Video Game Review: Final Fantasy VII Remake

Well, it’s here. The big one.

For many people, Final Fantasy VII was their first JRPG. I’m Generation X, so this wasn’t the case for me. I lived and worked in Singapore when FFVII was released. I have fond memories of FFVI. That was my introductory experience to “Games can be more than just shooty, explodey experiences.” But, like many people in 1997, I was blown away by the sheer spectacle and ambition of FFVII. This was the game that showed the audience what the emerging Compact Disc storage platform was capable of and showed off pre-rendered backgrounds and cutscenes. It also had some of the most iconic–and realistic–music available to consoles at the time and continued Squaresoft’s tradition of making games that were more mature in themes and plot, a move that was controversial at that time.

It may have been a case of “right place, right time,” but Final Fantasy VII or FFVII, as most fans know it, became a huge hit. Now, 23 years later, Square-Enix, has revised its groundbreaking title and remade it for the current generation of consoles. It mostly succeeds, but with only a few concerns, though to me, those concerns are pretty significant.

Good Lord, Those Graphics

This is a huge factor for most. I mean, look at that picture. That’s a screenshot I took during one of the real-time cutscenes. The Playstation 4 Pro is no longer the most powerful home console on the market, but it’s still no slouch in the graphics department. FFVII is sometimes perfect proof of that. One of the most shocking things about playing the FFVII remake is how much it looks “pretty much the way I remember it,” Until I see actual screenshots of the game back in the day, and realize my imagination was working overtime to fill in some considerable blanks.

On the left, for example, is Jessie, a minor character from the original FFVII. On the right is her 2020 incarnation. I honestly did not know until I saw the remake in action that Jessie was a woman. It came as a bit of a shocking, gender-bender reveal to me. My assumptions about her sex due to her polygonal-ness and lack of voice acting in 1997 were completely wrong. Throughout my entire playthrough of the FFVII remake, my eyes boggled at how the characters and environments I’d seen from a “god’s eye view” in ’97 were full, vibrant, and detailed.

There are also some weird level-of-detail glitches occasionally going on with some of the textures, where they remain blurry, but I’m assuming that will get ironed out in future patches. Suffice to say, though, this is a drop-dead gorgeous game. The characters manage to mostly avoid the “dead eye/uncanny valley” look. Most of them, except for Shinra executive Rufus, stay true to the looks that defined them 23 years ago. The environments are insanely beautiful, and look much better than the original pre-rendered presentation we first got.

Not Quite ATB

A significant change is the way combat works. The original FFVII used a traditional turn-based battle system. It was like chess, where you and your opponent took turns, selecting and executing moves. Things were augmented somewhat by the introduction of the Active Time Battle system, where if you took too long to choose a move, the enemy would take a turn, even if you hadn’t. This added a slight sense of urgency to the proceedings, but still gave players time to think strategically.

The FFVII Remake ditches turn-based battles and replace it with something like Final Fantasy XV’s battle system. You control your party and are directly responsible for placement. However, you get ATB-ish “turns” that you can use to execute special moves, use items, or cast magic. The action slows down dramatically when you make these choices, as the game opens up a traditional JRPG menu to pick out your commands. You can also switch back and forth between any character you want.

This makes for a very different combat experience. It’s got the hectic chaos of a Japanese action game, but demands you keep a cool head. The ideal combat situation is one where you continuously switch characters and tactics throughout the battle. The much less ideal situation, and one that’s easy to fall into, is spamming the basic attack button with one character.  In a lot of cases, this can just barely get you through random encounters. But your lack of proficiency will hurt you when it comes to boss battles.

I still love my Persona-style turn-based battles, but this was a good time.

Respecting The Legacy

The final thing I loved was how much the game–at times–so perfectly expanded on the nostalgia veteran gamers would have in ways that made sense. Many wondered, for example, what was going to happen to the infamous “Honeybee Inn” sequence. Some wondered whether Hironobu Sakaguchi’s occasionally off-kilter silliness would remain. Many of these things, including the Honeybee Inn, survived the transition. Some were even expanded so that they still fit the game, with a more modern sensibility, such as pushing boundaries on gender, rather than homo or transphobia that was de rigeur in 1997.

In other cases, what came before has gotten a fresh infusion of new content in consistent, logical ways. The slums of Sector 5 and Sector 8 in the original game were just quick pit-stops to resupply on potions and weapons. Here, they have history and culture added. Walking through the streets, you hear people talking about daily slum concerns like the excitement that a fabric softener shipment has finally come in. Or people are discussing their favorite meatballs from different stalls around the various slums. These locales are both graphically detailed, more grounded now. They feel lived in, with people trying to make the most of the fact that they are the underbelly of a thriving city. When the later expected adverse events finally arrive, this gives more weight to the tragedy.

Breaking Out The Shoehorn

Then there is the stuff that is… not part of the legacy. I’m not going to spoil anything here, but the FFVII remake is only PART ONE of a series. It takes place entirely in the first location, the city of Midgar. This was a section of the original game that lasted between 4-6 hours. For the 2020 remake, that four-hour section is now a 40-hour game. Square-Enix created new material to fill out that extra time. Some of it, like the stuff I loved above, was a natural extension of the game. Others, however, are brand new, and I’m not yet sure they are good additions.

Tetsuya Nomura directed this game. The good news is, he’s an FFVII veteran. He was the original character designer on the game when it first came out in 1997. The bad news is since then, he has, to me, proven that while he’s a gifted artist, he is not a great storyteller. Nomura tends to believe good storytelling leaves the audience mystified and confused. In his own series, Kingdom Hearts, he creates a massive, baroque, often pointlessly complicated lore.  He drops phrases like The Heartless, Nobodies and Organization XIII to baffling effect. Now the more straightforward tale of 1997, under the guidance of original FF creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, is getting a fresh infusion of extra layers of complexity. All courtesy of the character designer who is now in charge and doesn’t have to worry about his suggestions getting shot down by the boss.

Hopeful Yet Uncertain

I’m not going to weigh in with a final opinion on these new additions yet since this is still part one of a presumed trilogy. I just hope that I don’t get the same sense of disappointment that colors my previous gaming experience as I did with Mass Effect 3.  The mechanics of FFVII are great, bringing new urgency to battles, while still maintaining some menu-based combat decision making. The materia system is incredibly, largely intact, and just as robust and configurable as it was in the original game. The world-building is amazing. The graphics are gorgeous, with more substance to the environment. The only concern is the shoehorned new additions. However, we have to see how those threads play out in subsequent games to see whether they’re a good or bad idea.

 

 

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