Final Fantasy VII Remake: Review by Robert Palmer Nov28


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Final Fantasy VII Remake: Review by Robert Palmer

A long time coming

Everything about Final Fantasy VII Remake seems to have been protracted, from its announcement to development to release. The original Final Fantasy VII was released all the way back in 1997 and was hailed by many who played it as a classic . As far as role-playing games go, the seventh instalment of the series is commonly accepted to be a pioneer in its genre, selling over 10 million copies during its original release; the game is available on all modern consoles and mobile devices. While the story of a group of misfits banding together to save the world from destruction and demigods inspired its players, and its tactical turn based combat system was engaging and strategic, the game’s visuals have not aged well. At all. The character models of the original release are blocky, deformed messes that only slightly resemble the characters they are meant to portray.  Due to its popularity the developer Square Enix made various spin-offs including prequels and a full sequel in movie-form. However, what fans have been clamouring for is a fully realised, big budget remake of the original in order to bring the game up to modern standards, with cutting edge graphical quality and top notch voice acting while, most importantly, making it fun to actually play. And so in 2015 they announced that the game would be recreated from the ground up…. with a catch.

More to come

You see, this game is only part one of the Final Fantasy VII Remake project and only covers around ten percent of the events of the original story. As a result the “full” story will be told over the course of an as-yet-unknown number of games. This is absolutely a cynical cash grab but at the same time I wouldn’t accuse its developers of laziness: there is clearly some effort and passion behind this game as well. After five secretive years of development the game has finally been released and must meet fan expectations preceding its 5 years’ gestation.

Contemporary game

Final Fantasy VII Remake eschews the traditional fantasy tropes of castles, kingdoms, monarchical bloodlines and prophecies in favour of bleak, hyper industrialised cityscapes. Castles and dungeons are replaced with corporate skyscrapers, energy reactors and unethical test labs. Monsters, swords and sorcery are still present but are interwoven with a sci-fi, near-future aesthetic to create a world ripped both from stories of magic and wonder as well as grim dystopian futures watched over by ruthless corporations.

What’s the story?

The main story follows the adventures of Cloud Strife, an anxious, distrustful protagonist who just so happens to be a rogue super-soldier turned mercenary. He’s the kind of person you cross the street to avoid and his absurdly oversized weapon of choice, the gargantuan Buster Sword, certainly contributes to that, along with his cobbled-together soldier attire that gets more confusing the more you look at it. His hairstyle, a strange formation of blond spikes, suggests that the reason he turned to mercenary work is so he can afford tubs of hair gel. He turned his back on his former employer, the Shinra Electric Power Company, whose presence permeates the entire city of Midgar in the form of private armies, spies, assassins, and weaponised machines.

How does it work?

The game begins with a memorable mission to bomb a Shinra reactor providing Mako energy, this world’s equivalent to fossil fuels, which is quite literally being sucked directly from the soul of the planet. You see, in his search for meaning in his life and most importantly money, Cloud has agreed to work for an organisation of extremist environmentalists called Avalanche, led by the eccentric Barret Wallace. Barret is a man with a machine-gun attached to his prosthetic arm and has a stature big enough to suggest that he has eaten at least two men whole. The two succeed in their mission while their egos clash, Cloud doing this solely for profit and Barret because of his deep environmental beliefs, claiming that the planet is crying out in pain. The game then takes the player through the aftermath of the explosion in a nearby wealthy district of the sprawling city of Midgar, the central location for the majority of the game. Fire, debris, and shocked citizens litter the otherwise shipshape streets, crying over the loss of life and the actions of these “terrorists”. This is where the player comes to terms with what they have just done and while Cloud’s emotional reclusiveness is already established, it is clear that the protagonists’ actions in this world are not defined as strictly good or bad. Addressing themes of environmentalism and corporate-led ruination that are arguably even more relevant in 2020 than in 1997, the remake gives the time to explore the consequences of choices made by Avalanche and Shinra that simply couldn’t be covered within the roughly six-hour Midgar portion of the original release. I thought that this is a very interesting way to immerse the player in the world of FF7 – relating it to issues of modern-day society and touching upon climate-based extremism, never defending or condemning it but asking the player to wonder if the reasoning of Avalanche’s actions is wrong regardless of their role as the protagonists.

The moral grey area isn’t served by a lack of nuance

The moral question of the main characters and everything FF7 Remake does to present its themes in these terms is somewhat undercut by how Shinra becomes so ridiculously evil and corrupt in comparison to Avalanche – so much so that you disregard anything the game does to build upon the moral grey area of the player’s actions. It helps, however, that all of the game’s cast is charming and memorable. Barret is a gruff, militaristic soldier but it’s quickly revealed that everything he does is for his infant daughter and in front of her his stone-cold persona melts away to reveal a family man who wants the world to be the best it can possibly be for his little girl. Cloud’s childhood friend and fellow eco-terrorist Tifa tries her hardest to make him open up to people and is constantly questioning whether what she fights for is right considering she has a personal connection to everyone in the city slums and would blame herself if anything happened to her friends. The other random members of Avalanche have also been humanised by living longer than they did in the game. Aerith, a charming and witty florist girl who spends time with Cloud and the gang in the second half of the game, adds a degree of innocence to the core group and serves as a perfect contrast to the apathetic and insecure conscience of Cloud. However, Cloud himself is easily the blandest character of the bunch. As a result of the decision to split the story up between games, his arc has not been fully realised yet and so only shows minimal growth throughout. Those who know the original story know that the Midgar section barely scratches the surface of the character with the original touching upon themes of trauma and mental health that have greater currency in today’s world. It is satisfying seeing Cloud slowly opening up to his newfound teammates during the course of the game.

What to expect

The actual gameplay takes place in a fast-paced, real time environment as opposed to the turn-based fights of the original. Now, explaining how a complex video game is played is quite hard without visual reference, so bear with me here. The game encourages you to switch control between your 2 or 3 active characters on the battlefield against varied enemy soldiers and fantastical creatures. The better you perform in battle and the more attacks you land on the enemy, the more often you can perform an action on your enemies or allies. You can bash a resilient enemy with your sword and your fists all you want but to come out the other side without knocking out your party members requires planning and strategic usage of an action command. You can, for example, use Cloud’s lightning magic on an enemy vulnerable to that particular spell or you can give them a whack with your standard sword to charge up another command, use a more powerful magic and potentially end the battle faster. But then you remember that Tifa, the melee brawler of the group, is low on health, and Barret is stunned and can’t attack or use his skills but has more than enough health left. You would then have to choose to prioritise winning the battle and ignoring your teammates, or choose whichever character can adapt to the situation and become more effective than others.The game constantly encourages you to multitask and strategise on the fly, swapping between characters constantly to exploit their strengths and navigating menus until it becomes muscle memory.

Whenever you decide to unleash a character’s skill, a devastating magic spell or a restorative item, the game slows down time to let you decide what you want to do in a given situation, likely due to the initially overwhelming set of tools at your disposal. Every character fits into their own niche: Cloud is your balanced damage dealer with decent defensive options; Tifa trades defence for raw strength; Barret is your ranged attacker and durable defender; and Aerith is the dedicated traditional long-range mage. While these are the intended roles and styles of play for each character the game leaves a heavy amount of customisation in the hands of the player. Any character can use any spell: you can assign commands to different buttons for quick activation using a type of shift key; and you can prioritise different stats for each character focusing on improving the effectiveness of their attacks or spell-casting. You can even turn Barret into a melee fighter, completely destroying all chances of your party succeeding without a ranged attacker. It is hilarious though, watching this beast of a man hopelessly flailing around at flying creatures that he once easily dispatched with his gatling gun. The only main problem with this system is that the artificial intelligence that controls the characters you aren’t controlling is completely incompetent. The game is designed for you to give orders to your teammates, and switching characters is a vital mechanic, but when my ranged fighters are right in the enemy’s face, or my attackers are in a defensive position when enemies are staggered and on the floor (or even not attacking at all in some cases) it becomes more of a hassle repairing your party after suffering unnecessary damage.

The best bits

This system really shines in very long fights where the production value soars and the game becomes a balancing act of keeping the party alive and dishing out enough attacks to stun the enemy for a brief moment while also figuring out the patterns of these larger-than-life foes. Long in this context does not mean boring as the game continues to challenge you and you can try out different strategies otherwise wasted on weaker cannon fodder enemies.

Once you get to the end of the story, you are given access to a series of increasingly more difficult challenges against particularly strong monsters. I found that this rewarded player preparation when crafting strategies to defeat them after some mandatory trial and error.

Two particular highlights of the Remake is the soundtrack and the visuals. The soundtrack varies from electronica to country to sombre violin to booming action movie score and many, many more, with various recurring character themes showing up throughout the game and sounding unique every time. The score is borrowed from the original game but instead of chiptune sounds made from a game console it is given the orchestral treatment it deserves. Special mention must be given to the game’s main theme, “Hollow”, the “One Winged Angel” theme, and “Fires of Resistance,” as they are pieces that stuck in my head after I completed the game the most.

The presentation and graphics are simply some of the best I’ve ever seen in a video game, honestly. The main cast is really brought to levels of photo-realism in this more modern darker style without falling into the uncanny valley to which many games succumb; added to this is the processing power of the Playstation 4 in the latter stage of its life making it virtually unrecognisable from its Playstation 1 predecessor. The walled city and steel sky of Midgar is brought to life here with each district of the upper class cities and sprawling slums having its own distinct visual and musical identity. Shady side streets of the Wall Market entertainment district in particular have never looked so vibrant, especially compared to the hand-painted locations of the classic version. The once-off side characters are not on the same level as our leads, however, and some low-effort character models look ripped straight from a game from 2007.

In the tradition of Japanese role-playing games

The character designs as a whole feel over-designed and needlessly edgy with the main villain, Sephiroth, sporting flowing silver hair and a jet black trench coat. The latter portion of the condensed story requires the player’s suspension of disbelief. The entire experience of playing the game evokes the feeling of reading a considerably troubled teenager’s embarrassing notebook, brought to life before them. This isn’t bad, however. Sometimes it’s just enjoyable to sit back and relax as the funny terrorist man gets stabbed by the teleporting shape-shifting ghost person who may or may not be a figment of Cloud’s imagination. It comes with the territory I suppose as Japanese role-playing games are notorious for having intricate plots and stupid character designs, but I find the uniqueness endearing.

“The side quests in this game are dreadful.”

On that note, it is time to discuss the subpar portions of the game, not related to the main journey. The side quests in this game are dreadful. There’s really no other way to put it. For every thrilling story fight sequence there is a side quest where you find three bloody cats for a little girl. For every intimate moment of character development and banter there is also an option to get indigestion medicine for drunkards in the slums and go on a quest to find hot sauce. It is undeniably filler created to pad out the runtime and exists to pass the time from story beat to story beat. While they attempt to flesh out the world, there is so little effort gone into them that it’s a genuine disappointment. I did all 26 optional quests and while I enjoyed the experience of fighting monsters due to the responsive combat in the game – and the improvements you get for your characters as rewards – they leave much to be desired. There are some sections where the game simply runs out of story, potentially due to stretching 6 hours of story from the original into well over 35 hours in the Remake; this forces you to play the side-quests, which are suddenly thrust into the role of main quest, and the game suffers for it.

“The filler wastes the player’s time”

The game is structured like a season of a TV show, in a way. It’s divided into chapters or episodes that focus on different characters and events and advance the character development of the main cast. However, there is a substantial amount of “filler” episodes that add nothing to the original story; maybe they set up the second game, but as for right now, they only serve to destroy the pacing of the game. One egregiously dull segment involves spending an hour or two in an abandoned train station, infested with the ghosts of dead children. This takes place in the middle of a rescue mission to prevent several major characters from being killed and puts the brakes on any meaningful plot developments (and since the enemies are ghosts, you can’t just smack them with a sword, making the fights feel redundant as well). Another involves trudging through a sewer system looking for a precious heirloom of an incredibly unimportant side character. After taking over an hour looking for this dude’s wallet or something, he says his thanks and is gone. The filler wastes the player’s time, and leaves him wanting to throw the game console through his window. This segment was so bad that a friend of mine cited it as one of the reasons he stopped playing the game.

“Foreshadowing as subtle as a dog barking at fireworks”

“A meta-commentary on the concept of remakes and reboots”

The ending, without spoiling anything, goes completely off of the rails from the main story of FF7. A story that started off with an amount of emotional depth and simplicity to which most sane people could subscribe eventually becomes a very last minute struggle for the fate of reality itself. There are twists, there are turns, and the quality of the writing, dialogue and voice acting suddenly takes a nosedive, but across the last hour of the game I was laughing my ass off in awe at the major deviations from the original ending. However, despite having Remake in the title, it relies heavily upon knowledge of future events from the original PS1 game, with foreshadowing as subtle as a dog barking at fireworks. You kind of need to play the original first, defeating the point of the Remake. This new ending turns out to be a meta-commentary on the concept of remakes and reboots as a whole while also being a remake itself and being profoundly moronic. I loved every second of it for being the equivalent of crappy popcorn cinema and I cannot wait for the sequel. I adore trash, and this ending is polished, charming trash.

Giving this game a numbered score is redundant, as enjoyment may vary based on your personal connection to the Final Fantasy series as a whole, or perhaps just the seventh entry. For me it was surreal seeing a game announced five years ago finally come out, with the accompanying pandemic appropriately signalling the end times. But I enjoyed it, and you should take my opinion as fact because you endured my ramblings until the very end of the review.