The screen slowly reveals a familiar flower girl’s face illuminated by green light. Three simple notes are played and the hairs on my neck are standing on end. She emerges from an alleyway to a busy sidewalk – a scene I have watched many times before, but not quite like this. The detail I am seeing far outstrips what my imagination could conjure back in 1997. The orchestral music starts to build as she looks longingly up into the sky and the camera pulls away ascending up into it – revealing the scale of this iconic city. The music continues to build, a song I am so familiar with, I know the exact moment the title is going to flash on to the screen – except it doesn’t.
“My eyes well up with tears. I am ten years old again.”
The camera continues to ascend further, past the impossibly large Shinra headquarters as two helicopters – blades thundering – fly past the screen. The orchestra builds toward an almost unbearably emotional peak and the scale of this undertaking has only now truly started to sink in. As the entirety of the city of Midgar finally comes into full view, the music reaches its incredible crescendo and the opening title Final Fantasy VII Remake flashes onto the screen. Every hair on my body is now standing. My eyes well up with tears. I am ten years old again.
Remake, huh? Don’t trust ya!
It’s hard to believe the remake that fans have been crying out for, for almost 20 years is finally here.
And yet, I never wanted it to be made.
It’s no secret of mine that the original Final Fantasy VII is my favourite video game. When it was released back in 1997 it was generation defining, pushing the boundaries for visual effects and storytelling in games. It was unlike anything seen before in the medium and was accompanied by arguably one of the best original scores in games to date. It lifted JRPG’s into the stratosphere in the West, solidified Final Fantasy as a hit franchise worldwide and made the Playstation the destination for the biggest games releases. Not bad considering it’s existence came from a deal with Nintendo that fell through.
Fast forward 23 years later and the original’s 32-bit aesthetics have not aged gracefully, with only the highest of nostalgia-powered lenses seeing the game for what it was when released. Ever since that infamous PS3 tech demo was shown back in 2005, fans have been begging – protesting even, for a remake. Bringing the once visually-revered classic into the modern era with ultra high-definition face lift and an expanded scale to meet today’s technology, seemed like it was the consensus request among it’s rabid fan base.
However, I, admittedly, was not one of those fans and believed that the game should be left as it was. There was no possibility that a remake could ever recreate the feeling of seeing the original for the first time. The original was a 60+ hour epic spread across three CD’s. Every area had static pre-rendered backgrounds, showing just a glimpse of what the surrounding environments might look like, leaving players’ imaginations to fill in the blanks. I don’t care how impressive today’s technology is, there was no conceivable way that each of these scenes could be recreated to the standard of today’s games. Even if I wanted it, it just couldn’t be done.
I have never been so pleased to be so wrong.
Final Fantasy VII Remake is an incredible achievement to behold, not only because of the standard that has been held in its development, but the love of the source material. Tetsuya Nomura returns as Director, leading a Square Enix team which has poured a huge amount of their love for the source material into this project. So much so that Remake will be split into multiple releases, with this first part covering the Midgar section which was around the first seven hours of the original game.
It’s Like This Train. It Can’t Run Anywhere Except Where It’s Rails Take It.
The story begins with Cloud Strife, a mercenary for hire, riding a train into the city of Midgar. Here he joins Avalanche – a group of eco-warriors on a mission to blow up a mako reactor as part of an attempt to take down the evil Shinra Corporation. Shinra are sucking up Mako energy – the planet’s lifeforce, to power the city of Midgar and fuel their technology for world domination and in effect – are killing the planet in the process. Midgar is a social metaphor of the divide of the rich living above the poor. The circular metropolis houses an upper disc-like plate where the wealthy live their white picket-fence suburban lives with everything they need while they cast a shadow on the poor below them. The lower slums under the plate are where the heart of the story lies and the majority of the game takes place.
“The tale of Final Fantasy VII would not be anything without its iconic roster of characters and Remake allows them to truly become three-dimensional personalities.”
The story hits just as hard as it did all those years ago with themes that are even more poignant today than they were back in the 90’s. Every scene has been recreated and expanded upon with extra details that flesh out the world.
The tale of Final Fantasy VII would not be anything without its iconic roster of characters and Remake allows them to truly become three-dimensional personalities. Cloud is a cold and hardened mercenary, an ex-SOLDIER of Shinra who keeps his emotions buried deep down. He is a tightly-spun yarn of a character that slowly begins to unravel along with the main plot. Barret Wallace is the leader of Avalanche and is a hot-headed but lovable personality. His passion for saving the planet is almost as strong as his hatred of Shinra for killing it. Tifa Lockhart is a childhood friend of Cloud who runs a bar in the Sector 7 slums called 7th Heaven – which also doubles as Avalanches secret hideout. And lastly, Aerith Gainsborough, a flower girl from the Sector 5 slums, in which the game’s opening introduces – who has a deep connection with the planet and provides the much needed hope for the story.
The dynamics between the four characters works incredibly well, helped by the voice actors lending real weight to scenes and providing fantastic chemistry. The banter thrown back and forth between Barret and Cloud is a personal highlight. While the performances arent anywhere close to Naughty Dog quality (who is?), it will please any doubters that may fear the dialogue could come across emotionless or wooden. There has also been a lot of care and attention given to non major characters, namely Avalanche’s Biggs, Wedge and Jessie. With only a few lines each in the original game, these characters are now full personalities, adding extra emotional weight to the proceedings and really are a highlight.
Words aren’t the only thing that tell people what you’re thinking.
It helps that each of the characters are visually spectacular to look at. Final Fantasy VII Remake is a very good looking game, best demonstrated in it’s character models. Boasting photogenic high res textures and facial animation, Square Enix showcase what they are capable of when putting their mind to Unreal Engine 4.
However, the real visual star is the city itself. From the hustle and bustle of life in the slums to the seedy nightlife of Wall Market or the quiet suburban evenings of the upper plate and even the sewers deep underground – everywhere feels like it has a place in this world. The glow of the lamps hanging above the slums and the green haze emitting from reactors create a tangible atmosphere which is almost suffocating. To quote Barret “You can practically taste the mako in here”. The first time I walked through the slums and looked up at that ominous plate will be a moment I will always remember. The scale to what the original game could only hint at was now on full display. I have not felt as part of a fictional world since stepping out of a bathysphere into Andrew Ryan’s Rapture. Midgar feels alive.
“The glow of the lamps hanging above the slums and the green haze emitting from reactors create a tangible atmosphere which is almost suffocating.”
There are some technical issues however. While many of the areas are incredibly well detailed, some areas – particularly in the slums, have some incredibly low textures which are PS2-like in quality. It’s a shame because they stand out so much due to the characters who are interacting with these environments look so lifelike, creating a stark contrast. This is most likely due to the lack of development time to polish the game and will hopefully be patched up in the future.
I’ll smash ’em.
Going into Remake, a concern for me personally was if the new battle system was going to have enough depth to it to compete with the classic ATB battle system from the original. I’m pleased to say that it has one of the best battle systems in the entire Final Fantasy series and was the highlight of my time spent with the game.
The new battle system is an evolution of what has come before with the Kingdom Hearts series and Final Fantasy XV, with more of a focus on action. Gone are the days of idly waiting for an ATB bar to fill until you have your moment to select an attack command. You now have full control of characters, from every slash of a sword, dodge roll or defensive block. In what is a change to appeal to a more modern gaming audience, could quickly be perceived as a watering down of difficulty to appeal to the masses. However, this couldn’t be further than the truth.
Somehow the battles on offer are just as tactful as before, if not more so and an absolute joy to play. While there is an essence of button mashing the attack button, this will only get you so far, and it’s sole purpose is to fill your ATB so you can use your commands. This is where the real battle takes place – inside the commands menu. Pulling up this menu slows down the action to a beautiful, almost-standstill pace where abilities, magic and items can be used and it works so wonderfully well. Instead of waiting out for meters to fill, strategy comes into play as to how you could be doing more to fill them quicker to use that one spell that could turn the tide of battle. It is essential to make every second count, as you jump between the three characters, making the most of their individual strengths, filling their ATB meters and making use of their abilities. This is all while you are guarding and counter attacking, evading attacks and keeping everyone’s HP up.
Another layer that has been added is the stagger system. Certain attacks fill up enemies stagger meters and once filled, they become staggered and enter a defenceless state for a short period of time. This is the moment to throw everything you can at it. It’s a system borrowed from Final Fantasy XIII and it’s addition makes each fight a white knuckle ride and prevents boredom from creeping into the hundredth battle. If anything, one of the few downsides to the game was that I wished there could have been more by the time I reached the end credits.
The soul too returns to the planet.
The fantastic Materia system makes a return, which is no surprise with it being one of the best systems in the series. Materia’s are slotted into character equipment, enabling the use of the given spell or ability. The materia gains experience levels, can be swapped to any character and can be sold to a vendor for a hefty sum, especially if it is at max level. Pairing materia in linked slots such as ‘ALL’ and ‘Cure’ to heal all members or linking elemental and fire materia in a weapon ensures that all attacks hit with bonus fire elemental damage. Levelling up materia and managing them in the menu was a big focus of my playtime and yet, never once felt like a chore.
“The ingenious design of the Materia system affords almost endless experimentation.”
The crowning jewel is the summoning materia. Deities can be summoned into battle with all their visual splendour to fight alongside your party with special moves performed using ATB. However, they can’t be continuously rolled ouch to fight each battle for you, as a meter fills over the course of numerous battles, similar to a limit break before they can be called upon. Also when they are summoned, they are only in the battle for a short amount of time which prevents from relying on them.
The ingenious design of the Materia system affords almost endless experimentation. I was always incredibly excited to pick up a new weapon which had an extra slot to allow me to equip an essential materia that had to sit unequipped due to lack of space.
Weapons aren’t all just about materia though. Each has unique strengths that could make them essential for a particular battle. So rather than discarding older weapons when replacing it with a new one, I found myself swapping them back in and out depending on an enemies weakness or a particular ability I wanted to use. Each weapon also offers a unique skill which can be learned and then used even when the weapon has been unequipped. This has been pulled straight from Final Fantasy IX, an addition I’ve always loved as it gives the initiative to experiment with each and every weapon.
Da-da-da-da, da-da, daa-da-daaaaaaa!
Even if you have never played Final Fantasy VII before, it is very likely that you will know of it’s iconic score. I would have been more than happy to receive the same again, in orchestral form. Instead, Square Enix have gone above and beyond all expectation and taken one of the greatest gaming scores, remastered, remixed it and somehow upon it.
‘Bombing Mission’ is a truly epic piece to accompany the high octane opening chapter and the quality never drops from that moment. With the music now dynamic, each track may have three different versions depending on if you are wandering an environment, in the middle of battle or in the commands menu. It flows organically to match the action on screen, creating a seamless experience and it is really impressive.
Classic tracks such as the ‘Tifa’s Theme’ and Aerith’s Theme’ are present and more powerful than ever, while new surprises such as the Wall Market theme remixed into a grimey banger of a battle theme ‘Due Recompense’ was a personal highlight. You will struggle to find a better score from this generation.
The train we on don’t make no stops!
If there is any doubt in your mind of Final Fantasy VII: Remake delivering a full length RPG experience then let me put that doubt to rest. My playtime clocked in at over 35 hours with some side quests and mini games remaining. The game is perfectly paced and I never felt like the plot was dragging its feet. Side quests are full of plenty of kill and fetch filler, sure, but there has been no attempt to disguise it as anything else. They are grouped together in their own chapters and are entirely skippable if you would prefer to get on with the main scenario.
“Square Enix has performed the impossible in not only meeting the expectations of a life- long fan, but surpassing them.”
The most divisive element of Remake is it’s ending. Personally, I love the idea that it presents. Depending on how the next part is approached, it has created a very interesting concept of what a game remake can be. The execution, however, is very messy. New players will have no idea what is going on, which is a shame because up to that point, the narrative is water tight. And even if you manage to follow what’s happening, it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea.
While far from having a perfect ending and some technical issues aside, Final Fantasy VII Remake is an astounding achievement. Square Enix has performed the impossible in not only meeting the expectations of a life- long fan, but surpassing them. If the remaining parts of the remake are held to this standard, we could have the greatest single player Final Fantasy title since the golden years. I can not wait to see where it takes us. Let’s just hope we don’t have to wait another console generation to get there.