I played Final Fantasy VII shortly after it came out. I bounced off of it pretty hard. I had never played a JPRG before. This was a series coming over from Nintendo. Back then Nintendo was marketing console games as toys for kids. Other than the blocky 3D models, nothing about Final Fantasy VII was for kids. I did get out of Midgar, but left it there for a while. Once I came back, I accepted the differences and the weirdness. I really fell in love with the game. I still think its marteria and battle systems may be the best of the series.
So now we have a remake of Final Fantasy VII. They’ve been clear that this is a remake. It’s not a remaster or HD or 4K update. It’s a new game inspired by the original. After playing it, I can say it feels like that was a creative decision and not something forced on them by marketing strategists. We meet the same characters and hit some of the same story beats, but it’s clear right away this is a fresh vision for the world and the story. Since this is only the first part of the journey, I’ll withhold final judgement. So far, it seems like the right decision.
The Shinra controlled city of Midgar was the opening for Final Fantasy VII. It comprised the first 10 to 15 percent of the original. In the Remake, Midgar makes up the entire episode. Whether that mean we have seven more episodes or only two or three is anyone’s guess. My personal guess is there will be three episodes, one for each disk of the original. It seems an achievable goal and not everything needs to be expanded to the extent Midgar was.
What’s new? Obviously, the graphics are at the high end of modern standards. The environments are varied, detailed and look lived in. The character models are detailed and expressive (well, except Cloud, he never expresses much). Fans of the original will notice some of the animations clearly mirror those from the Playstation game. It’s cute without being intrusive. Monsters, bosses, and summons all look great. Some of the smaller parts fall into caricature, but that could be a stylistic choice or even a homage. Sometimes the particle effects, special attacks, lighting, spells and flourishes go over the top, confusing the action, but that’s what makes it a Final Fantasy game.
As you would expect from a Square-Enix game, the sound is top notch. The original soundtrack was a classic. Here it’s supplemented by new material, remixed themes and even a record collection game that you can use as ambient sound in parts of the game. The voice actors do a great job even with the over the top dialogue that often peppers JRPGs and Final Fantasy. More importantly the greatly expanded script give you opportunity to really get to know these characters. It’s clear Square knows people love these characters, treats them with respect and wants new players to fall in love with them as well.
Combat was always going to be divisive. VII was a pure turn based menu driven combat system. Final Fantasy hasn’t done anything like that for years. And they didn’t here. Let me start with the most impressive thing. Each character plays completely differently. One friend of mine mentioned that playing Tifa was like someone putting a fighting game in their RPG. Cloud feels a bit like a hack’n’slash game. Barret feels like a third person shooter with some spells thrown in. Aerith plays a bit like Diablo with spacing, movement and wards. The game seems to encourage you to stick with Cloud, but I’d say that’s the wrong way to play. It’s much more fun and involved if you’re constantly switching between characters based on the situation.
As you might have guessed, you have to learn the combat system. You’re moving around the combat area. Positioning and line of sight usually matter. You can take cover from many attacks. You can perform basic attacks, dodges or blocks nearly any time, but special attacks, spells and items can only be used when your action gauge fills up. How quickly it fills up is based on your speed, actions and buff/debuff status. Also, the character you’re controlling seems to fill up much faster than when your not controlling them. Moving and attacking fill up the gauge faster than blocking or hiding in cover. It’s action heavy. That could turn off purists, but overall, it just works. It’s fast, fun and flexible (until you really need that revive and everyone’s action gauge is filling like molasses while your health ticks down under a barrage of enemy attacks).
The materia system returns. Abilities are either tied to your equipped weapon or slotting materia into your weapon or armor. You can upgrade your weapons using SP earned during battles. This includes adding more materia slots. Do you focus on making your character stronger with higher stats or more flexible with more materia slots. Summon materia returns. You can only slot one summon per character and summon opportunities will only appear randomly in battle. They’re still a visual and combat payoff when they arrive.
There’s a good selection of weapons for all the characters. The stat bonuses and abilities associated with each weapon will define how that character plays while it’s equipped. One weapon might have Cloud more of a tank focused on physical attacks while another makes him more of a battle mage. Weapon special abilities can also be learned through repeated use. This encourages you to try all the weapons at least long enough to earn its ability. Weapons won’t completely redefine a character. Aerith can’t tank. Combining weapon choice, customization, materia selection, armor and accessories, allows you to shape each character to your play style and current needs. It’s remarkably flexible. Add in the different feel for each character, you never have cause to be bored.
You’ve got a classic story expanded with added depth and improved characterization. It has great visuals, stunning sound and flexible compelling gameplay. What’s not to like. There are some bugs, but that feels like niggling. Really, the main complaint you could have is that so different from Final Fantasy VII while trying to be true to its spirit. That’s a personal choice, but I think the strong creative decisions shown thus far indicate a series that will be the standard for Final Fantasy for some time to come. Highest recommendation. Go play now.