Final Fantasy VII Remake Review – There Isn’t No Getting Off This Train

Apr 6, 2020
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GAME INFO

Final Fantasy VII Remake

April 10th, 2020
Platform PlayStation 4
Publisher Square Enix
Developer Square Enix

Final Fantasy VII remake has a lofty bar to meet, as the original is considered to be one of the best JRPGs ever released and one of the best entries in the long-running series by Square Enix. Its impact on video games as a whole was immense, and JRPGs have never been the same since its release in 1997.

Knowing the impact of the game and its legacy, Square Enix put off remaking it for a very long time: Final Fantasy VII is a massive game, and a remake seemed impossible, just for the sheer amount of content the original release featured. In the end, however, Square Enix gave in and decided to finally remake Final Fantasy VII. Remake in the true sense of the word, as nothing is the same as it was in 1997, despite appearances.

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The story of Final Fantasy VII Remake, at its core, is almost the same that fans know and love. Cloud Strife, a mercenary and a former member of the Shinra elite military corp SOLDIER, takes on a job for Avalanche, an eco-terrorist group that aims to destroy all of the company's Mako reactors, which are draining the planet of its lifeforce. Following the destruction of the Midgar's Sector 1 reactor, Cloud will find himself involved in something that will determine the fate of the planet.

On the surface, it is the same story seen in the original game. Right from the first bombing mission, however, it is clear that things are going to be a little different. Formerly obscure plot points are explained outright, and glimpses of events that are supposed to be revealed in full much later are shown rather frequently. The first meeting with Aerith provides the first major hints for what is to come. Bit by bit, as players get closer to the ending, it becomes evident that this is not the Final Fantasy VII fans remember, not entirely.

It is hard to explain things properly without spoiling anything. My expectations were completely subverted by the final sequences of the game, and I'm sure no one will expect this turn of events. This unexpected twist is definitely the most controversial aspect of the game, and most purists will hate it, no doubt about it. Others will appreciate this development, even though it doesn't make a lot of sense as of now. I did enjoy the surprise, but I am worried about how things will proceed in future installments.

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Despite the unexpected twist, most of the main events are pretty much the same as the original's, and  Final Fantasy VII Remake expands pretty much every one of them. The already mentioned Sector 1 reactor bombing mission, just to make an example, features additional character development not only for the other members of Avalanche but for Cloud and Barrett as well. And so is the same for most of the other major events. Generally, the expanding of the main story events is well done, they are coherent with the setting and what has been established in the original, and the additional development for the main cast feels in-character.  The writing, however, is less subtle than expected, giving straight explanations for plot points that were left unclear in the original. It does make sense, given some of the surprising developments of the story, but it's hard to shake the feeling that things could have been made slightly more intriguing.

The major expansion of most of the main story events allowed developers to make Midgar feel alive like never before. In the original, we only got small glimpses of the life below and on the plates, but in the Remake, we see a lot more of it. Most of the story additions actually expand on how the Midgar population feels about Shinra, how it deals with the terrorist attacks, how it feels regarding the government of the city and the dangers posed by the abuse of Mako and so on. A lot of colorful new characters are also introduced in the Remake, and they help players a great deal to understand how life in Midgar is.

Some of the secondary characters, like Avalanche members Jessie, Biggs, and Wedge, also received massive character development in the Remake, making them a more integral parts of the events. Of the three, Jessie is the most memorable, as the game delves deeper in her story and in the reasons that made her join Avalanche. Villains also get much better development, giving players a much better idea on how Shinra managed to keep its iron grip on Midgar through the use of the media and propaganda.

The story isn't the only thing that has changed, anyway, as Final Fantasy VII Remake plays nothing like the original. The biggest change in gameplay is the battle system, which is a very peculiar combination between an action combat system and the series' Active Time Battle system.

Battles in Final Fantasy VII Remake are played in real-time, with the player controlling one character and the AI the other two. Characters can now unleash a basic attack combo, activate unique skills, dodge and defend. Most of these actions speed up ATB bar gain, and once one bar is full, it becomes possible to unleash special moves, cast spells, and use items. Among the combat options are also the iconic Limit Breaks, which can be unleashed once the Limit Bar is full, and Summons, which can only be used in select battles and once the related bar is full. It is also possible to set up four shortcuts so that it's possible to play the game more like an action RPG, unleashing special attacks and casting spells without having to go through menus. Those who want to play the game like the original can choose Classic Mode, which makes all of the combat's action automatic, allowing players to focus on using the ATB charges when available.

On the surface, the Final Fantasy VII Remake battle system is rather straightforward, but it hides a surprising amount of depth. Fights against the regular Shinra troops and other small monsters don't require any particular strategy, but stronger enemies and bosses require a better understanding of the Stagger mechanics. Returning from Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2, players need to fill a bar so that enemies can get staggered and receive additional damage. Mashing the square button with the occasional special attack thrown in won't cut it, however: most enemies require specific elemental attacks to fill the Stagger gauge, and they will have to be timed properly, as only the weakest enemies get interrupted by regular attacks, while others are more susceptible to staggering following an attack and so on. Sweepers, for example, are weak to the Lighting element, so using Thunder spells while avoiding attacks and defending accordingly will fill the Stagger gauge quickly. Other enemies have high defense against physical attacks, but they can be staggered quickly with them, so using Tifa's quick combo attacks is the way to go to defeat them. Other enemies have shields, so they can only be damaged, and staggered, by attacking them from the back. Others, like Shock Troopers, can easily dodge physical attacks, so using magic and status ailments like Poison will make short work of them.

The different enemy types and the different strategies required to defeat them highlight how great the combat design is. All four playable characters have different roles: Cloud is the all-rounder who can deal with both groups and single enemies easily thanks to his unique stance ability, Barrett is the tank with high HP and Defense who can also deal with enemies effective from long-range, Tifa is the fast, close-range brawler who can obliterate enemies with her quick attacks and special moves, which can also be combed together, Aerith is the long-range magic damage dealer who also works great as a support-focused character. The characters, however, aren't stuck into their roles thanks to the Materia and Weapon Upgrade systems, which give players a lot of customization possibilities.

The Materia system is one of the original game's mechanics that hasn't changed much. During the course of the game, players will be able to gather Materia, mysterious orbs made of condensed Mako that grant special abilities. Most of the Materia seen in the original game makes a comeback, with the addition of a few new types, such as Auto-Cure, which gives players the ability to improve the AI-controlled characters' behavior when certain conditions are met, and Deadly Dodge, which unlocks an area attack that can be performed immediately after dodging. Like in the original, Materia has to be equipped in the Weapon and Armor slots to be active, and linked slots allow for some interesting combinations, such as granting elemental properties to basic attacks.

The Weapon Upgrade system is one of the new mechanics included in Final Fantasy VII Remake that uplifts character customization options to new heights. All weapons are viable for the entirety of the game, as they level up as characters do. Upon level up, players obtain SP, which can be used to unlock a variety of weapon-related improvements such as additional Materia slots, stats improvements and so on. Thanks to these, each weapon becomes better suited in one area instead of another, so a particular weapon, in conjunction with the right Materia setup, can make Cloud an excellent spell caster or a tank, instead of the all-rounder he is by default.

All of the different combat and customization options shine during boss battles, which are one of the many highlights of the remake. From the Scorpion Sentinel to the final boss, all battles have been greatly expanded, with multiple phases and a cinematic approach that makes them extremely memorable. It's these battles that highlight how well the unique action and turn-based elements of the battle system work, showing an almost rhythmic nature in the switching from Action Mode to Tactical Mode and back to Action Mode again.

Exploration mechanics have also changed significantly since the days of the original release, providing a much more involving experience. All the locations found in the original game have been expanded a lot, with both dungeons and towns feeling much bigger in scope. Dungeons now feature a variety of puzzles to complete as well as secondary objectives, called Discoveries, which often lead to treasure and Materia. Some of the expanded locations, such as the Sector 5 reactor, are extremely clever, and their inclusion wasn't just to lengthen playtime.

The Midgar story arc in the original Final Fantasy VII was the most linear segment of the game, and the remake certainly suffers from some linearity, as players never really get the chance to roam around looking for side content. These issues are partially addressed by a new quest system, which gives players the chance to branch away from the main story scenario for a bit. Quests usually fall into the usual fetch and extermination type, but they do prove to be a welcome diversion, as they provide some insights on how life is in the Midgar slums, not to mention the opportunity to explore some brand new locations that are not part of the main story. Battle Intel quests are especially interesting, as they task players with completing certain combat challenges, rewarding them with some rare Materia that makes fighting enemies even more varied. A nice selection of mini-games is also found in the game. Even with these, however, the game feels just too linear at times.

Excessive linearity isn't the only issue found in Final Fantasy VII Remake. Combat feels somewhat unbalanced, as some areas feature a combination of weak and strong enemies that can throw some players off, especially if they do not use the ATB mechanics properly. The camera, despite the multiple options, is also problematic while fighting in small spaces, as it often fails to reposition itself properly near corners or other obstacles, making it hard to defend properly. This is annoying, considering enemies also attack while off-camera and dodging doesn't have a lot of invincibility frames.

Despite these issues, Final Fantasy VII Remake plays great overall and the experience is made even more enjoyable by the excellent visual recreation of the iconic city of Midgar. The sense of scale is incredible, as the city feels immense and diverse in a way that the original game could only hint at due to the technical limitations of the original PlayStation. The art style and character design are excellent: the main cast design received some tweaks, but they all look incredible, with tons of detail and proper facial expressions and lip-syncing. All of the characters, from the main cast to the supporting character and villains, are probably the best ever designed by Square Enix: they retain the over-the-top steampunk and anime-like feel of the original designs, but they have been tweaked so that they look believable. Both characters and locations also benefit from the incredible use of lighting, which is used to mark the different times of day especially well. The performance is solid as well, as the game keeps steady 30 FPS framerate at pretty much all times even on base PlayStation 4.

The sound production values are just as high as the visuals'. All main characters are voiced by a new voice cast that does a great job in portraying the characters, especially Cody Christian, who does a great job as Cloud. The soundtrack went through a makeover of its own, and all of the old pieces retain the same power they did back in 1997, despite possibly an excessive use of orchestrations in the new arrangements. There are also plenty of new tracks with a distinct rock feel and they sound great.

Remaking Final Fantasy VII properly is something that was always going to be very difficult to achieve. Everything considered, Square Enix did a good job with the first part, but the controversial ending is going to divide the fanbase: some will love it, some will hate it. It is undeniable, however, that the developer managed to make this feel like an epic journey just by using a small slice of the whole adventure.

Review code provided by the publisher.

9.3

Final Fantasy VII Remake is a masterful modernization of the series' classic formula. The game is an extremely solid JRPG that looks, sounds and plays great, despite some pacing issues and linearity. That said, the unexpected story twists may sour the experience a bit for those who expected a faithful remake.

Pros

  • Excellent graphics and presentation
  • Great character development
  • Unique battle system that masterfully combines action and turn-based elements
  • Very good character customization mechanics
  • Expanded story elements that feel coherent with the original setting...

Cons

  • ... that eventually lead to controversial developments that will inevitably impact the perception of the entire game for some
  • Bad combat camera
  • Excessive linearity and uneven pacing
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