Hello, old friend.
Final Fantasy 7 Remake lied to me. It is not Final Fantasy 7 remade. Instead, it’s Final Fantasy 7 reimagined — and boldly at that.
New characters and subplots are introduced within the first hour, and stylish real-time action replaces the turn-based combat the original was known for. Most boldly, the Remake that hits store shelves on April 10 is not the entire Final Fantasy 7. It’s part one of the saga, taking the 1997 original’s first act and making a full game of it.
This might sound like risky business if you’re one of the 11 million people that played the PlayStation 1 classic. But the highest praise I can heap on this remake is that it’ll please those of you who have waited almost 15 years to play it.
If you’re in that group, this review is of little consequence. You’re going to buy the game no matter what. But what if you’ve never played the original? That’s OK, this is a judgment-free zone. All you need to know is Final Fantasy 7 Remake looks stunning and feels satisfying.
Either way, you need to play this game.
Less is more
The boldest change from original to Remake is splitting one game into many. We don’t know how many installments the Final Fantasy 7 story will be told over, though director Tetsuya Nomura said work on part two is already underway.
Regardless, this is still a full-length Final Fantasy game; I dilly-dallied a little with side quests, and clocked the game in just under 40 hours. Yet it takes place entirely in Midgar. Fans of the original will be bummed to not see The Golden Saucer, Cosmo Canyon and other illustrious locales, but this is an example of less being more.
Final Fantasy VII Remake is a dystopia for our times. It revolves around Shinra, a juggernaut electricity company that extracts life force (Mako) from the earth and turns it into energy. Doing so is slowly killing the planet. Sound familiar? Midgar itself is plagued by wealth inequality, split into two main sections separated by a massive plate: A suit-filled modern city on top and indigent slums below.
You play as Cloud Strife, a former member of Shinra’s “Soldier” military force. Now working as a mercenary, you team up with an eco-terrorist group called Avalanche. Disgusted by Shinra’s avaricious destruction of the planet, Avalanche endeavors to teach Shinra a lesson — by blowing up Mako reactors. Obviously.
Story beats are similar to the original, but there are notable differences. That becomes evident in the second chapter, when you’re confronted by the presence of mysterious, cloaked ghosts. (Think Dementors from Harry Potter.) More significant is the shift in framing. In 1997, this section ultimately served as a buildup for Sephiroth, the game’s main villain, to steal the show. That’s not the case here.
Sephiroth returns, but mostly takes a backseat to Shinra as the game’s villain.
Spending the entire 40 hours in Midgar allows you to get to know several characters better. 2020 technology, including the best character models I’ve seen in a game, helps with this too. Wedge, a bit player in the original, becomes a more substantial, loveable character here, for instance. And story elements that were previously warm ups for Sephiroth now feel like more legitimate subplots.
There’s a tradeoff here. While Midgar, Shinra and Avalanche are worthy of the spotlight they receive, the narrow focus does diminish the epic scale of the original. Regardless, this feels like a thoughtful, substantial part of a larger story — exactly what the first game in a series is meant to be.
Once you adjust to thinking of Final Fantasy 7 as a franchise rather than a game, 7 Remake becomes a lot easier to understand.
That’s not to say there aren’t problems. The pacing of the story is inconsistent, especially toward the end. There’s contrived padding, too — a few locked doors require a conspicuous amount of legwork to unlock, and one chapter is extended by 20 minutes because a rat steals a key at an inopportune time. Attempts to include Sephiroth-related story elements, which almost entirely occurred after Midgar in the original, are sometimes awkward.
But despite these issues, the incredibly bold transition is almost entirely a successful one.
New era, new combat
Final Fantasy 7 Remake’s combat also successfully makes a bold transition. Square Enix has taken a title synonymous with turn-based combat and turned it into a fresh real-time action game. Yet there remains some turn-based flavor to stoke the nostalgia of those who played the original.
You’ll perform regular attacks like you would in a game like Devil May Cry or Kingdom Hearts. But when your Active Time Battle (ATB) gauge fills up — which it’ll do after you cause damage, take damage or block damage — you can slow the battle to bullet time and cast magic, perform abilities, use items and more.
It’s a rewarding and stylish combat system. At times you’ll feel like the ultimate fiend hunter as you Rambo your way through a hoard. Other times you’ll need to be far more strategic, slowing combat down at particular times to take advantage of attack patterns and enemy weaknesses.
Again, there are faults. The camera can be problematic. You’ll often struggle to see enemies outside of your character’s field of vision. Since most enemy attacks interrupt actions like healing and item use, this can be frustrating and sometimes makes battles feel driven by luck.
The materia system — magic orbs that slot into your weapons and armor, allowing you to use magic and other abilities — feels a little out of place, too. The fast-paced action rewards attacks more so than strategy around casting buffs to your party or inflicting status ailments on enemies. As a result, you’ll likely use a narrower variety of materia than in the original.
Regardless, the developers did so much right here. The difficulty is just right, forcing you to strategize without punishing players too harshly. Boss battles are reliably exhilarating. And, like everything else in the game, the combat is visually marvelous.
As far as risky bets go, between combat and story, Square Enix goes two for two here.
Wall Market. Bad things happen to good people here.
A love letter
Final Fantasy 7 Remake is a spectacle, easily one of the best-looking games I’ve ever played. But the man hours that went into it are evident beyond its technical prowess. It’s not just how visually arresting the game is: The environments, from the neon Wall Market red light district to the sterile Mako reactors, are dense with detail and feel like they live and breathe.
The cynic in me suspects Square Enix is splitting the game into multiple parts so they can enjoy multiple paydays. But it’s hard to care when the first entry is so carefully and lovingly made.
Like all major Final Fantasy releases, this game launches with questions about its legacy. Does it do justice to the original? Is it as good as previous groundbreaking games in the franchise? Was it worth the 15 year wait? The first two questions can only be answered in the coming years, depending largely on how well subsequent parts are crafted. The third question is a hard yes.
New or old fan, Final Fantasy 7 Remake is worth your $60 and then some.