Some games don’t require introductions. Final Fantasy 7 is one such game. Even if you don’t really know anything about Final Fantasy, you’ve likely seen pictures of “those two guys with massive swords” or heard a 25-35 year old talk about how it’s their favourite game of all time. It’s certainly a game that means a lot to quite a lot of people, myself included. So when the remake finally dropped in April 2020, I owed it to my younger self who obsessed over this game to check it out.
It’s crazy to think that a remake has been discussed since 2005, when Sony inadvertently opened the floodgates of fan demand by remaking the intro sequence as a tech demo for the Playstation 3. I’m sure they thought people were going to be wowed after seeing such an iconic game sequence rendered in HD but people were over the moon at seeing Cloud and the gang, rather than the polygon count of their new system. Demand became overwhelming and eventually Square Enix decided to capitalise on the organically generated hype and give the fans what they want.
The issue is that all this happened 15 years ago. Square in 2020 have had a rocky decade compared to their golden age in the 90s and early 2000s. Could the Square Enix of today manage to actually put together something that fulfilled all the excitement that they inspired back in 2005? After all, 15 years is a long time to make someone wait for something.
In order for this article to not be the size of a short novel I’m going to make some assumptions about your knowledge of the original and it’s remake and give you a quick little reminder of a few key points. These are the following –
- This is only a remake of the first section of the original game, set in the city of Midgar, with the rest of the game due to come in later releases.
- Additional content/story has been created to make this short section into a larger 40 hour game.
- The battle system has been changed from traditional turn based random battles to a more action focused real time system.
With this knowledge implanted into your psyche, let’s delve into the good, the bad and the ending of Final Fantasy 7 Remake.
I think the most important place to start when talking about what the FF7 remake does well is to talk about the single biggest reason you should pick it up and experience it. If you enjoyed the original game, even a little bit, it will be an absolute treat to see the world and characters you know lovingly recreated in full HD.
I really can’t stress how much of a good job Square has done in remaking this world at the levels of graphical detail expected from a modern AAA release. I would be lying if I didn’t admit that there were certain areas of the game where I was really overwhelmed with really lovely nostalgia. Dropping into the church and meeting Aerith for the first time, meeting up with the gang at the 7th Heaven bar in Sector 7 and seeing Cloud flip off of the train during the intro all feel as if they were drawn straight out of my young imagination. Even if this was a stand alone game, you’d have to say that it looks absolutely amazing but there is this added layer of appreciation because they are remaking scenes that we know so well and doing such a good job of it.
The game is also now fully voiced and includes a huge amount of additional dialogue and cutscenes which are used to further flesh out the characters. Unfortunately the original game’s english translation is actually quite spotty so SE taking the opportunity to redo the dialogue with a cast of excellent voice actors is much appreciated. Even much of the expanded dialogue and extra cutscenes are well placed as for a game lauded for it’s story, the original is actually quite light on dialogue in places. Barret in particular is transformed into a really well rounded character, struggling to balance fatherhood with his freedom fighting. It’s nice that we no longer need to fill in the gaps ourselves and actually get meaningful scenes that expand the characters in organic ways.
A lot of the world building is also expanded in ways that I think really help let the story breathe. In the original, you were thrown into the world and within 5-8 hours you’ve not only had to work out how the game works but also get to grips with the characters, plot and world building and I think there was definitely room here to ease up a little and let the stakes really set in. One of the elements I enjoyed the most was seeing much more about how normal people actually live in the city. We get to see much more of how the rich live in the upper plate and how the poor live on the ground, literally underneath the rich and affluent. There is a brief new section early in the game where you travel to Jesse’s house to steal an access card from her parents. It’s a very short section but it expands upon what it’s like for people just trying to make their way in the world, caught up in the bigger narrative from the original.
On top of adding in new sections, certain sections from the original have been greatly expanded upon. Wall Market in particular is a really interesting semi-criminal market that you spend almost no time in in the original despite it being one of the most memorable locations. In the remake you end up spending about 2 hours there doing little optional side missions, fighting in an underground fight club and eventually participating in a strange drag performance which is one of the strangest things I’ve ever played in any game…
Similar expansions are given to side characters. In the original Biggs, Jesse and Wedge are hardly more than named grunts helping Barrett achieve his goals and while (Spoilers ahead) Barrett is obviously very sad when they die, the player doesn’t really feel much connection to them. Here they have been well characterised and actually feel like important parts of the plot rather than just goons along for the ride. Jesse gets the most screen time but it was Wedge (voiced by Matthew Jones of Breaking Bad fame) that I appreciated the most as he brought some much needed comic relief to the table. It’s not rip roaringly funny but it’s just some goofy fun in an otherwise very serious somber tale.
Another element that really works is the new battle system. I’ll happily admit that I was extremely skeptical about the change from random encounters and turn based combat simply because I wholeheartedly believe that style of RPG still absolutely works in the modern era. You only need to look at Persona 5 or Dragon Quest 11 to see there is still a really big market for traditional turn based games and I genuinely believe this game would have still been a success if they’d gone for something closer to the original.
That being said…
The combat system they have created for FF7R really is great and it feels like what Square Enix have been trying to create in less successful games like FF13 or 15. While those games had perfectly functional combat systems, they always seemed to lack the strategy and customisation that went into the older SNES and PS1 games. The fast pace sucked out strategy, fast reflexes replaced careful planning and big super moves like limit breaks and summons didn’t carry the same weight. Thankfully it looks like Square have finally worked out a way to make both these worlds tie together and this ended up being the part of the game I enjoyed the most.
When you get into combat you’ll attack and dodge like you would in a normal beat em up action game however successful attacks build up a meter below your character’s health bar. This is split into two sections and as soon as a section is filled, you can take a more substantial action like a more powerful attack, casting a spell or using an item. While doing this the action slows to an absolute crawl so you’re able to plan ahead, target weaknesses and basically do all of the normal JRPG things you’d expect from Final Fantasy. It doesn’t weigh too heavily on either side and maintains a great balance of frantic action game moments and classic JRPG big payoffs.
To compliment this, the materia system has been carried over from the original virtually identically which is brilliant as it’s always been one of the best magic systems in the FF series. You can equip elemental orbs which you find throughout the world to your items which either let you use the spell associated with it or give you a passive skill boost. The more you use them the more powerful they become and as you can switch them between characters at any time so you always feel like you’re progressing. It encourages experimentation and feels just as good as it did in the 90s.
Given the combat is so satisfying to play through, it’s made doubly enjoyable by the variety of creative boss encounters dotted throughout the game. There are an astounding 30 different bosses over the course of it’s 40 hour run time which means a huge amount of time is spent in these encounters. I’m sure it’ll come as a relief to know that they are mostly incredibly enjoyable with only a few duds.
They range from huge multi stage boss fights against massive machines that you take on with a whole party, to one on one duels where Cloud fights against a single human opponent. You’ll even fight two separate bosses while riding a motorcycle, both with very different mechanics. Most bosses tend to have either multiple forms or special moves that have to be avoided or countered in specific ways. You really have to utilise every element of the combat system to get through them and some of the reworked fights from the original are now absolutely excellent. The fights against the Turks at various points in the game are a particular highlight, being turned from damage sponges into deadly duels where you have to block, counter and strike all at the correct time. It’s brilliant to see Square Enix get their boss fight groove back as it used to be something they were known for doing so well, hopefully this is a design mantra they take into future games as it really stood out here.
So the game looks and sounds amazing, it’s got some nifty new additions and the combat is brilliant. What exactly could I have to criticize? Well unfortunately quite a bit…
Easily the biggest issue with FF7 remake is the pacing. The core of the problem is that while they have added some additional content and sections to the original Midgar sequence, they haven’t actually added enough interesting content to justify the 40 hour playtime. There is unfortunately a huge amount of padding which brings the momentum crashing to a halt quite a few times. There are three sections where you’re blocked from proceeding through the story so you can do side missions for various characters which are some of the most bland, uninteresting side content I’ve ever seen. It’s very much “deliver this letter, kill this mob, find 5 cats” and adds absolutely nothing beyond a chance to get some more exp. It wouldn’t be so bad if this was optional but the fact that you have to complete at least a few of them and that they all take so long really is criminal.
Annoyingly the padding also extends into sections that are familiar from the original. There are entirely new levels that have been created out of extremely short sections and in all honesty I’m not sure they are necessary or that they add all that much. After an absolutely thrilling section where the plate is dropped onto Sector 7 (an emotional highlight from the original), all the momentum is brought to a screeching halt as you then have to do a boring 40 minute long level where you climb up to the upper city. It’s completely unnecessary and simply ruins the emotional flow you’d expect as a game builds to its climax.
The worst offences are near the end of the game, which have to be some of the worst cases of artificially extending a games playtime I’ve ever seen. The original Shinra HQ assault is one of the best sections of the game as it’s a brilliant example of the parameters of the game opening up, delivered in a really clever fashion. You’re introduced to the villains, discover a lot more about how the world works, gain a new party member and then it all builds to the famously creepy introduction of Sephiroth. Following that it turns into a manic series of boss fights before a motorbike chase sees you out of the city and into the wider world. It’s a 100mph climax to the first act of the game and it’s one of the most beloved sections of the game because it works so well.
Instead of simply replicating this identically, it’s instead been slowed down to an absolute crawl in places. The car park has been changed from a small room into a long series of battles before you even get into the headquarters. The floors where you previously learnt a bit about the world have been extended into a full on VR experience and the Mayor, who previously had 1 line of dialogue, is now a full blown side character who sends you on a side quest. There is now a battle simulation arena you need to fight in and shops you can buy items at. None of this on paper sounds particularly bad but it’s just not needed. Instead of an exciting, engaging 2 hour sequence it’s drawn out into a 5-8 hour long one but with the same amount of story being delivered. The pace feels just much slower and it is far more drab despite the plethora of new content.
The worst part is the second last chapter, which takes place entirely within head scientist Hojo’s evil laboratory. Previously it was just a boss fight and a cutscene where you meet Red XIII but now it’s been drawn out into an incredibly boring series of puzzles and mini boss fights against generic new enemies that takes well over an hour. It literally adds nothing to the story and once again just brings the momentum crashing to a halt which is pretty ridiculous just a few hours from the end of the game.
In fact being totally honest, almost all of the new areas that have been added to the game don’t particularly work. I appreciate them trying to expand the characters and world but it could have easily been done in 30 hours rather than 40 and would still be a great experience. Does there really need to be a short dungeon when Cloud and Aerith travel through the ruined motorway or before we reach Jesse’s house? They don’t add anything and just obliterate the original’s brisk concise pace.
Another real low point is the games use of Sephiroth. I’m not entirely surprised but Square Enix really couldn’t help themselves but shove him into the game at almost every possible moment. You may not remember but half the reason that Sephiroth became such a popular villain is that he’s introduced extremely slowly in the original game which builds a sense of dread and mystique around him. You don’t actually even see his in-game model until after the first act and the only time you actually meet him directly is at the very end of the game. Everything about his character is delivered through things you discover in the world and flashbacks the characters discuss. It’s a fantastic way to build him up and it’s a huge reason as to why he’s such a beloved villain.
Unfortunately in the remake he appears almost non stop from the start of the game, taunting Cloud through strange visions that hint at future story beats. It’s pretty frustrating because it feels like Sephiroth in the remake is made with the expectation that the player knows exactly who he is and what he’s about rather than how it should be, which is introducing him as if he is a completely new character. In the original his ambitions and objectives aren’t clear for a long time and there are even moments where you feel sympathy for him. Here, all of that tonal nuance has been left in the 90s and instead we just have a scary bad man, who is evil because he looks and sounds evil, rather than because he actually does anything all that threatening. In fact the ironic thing is that despite him being in the game a huge amount, he does almost nothing of substance until the very end of the game.
There are also a lot of smaller issues I have with the game that maybe aren’t as big as those I just discussed but were certainly areas of frustration.
Why is Red XII not playable? This makes absolutely no sense to me other than they couldn’t be bothered to design a fully playable character for the final few chapters of the game. He’s a classic FF7 character and was one of my favourites as a kid but here he’s completely relegated to a sort of companion who just does a few hits in combat but basically contributes nothing. It’s actually even more bothersome because I think it indicates that our progress won’t carry over from Remake 1 to Remake 2 and that there will be a sort of reset in between the games. I hope I’m wrong on this but I can’t see why else they wouldn’t make a fan favourite playable.
The combat also has a few tweaks that really need to be addressed before the next game. For some reason there is a huge amount of interrupts that enemies can do to you, which means not only does your spell not activate, but you also lose your ATB charge. It’s insanely unsatisfying and would be a super easy quality of life change. Along with this there is also the absurd decision to make some spells able to completely miss. Flying enemies are almost impossible to hit with their weakness, aero, as it hits the location rather than the target as they fly around crazily. Again, this needs to be tweaked for the next game as it’s brutally unsatisfying to get a spell off only for it to whiff. The game just isn’t designed around that sort of action game mechanic.
So yeah, it’s got issues. Some pretty big ones in fact. That being said, if you look around the internet, nobody is talking about either the issues or the positives. All of the discussion is focused solely on the absolutely bonkers, unexpected changes to the story that appear most dramatically right at the end of the game. Beware, the next part is pretty intensely spoiler heavy.
So throughout the game there are new moments where weird dementor style things appear and disrupt the characters efforts and interfere with the world in general. It happens pretty constantly and near the end of the game Red XIII reveals that they are the “whispers” that protect the course of destiny, making sure that the things which are “supposed to happen, happen”.
Already we are into some very abstract JRPG territory, more akin to FF13 or Kingdom Hearts than classic 90s Final Fantasy but I’m sure most players can overlook this. The issue is that right at the end of the game, where in the original you leave Midgar and head out into the wider world, you encounter Sephiroth who creates a portal to take you to “destiny’s crossroads” in order to fight the manifestation of all of the whispers and thus destroy mankind’s preordained destiny.
The characters give some heartfelt speeches about how they won’t be controlled and how they will govern their own destinies before heading through the portal to fight against DESTINY.
So at this point we’re well away from the original and into crazy territory. The ensuing boss fight is absolutely bonkers, taking place in some strange alternative dimension and looks more like something out of Advent Children, with characters flying and leaping huge distances and large chunks of building being thrown around by a monstrous demigod. After defeating the god of the whispers and freeing humanity, Sephiroth himself descends from the heavens to fight against the gang and it’s all very intense and climactic.
After Sephiroth is defeated (yes, that’s correct), he teleports himself and Cloud out to the edge of space and delivers some very cryptic evil sound dialogue about how everything is now different and asking Cloud to join him. As if that wasn’t strange enough, suddenly Zack Fair, Cloud’s dead friend and protagonist of the prequel game FF7 Crisis Core, is seemingly resurrected in an alternative dimension? Sephiroth finally fucks off and we are left with the gang heading out into the world just like they would have normally been at this point.
To say it all makes no sense is to do it a disservice. It makes negative sense and I was left feeling insanely confused about both the direction of this game and what it’s follow ups are even going to be about. Frankly, it feels like the sequel to the remake could be about absolutely anything and I’d be amazed if we don’t see something much less close to the original’s second act.
I’ve seen some discussion saying that the whispers are a sort of meta narrative about players’ expectations and how whenever anything in the remake looks like it will diverge from the original story, the whispers intervene to stop this. The player killing the god of the whispers acts as a metaphor for the developers now feeling free to take the story in new and experimental directions – such as bringing Zack back or maybe letting the player save Aerith.
The issue I have this with is, while that’s absolutely fine if that’s the intention, why market this game as a remake if your overall intention is to fake out the remake and take 40 hours to explain why you’re going in a different direction. I feel like Square is simply trying to capitalize on the hype that they know a true remake would command while still being able to make something new and let the modern dev team have more artistic freedom.
It’s such an incredibly odd decision because we’ve seen so many recent remakes, such as the Spyro and Crash trilogies, have success by basically changing nothing outside of the graphics and some small quality of life changes. Successful remakes that have been more experimental, like Resident Evil 2 or Trails of Mana, have changed much more about how the game plays but are really hot on keeping the tone and feel identical. Resident Evil 2 might control and look like a modern AAA game but the gameplay loop is exactly the same as it was 15 years ago.
Final Fantasy 7 Remake is such a strange game because it’s trying to do even more than either of these options. It’s a total reimagining that goes even further and tries to make itself into a completely new installment in the FF7 canon. In a way, I’m actually sort of happy that they’ve taken the remake in this direction as there is absolutely no way this will replace the original FF7 as the definitive experience. It’s clearly meant to be its own separate entity and that definitely could be really interesting.
It’s just a shame that they’ve ended up with such a mixed bag. The new additions to the story are borderline incoherent and feel like a bait to get people excited about the next installment without actually adding anything of real substance. The combat is generally a good change but it definitely needs tweaks to be something really incredible although this does mean the next game could really smash this out of the park. The most egregious issue is the fact that this game really has no business being as long as it is and really should be about half the length.
The decision to split FF7 remake up into a bunch of separate entries is definitely a gamble that hasn’t paid off completely for the first installment. What it has done is set up a potential platform for future entries which could build on the great elements and smooth out some of the worse parts. Then again, this is Square Enix so there is just as much chance that they double down on the awful parts.
Much like the characters of the remake, destiny is now in the hands of the SE developers and we’ll just have to wait and see if it’s all worth it. Just please don’t make us wait 15 years for the next entry.