We have arrived.
In five short weeks, the Final Fantasy VII Remake will finally be in our hands.
Personally, this is a game I’ve been waiting twenty years to play. Ever since a small, but seemingly credible rumor of Square considering PlayStation 2 remakes of all three PSX installments appeared just as the baton was being passed to sixth-gen hardware.
Well, we all know what happened. Beyond a few cameo appearances from Cloud in other Square properties, we never did get that remake. Sure, there was an oft delayed and ultimately incomplete (if you lived outside of Japan) multimedia series comprised of prequels, sequels, offshoots, games, movies, and light novels - much of which was actually pretty damn good. (And that’s a hill I will absolutely die on.) There was one of the medium’s biggest teases in the form of an immediately infamous PlayStation 3 tech demo. There was a whole lotta talk about budgets, schedules, and HD towns. But, again, no remake.
Then the E3 of Dreams happened and, nearly five years later, here we all are. With a shiny new demo to boot. And that’s what I’d like to talk about first.
The demo, much like the one which came bundled with copies of Tobal No. 1 twenty-four years ago, covers the bombing run on Mako Reactor No. 1. In a decision which is surely intended to evoke the maximum amount of nostalgia possible from longtime fans, the remake’s opening cinematic (released by Square-Enix approximately two weeks ago) has been edited to more closely mimic that of the original. And it fucking works.
In fact, everything about this demo works.
While things may be different mechanically, structurally, and otherwise, the overall sense of awe, that feeling of “but how did they DO this?!?”, which first gripped those sitting down to play what was, in 1997 and for quite some time afterwards, the single most ambitious console video game ever made, has been perfectly recaptured. Put simply, when I played the demo, I felt like a kid again. Nowhere near as jaded and eager to be wowed by all the technical splendors a medium taking its first steps into 3D could offer.
Believe me when I say that I genuinely can’t tell where the CG in Final Fantasy VII Remake ends and the in-engine visuals begin. The whole game may be in-engine for all I know, the transitions are that seamless and the in-game visuals that gorgeous. But if you’ve ever daydreamed, as I have, about an entire game that looks like Advent Children, Final Fantasy VII Remake is as close as we’ve ever gotten.
Also, for those worried about the toll all of the above might take on hardware, I’m pleased to tell you that performance on a base PlayStation 4 is exceptionally smooth. The only noticeable dips in framerate coming (oddly) when choosing to quickly slide down ladders. Otherwise, everything appears to move at a solid 30FPS while menus feel as though they’re 60. (You’d need an outlet like Digital Foundry to confirm, but navigating the menus certainly felt that smooth to me.) And you’ll appreciate that added snap to the menu navigation, as you’ll be doing a lot of it in this game, but more on that in a minute.
At any rate, I have no idea what sorcery Square-Enix is toying with, but I’m glad they’ve chosen to use those powers for good.
Mechanically, I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that Final Fantasy VII Remake is the best ARPG I’ve ever played.
As opposed to, say, Kingdom Hearts, where it always felt as if you were playing a hack ‘n slash with menus somewhat inelegantly shoehorned in, Final Fantasy VII Remake feels like a genuine, menu-based JRPG (the closest analog being XIII’s ATB system, complete with staggers, but Square’s cribbing from a number of their own games with Remake) seamlessly blended with free moving, real-time combat and full party control.
Hacking away at enemies with Cloud’s Buster Sword or picking them off from a distance with Barret’s gatling gun never felt sluggish or disconnected in the way ARPGs which lean heavier on the ‘RPG’ aspects so often can (think Secret of Mana, whose remake I happened to be playing prior to this demo’s release). Yet, when it comes time to issue commands, heal, or attempt a strategic use of Cloud’s Braver ability, the action - while not stopping completely - slows down to a crawl as menus are opened and decisions are made. And, all the while, rapidly swapping between characters to keep enemies off balance. It feels chaotic right up until it all clicks, then it’s sublime. My first go ‘round with the Guard Scorpion must’ve taken at least ten minutes. Possibly longer. My second run through - once I’d started to really grasp everything - I defeated him in little more than half that time.
It’s a game where combos are belted out on the fly, spacing is handled in real time, and strategies are formed in short, quick bursts of bullet-time-esque menu navigation, with no one aspect feeling like it supersedes the others. And, amazingly, it still manages to feel like Final Fantasy VII throughout. Perhaps not the one I remember, but definitely a version I’ve always wanted to play. It’s a standard I’ll be measuring all other ARPGs by for quite some time to come.
Moving beyond the demo, a great deal has been made out of the decision to split Final Fantasy VII Remake into multiple installments. Initially, I was dismayed by the news as well. Though with each passing demonstration (and now a demo), disappointment his quickly given way to excitement over what still promises to be something very, very special.
Honestly, the choice of breaking the original game’s narrative up versus presenting it as a whole is a tough one. Though after giving the matter a good deal of thought, I’ve come down firmly on the side of Team Installments.
For me, it all ultimately boils down to one word: scale.
As mentioned, the original Final Fantasy VII was bar none one of the most ambitious games ever produced. And its impact (for good or ill, depending on who you ask) has been felt ever since. Playing the game in 1997 was a singular experience, and one that stuck with you well after the credits rolled. It was one of those “I was there” moments of which there are only a handful in any medium.
And a 1:1 remake would’ve recaptured none of that whatsoever.
I mean, sure, it’d be nice, and cool, and something we’d all play and enjoy and feel good about Square having finally fulfilled a promise they never actually made in the first place. But it also wouldn’t have been anything special. It wouldn’t be groundbreaking or jaw dropping or flawed or controversial. It’d just sort of be there. Existing.
To accomplish what was done in 1997 would require something drastic. It would require tossing the turn-based mechanics out the window. It would require eye-melting visuals with an accompanying price tag that I’m genuinely scared to know. It would require sweeping changes to both the scope and structure of the narrative, the environments...everything. And all of that could never be done in one go.
Now, do I think it’s misleading that Square’s not slapping a “Part 1" on the front of the box? Yeah, a bit. But that’s also a discussion for another time. (I’ll likely need to break the news to a few acquaintances that Remake is actually the first of an as yet unspecified number of installments.)
What I do know is that if we’re making an honest critique of the original game, it’s not out of line to say that the Midgar section could’ve easily stood to be longer. The events in Midgar and Kalm collectively form the backbone of Final Fantasy VII’s narrative, yet there’s plenty that’s either glossed over or simply a mess due to the original’s stellar (dripping sarcasm very much intended) English localization. While there are still other elements that could simply benefit from some additional depth - such as Aerith’s history with the Turks, her ability to communicate with the spirits of the Ancients and the consciousness of the planet, Zack, Avalanche’s activities prior to the Reactor bombings, Shinra seemingly presiding over Midgar’s organized crime, and so on.
Equally important, and this isn’t so much critique as observation, has to do with the actual visual scale of the environments in the original game. The fact of the matter is that while Midgar was big and impressive in cinematics, in actual play, it never truly felt like a vast city capable of supporting a population of tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people. This was repeated to greater and lesser extents by literally every environment in the game. At the time, it was one of those things that, while cognizant of it, was still easily glossed over as we were all accustomed to the visual shorthand of JRPGs by that point. 16-bit towns which featured shops and inns, but no actual homes for the hapless NPCs wandering their streets. Or houses that consisted of one room, one bed, no kitchen, and a family of four. Again, this is something the Remake remedies in spades. Midgar appears vast, crowded, and imposing, with seemingly no compromises. Similarly, the No. 1 Reactor is now a vast industrial complex which truly reflects the oppressiveness and seemingly inescapable size of the Shinra Electric Power Company.
Something else to consider is that - as I speculated when the decision to split the game was first announced - Square will be incorporating elements of the Compilation into Remake. The full extent to which they are doing this remains unknown, but that means - among other things - Genesis, Deep Ground, the war with Wutai, and the destruction and reformation of the Turks are all possible candidates for seeds sown in a more organic manner than the original Compilation could have ever hoped to achieve. And as if to confirm this is still the case, at one point early on in the demo Heidegger references an attempt on President Shinra’s life. While he doesn’t specify a location, in Before Crisis, members of Avalanche attempt to assassinate President Shinra while he is visiting the city of Junon.
And speaking of speculation, I actually believe Square may be still be playing a few cards close to their chest. They’ve been extremely vocal about the fact that this first installment of Final Fantasy 7 Remake will take place entirely in Midgar. And, you know, they may be telling the whole truth there, purely for the sake of setting fan’s expectations to a realistic level. Fair.
On the other hand, given that we’re being introduced to Sephiroth much earlier in Remake, in addition to the greater emphasis placed on Aerith’s spiritual connection to the planet, I’ve started to wonder if Square isn’t being intentionally coy about the whole “never leaving Midgar” thing. We know the narrative is being presented differently in Remake. So...what if the original’s Kalm flashback happens later on in the remake’s Midgar? We’re certainly gonna be spending enough time there. And so will Cloud and the gang. And with seemingly enough interactions with Sephiroth for everyone else in the party to start asking (legitimately) “Uh, yo, what the fuck, Cloud?” quite a bit earlier. This would potentially mean a playable Nibelheim despite the party never technically “leaving” Midgar.
Similarly, the wraiths shown in trailers could and likely do indicate a more in-depth exploration of Aerith’s spiritual powers and her seeming ability to communicate with spirits. Which itself could lead to, say, a dream sequence that results in a playable Ancient City.
Again, all of the above is mostly just fun speculation, but I also wouldn’t put it past Square to throw a few curve balls with this release as they know precisely how much is riding on it. (I don’t think it’s out of line to say that Final Fantasy VII Remake could potentially make or break the company Spirits Within-style. Again, the budget of this project has to be terrifying.) More so given the divisiveness surrounding the episodic nature, which in no way guarantees the sort of critical and commercial slam dunk that a “complete” edition would net.
Still, with work having started on Remake-2 last year (officially confirmed by Square), and much of the heavy lifting already accomplished with part one, it’s unlikely we’ll need to wait any longer than 2022 to see where everything goes. And I do feel very strongly that the second installment, in no small part because it’s all but guaranteed to sell less than the first (as that’s typically how it goes with episodic games), will offer the best glimpse of precisely where this project is headed and how long long it will take to get there.
(Those insisting it’ll be 2036 before everything’s done seem to forget that other similarly tortured developments still mananged to get the most agonizing things out of the way with their respective part ones. Shenmue II and Final Fantasy XIII-2 (and Lightning Returns) having released comparatively quickly due to the existence of assets and so forth from the first game. Furthermore, it only took Squeenix three years to pull togther the game we have now (which is about right for a game of Remake’s scope), after having to scrap the first two years worth of work in its entirety - or damn close to it.)
Anyway, those are my somewhat jumbled thoughts on the game whose announcement prompted me to run out and buy a PlayStation 4 like it was 1990 and I’d just found out that U.N. Squadron was being ported to the SNES.
It’s an exciting time for a Final Fantasy 7 fan, and should be a wild ride for those just coming into the fold, too.
But, for me, it’s one of those rare moments when my younger self and the bitter old man I’ve become get to high-five one another. Plenty of games make me happy. Plenty more have made me feel like a kid again. But I’m not sure anything has managed to recreate the same sense of awe at something accomplished seemingly by magic that one felt experiencing a game like Final Fantasy VII at the time of its release.
This is gonna be one for the books. And, love it or hate it, we’ll all be talking about Final Fantasy VII Remake for a long, long time to come.