What if Pokemon Snap was about capitalism?
I have something of a complicated history with Final Fantasy VII. It was the first game that truly mesmerized me; while I’d been playing games for a few years and had my favourites, it wasn’t until seeing it for the first time while staying at a relative’s in 1997 that I was ever truly blown away by a video game. Seven year-old me sat there, absolutely transfixed over the course of a couple of days as my cousin worked his way through the early parts of the story, and there and then, I knew I had to own a copy. I got the game myself not long after, and over the ensuing two decades, I’ve played it more times than I can count, and run the gamut from absolute infatuation to snide loathing and all the way back around.
The original Final Fantasy VII is a messy game. It’s unashamedly ambitious, sometimes to the point of arrogance, and in between iconic moments of brilliance, it’s bogged down by poor pacing, baffling localization choices, and systems designed to show off the power of the now-dated original PlayStation, which drags the experience out much longer than necessary. Add in the overflowing angst that defined the late 90’s well into the MySpace era, and sprinkle on a healthy dose of homoeroticism that may or may not have been intentional, and you have a game that’s very much of its era. It’s big, it’s dumb, it’s clunky as all hell, and yet it remains a classic with a fanbase so feverous that they’ve spent the past two decades frothing at the mouth for more.
It’s with some trepidation then that I approached the first part of what promises to be a series of games in a Remake saga. So beloved is the original game and its cast of characters that surely it’d be impossible for Square Enix to even begin to scratch that years-long itch. So many of the original game’s sensibilities and design choices are archaic and uncool by modern standards, its characters flat and one-dimensional, and yet, Square Enix has done a masterful job of reworking and reshaping Midgar and its inhabitants in a way that breathes new life into the story. Things are modernized to great success here in the first part of the FF7 remake, but the spirit of the 90’s is also kept very much alive.
Taking place entirely within the Midgar section of the original, Remake once again casts you in the role of the absolutely ridiculous Cloud Strife, a mercenary tasked with helping eco-terrorist cell Avalanche destroy the Shinra Power Company’s mako reactors, a not so subtle allegory for nuclear power. Cloud, as ever, absolutely sucks when things kick off, he’s withdrawn and moody, with nonexistent social skills, despite the fact that everyone he meets, women especially, fall at his feet all around him. His early interactions with Avalanche cell leader Barret and crew members Jessie, Biggs, and Wedge are exactly what you’d expect from the old Cloud, distant, straight-to-the-point and cold. Early meetings with epochal villain Sephiroth are equally on point, filled with ludicrous dialogue and sexual tension so thick that you can practically feel the Linkin Park AMVs materializing before your eyes.
Despite Cloud very much being his old self in the early goings, Remake does a wonderful job at fleshing him out into something resembling a human being. This is largely thanks to a supporting cast that have all been upgraded from one-note sidekicks (or in some cases, from personality-devoid NPCs) to considerably more complex, thoughtfully laid out people. Everyone has distinct motivations, as well as multiple facets and wrinkles to their personalities, and Remake benefits tremendously from this. Barret is no longer merely a screaming racist stereotype, Tifa is more than a generic childhood friend archetype, and even nobodies like Wedge and Biggs become likable authentic feeling figures. Watching the internal struggle that both Tifa and Barret go through feels real – the way it should given the effect that their actions have on Midgar and its people. Particularly of note though are Aerith and Jessie – whose personalities really come to the forefront over the course of the game. Aerith is no longer a glorified plot device dressed up to look like a human being, while Jessie is arguably the star of the game’s first half. She’s also incredibly thirsty for Cloud and his absurd Visual Kei haircut, and if you told me going in that I’d care about Jessie, of all characters, I’d have probably scoffed. There’s also some excellent character work on the antagonist side of the fence, with new addition Roche a particular highlight, while expanded early-game roles for Heidegger, Hojo, and Don Corneo allow them to really revel in being shitheel bad guys.
FF7 was always a very heavily politicized game, with strong themes of environmentalism and anti-capitalism running through its core, and worries that this remake would take a softer stance on these issues have proven unfounded. Remake makes it obvious very early on where its politics lay, and goes so far as to double down on them throughout the game’s roughly 40 hour run time. The game has plenty to say not just on these issues, but also touches on topics like religious fundamentalism, doing a much better job than the original at painting Shinra as a sort of Scientology-esque cult. The original game, despite having politics that were fairly progressive for the time, did engage in a fair bit of gay panic, and it really feels like Remake wants to address those missteps. The game features a handful of LGBTQ-coded characters, none of whom are treated like freaks or weirdos, and the infamous crossdressing sequence is surprisingly progressive with its stance on gender identity.
Midgar itself is a web of self-contradictions, a paradox in physical form; both intensely depressing and utterly hypnotizing all in a single breath. The slums are dirty, damaged, broken down shanty towns struggling quite literally under the “pizza” above, the city of Midgar proper, sitting cozily on a plate above. Class warfare has always been a key component of FF7, and finally being able to move around what feels like a living, breathing slum only serves to drive that point home.
For all that Remake drives some very serious points home – and with considerably more tact and a much defter touch than the original – the goofy elements remain intact as well. There’s plenty of little moments of levity in the game; Barret’s fear of heights, the knowing nods to the original’s poor localization, and straight-up borrowing some Orange Cassidy sunglasses spots in a couple of encounters, and it all helps to make Midgar feel more alive, more real, and more engrossing. Most of the original game’s minigames return, with a couple of modifications and a new minigame or two along the way. One of the things that made VII so beloved was its willingness to step back from time to time and just have fun with it’s inherent goofiness, and it’s awesome to see this spirit intact.
It really can’t be understated how much moving around Midgar feels just right. The environments largely look amazing (albeit once in a while the odd texture will just not pop in, no matter how much you may wish it would), and in many ways, it feels like you’re finally getting to explore the world that you imagined when you were a kid. Seeing Wall Market come to life in front of you, moving through the Train Graveyard, walking into Seventh Heaven or the Shinra Building for the first time, it all evokes tremendous emotions in me as someone who has grown up revisiting the original’s opening few hours time after time. There are tons of little touches in the world, the subtle differences in the quality of vending machine and benches on the top of the plate as opposed to in the slums, the little graphical replications of images from the original, all serve to evoke nostalgia while also moving the overall storytelling of the game forward. Everything here looks completely coherent and cohesive, a large ask for a game that incorporates elements of cyberpunk, steampunk, modern sensibility and retro aesthetics into one.
This coherence carries through to the act of actually playing Remake as well – gone are the random battles and turn-based combat, replaced instead by what feels like a much more thoughtful and fleshed out version of the combat from Final Fantasy XV. If XV was the prototype, then Square Enix has learned the right lessons here. Moment to moment, combat feels largely like a character action game, with each of the four playable party members having their own style. By completing regular actions, you fill up the ATB gauge – a nod to the original – which allows you to then cast spells, use items, or unleash character-specific abilities.
Most of these abilities are tied to your weapons, with each weapon having a unique ability of its own. By using said ability, you gain proficiency in it, and eventually, unlock it across that character’s arsenal, a system familiar to anyone who has played FF Tactics Advance. Tying these abilities to a different weapon each encourages the player to at least try everything they get their hands on a few times, and combined with individual upgrade paths for each weapon, allows for essentially any weapon in the game to be viable. There isn’t any real top-tier weapon for each character, with each excelling in certain stats, while being weak in others. Later weapons do have advantages in initial materia slots (which allow you to equip magic), but every weapon can be upgraded to add more slots anyway. It can sometimes feel like the currency used for upgrading weapons is a little bit slow to accumulate, but it’s not really that big an issue when the actual combat is so much fun.
Generally, your AI allies, who you can freely swap between, are relatively competent if not amazing, but there were a few times when I became frustrated watching them stand there blocking some easily dodged attacks. Characters can feel a little on the squishy side at times, and while battles are never overly tough, there are maybe a few times too many where you’ll find yourself having to stop to try to manage everyone’s health and mana bars every few seconds. Combat also borrows the pressure and staggering mechanics from Final Fantasy XIII, and it fits remarkably well within the character-action style combat of Remake. Hit an enemy with enough of its weakness (this is almost always fire, for some reason) or simply overwhelm it with enough attacks, and you can stagger it, rendering it unable to retaliate for a period, while doing multiples of damage yourself. It’s a fun system and it ensures that even when under pressure, you always have something that you know can turn the tide in a tough fight.
Remake’s structure also borrows pretty heavily from XIII, a game that, upon release, was heavily criticized for its linearity. If you’re coming to Remake expecting a huge open world in the style of a Red Dead Redemption or Witcher 3, you’re going to be disappointed. The world of Remake’s first part is actually relatively small, just a handful of areas, and most of the story beats consist of walking in pretty much a straight line forward. You do get to explore a little more when out doing side quests, and Square Enix does a good job at making a lot out of a fairly small map, but those expecting to explore every minute detail of every one of Midgar’s sectors should adjust expectations. XIII isn’t the only game that Remake borrows from though; side quests are highly reminiscent of the Yakuza series, and the return of the original’s minigames helps to add to that feel. It’s somehow really easy to picture Kazuma Kiryu engaging in a squatting contest, or Sephiroth poking his head out, Majima style, to pester Cloud. Dungeons are also laid out in a way that’s evocative of the Persona games. While they aren’t multi-floor labyrinths, nor semi-procedurally generated, they do have a feel that’s not at all dissimilar from Atlus’ series, and it’s hard not to see that as a positive.
It’d be foolish not to mention the stellar soundtrack of Remake somewhere along the way here, with many old classics receiving updated remixes that range from spectacular and chilling to wacky and comical – Hip Hop de Chocobo being one of the best worst songs in a game since The Chowder Man graced us with his presence in Hypnospace Outlaw. I got chills hearing that little chime just before the logo splash in the game’s opening sequence, while Tifa’s Theme and various other songs all stir something deep within. The audio design of the game isn’t flawless, however, as directional audio is sometimes wonky, characters who are three feet away from you sometimes sound like they’re in another zip code, and on a couple of occasions sounds just didn’t load in for me. It never completely broke my immersion, but it is a small bummer, especially given that most of the performances are pretty strong.
The biggest thing though when it comes to the Remake is its story, and make no mistake, this is not a simple retelling of the original game’s opening six or so hours. There are significant changes here, some of these to accommodate the fleshed-out backstories of characters, some to accommodate the new direction the story is taking. Most of the main plot beats are the same as they always were, just redone in a way that makes much more sense and feels like a much more lucid vision for where things are going. There’s no doubt in my mind that by the time the Remake series ends, we’ll be in a drastically different place than we were when things wrapped in 1997. For purists, that may be disheartening, but, save for one particular moment that feels like a major gotcha on the part of the developers, it all comes across as being for the better, at least in my view. Of course, the original game will always be there for those who find these changes not to their liking, but given that they serve to make the plot more coherent, and engaging, it’s hard to imagine too many people being upset.
Final Fantasy VII Remake is truly something special. It’s the impossible made possible – a beloved game that felt like it was doomed to development hell or a likely depressing final release as recently as last year that truly stepped up to the plate and hit a grand slam. It’s the realization of a vision that feels like it could never have been done in 1997, an absolutely joyful experience despite its themes and often bleak tone that has not only set the stage masterfully for further entries in its rebirth but can confidently make a claim to being an all-time classic in its own right. Recency bias aside, it’s hard for me to think of too many other games that I’d put in Remake’s league. It’s probably the best game of its generation, and I cannot wait to see where things go from here.