Saturday, 10 Jun 2023

Final Fantasy 7 Remake review – a cloud with many silver linings

Square Enix’s dream remake is finally here, with a reinvention of PlayStation 1 classic Final Fantasy 7, but has it been worth the wait?

The curious thing about online fandom is that the people that are the most obsessed with a thing seem to draw the least amount of pleasure from it, whether you’re talking about Star Wars or Final Fantasy. We can only imagine how many thousands of hours are going to be wasted complaining about Final Fantasy 7 Remake and how it is, or isn’t, a disgrace to the memory of the original. Certainly, there are a lot of changes, and we can definitely understand some people not liking them, but for us the most important, and perhaps unexpected, revelation is that Final Fantasy 7 Remake is such a fun, unpretentious video game.

There are numerous problems inherent in reviewing Final Fantasy 7 Remake, not least that you have to worry about spoilers from the 23-year-old original (which has probably the most famous video game spoiler of all time) and all the new elements from the remake. Then there’s the worry of the remake being too reverent to the original, a game which despite its legendary status had several obvious failings, most obviously a very poorly translated script.

Whatever you think of it though, the 1997 original is a milestone game, leveraging the technological potential of the nascent PlayStation and in the process forever breaking Nintendo’s domineering control of third party publishers. For the first time, it presented the Japanese role-playing game formula as something palatable to a general Western audience, with more science fiction elements and a greater sense of realism in both the setting and the characters. The remake expands on both these elements, although not without some problems in terms of the former.

Since the marketing, rather shamefully, makes no mention of it we should emphasise that this is not the entire story of Final Fantasy 7. It is instead merely the first chapter, with several additional games – we’d estimate at least three to four – needed to tell the complete story, as seen in the PlayStation 1 original. The remake covers only the first five hours or so of the original and takes place almost solely in Midgar, a cyberpunk style city suspended in the air on giant plates, above lower class slums on the planet’s surface.

Because it covers so little of the original story the plot in the remake is surprisingly thin. It revolves around eco-terrorist group Avalanche, led by Barret, who are convinced that the mako generators that power the city are siphoning off the life force of the planet. Although at first the game presents little reason to believe this, other than that the people in charge of the Shinra Electric Power Company, which controls the city, act like Captain Planet villains and are obviously evil.

The plot starts to thicken towards the end but it greatly benefits from the lack of complication by focusing on the characters, in particular ex-supersolider Cloud Strife. We were very worried about how he’d be portrayed, since he was previously a poster boy for 90s style teenage angst, but in the remake he’s much more sympathetic. Socially awkward, emotionally stunted, and seemingly suffering from some kind of PTSD, his reputation is that of a badass but things are clearly much more complicated than that.

Cloud shows considerable character growth as the story progresses, bonding with the various Avalanche members, his old friend Tifa, and a mysterious flower seller called Aerith. At first he’s nothing but surly attitude and curt replies, but he slowly learns to trust and engage with the others, in what is a surprisingly subtle bit of character work – helped by an excellent vocal performance by Cody Christian.

Importantly, Cloud is likeable, even when he’s being a grump, and while the female characters do tend to be written a bit too similarly they’re equally engaging and far more interesting than their perfect porcelain features initially suggest. It’s Barret who’s the other big revelation though. He still looks and acts like Mr T, in a performance which borders on the offensive at times, but he’s portrayed as a very well-rounded character who beneath his bluster is frustrated with his own limitations and the act he feels he has to put on in front of others.

The plot starts to radically diverge from the original in its denouement, but for the majority of the time it’s a very straightforward story and the only major new additions are the mysterious spectres, that look like the Dementors from Harry Potter, and who are neither clearly threats or allies. There is a lot of other new story content, but most of the rest is used to expand the game world and its society. Although Honey Bee Inn remains a highlight in terms of how it’s presented, both cinematically and in transforming it from a brothel to an establishment with a much more diverse cliental and remit.

But while the storytelling is largely a triumph, the changes to the gameplay are even more significant. There’s no other way to put it, but Final Fantasy 7 Remake barely counts as a role-playing game. It’s an action role-player and while there are stats and levels and upgradeable weapons it’s hardly any less of a straight action game than something like the God Of War reboot. We do not say this as a negative, especially in terms of the enjoyable battle system, but it’s certainly going to rub some people up the wrong way.

The game is no longer turn-based and instead you control your character directly and use a simple one-button attack system for normal combat. You still have an ATB bar though, which slowly fills up over time (and faster if you land a hit or guard successfully) and allows you to use items and magic abilities. There is a ‘Classic’ mode that lets the computer control all the characters for you, so you’re only choosing the ATB actions, but describing that as turn-based, as some early source did, is disingenuous. Not least because it automatically lowers the difficulty to the same as easy mode.

But while some may be turning their noses up in disgust at the thought it works very well in practice and while Final Fantasy 7 never had the most complex battle system, even amongst its stablemates, each character has their own set of impressively unique abilities. Barret is all about long range combat and protecting his team-mates, which reflects his personality, while Tifa is a straight up brawler whose abilities change depending on whether she uses a power-up move to turn herself into something close to a straight beat ‘em-up character.

There’s clearly been an influence from Kingdom Hearts in the game’s approach to action role-players, but the combat is much more satisfying and tactical than that, even if it’s not exactly deep. Overall though, the two pillars of story and combat work very well. Both can be cheesy and silly at times, but that comes across as very endearing, as the game embraces its anime sensibilities and, despite what we were expecting, does not shy away from the original’s stranger moments and enemies.

Where there are problems though is in the individual chapters, many of which feel like filler even when they’re based on elements from the original. The trek through a haunted train depot, for example, highlights just how simplistic the map design is and how surprisingly poor a lot of the graphics are.

The facial animation for the main characters is excellent, some of the best we’ve ever seen, but lesser characters are considerably less impressive, to the point where some almost look like something out of a PlayStation 2 game. There’s a lot of object and texture pop-in, with some high res details never appearing, which is either something that needs to be fixed with a pitch or a surprising failure on the part of the technical and art team.

It sounds like the worst insult possible but Final Fantasy 7 Remake could easily be described as a mix of Kingdom Hearts and the first half of Final Fantasy 13, as the remake is extremely linear. You’re always told exactly where to go and what to do during every story mission, to the point where the game sometimes prevents you from back-tracking, while many environments are simple linear corridors, blocked off with debris or some other contrived obstacle.

There are no real puzzles and instead you just work you way through the maps, exploring in the only directions you can. The mission and map design is incredibly old-fashioned and yet not in the sense that it’s paying homage to the original game. There are some town hubs that are more open-ended, and you can back track when not on a mission, but there’s only two dozen side quests in the whole game and most are just ‘go here and defeat this monster’.

Not only is the level design simplistic and predictable but so too are the environments, which include such uninteresting locales as train tracks, sewers (twice), service tunnels, and industrial areas. There are some wilderness areas but far too much of the game is just blue-grey corridors and non-descript buildings, which seems a real shame given how much imagination is on display in other parts of the game.

Our playthrough lasted around 40 hours, which is roughly the length of the original game, and to be honest a third of the content probably could’ve been cut – but that was never going to happen in a game whose main selling point is how epic it is. None of the flaws come close to ruining the game though, just as the, different, problems with the original never ruined that.

The remake may never be considered a classic in the same vein as the original, but it tackles the almost impossible task of recreating the game for the modern world impressively well. If Final Fantasy 7 had been made new today then the remake is what it would’ve been like, and it’s easily the most entertained we’ve been by a mainline entry since the SNES era, and yes we include the original Final Fantasy 7 in that.

It would have been impossible to please everyone with Final Fantasy 7 Remake but this comes surprisingly close. There’s a mountain of fan service and incidental detail but the most important thing it gets right is the heart of the story and its characters, while also managing to be an accessible, fun, and consistently entertaining video game.

Final Fantasy 7 Remake review summary

In Short: Fans will be arguing about it for decades to come but for now this is a surprisingly daring reinvention of the legendary original, although it’s a shame its biggest flaws were largely avoidable.

Pros: Great characterisation, especially of Cloud and Barret, and an accessible, straightforward story. Fun combat system that never gets dull and lots of content and fan service. Excellent soundtrack.

Cons: The story has lots of padding and unnecessary repetition. Weak level design and very mixed visuals, with some peculiarly dull environmental art. Not the best 3D camera ever.

Score: 8/10

Formats: PlayStation 4
Price: £59.99
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Square Enix Business Division 1
Release Date: 10th April 2020
Age Rating: 16

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