Review: Final Fantasy VII Remake (PS4)

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A few years ago, I would have told you that a remake of Final Fantasy VII would never happen—that the sheer scope of such a project would make it impossible. A few months ago, I would have told you that Final Fantasy VII Remake had little hope of living up the sky-high expectations placed upon it—that a remake could never hold to capture the myriad ways the original resonated with people as strongly as it does. A few weeks ago, I would have told you that the remake was looking pretty damn good, but that the shift to a real-time battle system would do more harm than good

I would have been wrong on every count.

With Final Fantasy VII Remake, Square Enix has done the impossible: reimagined one of the most cherished games of all time, in a way that carries it forward and breaks new ground, while not only staying true to the source material but elevating that, too. 

Simply put, Final Fantasy VII Remake is a miracle.

Dear to the Heart

It’s a game that’s overflowing with love for the source material. In an otherwise completely re-written script, iconic likes like “I’ll rip them off…” stick around, their homage made all the more endearing for the immaculate voice performances that now deliver them. The quirky little animations that the original used to give its characters visual personality despite graphical limitations—like the way Aerith leans forward when she’s teasing Cloud—have been worked into the remake’s far more lifelike motion capture. There are a ton of other moments like this, big and small, that constantly celebrate the Final Fantasy VII that people know and love.

But it’s also a game that’s well aware of the original’s limitations, and takes every opportunity to build upon what came before to really deliver on the vision of what Final Fantasy VII can be. The city of Midgar—in which the wealthy live on a plate suspended hundreds of metres above ground, while the poor live in the slums below—is a stark motif for wealth disparity, but it wasn’t until the remake’s 3D camera that you could physically look up from the slums to the plate (or vice versa) and truly feel that division.

Those Chosen by the Planet

Most of all, it’s a game that really doubles down on the characterisation and themes that made the original so memorable in the first place. The Final Fantasy VII Remake that’s out now takes the Midgar section of the Final Fantasy VII story—roughly the first five or six hours of the original game—and fleshes that out to a 30-odd hour adventure that feels whole in its own right. Part of that extra running time comes down lengthier dungeons, some new plot points, and some light padding in the form of optional sidequests, but it’s mostly the result of the extra attention given to each and every character in the piece.

Biggs, Wedge, and Jessie were bit players in the original game; here, they’re given a chance to shine and be the protagonists of their own stories. You get to spend more time with each of them, understand what makes them tick, and really see them as people rather than just NPCs serving to drive the plot forward (though in the case of Wedge, that’s somewhat undermined by making him the butt of frequent fat jokes). In the original the Turks—Shinra’s squad of assassins, spies, and general dirty-work-doers—mostly existed for boss fights and some light comic relief; here, they’re given the depth and humanity that comes from people in such a line of work reflecting on their place in the world.

Even the main characters, beloved as they were in the original, feel more complex and layered now—without losing anything that made them resonate with people in the first place. Cloud is the taciturn mercenary we remember, but right from the start we can see that there’s a performative element to his cold attitude that masks a kinder soul. Tifa is her usual supportive and empathetic self, but she’s also shy and conflicted over her feelings towards Cloud, and that’s more apparent now than ever. We even get to see a sensitive side to the perpetually fired-up Barret, though the remake still leans too heavily on the “angry black man” stereotype.

There’s particular attention given to Aerith’s character—which is appropriate, given her importance to the overarching Final Fantasy VII story. In the original game, she was a likeable character, but fairly one-note until much later than the part of the game depicted in Final Fantasy VII Remake. This time around, she’s still the cheerful, carefree Aerith we saw before, but that’s tempered more by her connection to the planet, and all the sorrow and strength that comes with that.

And, of course, there’s Midgar itself, which is as much a character in Final Fantasy VII as any other. In Final Fantasy VII Remake, Midgar feels more alive and more familiar—yet also more alien—than ever. The attention to detail in things like the graffiti sprayed across every other wall and the medley of food stalls in Wall Market sell a vision of a city that wouldn’t look at all out of place on Earth, yet the towering behemoth that is the Shinra HQ and the neon green lights spewing forth from the mako reactors create an atmosphere that is distinctly otherworldly. This was true of the original too, to be fair, but the relative lack of graphical limitations make it so much more pronounced in the remake.

Underneath the Rotting Pizza

I know a lot of people, myself included, were concerned that Final Fantasy VII Remake might take a step back from the environmental and political themes that were so pronounced in the original game. Final Fantasy VII, in both the original and the remake, opens with the eco-terrorist protagonists blowing up a mako reactor—the source of Midgar’s electricity and prosperity, but also a drain on the lifeblood of the planet. In the original game, the death and destruction from that sits squarely on the shoulders of the “heroes” themselves, and that’s something they have to grapple with; the remake, though makes it clear to the audience that Shinra was actually responsible for most of the fallout—they’re the ones who set off the bomb that Avalanche set, and their robots wreaked extra havoc in the reactor to make sure the damage was as wide as possible. This much was hinted at in early trailers for the game, and the demo that released earlier this year—which covers exactly that first mission—made Shinra’s complicity abundantly clear.

And yet, Final Fantasy VII Remake goes to much, much greater lengths than the original game did to explore the nuances of the situation. Members of Avalanche, unaware of Shinra’s involvement behind the scenes, carry that destruction with them for the rest of the game. Overheard chatter from strangers on the streets, both topside and in the slums, look at the issue from all manner of moral and philosophical angles. To what extent, if any, is such action justified to save the planet? When the victims, by and large, are the privileged “platers” in the oppression of the poor in the slums?

That said, I still think the decision to show players that the majority of the destruction comes at the hands of Shinra—even if the characters themselves don’t know this—undermines the point, at least a little a bit. As harrowing as Final Fantasy VII Remake is in looking at the consequences of Avalanche’s actions, how much more impactful would that be if players themselves thought they were complicit?

Final Fantasy VII Remake also goes to much greater lengths to explore the very question of class disparity that Midgar represents. You get to see more of life above the plate this time around, and interactions with civilians there go down the murky rabbit hole of how the privileged but “innocent” people directly benefit from the oppression of those below them, even if they aren’t agents of it. The world-building and level design also does a much better job of showing how these two worlds, socio-politically divorced as they are, are intrinsically tied together. The slums don’t exist without the plate, and vice versa.

But perhaps the most pressing theme, this time around, is the question of destiny. JRPGs have long played into (and subverted) tropes of heroes chosen by fate, set on a path to save the world through no free will of their own. The original Final Fantasy VII played around with this idea in interesting ways, but Final Fantasy VII Remake leans into it hard. There’s not a lot I can say without spoiling some major plot points that’ll be a surprise to even those who’ve played the original—suffice to say that, days after finishing the game, I’m still in awe about the bold new creative direction, what this means for the idea of “destiny”, and the implications for the Final Fantasy VII ethos as a whole. 

Fight On!

Final Fantasy VII Remake also takes a bold new approach to its game systems, though they’re much closer aligned to the original game they might first appear. This is most apparent in the combat system, which masquerades as an action game but, in reality, is an evolved version of the Active Time Battle (ATB) system that earlier Final Fantasy games pioneered.

Battles play out mostly in real-time, with you able to freely run around, swing your weapon, guard, dodge, and make use of each character’s unique special move. At the same time, ATB gauges fill for each character, with attacking and guarding speeding the rate at which it fills. Once a segment of the gauge is full, the character earns an ATB charge, which you can then use to unleash special commands, cast magic, and use items from a special command menu, while the surrounding action slows to a crawl.

In practice, what this means is that battles play in largely similar fashion to how the did in the original game: the ATB gauge fills, and then you use it to issue commands for each character, while enemies do the same. The difference is that there’s now a more active element in dodging attacks and using your own basic abilities to speed up ATB accumulation, but it’s still, fundamentally, that classic Active Time Battle system at heart. If you try to play it like a typical action game or a Tales-style hybrid RPG, hacking away with your favourite character and leaving the rest of your party to AI control, you’ll soon either get bored or run into problems with the game’s tougher enemies; but if you make liberal use of character switching and smartly use those ATB charges, you’ll all that Final Fantasy VII Remake‘s combat has to offer.

Bosses are a particular highlight—and given my general dislike of boss fights in games, that says a lot coming from me. From the Scorpion Sentinel in the very first chapter, to memorable encounters like Don Corneo’s “pet” Abzu, to a fair few brand new foes, every boss fight is designed to really push the possibilities built into this reimagined battle system, and build on what came before. The trade-off to this is that combat in Final Fantasy VII Remake can take a bit of time to really gel, and on Normal difficulty, it can be a surprisingly unforgiving game until the nuances of the battle system click into place. But the excitement that comes with learning each new encounter and mastering the systems underpinning it is like nothing else.

Outside battles, Final Fantasy VII Remake largely plays like a modern version of the original game. There’s a greater focus on light puzzle solving as you explore each “dungeon”, making them longer and more involved than the original game, but not to the point that any location overstays its welcome. The materia system—through which you can insert magical orbs into characters’ equipment to give them new abilities and improve their stats—is almost identical to that of the original game, but it now coexists with a weapon growth system that sees you able to use Skill Points to improve each characters weapons, instill special traits, and unlock additional materia slots.

This time around, there’s a handful of optional side-quests that see Cloud living up to his mercenary occupation by helping locals out with whatever they need helping out with. These can be a good way to get to know Midgar and its people a bit better, but they also cause problems for the pacing of the overall story—there’s something quite jarring about seeing a group of heroes decide they need to urgently rescue their friend, then set that aside for a few hours while they help a random passerby find his missing chocobos. And finally, mini-games, like the squatting contest and motorcycle chase, are back in reimagined forms, alongside a few new ones—including darts, a battle coliseum, and an obstacle course. There’s even a Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA-style rhythm game that somehow doesn’t feel the least bit out of place. 

Birth of a God

That last sentence, in its way, might be the best way to sum up Final Fantasy VII Remake as a whole: Square Enix could have played it safe and re-created the original game as closely as possible, but instead they chose to put a fresh spin on one of the most beloved, influential games of all time, all while staying true to the vision that made it so memorable in the first place. It doesn’t exist to replace Final Fantasy VII so much as complement it, and both games are better for the existence of one another. I can’t wait to see what the next part(s?) have in store.

Final Fantasy VII Remake had everything stacked against it—not least of all the legacy of what came before—but Square Enix took that impossible task and delivered a masterpiece.

Score: 5 stars

Final Fantasy VII Remake is developed and published by Square Enix. It’s available now for PlayStation 4 (reviewed).

A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.

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About Author

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.