REINTRODUCED: WORLD SETTING MIRRORING REALITY ITSELF
A sombre violin tune plays as you walk Midgar’s streets, with each pull of the bow tugging across the strings of your conscience and heart, questioning you whether what you are doing is the right thing. The cries of confused children echo, people fall to their knees attempting to grapple with the magnitude of what has happened, and citizens denounce this so-called group of environmental freedom fighters that you have joined just to collect your coin before you move on to the next mercenary gig lined up for you.
This is the aftermath of the opening scenario in its purest form. Before writing this review, I was determined to finish Final Fantasy 7 Remake within a week and then rush a review of it. However, as I played through the game and witnessed the paragraph above as well as many other poignant moments in the game, I decided to give myself about a month to digest it all and come back to the drawing board to ascertain that my experience was not fleeting in nature. And why would I do this?
Mainly because in the world of videogames, the story and setting of Final Fantasy VII has been elevated to the realm of myth. First released in 1997 on the Sony PlayStation, it ushered in a new era of Japanese role-playing games, and in the process, its story—begrudging hero Cloud Strife and a ragtag band of idealists and hangers-on fight the captivatingly evil Sephiroth for the sake of the planet—became larger than life for a lot of players.
Final Fantasy VII Remake is a dystopia for our times. It revolves around Shinra, a juggernaut electricity company that extracts life force – Mako as it is known in game – from the earth and turns it into energy and while doing so, Shinra is slowly killing the planet. Midgar itself is plagued by wealth inequality, split into two main sections separated by a massive plate: A suit-filled modern city on top and indigent slums below. Sounds familiar? It feels almost like a social commentary in these times that we are all living in.
As far as statements of intent go, Final Fantasy VII Remake’s opening bombing mission is a clear and powerful one. This game may be just the first chapter in the reimagining of a much bigger story, but it seeks to uncover depth that was hitherto left to the imagination. It is rich in details that were previously unexplored, realizes new storytelling ambitions with confidence, and presents fresh perspectives that feel both meaningful and essential.
REVITALIZED: MUSIC THAT TRANSCENDS TIME
I want to bring up the music first. Just like with every Final Fantasy game, Final Fantasy VII had an amazing soundtrack. The remake however, is able to take those iconic songs and make them sound better than ever. Part of this is thanks the actual quality of the audio. The tracks sound more full and rich. Sure, the old MIDI versions in the original have their charm, but I love hearing these songs in full orchestral glory.
However, it is not just the quality of the music — it is how the game presents it. For example, when you are running around an area filled with enemies, you will hear a low-key version of the classic Final Fantasy VII battle theme playing. When you actually start a fight, this low hum of a song amps up and becomes much more intense and energetic. This usage of dynamic composition of music is genius in itself.
The music in the game incorporates speedy tempo and rich orchestration – featuring soaring strings, powerful brass and crashing timpani – has certainly elevated the mood of battle and sets an ominous tone for the rest of the narrative moving forward.
With so much action in one game, its makers knew they needed a dynamic score that would bring its plot and characters to life – and from what that has been experienced, nothing gets better than this.
REINVENTED: CLASSIC COMBAT SYSTEM THAT TRANSITIONS TO THE MODERN ERA
Square Enix has taken a title synonymous with turn-based combat and turned it into a fresh real-time action game yet there remains some turn-based flavor to stoke the nostalgia of those who played the original. You can perform regular attacks like you would in a game like Devil May Cry or Kingdom Hearts but when your Active Time Battle (harkening back to the original game) gauge fills up, you can enter bullet time and cast magic, perform abilities, use items and more.
It is a strategic and stylish combat system that rewards you for being more tactical, slowing combat down at specific times to take advantage of attack patterns and enemy weaknesses. This hybrid style lets you glide between characters at the touch of a button and assume direct command of characters that are otherwise acting independently.
The demands of moment-to-moment combat are high, especially since enemies can be vicious. They seem to work with the goal of creating the same kind of synergy between themselves as you do between your party members. If you’re not careful, they will poison and paralyze to create openings for each other and make areas of the battlefield deadly to limit your movement.
While combat asks a lot of you, but it is incredibly gratifying at the same time. Regardless, the developers did so much right here. The difficulty is just right, forcing you to strategize without punishing players too harshly. Boss battles are reliably exhilarating. And, like everything else in the game, the combat is visually marvelous.
Materia was and is core to Final Fantasy VII’s gameplay, just as it is with the remake. It manifests as colored spheres that can be slotted into weapons and armor, thus giving the ability to invoke magic to its user or even summon god-like beings to fight alongside you. The beauty of the Materia system is that it allows you to create loadouts in a very freeform way and build characters to fit your preferred style or strategy for any situation.
Although each playable character has a general archetype, the Materia system presents a great deal of fluidity within this. For example, I had Barret assume the role of team healer as well as overall party buffer when Aerith was not in my party while Cloud was the elemental damage dealer. Tifa was the main enemy stagger machine as her strikes hit hard and fast, giving your enemies very little time to react. However, you could switch up the roles of everyone at a moment’s notice making your team a modular juggernaut no matter the circumstance.
RETOLD: A NARRATIVE BEYOND COMPARE AND BEYOND DESTINY
For as strong as Final Fantasy VII Remake’s gameplay is, it is the narrative and characters that truly stand out as its crowning achievement. The greatest success of the remake is in making the setting and characters of this mythic story feel more human than they ever have been before.
This is where the game slows down considerably, immediately hyper-focusing on details. While a lot of games accepted breaks from reality, Remake resists that for a more literalist approach to its storytelling. As such, a game that could play like a cyberpunk thriller often feels like a slice-of-life story, a trip through the most complex and detailed world Square Enix could muster.
It is tempting to think this detail-oriented storytelling—which adds new settings, new side quests, and expanded backstories for many characters—is an attempt at padding, fluff. The new additions extend a tight 10-hour section from the original game into a full blown 40-hour one, and it seems that was the point—to slow the player and their progress enough that they feel they got more bang for their buck, while also giving Square Enix time to work on the next instalment.
This approach evinces a thoughtful, humanistic approach to conveying this world’s story, one of stratification and the costs and merits of violent direct action in a world beginning to teeter on the brink of ecological collapse. Mechanically, side missions are usually fetch requests and monster elimination quests but there is always a little story told within them that pulls you deeper into their world, and each one also humanizes Cloud just a little.
His demeanor is cold from the inception and his investment in the struggle is only as much as the coin that pays for it. As he completes these quests, word of him spreads and he becomes the local champion of the slums, whether he likes it or not. This not only chips away at Cloud’s hard edges, but it also tells the story of how Cloud Strife learns to fight for others and not just himself.
There is so much texture in these characters, which makes it easy to connect with them. Barret is a loudmouth; with every line he utters having the same kind of energy as a wrestler cutting a promo in a WWE pay-per-view. Just when you’re starting to doubt him, you’ll see a touching fatherly moment with his heart-meltingly cute daughter Marlene and understand completely why he fights so hard. Jessie is flirtatious, throwing herself at Cloud and hitting him with the hot and cold treatment. As the crew’s weapons expert, she struggles with what her creations are doing to the world around her. Wedge is a soft soul, trying to harden to show that the team can rely on him the same way they would Cloud or Tifa. Biggs is cool, calm, and collected–the kind of attitude that is honed through a life of conflict.
Missions will have you working alongside key characters such as Tifa and Aerith. For the former, the game elegantly establishes her history with Cloud, with frightening glimpses at their traumatic pasts appearing as intrusive flashes. The rapport between Cloud and Tifa is depicted very well here, as they are friends but there is also a blossoming romance that builds as Cloud recalls their history and what she means to him.
Aerith, the mysterious flower girl whose story unexpectedly intersects with Cloud’s, is beyond an uplifting presence. The banter between her and Cloud is sweet and funny from the moment you meet her and are unceremoniously drafted into being her bodyguard. She always looks for the good in things and is also playful and effortlessly endearing.
These feel like real people–they have hopes and dreams, fears and faults, they are funny and charismatic, and so well-written and acted that you will fall for every single one of them. When playing the original, these were all thoughts and feelings I had about the characters that I coloured in myself using the outlines the game presented. This time, they’re not allusions; it is all painstakingly realized, and as much as I loved the characters and stories back then, I’m able to appreciate them in a much more profound way because of how complete it all feels now.
REIMAGINED: FOR GENERATIONS PAST AND FOR A WHOLE NEW GENERATION
Final Fantasy 7 Remake is the very best thing a game can be: tremendously thought provoking and ridiculously fascinating. It forces us to confront our subjective tastes, and asks us to consider what we value in the games we play. Gaming has grown and so have we, but what have we lost in the transition? This is not a replacement for the original game. It is another take on the same ideas, expanded to fill multiple releases in a way that feels artistically justified.
Regardless of your history with the original game, Final Fantasy VII Remake is an astounding achievement. The wait for its release was a long one, but in gameplay, story, characters, and music, it delivers–the wait was worth it. For first-time players, it is an opportunity to understand why Final Fantasy VII is held in such high regard. It is the chance to experience a multifaceted story that grapples with complex subject matter, be in the company of memorable characters, and be moved by their plight.
For returning fans, this is not the Final Fantasy VII your mind remembers, rather it is the one your heart always knew it to be.