Final Fantasy VII is the most iconic entry in Square Enix’s venerable series. It may not be everyone’s favorite, but it’s the one that’s most deeply ingrained in gaming history, and certainly seems to have inspired the largest quantity of merchandise and spin-off media. Plus, none of the other games would have caused such a stir at the announcement of a remake (whether or not that turns out to be a good idea, or ever actually appears).
There’s a good reason for all this. Final Fantasy VII is full of moments, ideas and places that continue to hold the imagination long after the final boss has been defeated. Its design and the intricacies of its systems demand and reward attention in a way that few other games can. Now it’s finally available on a Nintendo console for the first time, in its lightly remastered form, and despite some signs of aging, it’s still an extraordinary experience.
At the core of the game’s success is its characters, each of which is crafted with great care and given plenty of space to shine. While it’s the central character, Cloud, who drives your journey forward, it’s often the supporting cast that stands out. These are intriguing and relatable individuals who are enjoyable to spend time with and easy to root for, and they all contribute to the sense of common purpose that builds throughout the game.
The aims of your quest are equally motivating. You’re quickly thrown into a fight against corporate corruption, environmental degradation and economic disparity, themes which may even resonate more today than when the game was first released. The world design keeps this sense of social injustice running throughout, not least with the contrast between its locations. Elite beach resorts exist in close proximity to military installations and run down mining towns, while the Gold Saucer, a flamboyant and garish amusement park, towers over a prison slum constructed from its garbage.
The opening act, in particular, is a master class in world and story crafting that puts many newer games to shame. The pacing is immaculate, throwing you into the action immediately, switching between exploration, combat and set pieces, and weaving exposition into the unfolding events. It also gradually introduces the game’s iconic villain, Sephiroth, creating a foreboding mythos that stays with you throughout. It’s the perfect groundwork for the more conventional RPG structure that follows.
None of this would count for much if the combat and leveling systems weren’t up to scratch, but fortunately, they remain compelling. The ‘ATB’ or Active Time Battle format brings urgency to the turn-based battles, while ‘limit breaks’ – a kind of super attack – add a tactical dimension. But the real magic ingredient is ‘materia’, colored stones that slot into your weapons and armor to bestow various spells and abilities. As well as their basic uses, you can link certain types together to create additional effects. A fire materia, for example, allows you to cast fire spells, but connect it to an elemental stone, and it can also raise fire defense or add fire damage to attacks. Other abilities stack in interesting ways. You might give one character an HP boost and have them attract all enemy attacks, then give them a counter attack so they respond to each hit in kind. Crucially, while each character has base stats that make them more suited to certain roles, there are no limitations on who can equip which materia. You could have multiple characters equipped with the same skills, or spread defensive spells across the party. It’s an immensely flexible system.
If anything, all this depth is a little too well hidden. It’s mostly quite easy to progress in Final Fantasy VII without putting much thought into your set up, so you could miss a lot of the potential for creative play. On the plus side, that does mean there’s not much need for grinding if you simply want to get through the game. Only if you intend to tackle the ample end game content will you have to truly grasp how it all works and do some concerted XP farming. But even if you don’t, it’s worth seeking out some of the more interesting materia to see what it can do.
Of course, despite its timeless qualities, Final Fantasy VII is still a 22-year-old game, and other aspects have aged less well. Inevitably, the first thing you’ll notice is the visuals. The low-res, pre-rendered backgrounds are beautifully drawn and stuffed with detail, but look grainy and blurred (although less so on the small Switch screen). The contrast between them and the low polygon characters, which have been given an HD overhaul, can make it feel like Cloud and co aren’t so much in the world as floating on top of it. And because of this, spaces aren’t always easy to navigate, especially with the fixed camera angles, which are impressively cinematic but not always practical. It’s not always clear where the path forward is, or which objects you can move around.
Another thing that’s confusing is the game’s writing. Frankly, the script, or at least its translation from Japanese, is poor. Instructions and explanations can be misleading (hint: DON’T attack when its tail is up), and dialogue often seems oddly frivolous. or contains non-sequiturs that leave you wondering what you’ve missed. After all these years a better translation should be standard.
As for the story, it shows how far we’ve come since the 90s. The main narrative arc is still excellent but gets itself entangled in unnecessary complications, and some of the individual episodes are almost childishly structured. It’s not the humor and intentional silliness that grate, in fact, it’s nice to have the contrast between the serious themes and the daft daily adventures of the crew. Rather it’s the contrived nature of certain situations, such as when the group thinks there’s a spy in their midst and no one has a clue who it might be, even though there’s a very obvious candidate.
In gameplay terms, most cracks are papered over by this version’s quality-of-life additions. Most significant is the ability to triple the game’s speed with a click of the left stick, which is very handy for traversing the world map and fighting lesser battles, or when you’re using a lot of summoning magic. Alternatively, if you want to make life easier, press the right stick to instantly max out your limit attacks, or both sticks together to switch off random battles altogether. It’s not a good idea to rely on these last two options too much, but they’re welcome when you want to explore without interruption or get over the line in a boss battle.
Unfortunately, these features can’t do much to improve some of the mini-games you’ll encounter on your journey. The motorbike chase early on is still decent, but snowboarding and submarining aren’t much fun, and the less said about the tower defense game the better. Chocobo racing also quickly becomes a bore (even sped up) and needs to be done a lot to access certain late-game rewards. At least if you simply want to complete the game, none of these distractions block your progress for long, and some are entirely optional.
Most Importantly, the game’s problems never really sour the experience, and one big reason for that remains to be mentioned: the soundtrack. Whenever the visuals or the script can’t convey the weight or subtleties of events, or whenever an action sequence or mini-game drags, the music holds everything together. It’s one of the greatest scores in all of gaming, and constantly works to invoke the personality of each individual and location, and bring the emotional moments home. It makes the action more exciting and fun. It makes you feel anger, despair, and joy. Yes, it might even make you cry.
Overall, replaying Final Fantasy VII shows why a remake could be such a big deal. Much of its content is still so pleasing that it only seems to need some modern tweaks to turn it into an all-new classic. The question is, could a remake ever recapture the unique feel and style that makes the game so appealing? Those old graphics do have a particular charm, after all, and that music is central to the experience. So even it feels dated in some ways, there’s nothing quite like the original.
This review is based on the Nintendo Switch version of the game. A copy was provided by Square Enix.
The rough edges may be more prominent these days, but Final Fantasy VII is still one of the greatest JRPGs ever, with unsurpassed character design, world building, party customization, and music.