written by Kate Danvers
To the people I once told to stop holding on to false hope that a Final Fantasy VII remake would ever come out, I would like to humbly say I was wrong…though not really, because TECHNICALLY–
I thought about going into the history of this game and what it meant for JRPGs, the Final Fantasy series, and games in general, but since everyone else has talked about that, I’m going to say what it means to me.
Apart from renting the early Final Fantasy games from the local video store, I didn’t have much exposure to the series until I started seeing commercials for Final Fantasy VII in the late ’90s. It was all pre-rendered stuff, but it looked cool. I didn’t have a PlayStation, though, so oh well. I could still listen to people in my classes talk about the game.
Years later, I bought the PC release of Final Fantasy VIII and I finally completed a proper Final Fantasy game. When I eventually bought a PlayStation, one of the games I got was Final Fantasy VII. The shift in the art style from FFVIII kind of threw me at first, but I became really engaged with the story and the characters. It didn’t matter that everyone was a chibi person with Popeye arms; the gameplay and the story immersed me in a rich world. My imagination filled in any gaps left by the graphics and hardware limitations. That’s why, even with its extremely aged graphics, the game absolutely holds up to this day.
I didn’t think FFFVII needed a remake, but its cultural impact is undeniable. A lot of people were demanding a remake, so we got one (in an unspecified number of parts), and the first one is just titled “Final Fantasy VII: Remake.”
The game opens with a shot of a bird flying into Midgar, the main setting of the game. We’re shown a montage of life in the city before it transitions to night and the original intro of the game with Aerith leaving an alley, walking to the street, and looking up as the camera pulls out to show the full city. And that, in a nutshell, is what most of the remake is. They’ve taken the old, prettied it up a lot, and expanded not only the story, but the world itself.
Gameplay has undergone the biggest change out of everything. Gone is the turn-based combat of the ATB (Active Time Battle) system. You’re free to run around the environment and do simple attacks like you’re in a beat-’em-up or hack-and-slash game. Using items, spells, and the Limit Break system are all still on a timer, though you can speed things up with simple attacks. I was worried this wouldn’t really work and wouldn’t feel true enough to the original, but like many things, it pays homage to the original while being its own thing.
Outside of battle, you’ll do the normal RPG stuff – talking to NPCs, accepting side quests, and exploring the world. And wow, is there a lot to do. Environments that were a single screen before are now several blocks in size. NPCs who had maybe one line of dialogue in the original now have broader characterization and even entire side plots. Optional side quests not only expand the world, but also affect main characters in minor ways.
All told, this game – with forty-plus hours of content – covers the first five to seven hours of the original FFVII’s plot. Things have been expanded and elaborated on, but nothing feels padded or like the plot is dragging its heels. Nor does it come off as a tiny chapter in a larger story. I considered holding off on a proper review until all parts of the game were out, but despite its cliffhanger, FFVII Remake feels like a self-contained story. It’s less like Part One of an episodic game, like Life is Strange, and more like the first movie of a trilogy. Yeah, we’re sequel-baited in the end, but to call this a small part of a larger game would be like calling a Star Wars film a small part of a larger movie.
Is this a good substitute for the original game if you haven’t played the original? No. And I say that not just because Remake doesn’t cover the entirety of what the original did, but because they’re really two different things that will give you very different experiences. It’s possible to play Remake without playing the original, and I’m sure anyone would have a good time with that. However, as I’d long suspected, it is not a 1:1 remake of the original, even for the slice of the game it covers.
The original FFVII and Remake complement each other very well. If you’re a fan of the original, there will be parts of Remake you’ll enjoy more because of nostalgia. However, Square-Enix is very careful about using nostalgia as a crutch. Remake is a Final Fantasy VII game, not a game about Final Fantasy VII. Yes, there’s fan service and winks at those who played the original, but that’s not the intent. It’s telling an old story in a new way, while making sure that it’s as enjoyable for someone playing their first Final Fantasy game as it is for someone who’s played the original FFVII to completion a dozen times.
It’s difficult to elaborate on why all of that is, and I’m dodging around something I haven’t mentioned for spoiler reasons. So for those of you who want to go in mostly blind, I’ll wrap up here with a strong recommendation for Final Fantasy VII: Remake. It’s a brilliantly told story with gorgeous visuals and addictive gameplay.
Now if you really want to know what I’ve been avoiding saying, I’m going to break things up with a nice little spoiler warning and then get into the complicated stuff.
MORE INTENSE SPOILERS BELOW THE SCREENSHOT
So…things have changed in Remake, and whether that’s good or bad will come down to personal preference, but this is where I fall on that: There was never going to be a 1:1 remake of Final Fantasy VII. It’s just not feasible. You can’t just upgrade the graphics and add voice acting without evolving the game design. For one thing, most environments were floating floors with three walls attached to them. To make it fully 3-D, you would have to expand those, and then you would have to make the environments larger so as not to make them feel claustrophobic. Then you would have that big overworld with lots of empty space between important locations and full of random battles, which wouldn’t be fun in a modern game, so you’d have to redo that.
The point is, remaking a game from 1997 with modern game design and philosophy is impossible. I think the developers of Remake knew that, because not only did they expand environments, plots, and characters in the ways I’ve previously mentioned, but they also added an element that fundamentally changes bits of the story and has the potential to change much more going forward. While not initially as drastic in its premise, Remake could potentially be as different from FFVII as Abrams’ Star Trek reboot films are from the original series.
I won’t go into what has changed or the narrative force behind it, but suffice to say that even fans intimately familiar with the story of the original will find surprises in Remake. There were parts that made me exclaim “Oh shit!” before wondering where exactly they’re going with this thing. Honestly, they could go anywhere with this premise, and that includes deviating from major plot points of the original – yes, I’m talking about that moment. That could be different. And really, that gives me more hope for Remake more than anything else. Hopefully it will be its own thing full of surprises, just as the original was.
If you’re totally new to Final Fantasy VII, you may not get all of the references, notice the changes, or be as shocked by them. The game will catch you up the best it can and does an admirable job of letting you know that something is amiss. You won’t feel like you’re missing out on anything, and I think that’s what separates it from a lot of other fanservice-heavy things.
…All right, look, I’ll cast that shade – it’s going to be easier to follow than Advent Children.
I don’t think I would have enjoyed a 1:1 remake quite as much as I enjoyed Remake. I don’t think I’d be looking forward to a sequel quite so much, either. It has all of the elements to make this into its own thing rather than being stuck repeating the past. Final Fantasy VII: Remake does exactly what it says on the box: It remakes FFVII, and not just with a fresh coat of paint and some rather good voice acting. In 1997, the original told us a story, and in 2020 the remake is using the elements we love to tell us a new one.
Square-Enix’s Final Fantasy VII: Remake is available now on the Sony PlayStation 4. Kate has her own theme song to rival “One-Winged Angel” that’s full of Latin choruses and shit, and it’s coming to her SoundCloud soon – check for updates on Twitter @WearyKatie.