JRPG Journey 2022: Final Fantasy VII Remake (April)
March’s game: Various Daylife
Spring bonus game: Mother [EarthBound Beginnings]
Dang it, I’ve spent the past few months traveling and moving and have neglected writing these reviews. Ah well, here’s my review for April, with May and June coming soon:
Square just had to be Square, didn’t they? After years, no, decades, of hoping and waiting, teases and disappointments, Square finally announced what fans had been clamoring for—a remake of Final Fantasy VII. Only, that’s not what we got. For one, I want to call this game Final Fantasy VII: Remake, with a colon, because that would better describe it. It’s not a remake of Final Fantasy VII; it’s a new take on the game, again called Final Fantasy VII, with the subtitle “Remake”. More on that later.
More notably, this so-called remake, released in 2020, covers only a small part of the original game. Final Fantasy VII Remake is a modern retelling of the Midgar portion of the 1997 PlayStation original, which, if you’re unfamiliar, makes up the opening five or so hours of that game. Remake, however, is a full 40-hour Final Fantasy experience if you’re doing sidequests, and yep, it all takes place in the city of Midgar. As I’ve come to expect with Square, it looks beautiful for the most part; on the other hand, it didn’t blow me away. Square Enix has proven they can outdo the rest of the industry at visuals before—Final Fantasy XIII comes to mind—but Remake looks like just another PS4 game. I wish it stunned a little more, although it is clear lots of money went into making certain areas shine, such as Don Corneo’s mansion and Aerith’s house. Overall, though, the game looks dang good, especially in combat.
While most of the individual environments impress individually, Midgar as a setting runs out of steam about two-thirds of the way through. Despite the artists’ efforts to include varying locales, there’s still a lot of brown and gray industrial settings that grow tiresome. There’s a reason the original game didn’t spend more time in Midgar beyond disc space limitations—it’s a dingy, grimy place, and there’s only so much believable scenic variation that can be included. The devs do their best, varying the scenery as often as possible by taking the party to new areas such as the waterways (as a side note, it’s funny how they always call sewers “waterways” in game nowadays), but at the same time, they also expand areas from the PlayStation game, such as the Shinra building. Unfortunately, this works against the game more often than not. Instead of a quick jaunt through Shinra for the Midgar finale, there’s a drawn-out, chapters-long sequence that makes for unnecessary padding. It’s technically content, but I didn’t have fun wandering through 5 more long hallways of a dungeon I feel done with when I could be moving on to what I know is the next story beat. Maybe this is only a problem because I’m familiar with the original, but it happens disappointingly frequently, not just in the Shinra chapters.
Padding remains a consistent problem throughout the story and even the side quests. Yep, there’s a bunch of new side content here, and none of it is interesting. It’s content for content’s sake, padding to hit that 40-hour mark. (This worked, by the way. I did damn near everything and finished at 41 hours.) Find a bunch of kids. Go gather materials. Help out some dudes who look cool but will never be relevant again. Am I back in 2006? This kind of banal quest design and lacking character work is unacceptable in what’s supposed to be a flagship title in the flagship JRPG series. To be clear, there’s no inherent problem with fetch quests or similar design structures. There’s only so many gameplay variations devs can choose that don’t annoy the hell out of players, and quests that use established systems are better than, say, a random driving sequence or even the snowboard run from the original game. That said, Remake’s quests still aren’t good. I enjoy the game’s combat, so I don’t mind fighting a bunch of battles while retreading ground to find some trinket, but quests should tie into something interesting or relevant to the gameplay or overall story. Instead, they’re all boring.
No amount of character work would make me care about the people of Sector 6 as much as Square wants me to, when any fan knows this story isn’t about them. Not directly, anyway—of course the goal is to save the planet and therefore its people, but Midgar is the opening, the setup, the catalyst that sets off the party’s journey. It’s a sad situation for everyone in the slums, but FFVII is a massive RPG with a huge world. I can wrap my head around the concept of the planet’s energy needing to be saved without spending 15 hours yucking it up with a bunch of NPCs I’ll never see again. Mercifully, the writers of the original game knew this. That’s why they only spent a few hours there, more than enough time to get to know some characters, understand the world’s plight, set up Cloud’s story... and then get the heck out of there and on to better things. Midgar was my least my favorite part of the original, and it’s shocking how much time and money Square put into fully realizing it here, all for no apparent reason. Why not 20 hours in Midgar, then another 20 on the road, crossing the desert, and exploring Kalm? With all the story changes already present, it wouldn’t be strange to add some climax at that point to end this first game on. I wasn’t asking for the game we got, and I still wish it were structured differently.
What’s even crazier is many of the original writers worked on this game. To be fair, they may have some grand plan in mind, what with how they changed up the ending and other plot events via the Whispers, which play a mysterious role as arbiters of fate and seem to indicate we’re in for some major story changes going forward. I wouldn’t be surprised if Aerith doesn’t get killed, for instance, which I’m conflicted over. On the one hand, I want to see the story I love represented on today’s hardware, but on the other, I wouldn’t mind leaving well enough alone in favor of a brand new story featuring similar characters and situations. I’m concerned Square will achieve neither of these, and given all the padding and seemingly haphazard changes, I suspect they’re flying by the seat of their pants here. That can lead to great things, so I’ll reserve judgment until part two.
Alright, based on what I’ve written so far, you might get the impression I hate Final Fantasy VII Remake. Hold your horses. I enjoyed it quite a lot and wanted to get my grievances out of the way first. However, I liked it for different reasons than usual for JRPGs, which brings me to a question that I’ve been turning over in my mind since playing Remake: Would I have enjoyed this game at all had I not played the original?
Final Fantasy VII Remake skates by almost purely on nostalgia, music, and the combat, and the sad part is that it works. I liked this game despite the excessive padding, boring quests, and lame setting. It delivers a thrill so well and so consistently that I’d forget about what I didn’t like about the game and continue pushing forward. This thrill comes from seeing environments and set pieces that made a huge impression on me before, now rendered in modern graphics with a modern orchestra to back them. And I’m not even an OG fan of the original—I first played it in 2020, so that should tell you something about how much I love Final Fantasy VII, and I’ve got to attribute a lot of that love to the music, which gets the royal treatment in Remake.
Final Fantasy VII has one of my favorite game soundtracks ever. As I play more JRPGs, that hasn’t changed, and the composers of Remake truly go all out in this one. The best track, if you ask me, has always been the battle theme, which the game relentlessly teases you with from the get-go, never playing the full theme and instead taking different sequences from the track and orchestrating them in new and creative ways. Every once in a while, you’ll get a rendition that starts from the beginning, but it never progresses into the full track that’s been seared into the brains of fervent fans for decades until near the end of the game. The rest of the music is more of less what you might expect—high energy, bombastic renditions of all the classic tracks, sounding better than ever before, even if I don’t ultimately prefer the new versions. My only complaint is that the directors didn’t hesitate from using even late-game songs from the original, leaving little of that sweet Nobuo magic in the well to draw from the sequels. Then again, you could view this as a challenge for the composers to impress us with brand new tracks going forward, so I can’t complain too much. And yeah, the sequel’s recently revealed title, Final Fantasy VII Rebirth, all but confirms we’re in for lots of major changes. Square’s no longer pretending this is a remake; it’s confirmed to be its own story, whatever that ends up meaning. No doubt, this is how they plan to fit the rest of the original game’s content into only two more installments, which excites me.
Alright, let’s talk about the combat. In short, it’s fun. After the XIII series and now this game, though, I’m ready for something new. Granted, I haven’t played FFXV yet, so maybe that one changes up things up, but this feels largely like more of the same, as far as recent Final Fantasy games go. It’s still got the stagger gauge system, where you build up a meter to knock down the enemy before dealing serious damage. only with more freedom. Instead of set roles for each member, you rely on party AI, and thankfully you can change which character you control on the fly, since the AI is only serviceable. This feels intended by the devs, though. For tougher battles, and especially on Hard mode, you’ll be swapping characters constantly, using Tifa to rush in to build stagger, or Barrett for cover fire, or Cloud for raw damage once the enemy’s down. That’s all part of the fun, and it’s a decent way of representing how the player controlled each party member in the original. That said, it doesn’t feel as fresh as I would have liked. I’m ready for a total rethinking of action combat for JRPGs personally, but hey, we’ve come a long way already, and FFVII make some other nice changes. I love how weapons embody different play styles instead of being strict upgrades over each other. And speaking of upgrades, you customize your weapons as you level up, a simple yet impactful addition that’s both fun and worth spending time on. I don’t mind admitting this kind of menu management tickles some deep part of my primal, lizard brain, and I can easily spend a half an hour just customizing my party getup. You can also ignore it and do just fine, if that’s your fancy.
That brings me to materia, which had me worried going into Remake. Final Fantasy VII’s materia make for my favorite JRPG combat customization system, and I couldn’t imagine it translating well to a 3D action game. I’m glad to say I was mostly wrong. My only complaint about Remake’s materia is that many of them feel useless, or at least not useful enough to run in your load-out, but that was also a problem in the original. Since there’s two more games planned, we’ve got some super cool materia to look forward to as well, so hopefully those’ll give combat more flavor going forward. Otherwise, using materia is fun as ever. There’s even brand new materia, most of which tie into the also-new weapon ability system. These abilities are work just like spells but are unique to a character or their weapon and essentially turn the game into something completely different. These are by far the best way to deal damage to most bosses, and if anything, they overtake and outshine materia and traditional spells as the go-to combat system. And yeah, it’s a blast to play. A younger me might have minded these changes more, and sure, I’d prefer a turn-based Final Fantasy in 1080p above anything else. But I also like action RPGs, I know Square committed to this direction long ago, and the original FFVII ain’t going anywhere, so I don’t mind Square trying something new. It mostly works, but I hope they try to keep evolving instead of stagnating.
The game’s boss variety impressed me as well. Each requires a unique strategy to defeat, or at least eliminates a common or obvious strategy, forcing you to master the game’s systems and think about how each character can contribute. If you don’t, you’re gonna get stomped even on Normal difficulty. I appreciate the challenge. It’s not even hard, it’s just not brain dead easy like so many Final Fantasies have been, and certainly tougher than the original FFVII. I’d put it about on par with FFXIII’s difficulty, so props to Square for that.
Before I get out of here and on to catching up with May’s review, a few last thoughts on the story: I love how Jessie and the rest of Barrett’s crew saw plenty of fleshing out. That’s the kind of development I want to spend time on, not some random townspeople’s. Jessie’s personality popped this time around, and I found myself struggling to remember if she was this cool in the original. Barrett, on the other hand, is written too stereotypically to interest me much. I mean, he’s basically B. A. from the A-Team. I don’t mind this, he’s fun, but there’s not much to him, and the Marlene plot never worked for me, in the original or Remake. Tifa, surprisingly, felt a little flat for me too, and I found it hard to care about Aerith’s story when it’s harped on in great detail. All of this stuff works better when condensed into a prologue of sorts, which of course, is exactly what the original game does. Again, I’m back to the point that there’s an excruciating amount of padding and boring content in Remake. And overall, the story doesn’t satisfy me. The decision to make Sephiroth the final boss of the first part puzzles me, because now if he remains the ultimate final boss, that’ll be disappointing—sort of a “been there, done that” vibe. My best hope is the story goes in a completely new direction with a satisfying and well-written new final boss, but that’s likely a pipe dream. We’ll see, though. While I’m optimistic and looking forward to Rebirth, I’m also not over-the-moon hyped.
Join me soon for May’s belated review, where I’ll discuss Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride, one of the most beloved games in the long-running Dragon Quest series.