'Final Fantasy 7 Remake' Review: More Straightforward Than Spectacular
Before we get into the meat on the bone of this breakdown, this assessment of a game that so many of us have had our hearts set on for so long, we need to ask one thing of you. Push your nostalgia down. Way, way down inside. Get it hidden, safe from harm. Because whatever you thought Final Fantasy VII was before, you need to accept that Remake is, for better and worse, comprehensively not that game.
Square Enix's much-anticipated remake of an all-time classic is stuck between reflecting the expectations of the modern player and fulfilling the wish lists of millions who fell in love with the original Final Fantasy VII. There's no way the game can successfully balance these demands - and in trying to, it compromises itself on both counts. This is neither a title gloriously evocative of the 1997 adventure, and nor does it entirely hold up to the standards set by 21st century role-playing games.
Final Fantasy VII Remake's core story beats are certainly reflective of the game it's based on. You play as Cloud Strife, a genetically modified SOLDIER with a sword bigger than his mood swings, and you meet up with childhood friend Tifa in the slums beneath the saucer-shaped, elevated city of Midgar - the primary setting for this first part of however-many Remake chapters.
You're subsequently introduced to the gun-armed Barret, the leader of the eco-warrior protest-cum-terrorist group AVALANCHE; and Aerith, a flower-seller with a mysterious past and incredible untapped potential, not to mention a backstory that's rather longer than most. Your enemies are, first and foremost, Shinra, a company draining the planet of its essential energy, its mako, for profit. But there are also a load of monsters that creep close to where this game's humans call home, and regularly cross paths with our heroes (albeit no longer through 'random' battles); and some creepy, very-Harry-Potter-like customers that never (at least, to my memory) appeared in the 1997 game.
The game doesn't do the best job of fleshing its key players out, though, so absolute newcomers to Final Fantasy VII may be dipping in and out of a wiki as they go. An early game reliance on using flashbacks to try to flesh out certain individual stories won't be to everyone's tastes, either - by which we mean, mostly, Cloud's recurring visions of secondary antagonist (in waiting) Sephiroth - but old-school fans will be as right as Meteorain.
Of course, it's not quite as black and white as simply AVALANCHE versus Shinra, but the plotline basics are as they were over two decades ago. (I mean, why would they be any different? Imagine the outcry.) As for what has changed, well... that's pretty much everything else.
The turn-based combat you knew is now a free-flowing, fast-paced mix of real-time sword blows and bullet blasts paired with menu-driven abilities, magic and item use. You've the option to set it to a 'classic' mode, but once your brain's tuned into the system of switching between protagonists to maximise your attack and defensive strategies, building stagger gauges and then piling in on stunned enemies, it's honestly hard to go back to all of that waiting around.
Speaking of what's hard and what isn't, combat can be tackled at both normal and easy difficulties. Stick with the default, normal, and you'll want to make use of the Assess materia ability, often - it's only through this that you can immediately get a read-out on weaknesses, and use the right ability or magic attack to get those stagger gauges filling fast. Garden-variety enemies will never be a chore either way, but it's always useful to get the lowdown on what makes any opponent tick.
And the battles, while sometimes a little fiddly due to an unpredictable camera that can't always keep up (enemies can drift off-screen entirely, when you're attempting to toss a fireball their way), can be spectacular. Bosses fill the screen, sometimes several times over. Gangs of hedgehog pies and flocks of drakes are rarely not fun to fill full of lead and lashings of spell-powered fury; and familiar opponents are rendered in newly terrifying forms.
Characters constantly chatter throughout these encounters, motivating each other towards victory; and when that winning fanfare finally plays - because it doesn't every time - it's the greatest reward. Powerful summons (like Ifrit, and Shiva - that latter of whom you 'win' in a rather odd way) are annoyingly restricted to very-specific situations; but despite some pre-release uncertainty over Remake's combat, in practice, it's one of the game's greatest strengths.
Another is the audio. You'll want to play with headphones on to fully appreciate the new versions of beloved orchestral arrangements, some of which are subtle and elegant, others striking in their boldness. Those in the latter category will be an acquired taste, but there's no denying that some pumping techno doesn't half help a mercenary when he's mastering his squats down the Wall Market gymnasium. Voice-acting is a mixed bag but this player, at least, really came to enjoy Barret's boisterous sermons - more so than Cloud's near-constant brooding, anyway. That said, it'd be nice to not hear about how Tifa could really do with a shower so often.
And graphically, Remake often astounds, even on a base PlayStation 4. Being able to look up from the slums of Sectors 7 and 5 to the upper levels of Midgar is amazing; and key locations in the game, like Aerith's house and surrounding gardens and the dazzling neon-soaked delights of Wall Market, look like they've been plucked straight from the imaginations of long-term fans. And there are surprises, too - the Hell House will make you sit up and then run the heck away from it like it never did in 1997, and the Train Graveyard is spooky enough to have the hairs on the back of your neck bolt upright. The residential streets of Midgar 'proper' give it a lived-in quality that 1997's game couldn't hope to achieve.
Not every inhabitant of the city and its less-salubrious surroundings is given the same care and attention, though. The effort put into the main cast - the player-controlled characters, the Shinra bigwigs, the Turks of Reno and Rude, the twisted Don Corneo and so on - is made all the more obvious when you're talking to an NPC who looks like they've rolled in straight from a PS3 title, with dull textures and facial animation (especially when speaking) that's awkward enough to be embarrassing, frankly.
Numerous other small gripes appear, and grate, the more you play. Cloud will interact with doors and switches, NPCs and more - including the newly introduced benches, used to restore HP and MP - by using the triangle button. But sometimes it only needs a tap, and other times needs to be held, without any obvious distinction as to why. Menus aren't exactly set-up for smooth navigation, although certain processes like upgrading weapons can be automated, depending on what kind of character 'build' you want to play as. It can also be a fuss to line Cloud up correctly with an item in question, a quality that Remake shares with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt's sometimes fidgety chests and torches.
What this game definitely doesn't share with CD Projekt Red's modern role-player masterpiece, as well as the likes of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Horizon Zero Dawn or Skyrim, is a real sense of openness. There's nothing much in the way of go-anywhere freedom, here. Final Fantasy XIII was widely criticised on its 2009 launch for being a near-endless slog through snaking corridors, and Final Fantasy VII Remake follows the same painfully straightforward path, regularly funnelling you towards objectives with no place else to turn but a handful of dead ends.
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It offers only sporadic breaks for populated hubs, but these only really stretch out when you reach Wall Market - and even its initially maze-like alleys don't take long to fully map onto the back of your hand. Remake's regular reliance on narrow-passageway loading-the-next-area-masking is reminiscent of God of War 2018; but Kratos' previous adventure felt a lot more open-world than this title.
Remake focuses a lot more than its predecessor on Final Fantasy VII's supporting cast, namely the AVALANCHE members Biggs - who can't help but remind the player of a young Charlie Sheen - Jessie and Wedge (notable contribution: a sore butt). Each is given their time to shine in ways both laudable and laughable, but it's Jessie more than the others who dominates screen time - and when she does, it's often to flirt outrageously with Cloud. In Jessie's case, her fluttering eyelashes are loaded with ulterior motives; but Tifa and Aerith both seem keen on the confused lad, and the game doesn't shy away from cheesing up its dialogue with some cringe-worthy results.
And that's cute, in a way - but what's not so cute is just how long Remake's camera spends lingering on particular parts of its female cast's anatomy. We're constantly shown Tifa's chest before her face, until it just can't be ignored, and her animations - while obviously intended to mimic the limited, exaggerated moves of her 1997 character model - only further highlight how under-dressed she is for combat. At least Jessie thought to wear armour. And as for the first time we meet Shinra's head of weapon development, Scarlett? It's like the nefarious company's managed to weaponise cleavage.
There are also some sequences that definitely feel out of time. The entire Cloud-crossdressing part buries its valid "gender doesn't matter" messaging (and its fantastic dance number at the Honey Bee Inn) under a stinking heap of the Don's grotesque leering and over-sexualised language. Now, clearly, the guy was a creep in 1997 and he should be one in 2020 - but in a game that often strikes a fairly playful tone against its backdrop of environmental catastrophe, Don Corneo's the kind of relic that should have had more than just an aesthetic update. Every time he's on screen it's... icky.
The same sure can't be said of Shinra's bigwigs, however, who are far more menacing than they needed to be - and that's a good thing. The military-minded Heidegger's maniacal laughter was light relief in 1997, but here it's more chilling than it has any right to be. And his confrontational attitude towards subordinates - who are literally billed in the subtitles as "subordinate"s - will send anyone who's ever experienced an overbearing, aggressive boss into a spin. He's a true terror, a believable force of evil to be reckoned with.
Less believable is some of the dire-straights dialogue, when characters are in do-or-die situations. The majority of Remake's storytelling is done via controller-down cutscenes - not quite Kojima-length, but long enough nonetheless - and taking the player out of the moment really strips away whatever minor agency they had in this story that can't, for obvious reasons, be radically altered. You can't control the pace of the cutscene text, which auto-rolls with no setting in the options to stall it for players who are hard of hearing and/or may need more time to read subtitles. Even when you know what's coming for certain members of the cast, when it happens, it's a lot less affecting than Remake's team would have been hoping for.
The materia and weapons you choose to equip your playable trio (not that it's always a trio; and nor is this game always lead by Cloud) is shown on screen, with the colour coding of your chosen magic and so forth reflected in swords, guns and bangles. But allowing no further customisation of these characters is a missed opportunity. They arrive in their classic attire, of course; but it'd have been a treat to do more with them, in the vein of many 21st century role-players. Even the sartorially challenged Link can assume a raft of outfits in Breath of the Wild - so why not Cloud and company? It'd have been wonderful to really make these iconic avatars ours.
Square Enix has been very clear that Remake is part one of a series of releases that will add up to the full package. There's so much more that we could dig into here, activities that do see the hours pass by (that's not a bad darts mini-game you've got there, be a shame if I topped the leaderboard); but we have to call into question the developers' claim that this first entry will fill the time that it took to beat the original Final Fantasy VII - which was anywhere between 50 and 80 hours.
Now, we're yet to do everything in Remake, as there is a selection of post-game content to enjoy (and you can return to previous chapters once the credits have rolled, to sweep up anything you've missed), but the main campaign probably won't take you 50 hours to beat. And that's even with a number of mini-games played and side-missions completed - side-missions which vary from patience-testing fetch-quest filler to stats-grinding chores to genuinely delightful showdowns with a trio of comedy thugs. So when it comes to managing your expectations for this one, please bear that in mind if hours out versus money paid is a factor for you.
And with expectations tempered, and all that nostalgia suppressed, Final Fantasy VII Remake can be enjoyed as a very pretty, albeit extremely linear retelling of a part of an all-time classic. It can be funny, it can be sweet, and it can be exhausting, often all in the same half-hour of play. But it's not on a level with what role-playing games have become in the previous two console generations - and that's clear whenever you take a moment to consider how little of consequence there is to do outside of the combat and running from A to B down straight-shot passages.
By aiming to please newcomers alongside its millions of existing fans, and padding out its run-time with too many meaningless side-quests and comparatively bland-feeling extra areas, Final Fantasy VII Remake falls short of classic status in a 21st century context. If you love these characters and these locations, this music and materia, you're in for a fine time. Presentation-wise, this is a marvel to behold way more often than not. But if you've been raised on a diet of the very best role-players of the past ten years or so, Remake may struggle to hold your attention as it streamlines itself into a tunnel-vision state of failing to see the bigger picture of what could have been.
An unshakable takeaway from Remake (part one) is that it needed more time - time enough to turn around all the moments, of which there are too many, where the magic disappears. Maybe the rumoured scrapping of significant chunks of the game, to essentially start over in 2018, did happen, and what we're seeing here is the end product of a relatively rushed finish. But whatever the reason(s) for this not impressing as it might have, our fingers, toes and chocobos are all crossed for part two seeing the promise of this project blossom as magnificently as a flower girl's garden.
7/10: Very Good
Final Fantasy VII Remake is released on April 10 for PlayStation 4. Code for this review was provided by Square Enix. A full guide to GAMINGbible's review scores can be found here.
Featured Image Credit: Square Enix