To say that the Final Fantasy VII Remake project was hotly anticipated is something of an understatement.
Ever since the run-up to the PlayStation 2 launch, where one of the promotional videos showed a cutscene from Final Fantasy VIII apparently being rendered in real time by the new system, fans have been wondering what would happen if one of the world’s most beloved RPGs were ever to get remade.
Well, we’re starting to get some answers now… and a whole bunch of questions, too. Let’s explore!
Spoilers for both the original FFVII and FFVII Remake (yes, there are differences) ahead.
The first part of Final Fantasy VII Remake, which released in April of 2020, is a complete reimagining of the game’s opening 5 hours or so — that which unfolds in the city of Midgar, as mercenary Cloud Strife is hired by eco-terrorist group Avalanche to strike back against the rather Orwellian Shinra Electric Power Company.
In the original game, this section introduces us to the major characters Cloud, Barret, Tifa and Aerith, and it defines what a villainous organisation Shinra is — or perhaps more accurately, what villainous individuals the top executives of Shinra are. It opens strongly with a dramatic bombing mission on one of Shinra’s mako reactors, which draw energy directly from the planet’s “Lifestream”, and continues as Cloud gets to know the people in the slums, stumbles across Aerith several times and begins to understand that there’s something even more serious than environmental issues going on.
The whole sequence is absolutely iconic for many people who grew up with the original game, but it’s a fairly minor part of the complete experience in the grand scheme of things. Indeed, many people playing Final Fantasy VII for the first time (including myself back in 1997) were surprised that the dramatic “G-Bike” conclusion of the Midgar sequence did not, as they might have expected, end the first of the three CDs the game came on, but rather marked the transition to a more conventional world map-wandering Final Fantasy experience.
That doesn’t mean there wasn’t scope to explore things further, however. Midgar, we’re led to believe, is a huge city with lots going on, and yet in the original Final Fantasy VII you don’t see very much of it, and don’t get a huge amount of “context” of what’s going on. In Final Fantasy VII Remake, you still only see select parts of Midgar — and still mostly the slums beneath the city proper — but what we do see, we see in considerably more detail. The result is a game that is 35-40 hours for your first playthrough, with quite a bit of optional postgame stuff to indulge in once you’re done.
Despite stretching out 5 hours of the original to nearly 8 times that, Final Fantasy VII Remake has a strong sense of pacing and structure. Much of the experience is rigidly linear, with a critical path forcing you ever onwards — forcibly turning you around if you try and go the wrong way in many cases — but there are several significant points in the game where things open up considerably, and you have the opportunity to explore the game world in more depth than ever before.
The first of these unfolds when Cloud and company arrive back at the Sector 7 slums after their successful bombing mission — and the conclusion of this sequence also marks one of many points where there are additions and changes to the original narrative, where Shinra uses its considerable influence over the population to frame Avalanche as collaborators with Wutai, the “enemy” from a war of a few years back. Nothing gets people riled up like a bit of good old-fashioned patriotism — even if the thing you’re being patriotic for is very obviously evil.
Additions and differences like this mark something of a pattern for Final Fantasy VII Remake as a whole, and they’ve been met with mixed reception by some longstanding fans of the original game — but there’s a potential explanation for all this. We’ll get onto that a little later.
The more “open” parts of Final Fantasy VII Remake are positioned as Cloud making a name for himself as a mercenary in various areas of the Midgar slums. This is accomplished by sidequests that can mostly be tackled in any order you please, though some unfold in sequence.
In contrast to more open-structure role-playing games such as the Witcher series and Bethesda’s output, Final Fantasy VII Remake doesn’t bombard you with hundreds of quests as you wander around these “hub” areas. Rather, it tells you exactly how many quests are available to take on in any given chapter and provides you with a helpful checklist in the main menu, so there’s no chance of missing out on anything, unless you specifically want to — certain events unfold slightly differently according to how many quests you took on before advancing the story.
Well, okay, you can miss out on two quests — there are 26 possible quests in the game, and one chapter allows you to take on two out of a possible four. Cleaning up the remaining two is no problem, however; completing the game unlocks a chapter select menu, so you can jump right back to that section (with all your endgame equipment and levels) to tidy things up and get that shiny trophy.
These quests are generally pretty simple in mechanical terms, usually consisting of going out into a nearby “dungeon”-like area and beating a specific monster, finding something, or talking to specific people. Interestingly, the quests that require you to find things generally don’t make things super-obvious for you with waypoint and map markers; you’ll instead have to listen out for audible cues or pay attention to NPC dialogue.
This also brings up another interesting point: Final Fantasy VII Remake does not, by default, provide you with a minimap, instead giving you a compass showing roughly what direction various objectives are in — though this can be turned off if you so desire. A minimap can be switched on if you like, but the fact it’s turned off by default is a clear statement by the developers that they want you to explore and drink in this incredibly detailed world they’ve created, not spend your time looking at an abstract map. Indeed, some gamers these days prefer to play even open-world games without a minimap for a greater sense of immersion in the world; with this in mind, Final Fantasy VII Remake’s decision to switch it off by default is noteworthy.
Combat is the area of Final Fantasy VII Remake people were most skeptical and concerned about, particularly after the mixed reception to (and widespread misunderstanding of) Final Fantasy XV’s battle system. And while some people would doubtless have preferred a shiny, pretty version of the original Active Time Battle system, what we have here instead is effectively a fusion of several different Final Fantasies’ core mechanics.
Specifically, we have the free movement and menu-driven abilities of Final Fantasy XI and XII; the “Stagger” mechanic of Final Fantasy XIII, where attacking enemies with the right kinds of abilities and spells will throw them off-balance and allow you to deal significantly more damage; the emphasis on paying attention to attack telegraphs, positioning and battle phases from Final Fantasy XIV; and the stance-based combat of Final Fantasy XV.
Each of the four available playable characters — Cloud, Barret, Tifa and Aerith — function very differently, and can be customised quite a bit through the use of the game’s gear systems. Everyone has a weapon, a piece of armour, an accessory and “materia” — the latter of which are orbs that can be slotted into weapons or armour to provide a character access to specific abilities, spells or passive bonuses.
Weapons can be upgraded using skill points acquired on level up; these are specific to each weapon and are cumulative, so even if you get a particular weapon late in the game, you’ll have a full complement of skill points to spend on it, and this allows you to do everything from increasing its basic statistics to adding additional materia slots and passive bonuses. Different weapons have obviously different focuses, too; some are built to improve physical attack skills, while others favour magic support.
Using these systems, you can build each character in a way that allows them to fulfil various roles in the party — and change at pretty much any time outside of combat. That said, each of them clearly has one specific role that they’re “intended” for, so it’s usually worth making them as good at that as possible.
Barret, for example, has strong defense and a large pool of hit points, making him ideal to use as a tank — load him up with the “Provoke” materia and he actually does this job better than in any other real-time RPG like this I’ve seen. Throughout the game, he earns both ranged and melee weapons, though the former tend to keep him a bit safer when performing his tank role.
Tifa, meanwhile, has mechanics similar to Final Fantasy XIV’s take on the Monk job, where she can build up several charges of a buff to increase her strength, then expend those charges to perform various abilities. She’s also particularly useful when successfully Staggering enemies, as several of her abilities are specifically designed to increase the damage bonus everyone in the party enjoys when attacking a Staggered enemy.
Aerith is a formidable mage and healer. Her basic attacks are powerful magic bolts rather than the overenthusiastic “stick bonk” from the original game, and her strong starting stats make her particularly good at casting elemental spells from materia — especially if you buff her up further with the right gear.
Cloud, meanwhile, is a melee damage dealer. He can’t take a lot of punishment, but he can certainly dish it out. Many of his abilities are hard-hitting attacks, and it tends to be crucial to make good use of Cloud in order to take advantage of the Stagger damage bonus that you’ve hopefully had Tifa build up.
With up to three of these characters to manage at any one time, it would be easy for Final Fantasy VII Remake’s combat to feel overwhelming, but thankfully the game’s take on “Active Time Battle” makes this a non-issue as well as providing some unique mechanics. Each character builds up to two ATB charges simply by staying alive in combat, but the charge rate is increased by landing basic attacks — particularly if you can successfully complete a combo, the last hit of which tends to be considerably more powerful. There are also various materia that can be used to affect the ATB charge rate in various ways — one allows you an immediate boost in the gauge followed by a long cooldown; others provide bonuses to the charge when various things occur in combat — but it’s mostly about building up that gauge, then using it for abilities.
You can get through a lot of the game on Normal difficulty by staying in control of a favourite character and just using the shoulder buttons on the controller to issue commands to your allies when their gauge fills up fully. However, if you want to take full advantage of the system, it’s worth building up one character’s charge, triggering an ability, then switching to another while the first character is going through the animation for their ability, and so on. This even works for the iconic “Limit Breaks” — though if you switch away from the character performing them you regrettably lose the cinematic camera angles for these ridiculous special attacks.
This isn’t a game where you can load up your party with a default set of materia and hope for the best, however. There’s a strong emphasis on exploiting enemy weaknesses, since not only does this deal considerably more damage, it also tends to build the Stagger gauge more quickly or, at the very least, put the enemy into a “Pressured” state, where most attacks will build the Stagger gauge more than usual.
Weaknesses make sense and are consistent throughout the game, allowing you to make good judgements based purely on enemy appearance. Mechanical foes are always weak to lightning, for example, while humanoids are always weak to fire and flying foes tend to be weak to wind. There are a few enemies and bosses that shift their resistances and even, at times, reflect certain types of damage back at you, though, so you need to pay attention — thankfully, the information you get on screen is very clear and makes it obvious when this is an issue you need to take into account.
Boss fights tend to be more than just tough battles in Final Fantasy VII Remake; they’re phase-based affairs, with transitions typically accompanying a successful Stagger and being marked by an in-battle cutscene. Each phase brings new mechanics that need to be learned and understood, and more often than not there are opportunities for several different characters to truly shine at their role throughout the fight as a whole. Thankfully, failure to “do mechanics” tends not to be met with quite as harsh a penalty as in much of Final Fantasy XIV, though you’ll still need to be on your toes with healing at times, particularly in the couple of battles that feature one-off, powerful, unavoidable, party-wide damage at specific moments. Be ready for this in both the completely optional Leviathan battle and the lengthy final boss encounter!
Speaking of that final boss then, let’s contemplate a possible future for Final Fantasy VII Remake based on what this game shows us.
One of the most obvious, noteworthy additions to the narrative content in Final Fantasy VII Remake over the original is the presence of “Whispers” — strange, cloudy, robed creatures with a consistency like smoke that sometimes seem to help the party, sometimes to hinder them. We don’t get an explanation for what these are until much later in the game, so it’s easy to assume that they are something to do with legendary Final Fantasy VII villain Sephiroth, particularly as they bear something of a resemblance to the various robed figures pursuing the “Reunion” later in the original game.
However, it transpires that they’re actually a means to prevent people from defying capital-D Destiny — to ensure that things unfold in the way in which they are “supposed” to. They stop things from happening that are not supposed to happen; they cause things to happen that look like they are at risk of not happening.
This is not the first time that Final Fantasy has explored the concept of unavoidable fate. Final Fantasy XIII in particular was heavy on this concept, even going so far as to make its overall game structure part of how it explored it — its much maligned “linear first 20 hours” is actually a literal representation of what it means to be blown along by fate and destiny, unable to deviate from the path that greater powers have set out for you.
Both Final Fantasy XIII and Final Fantasy VII Remake depict characters defying fate, however. In Final Fantasy XIII, this is most potently shown when you leave the linear, ever-forward motion of the Cocoon sequence and descend to the surface of the planet to enjoy a much more “open” experience with a variety of sidequests to take on; in Final Fantasy VII Remake, meanwhile, this is seen primarily through its final boss encounter, which is against a swarm of Whispers that have coalesced into a single, huge entity: direct symbolism of characters standing up to and defying the fate that awaits them.
Throughout the final battle in Final Fantasy VII Remake, phase transitions are marked with premonitions of incidents that longtime players will recognise from the 1997 original: a Red XIII-like creature running through the land on the way to see the ruined Midgar from the original ending; Aerith’s death at Sephiroth’s hands; the descent of Meteor and Holy standing against it, saving the world but wreaking great destruction in the process. During the battle, Red XIII comments that these visions are what awaits the party if they fail in the encounter, suggesting that the events of the original Final Fantasy VII are what is destined to occur.
So, then, what does that mean if the party is successful? Well, it means that they’re defying what destiny has in store for them — which means defying the original story of Final Fantasy VII. Which, in turn, means that the following parts of Final Fantasy VII Remake have a very strong chance of unfolding quite differently to the original game that we know and love.
The game’s final chapters play up this factor to a considerable degree, too. At various points, the lines “the future is a blank page” and “that which lies ahead does not yet exist” are uttered, and even the transition to the final boss encounter is positioned as the party stepping through a “portal” to what may or may not be another world, a parallel existence, another reality. Hell, Sephiroth drags Cloud to the literal “edge of creation” during the final moments of the game, leaving him to ponder what he’s going to do with the “seven seconds until the end”.
This is all very intriguing and incredibly ballsy — but it makes a lot of sense. The original Final Fantasy VII is, at the time of writing, available on pretty much every currently available gaming platform, including mobile phones, and thus the original story is there to be experienced by anyone at any time. But there’s a world begging to be explored in different ways here; a variety of “what if?” scenarios that fans have been theorycrafting for nearly a quarter of a decade; and yes, people wondering if Aerith really had to die or not. Why not explore that?
The astute will notice that Final Fantasy VII Remake is not sold as Final Fantasy VII Remake: Part 1. This leads me to speculate that subsequent installments might not even be called Final Fantasy VII Remake; they might be called Final Fantasy VII-2, or something different entirely. The possibilities are thoroughly intriguing and while I won’t lie, a reimagining of the original game with the audio and visual fidelity of this incredible-looking title would be welcome in itself, I’m actually more excited by the possibility of new stories being told in this world with these characters that have been so beloved to me for so many years at this point.
Final Fantasy VII Remake is a game you need to take on its own terms, then; a game you need to treat as its own distinct, unique thing without expecting it to be the old game, again. In this way, its very title kind of stands against it; it leads people to expect a note-for-note remake of the original game. And for a significant portion of the experience, it’s worth noting, that’s exactly what Final Fantasy VII Remake provides, fleshing out the parts that were a little light on detail. It’s where it goes next that is going to be the really interesting thing to see, though.
As I type this, however, the future for Final Fantasy VII is indeed a blank page — and that which lies ahead literally does not exist, except, presumably, behind tightly closed doors at Square Enix HQ. And who knows when — or if? — we’ll get the answers we seek. But in the meantime, we’ve got a great game to enjoy — and lots of speculation to indulge in!
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