Old dog, new tricks.
Make no mistake. This IS Final Fantasy VII. But not quite as you may remember it.
The original 1997 Playstation One hit is often credited with popularising Japanese RPG’s (JRPG) in the Western World, it’s a pretty big deal to say the least. It was over 20 years ago that audiences fell in love with rag-tag eco-activist group Avalanche and marked one of the first times that 3D graphics were used in this genre to stunning effect. Monsters, materia and maniacal corporate villains came to life right before our humbled eyes.
This Remake hopes to bring that experience to new audiences as well as satisfying long time fans with a bold, renewed vision of that very same game albeit episodically as FF7 Remake only recreates the first portion of the original game, which typically took 5-8 hours, into a sprawling 40 hour campaign.
So let’s talk about it.
For the uninitiated, Final Fantasy 7 introduces us to Cloud Strife. Ex member of elite military organisation SOLDIER, he holds the rank of First Class therefore he knows how to swing a sword with the best of ’em and possesses unnatural acrobatic abilities. Midgar, the setting and hub of the game, is a sprawling punk-industrial mega city, teeming with residents whereby it’s social economic divide is brilliantly realised within it’s sectors and slums. The slums are situated below huge steel plates, fanned out from the centre of Midgar to create a class divide. Wealthy on top and poor down below, think Neill Blomkamp’s film Elysium and you’re half way there. At the centre of this division is Shinra, super douchebags hell bent on harvesting Mako, the “life-force” of the planet and exploiting it for territorial, political gain and profit. Unsatisfied with the destruction of their planet, freedom fighters AVALANCHE take up arms against their oppressors and recruit soldier turned mercenary, Cloud to aid their cause. What starts as a pay-check for Cloud gradually becomes a moral quest alongside fellow members Tifa, Barrett and Aerith.
All the heroes from the original Midgar section of the game return here; Biggs, Wedge and Jessie are all present and correct but with the technological advances in today’s consoles we are rewarded with beautifully realised, fully fleshed out character models alongside tons of extra story details and character arcs including plenty of quirky JRPG style banter. Consequently every interaction feels that much more real and integral to the story rather than just passive NPC’s.
Considering the 1997 game had no voice acting, just text bubbles, I couldn’t of asked for more accurate depictions of how I imagined these people to speak and act, each have signature animations and gestures that bring them to life. There has been an abundant amount of care taken here to recreate every aspect of Midgar and its inhabitants throughout.
I’ll go first, then you
Perhaps the biggest change in FF7 Remake is the battle system. Fans of the old will recall the infamous ATB system whereby each character has a separate bar that fills gradually as the battle wages on, once the bar is full the player can select from their command list – item, attack, magic etc. It was turn-based so pegging it around the map wasn’t an option.
FF7R instead opts for a more modern blend of action-RPG similar to Final Fantasy 15. The ATB gauge is still well and present however instead of waiting for it to build up naturally, you need to attack the enemy in order to get it going plus you now get two commands per charge as oppose to one. This allows for more frantic, action heavy fights but still requires the player to carefully balance when to attack (consuming that precious ATB bar) or whether to heal or use magic depending on what the situation calls for. Many times I found myself retreating from an assault in order to save my party from the brink of death with a swift potion or cure spell. Enemies now receive a stagger bar that fills with each strike, when staggered the enemy becomes weakened giving opportunity to deliver crushing blows. The stagger system could of been laborious in it’s essence though this is never the case in Remake as each character has a heavy attack stance (triangle) that fills the stagger meter more rapidly, you’re also encouraged to use elemental magic to exploit weaknesses and further increase their stagger , this dynamic really pushes you to use any and every ability or spell to achieve victory. Each of your three member party can now be individually controlled with a simple button tap allowing you to manage each one on the fly. It all works rather well if not a little chaotically when first getting to grips with the evolved format.
Not gonna lie, I was NOT a fan of the new battle system when it was first shown off way back in 2015. It felt like the classic elements of the original game that I fell in love with all those years ago were being decimated right before my very eyes. HOWEVER! I’m please to announce that not only have I conceded I may of been judging it too harshly at first glance but that the battle system in FF7R is absolutely fantastic. For me, it is single handedly the most exciting aspect of the game and yes, there are a handful of dull encounters as with any RPG (or any game really?) but for the most part, the battles were the thing I looked forward to most so I could flex my newly upgraded abilities and fancy magic. It doesn’t hurt that the enemy design is also striking and versatile, the bosses are expectedly epic sometimes with multiple bouts in a single fight and require laser focus in order to beat. Remake is no slouch.
Each playable character has access to a healthy amount of weapons over the course of the game, each with different stats to boost either their health, attack power, magic or materia slots.
Materia is the magic of the game, literally. Little orbs of Mako that allow the user to harness the power of fire, wind and ice amongst a host of others all of which is then assigner to slots. Each weapon has a certain amount of slots, as do the accessories tacked to each character. The rarest materia come in the form of Summons. Other-worldly deities that incur vast amounts of damage instrumental in turning the tide of battle. In the original version they could be used freely at the cost of MP but in Remake the summons have a “presence” gauge, they detect they may be needed and when they’re good and ready you can invite them in for a bit of rough and tumble.
Being an RPG, Remake requires you to be frequently accessing and assessing your inventory. I often found myself navigating menus to either juggle materia between characters, seamlessly altering their role as healer to mage or a defensive member to attacker or changing weapons to allow more materia slots or even doing the reverse in order to improve my health or magic power. It’s a deep, rewarding system that never felt like busy work.
Not all heroes wear capes
FF7R is a linear RPG. Again, this is a recreation of the Midgar portion of the original game so there are no vast landscapes begging to be explored. Square Enix have made clever use of the city however. The game is essentially split into sectors that act as central hubs. These locales are bustling with charismatic crowds and meticulous detail; the world feels alive. From shopkeepers peddling valuable items to disgruntled residents requiring a helping hand to strolling past a group of gossiping civilians, it all lends itself to a fully realised game world and to top it off, the iconic soundtrack has been perfectly revised with respectable additions to the score making it feel old and brand new at the same time.
When you aren’t following the main story line you’ll get a slight breather from the chaos this is where you’ll meet non-essential characters and carry out some good ol’ fashioned merc work. Clearing out enemy nests; check. Finding ingredients; check. Rounding up lost children for the nursery teacher; check. Some of these fetch quests are nothing short of filler, bits of padding to break up the game but they will reward you with exclusive items so the motivation to fulfil them is usually there. The more interesting side branches will have you tackling optional bosses or competing in coliseum battles to earn prestigious loot. Additional summons can be obtained through VR missions assigned by completing a range of research tasks assigned to you by a friendly ally seen throughout the game. All in all there’s a decent amount of variety to make it all worth while even when the blistering action sequences come to a halt.
Upon completion of the game you gain access to Chapter Select, this allows you to revisit all parts of the game but instead you’re granted your current level of equipment and abilities, kind of a new game+. This is mandatory for the completionist in order to earn that coveted Platinum Trophy as this can not be achieved in a single play-through. There’s plenty of incentive to dive back in and collect quest specific items, challenge foes in the coliseum or take on the toughest enemies in the VR simulator. If you manage to get through all of that then Hard Mode will provide a healthy challenge even for veterans of the franchise.
Remaking one of, if not the most beloved RPG of all time is no easy feat. After mixed reactions to initial glimpses and early demos shown over the past five years, so much was riding on Square Enix to get this right. And boy did they smash it.
The city of Midgar has never felt or looked better. The combat is sublime, the cut scenes are worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster. Every aspect of the original game’s locations, story lines and characters have been upheld and expanded upon with the absolute reverence and respect that they so well deserve. The gameplay has taken a bold leap forward not only bringing it up to modern expectations but setting a new benchmark for action-RPG’s going forward. Fan or not, this game is a must-have for any PS4 owner.
I can’t wait to play the next one.
Reviewed on Playstation 4