Truth be told, I was never the biggest fan of Final Fantasy VII. The iconic RPG was perhaps my least favorite of the PSX trilogy. I understand its importance to the history of gaming, but it never resonated with me the way it did with others. Does that mean it was a bad game? Absolutely not. It’s still a Square effort, and even the worst entries in the series are still good. However, there’s certainly room for improvement, which is the main reason why Final Fantasy VII Remake appealed to me.
It would, of course, be a little disingenuous to refer to this as a straight remake. For starters, it doesn’t cover the entire events of the original game. This is only the first part of Square Enix’s re-imagining of the story, but that doesn’t mean it skimps on the content. Instead, it expands upon one element of the original that represented a portion of that title. It beefs up the intro sections and expands upon the world and the franchise’s lore. It’s a project that’s both for fans who have wanted this for so long, and newcomers who may want to dip their toes into the fandom.
For the uninitiated, though, Final Fantasy VII tells the tale of Cloud Strife. A former soldier turned mercenary who finds himself entwined with the rebel group known as Avalanche. What starts as a one-off job soon develops into an epic confrontation against the malicious Shinra corporation. Cloud has more reason to go after Shinra then just money, but that motivation is something the quiet merc tends to keep to himself. His sullen attitude is a bit of an issue when it comes to his fellow fighters, though, as the likes of Barret, Tifa, and Aerith are on the more personable side. Regardless of their differences, the unlikely group of freedom fighters will need to work together in order to wrench society out from under Shinra’s thumb.
The expansion of Midgar in Final Fantasy VII Remake is both a blessing and a curse. As previously mentioned, it does a lot for building up the world of the title. Characters such as Jesse and Biggs — who only had tiny roles in the original game — get fully bumped up to supporting level, and new faces are featured prominently as well. It also opens the door to further flesh out the personalities of major players. They’re no longer just stock figures, but fully-fledged beings with quirks and emotions, which goes a long way towards letting players get invested in the story. That being said, while the experience is generally smooth, the story does drag a little during less intense moments. Certain segments feel like they were padded out just to make players appreciate the work that went into the world-building.
Another way Final Fantasy VII Remake differs from the 1997 release is how the combat engine has been remolded. The original utilized a turn-based system that employed the Active Time Battle mechanic. The remake still has ATB in place, but instead of turn-based, the combat all takes place in realtime. You can move freely around the battle arena, swap between party members with the press of a button, and decide how you are going to defend against enemy attacks. Each character’s basic strike can be used as long as they are standing, but almost everything else is tied to the ATB meter — whether you’re using an item or casting magic, you’ll be using up a segment of it.
On the outset, it might seem that there won’t be a lot of strategy to the combat engine. And perhaps that would be accurate if you play on the easiest difficulty. However, there’s no room for button-mashing here, as that’ll quickly get your party wiped out. In reality, you need to think critically; not only the actions of the character you control but also the other members of the party. Do you spend a portion of your ATB bar on casting a potion to heal a weakened ally? Or do you hope they can hold out a little longer so you can deliver a special maneuver?
As a battle unfolds, each character also has a meter that charges up for an ability that doesn’t count towards the ATB meter. Some of these abilities are special attacks, such as an uppercut from Tifa, and others are time-based abilities, like Cloud going into Punisher mode. Again, it’s just another thing you’ll need to juggle during the heat of battle. Additional ATB-based abilities can also be unlocked by experimenting with different weapons. Once these skills have been mastered on their original weapon, they can then be used across all weapons for that specific character. You can also upgrade these individual items in different ways so that you can roll them out for different scenarios.
The combat system also benefits from the amount of creativity afforded to you. Between different Materia, weapons, armor, and accessories, you can really set your party up how you see fit. This allows you to decide which character will fit a traditional battle archetype. For example, you can position Aerith as a medic or Cloud as the up-close specialist. Since Materia can be easily moved from one ally to another, it’s fun and easy to experiment with your line-up. It adds another wrinkle to a combat engine that is already deeper than it initially appears.
I think what ultimately makes the combat a success in Final Fantasy VII Remake is that it throws a lot at you, but it never feels overwhelming. It’s easy enough to get into the rhythm of the combat, and figure out when to best utilize your stronger abilities. And since it is easy to get a grip on, you can spend more time appreciating how these encounters are crafted, specifically the boss battles. These are multi-tiered events that are not only uniquely cinematic but also highly enjoyable to take part in. The craftsmanship and care that Square Enix put into each and every one of them is evident. The change from turn-based to real-time was a necessity, and thankfully, it’s been pulled off with great success.
The excellent action setpieces help dull the tedium of some of the padding that pops up repeatedly throughout the campaign. As a burgeoning mercenary, Cloud often takes on tasks that various NPCs offer up for him when he arrives at a new location. These tasks are more like chores, though, and often grind the momentum of the title to a halt. Clearing out enemies in a factory or rounding up a class of orphans kind of feels like a waste of Cloud’s superior abilities. It still feels necessary to do carry out these tasks, though, as the rewards tend to be valuable, and the additional stat-boosting is important. I just wish that they made them more interesting to actually take part in.
Even with these less-than-exciting side-quests, I still loved the time I spent in the many worlds of Final Fantasy VII Remake. Exploring the slums and listening to the gossip from the locals. Taking in the hedonism of Wall Market. Soaking up the view from up on the plates. Every location is filled with unique details and awe-inspiring visuals that make them worth examining in detail. A lot of them tend to use similar design tropes, though, specifically cinematic looking corridors. When the same transition set-up is used repeatedly, you tend to notice rather quickly.
For the most part, Final Fantasy VII Remake is one of the best looking titles of this generation. The main character models are stunning and life-like, with each of them doing justice to their iconic originals. They look remarkably realistic but manage to skirt past the uncanny valley. And as mentioned, the environments are downright gorgeous. Bold colors, packed with detail and varied throughout. However, some of the NPCs clearly did not get the same love. It’s hilarious watching a scene transition from Cloud to some rando he may be talking to. The difference in detail is noticeable, to say the least.
It may not be what many expected, but Final Fantasy VII Remake is an excellent RPG that puts its own twist on the iconic favorite. The storyline is well developed and fleshes out the cast in interesting and necessary ways. I can’t even get into what I really loved about it without going deep into spoiler territory. What makes the game truly shine, though, is the deep and dynamic combat engine. I loved pretty much every aspect of it, and it was good enough to even make up for the slower moments of the campaign. After all this time, it’s a miracle that we not only got this remake but that it turned out as well as it did.
This review was based on the PlayStation 4 version of the title. A copy was provided to us by Square Enix.
Final Fantasy VII Remake may not be what fans were expecting, but that's far from a bad thing. Square Enix has delivered a remarkable RPG that upgrades the iconic title with beautiful graphics, an expanded world, and first-rate combat.