this beloved classic, began in earnest. For a long time, these cries seemingly went unheard or unheeded, but like a child asking for an expensive toy at Christmas, even though they know it’s more than likely they won’t receive it, the fans continued to ask.
A decade later at 2015’s E3, Christmas finally came in the form of an official announcement and video confirming a remake was in development. The fandom lost its collective shit in the joygasm that followed. Once that had died down, the waiting began, and the worries started to kick in. Could a remake really live up to the massive legacy of the original, and the quite likely unrealistic expectations of its large and very invested fanbase?
This seesawing between excitement and concern would only continue as development dragged on and titbits of news were revealed. The biggest example of this was arguably the announcement that due to how vastly expanded the game would need to be, to make it live up to modern gaming standards, it would need be split across several instalments, with the first being set entirely in the city of Midgar, a section of the game that only covered 4-6 hours of play time in the original title. While everyone was thrilled at the thought of how much the game was going to be expanded, could 40+ hours of gameplay really be drawn from what was basically the tutorial section of the original game? Could it offer a satisfying standalone experience, when there is still so much left to come?
After 23 long years, the wait is over. The first instalment of FFVII: Remake (FFVIIR) officially dropped on the 10th of April 2020. Was it worth waiting for? I have no hesitation in saying, unequivocally, holy flowing Lifestream, YES!
As can be seen in the trailers and promos to date, this is no simple remaster. While I and many fans would no doubt have been happy with just the original game being given a general graphical clean up and upgraded models, like the recent Final Fantasy 9 (FFIX) remaster, Square Enix had set their sights on a far more ambitious endeavour. As the ”remake” tagline suggests, this is a complete rebuild from scratch. The core story of FFVII, used in a game made with all the techniques, technology and visual style of today’s titles. The result is breath-taking, with the world and characters brought to life in a manner that until now, for all the original’s brilliance, had only existed within the imaginations of its fans.
While beautiful, the original game’s top down views of prerendered backgrounds gave a very fixed perspective of your surroundings. Getting to see and move through Midgar in a fully-realised 3D environment is a new-level experience. During my playthrough, I spent as much time looking at the world around me as I did actually playing the game. Looking up when you’re walking through the slums and seeing the massive reactors, pillars and sector plates towering over you gives a sense of scale and mass you never quite felt in the original.
The vastly expanded city and slum environments are all wonderfully detailed and filled with plenty of chattering NPCs, whose dialogue and reactions change and evolve as your party’s actions impact the lives of city-dwellers. Midgar is bought to life as a very real, living, breathing city. No longer is it just a static backdrop for your exploits.
This huge increase in detail is not just confined to the game’s environments. The main story, too, has been overhauled. While the core plot and key beats of the original are still here, every aspect has been deepened and new flavour and colour added in. Passing plot points and elements, that only got brief mentions previously, become fully fleshed-out story elements.
An example of this that you encounter early in FFVIIR is Cloud’s status as a mercenary, a briefly mentioned story point in the original FFVII to justify his initial involvement with eco terrorist group Avalanche. In the remake, however, you spend time picking up freelance work and missions to build up your reputation as a trustworthy hired gun (hired sword?) and earn money.
Vitally, none of the additional story material feels forced or tacked on for the sake of bumping up playtime. Everything adds to the greater whole and makes for a far more in-depth and satisfying experience. It’s like the original was a picnic with loved ones on a sunny day but the Remake is afternoon tea at Fortnum and Mason’s.
Of course, one of the biggest changes in FFVIIR, compared to its 23-year-old predecessor is – today’s games (in the main) have a voice cast. The characters of FFVII have been given voice before, both in 2006’s Advent Children feature film and cameos in other Square Enix titles (Such as 2002’s Kingdom Hearts and 2009’s Dissidia), however, the challenge of bringing life to these characters in the game that made them famous is a whole other matter, especially with so much fan expectation.
Fortunately, the remake delivers the goods and the English voice cast do an exceptional job. All the principal characters are brought to stunning life. As the game progresses, you get to know these familiar faces in a way you never had the chance to before. The screenplay is replete with wonderfully heartfelt and nuanced performances throughout, with some of the finest and entertaining moments coming from the character interplay and buddy dynamics that develop over the course of escalating events.
This excellence is by no means confined to the principal cast. A case in point – the rest of the Avalanche crew: Biggs, Wedge and Jessie. You meet all three of these characters at once during the game’s opening mission – and within the space of a few lines of dialogue you get an instant feel for who they are and their personalities. These bit-part throwaway NPC’s in the original are now fully fleshed-out characters whose lives you become just as invested in as those of Cloud and Co. This fact made the tragic events that I knew were coming in Midgar, all the worse when they occurred.
Along with the rest of the game’s modernisation, combat has also been updated to the open-world real-time systems used in recent titles like the Kingdom Hearts series and Final Fantasy 15 (FFXV). While I do love me some good old-fashioned wandering around a world map bumping into invisible monsters before being ported into turn-based combat – it would be a little out of place in such a polished, photorealistic title. It would also be a real shame to be denied the chance to see a selection of the main characters’ classic attack moves being turned into a majestic ballet of death. Some of Tifa’s moves especially leave you sitting stunned as she remorselessly batters opponents apart in spectacular chained combos.
Everything is topped off with an absolutely killer soundtrack. Nobuo Uematsu’s original music has been masterfully rearranged to give some excellent spins on all the original themes and other background music, even including music composed for Advent Children. As much as I spent large chunks of game time just looking at the scenery, I spent a not insignificant amount of time just wandering round listening to the music.
The whole game excels in building on all the elements that made the original great and adapting them to modern gaming systems and sensibilities while removing or fixing the things that didn’t work. In this regard a nod definitely has to be given to the Wall Market and Honey Bee Inn section of the story. One of the most memorable and fan favourite parts of the early original game – it also previously contained some very problematic, dated content to do with gender identity. This has now been completely overhauled providing the game not only with one of its most stand out set pieces but also some very welcome progressive content I didn’t expect to see in a JRPG.
For all that I have mentioned above, there are two things this game has managed to achieve that I honestly didn’t expect it to do, that for me, have elevated this release higher still beyond the sum of its already incredible parts.
The first is that despite having played the original and thinking I knew what was coming, it turns out I did not, in fact, know what that was coming. As mentioned earlier in this write up, the basic story elements and key plot beats are here, but the fleshed-out plot and expanded details are all new. Those new details have very significant implications on the main plot, which become increasingly important by the end of the game when you discover that “Remake” is not just a subheading to denote a literal remake. Remake is, in actuality, a core theme of this game, as the characters try to defy their destinies and reshape the events fans are familiar with.
A far larger, self-aware meta plot seems to be coming into play for this “Remake” which I won’t delve into here, as that’s a whole article in itself. But despite the implications of the ending of this first instalment, I still think the subsequent instalments will follow the broad strokes of the original game. How we’ll get there and the reasons behind it, however, are likely to be very different. But that aside, delivering what I was hoping for, while also providing genuine mystery, for a game I’ve known for 23 years, that’s a hell of an achievement, FFVIIR.
The second thing this game achieved is the aspect that has taken me most by surprise. I adore the original FFVII and while I had been looking forward to this remake, I had no illusions about it recapturing that special magic that memory and nostalgia bestows. You can never recapture that original feeling, as you’re a different person now to who you were in 1997, but with that said – playing through this game has given me something that while not the same, has been markedly, shockingly similar. Like the remake itself – something amazing built on the foundations of the original.
A lot of love, time and effort has gone into making this game and it clearly shows. This first instalment works as a satisfying stand-alone game in its own right and even though there is so much still to come, you won’t feel hard done by in terms of content and play time.
Much as FFVII was a ground-breaking game changer back in 1997, I think FFVIIR is going to claim a place as the gold standard for franchise updates in a marketplace that is increasingly filling with remasters of old favourites to cater to nostalgia and the millennial/Gen Z wallet.
True to its roots, yet providing new perspective and mystery, Square Enix have managed to create a game that lives up to the impossibly high expectations of its fans. The wait is going to be hard but I for one will be eagerly looking forward to the next instalments.
Keith Copping, with additional editing by Claire Copping
Final Fantasy VII Remake is available now from all good gaming retailers