There are many ghosts in Final Fantasy VII Remake. There are the strange phantoms that haunt our characters from the first chapters of the game, looming in the background for the rest of its runtime. There are ghosts of wartime trauma that protagonist Cloud Strife is confronted with and arrested by. But the most significant might be the specter of expectations, of the long development cycle that’s finally arrived at its destination 15 years after Square-Enix teased the possibility of a remake with a tantalizing PS3 tech demo.
1997’s Final Fantasy VII is the ghost of JRPGs past, a titanic achievement that popularized its previously niche genre. It created the template for the medium’s next decade of storytelling, and defined Sony’s budding PlayStation platform as the premiere platform for video game storytelling. That’s the weight on director Tetsuya Nomura’s shoulders. Luckily, fans can breathe a sigh of relief: Final Fantasy VII Remake is a powerful experience, and signals the first chapter in what is beginning to reveal itself as a considerable epic.
But all is not well in Midgar: the game is both blessed and cursed by its excess. Spectacular action sequences sit here alongside dull fetch quests. It contains some of this franchise’s most visually stunning environments, and some of the ugliest. It’s marred by a number of strange issues, like the discontinuous pacing and disappearing textures. But it’s a testament to the power of Nomura’s vision that these blights on an otherwise inspired game melt away during its most thrilling sequences, of which there are many.
Final Fantasy VII Remake takes place in the city of Midgar, a metropolis divided along class lines. Midgar sits on a giant suspended metal plate run by the nefarious Shinra Electric Power Company, who keep the city under its yoke in an authoritarian police state. Midgar’s poor live below the plate, in a sprawling network of slums. Everything in Midgar is powered by a substance called Mako, the source of the planet’s life-force, that is both extracted and burned in Midgar’s eight power plants, the Mako Reactors.
Cloud, a former member of Shinra’s elite military force known as SOLDIER, sets out as a mercenary, and is hired by the environmentalist group AVALANCHE to aid in their infiltration and bombing of a Mako Reactor. To Shinra, AVALANCHE are terrorists. But to their sympathizers, many of whom live in the undercity, they’re freedom-fighters and revolutionaries willing to use extreme methods to protect the planet from Shinra. Barret Wallace leads a particularly radical splinter cell of AVALANCHE committed to radical action by any means necessary, including violence.
The implications of Final Fantasy VII have always been deeply political. Its core themes, the pillaging of the environment, the toll of revolutionary violence, and the militarization of the state, have only become more potent as time’s passed. Few games dare to tackle the thorny subject matter of revolutionary action. It’s this strange juxtaposition of political intrigue and high-octane action that’s given it such staying power.
Unfortunately, the approach to characterization is less bold. If you’re looking for totally unique characters, you won’t find them in Final Fantasy VII Remake. They range from well-trodden tropes to actual stereotypes. Wedge is the fat comic relief character who loves food. Barret is the gruff Mr. T clone who may be lacking in intellect, but has a heart of gold. And Cloud is the icy tough guy with a dark past. We’ve seen it all before. Luckily, the character writing here is sharp enough that players will still find themselves caring about these characters outside of their broad outlines. There’s a lot of witty banter and sharp back-and-forth party chatter that endears us to the cast, and sometimes they break out of their molds in unexpected ways.
The best of the bunch is Tifa, a clever and conflicted young woman who believes in AVALANCHE’s cause but is wracked with guilt over the lives they take in pursuit of it. She’s well-acted by Britt Baron from the Netflix series GLOW, and it’s a joy to see her character interactions with Cloud and Barret expand the scope of their inner worlds. Although the party won’t win any awards for originality, they’re fleshed out in a way that keeps their presence endearing.
But when Final Fantasy VII Remake aims for sentiment, the results are more mixed. Many of the game’s big emotional moments involve Barret and his relationship with his daughter. But I never found him to be a convincing character. He’s always cranked to eleven and then some, but his character beats would have landed better if they’d occasionally drawn back instead of always aiming for such an over-the-top delivery. But when characters are firing lightning bolts from their giant swords while straddling the back of a futuristic motorcycle, it’s clear that subtlety is not the remake’s preferred register, and that’s fair enough.
In many ways, it’s for the better. The level of action spectacle on display here is a sight to behold. At times, the main story path feels relentless, with scene after brilliant scene ratcheting up the tension. The original Final Fantasy VII was renowned for its state-of-the-art cutscenes, and the remake lives up to that high standard. There’s a wonderful sense of scale as the camera travels through the city streets. From the construction workers toiling to build a new road to the children riding their bikes down a hillside, Nomura understands the language of kinetic storytelling. He creates the sensation of a real city, bustling with life on every social strata, alien yet familiar.
Yet for whatever reason, when the game starts building an exciting pace, it frequently slams on the brakes. The pacing of some of these sequences is all over the place. There’s a lot of slow-squeezing through tight cracks and forced slow walking, perhaps to disguise loading. There are so many moments when I found myself excited to see the next story beat, to find the end of the thread Square-Enix was weaving, only for the game to slow down and insist I save a group of generic schoolkids from some baddies or take another trip through a reused sewer dungeon.
If you’ve played Final Fantasy XV, you’ll be familiar with the general approach to worldbuilding here. It’s a peculiar place, where every NPC seems to be dressed in clothes from a thrift-store, while the main characters walk around in a mix of haute-couture and bondage gear. And although the style is similar to XV, there’s a bit more substance. Though these environments are much smaller than that game’s sprawling open world, it feels more full, more dense with strange people and their stories. That’s largely because it focuses on tightly-packed towns rather than sprawling, empty landscapes.
Combat is the shining jewel at the heart of Final Fantasy VII Remake. Square-Enix have created a brilliant battle system that draws from the spirit of the original while managing to feel refreshingly modern. It manages to have its cake and eat it too. It’s turn-based and real-time. It’s reactive yet strategic. And it’s a lot to take in: there’s so many moving parts to each battle that it takes a few hours for it to really gel. But when it does, it’s a glorious thing to behold. At the center of these battles is the stagger mechanic carried over from Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. It’s possible for attacks to do damage both to the enemy’s health meter and to a “stagger” meter that, upon filling up, will immobilize the enemy for a few seconds and boost attack damage.
It’s a real thrill to balance abilities in order to layer on stagger, to calculate the risk of unleashing during a powerful attack instead of hiding or blocking in the hopes of interrupting it with a stagger. There’s all sorts of calculations running in the back of the mind while combat unfolds. Should Aerith cast Barrier on Cloud to protect him from physical damage, or unleash an offensive spell with her limited ATB charges? Should Cloud focus on HP damage or stagger?
Should Tifa sit back and wait for her ATB meter to refill in order to heal, or focus on finishing off an enemy with low health? It works in perfect synergy with the revamped Materia system, which allows each party member to equip passive or active abilities that are leveled up as they’re used. It’s amazing how much of the original game’s Materia have been kept for the Remake, and although you’re sometimes inundated with duplicates, the system works well to balance builds while encouraging experimentation.
It works because of its limitations: you can’t simply spam items or abilities willy-nilly. You have to ration your moves carefully. The game encourages players to constantly switch from character to character in order to orchestrate these moves yourself. While it’s possible to issue orders to the party, their A.I. feels tepid, and it’s much better to take direct control. While some may be overwhelmed by the number of variables, I wasn’t bored for a moment of it.
I wish I could say the same for the game’s side quests, but they’re strangely inconsistent. Some of them are just boring, and feel like unnecessary padding that fails to convincingly flesh out the world of Midgar. It’s rare for any game to maintain the same level of quality in both main and side content, but the disparity here is so extreme here that I began to wonder if I was still playing the same game. The facial animations are stiff, the lip sync unsettling and robotic. During one early quest chain that involved tracking down cats for a little girl in the slums, Cloud stands up and says “this sucks.” I couldn’t help but agree.
Final Fantasy VII Remake is, at times, a stunning game to behold. Character models are incredibly detailed. The fabrics on dresses, jackets, and shirts are convincing. Animations in battle and traversal are wonderful, and environments glisten with a gritty industrial beauty. The art direction never fails, but textures often do. It’s one of the strangest things about Final Fantasy VII Remake. Textures seem to struggle to load in, leaving characters looking like clay dolls until they suddenly populate with detail ten seconds later. Entire objects and characters pop in a few feet in front of Cloud as he navigates the slums.
And, most bizarrely, some objects seem to sport textures from the PS1 era. The door to Cloud’s apartment is nearly unrecognizable, a solid gray blob where a door should be. It’s especially baffling when you enter the room and a normal-looking door is found just behind. Also worth noting are a number of flat, blurry skyboxes and backgrounds later in the game. They can be incredibly distracting. It breaks the illusion of a sprawling world when the backdrop of city streets appears as flat as a 1950s film set. It’s strange for such a high-profile, high-budget production to have so many distracting visual blips. Luckily, the frame-rate is a rock solid 30fps. I only noticed one minor drop late in the game, and it didn’t last long.
It’s interesting to compare Final Fantasy VII’s soundtrack to its new incarnation, all charming PS1 MIDI swirls replaced by grandiose orchestra hits. It’s loud, it’s blaring, and it’s not always better for it. Perhaps I’m strange for longing for the quaintness of the original soundtrack’s shimmering digital palate, but the grace of composer Nubou Uematsu’s compositions can be overpowered by the sheer weight and intensity of these new arrangements. That’s not to say there aren’t some truly spectacular tracks throughout, as one would expect, but I think it’s interesting to note that the game’s most effective tracks are its most austere, like the haunting 12-string guitar dirge that accompanies Cloud’s journey through the Sector 5 Slums.
It’s challenging to judge Final Fantasy VII Remake on its own merits, as it so clearly slots into place as the beginning of a much larger story. That’s not to say it doesn’t have a satisfactory arc and conclusion: it does. But throughout its 30-to-40 hour runtime, it leaves as many questions as answers, especially during its enigmatic conclusion. While this chapter in the saga doesn’t live up to the standard of quality set by the original, it doesn’t really need to. The team at Square-Enix are doing something completely different, reinterpreting the themes of Final Fantasy VII, filtering it through a self-aware, hyper-modern lens. It’s a strange yet strangely compelling meta-textual freakout. Filtered through 23 years of muddled history and self-reflection, there’s enough meat on the bones to satisfy existing fans and create new ones. Just don’t expect it to answer all your questions.