Lately, I have been completely enraptured by Final Fantasy VII Remake. To be clear, I never finished the original. I never owned a PlayStation when I was younger, and years later a version of the original PC port given to me by a friend wiped my save data after 15 hours of play, totally destroying my motivation to continue. Given how much I already love the world and characters of Final Fantasy VII Remake, it's clear giving up so early was a mistake. Final Fantasy VII is heralded as a video gaming masterpiece, after all, and the remake is sure to set benchmarks of its own with breathtaking visuals, an excellent combat system, and a production that seemingly spares no expense on making every hour of the remake feel as cinematic as possible.
But fans of the original - and those like me who are familiar with how this game opens - will know this remake comes with a major caveat. That being, of course, that this is only a small portion of the total story of Final Fantasy VII. In the original, this portion would take mere hours to play through, but in the remake, it is the entire game and has been stretched out for that length.
The game lengthens the introductory portion of the original game by giving us an overwhelming amount of new dialogue, fleshed-out areas to explore, side quests, cinematic cutscenes, and more. Much of what it fills that time with is excellent and lets you see new sides to characters like the Avalanche members Biggs and Jessie, who were criminally glossed over in the original. These are the moments where the remake is fulfilling the dreams of those fans that wanted to see more of the world that Square Enix had created.
Push boxes, control cranes
But it isn't all high-quality cutscenes and carefully constructed character development - some of it is just boring, and there for all of the wrong reasons. The game's "dungeon" segments are the perfect example of this. I can't count the number of times a JRPG has made a linear dungeon but put switches in awkward places to open up the path, forcing me to backtrack time and time again. Final Fantasy VII Remake does this habitually. At one point when crawling around the underside of the Sector 7 plate, I came across a door which wouldn't open. I ran over to a side room which had a generator and pressed a switch, which then allowed me to press another switch to deactivate a lamp close to the door, which then allowed me to open the door. It's hard to imagine these roadblocks were in place for any reason other than to drag out how long it takes to complete the game - and it does it time and time aga, always with dialogue explaining why you need to press a switch.
In another area, you move through an old tunnel which is ruined and caved in, and in order to acquire special materia and open up the path forward, you ferry Aerith on a giant, slow-moving crane arm from place to place, setting her down to pick up items, and moving boxes to open the path forward. And to say this crane arm is slow is honestly an understatement, and it feels so awkward to control.
Even some of the more exciting moments in the game, like a motorcycle fight/chase sequence, overstays its welcome. Fighting against other enemies on their bikes as you drive along swinging your sword is awesome, but then when you have to fight a boss on the motorcycle, with a huge health bar and the only thing standing between you and victory is repetition and tedium, it quickly loses its luster.
Sins of the past
It's partially because Final Fantasy VII Remake appears to take so much inspiration from the most maligned entry in the franchise's history: Final Fantasy XIII. FFXIII was a game the entire fanbase was excited for, but when it launched it came with twenty hours of long corridors and an unusual battle system which made your decisions feel more like suggestions than direct inputs. The game looked incredible, and the cutscenes which interrupted each linear corridor gripped fans, but it was hard to stay invested when playing it involved going through so much unrewarding, repetitive gameplay.
FF7R has many of the same issues. Many of the corridors that connect the sectors of Midgar are long, boring corridors, interspersed with cutscenes and battles. Multiple times when opening up the map to see where to go next, I would be shocked at how long and linear some of those corridors really are, and it's not until you've almost finished the game and you're completing the final sidequests that you get fast travel. By then, you will know exactly how long these corridors are and how annoying it is to go through them, especially if you've been diligent enough to complete the side quests, which will regularly have you traipsing back to old areas.
Anyone who played FFXIII will also remember that it tended to introduce new tutorial boxes after thirty hours of gameplay for new mechanics and options that would constantly open up and baffle the player. FF7R has a habit of doing this too, though luckily much of what you'll actually be doing is easily digestible. Still, it's clear to me that Square Enix are still struggling with the ambition and length of these games.
Hope for the future
FF7R is nonetheless a great game, and in my opinion far better than FFXIII, for one simple reason: the battle system is excellent. FFXIII tried to loosen the player's grasp on characters, trading that out for flashy, action-heavy visuals which didn't really relate to the player's inputs all the time. It was a limited form of control, and while it has its fans, it didn't exactly change the RPG landscape. Meanwhile, in FF7R I always have full control over my character, and amazingly, these battles look just as good as they did in FFXIII, if not better. Square Enix, after a fair stumble with FFXV, has finally perfected their modern Final Fantasy battle system. The blend of real-time combat and the ATB system works shockingly well, even if it takes a few hours for you to unlock enough materia to make things truly interesting.
It's probably for the best that Square Enix have had so many missteps with the Final Fantasy series in the past because with Final Fantasy VII Remake, it finally feels like they have struck the right balance with combat, visual fidelity, cinematic scenes, and more. But as I've likely made clear, it still isn't perfect. Part of me wonders if I'd rather take a 15-hour experience without all of these annoyances which are designed to pad out the experience. Would I still be as satisfied with the game, and would I feel the price is worth it? It's hard to say, really.
But I am left with a more pressing question: what does all of this mean for the future of the Final Fantasy VII Remake? How long will it take before I can play the next game? How much of the story will it cover? How many games will I actually buy before it is finished? And, possibly the most critical: can we trust Square Enix to deliver the entire experience, and not cancel it due to underwhelming sales, like they did with the DLC for Final Fantasy XV? I am truly hoping that I will one day be able to experience this entire game with the kind of quality they have displayed here, but how long it will take, and how likely it is to happen, remains to be seen.