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Final Fantasy VII Remake is a thrilling, thoughtful take on a classic

It answers old questions and asks new ones

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After a mission early on in Final Fantasy VII Remake, Cloud Strife and his team decide to return home using an odd form of transportation: they jump off some scaffolding and parachute to the slums below.

It’s more dangerous than the train, but it provides one hell of a view. I’ve spent countless hours in the gritty metropolis of Midgar since the original Final Fantasy VII launched in 1997, but I had never seen anything like this. Soaring through the smoggy skies, staring at the vast expanse of humanity below, it really drove home just how much has changed over the last 23 years. This is the Midgar I’ve come to know. But it’s also so much more.

Final Fantasy VII was always going to be a tricky game to remake. It’s at times both the most beloved and controversial game in the long-running series. When it launched on the original PlayStation, it changed the series forever with lavish CG cutscenes and a focus on larger, more expansive stories. It was weird and emotional and absorbing in a way that few blockbuster games had been before — or since. Attempting to harvest that energy, which feels innately tied to the late ‘90s and the early days of 3D gaming, seemed like a particularly difficult task.

Yet, that’s what makes the remake all the more impressive. It translates the experience into something modern, without losing much of that classic charm. It’s not the whole experience — FFVIIR only encompasses the opening Midgar section of the story, which amounts to the opening of the game, with no indication of how the rest will be released — and it’s certainly not perfect. There are some new aspects that feel unnecessary, moments that serve as filler, and areas where the game can be frustratingly dated. It’s messy and beautiful, thrilling and confusing — which is to say, the remake is 100 percent Final Fantasy VII.

As with the original, FFVIIR centers on a mercenary and genetically enhanced super-soldier named Cloud Strife. At the outset of the game, Cloud has been hired by Avalanche, an environmental group attempting to blow up a reactor it believes is damaging the planet. Initially, the conflict is clear: there’s a stereotypically evil megacorporation called Shinra that is sucking out energy called Mako from the earth to power the massive city of Midgar, and Avalanche is a ragtag group aiming to put a stop to it. (Shinra is the kind of company where the president says things like “progress requires sacrifice.”) But in classic Japanese RPG fashion, it gets much more complex. There are ancient magical races, a lifeforce that holds the planet together, and a superpowered being named Sephiroth who wants to bring about the destruction of the world.

The story is infamously convoluted and confusing, but the remake actually does a great job of explaining much of it. Part of that has to do with the tighter focus. Since the experience is centered specifically on Midgar, a gritty metropolis that exists only because of Shinra’s exploitation of the planet, it’s easy to grasp the stakes. It’s only toward the end that the game starts to weave in the more complex elements. But FFVIIR also expands on aspects of the original to help further flesh out the world. For instance, in the first game, Avalanche was a tiny group based out of the basement of a bar; here, you learn it’s actually just one cell in a much bigger organization. More importantly, characters that were once little more than names with barely so much as a personality have now become fully fleshed-out people. Avalanche member Jessie, in particular, has gone from someone I barely remembered to one of the most iconic characters in the story.

Overall, the story makes a lot more sense. Even for longtime fans, the added depth means the big moments have more impact. I already knew much of what was going to happen in the game — the major story beats remain the same, and in some cases, the scenes are almost identical to the original — but they can take on new meaning and emotion here. When you lose characters you’ll feel more repercussions, and you’ll even see the consequences of your actions after attacking Shinra. 

Crucially, FFVIIR does this without taking itself too seriously. Sure, Cloud is as glum as ever, and the world is dark and oppressive. But it also gets pretty weird. One of FFVII’s most controversial scenes involves Cloud cross-dressing in order to sneak into a less-than-reputable establishment. It’s not a scene that aged particularly well, but the remake turns it into something campy and fun, complete with a rhythm-based dancing sequence that maintains the original’s penchant for strange genre-mashing minigames.

One of the aspects of the game that benefits the most from this modernization is the setting. Midgar was always meant to be a sprawling cityscape, but it was clear that the developer’s vision was too big for the original PlayStation hardware. Here, though, it becomes a dynamic and believable place. Each district, known only by its numbered name in a way that evokes other cyberpunk dystopian metropolises, now feels distinct and lived-in. It’s a city with a unique layout: from a central pillar extend eight different plates, each powered by a different reactor. Shinra employees and the rich live on the plates, while everyone else is stuck in the slums below.

You can sense this tension wherever you are. No matter where you look, you can’t get away from the towering plates overhead. It’s a constant reminder of the class division of the world. Meanwhile, you actually get a chance to venture into the Shinra employee housing to get a sense of how the other half lives. Elsewhere, the seedy Wall Market is a booming, vibrant place, while Aerith’s house is the serene getaway it was always intended to be. I particularly loved sneaking around the oppressive-yet-functional Shinra headquarters, with its gleaming glass walls and definitely-not-evil lighting. Really, it’s almost like the original game was a sketch of the world; here, it’s been fully fleshed-out and colored.

It’s almost like the original game was a sketch of the world

The remake is more than just a visual and narrative overhaul. The developers at Square Enix have also modernized much of the gameplay as well. The most obvious example is combat. The 1997 version of the game was a classic, turn-based RPG, where you and your enemies would take turns attacking, healing, and casting spells. The remake is much more action-oriented. Battles happen in real time, and at its most basic level, FFVIIR is a bit like a brawler. But there’s depth hidden there. You can use basic attacks whenever you want, but every other action — using items, casting spells, pulling off special attacks — is on a timer. In most battles, you can simply slash your way through enemies. But in the tougher fights, figuring out when to heal or saving a killing blow for just the right moment become crucial strategies.

Overall, the combat just feels good. It’s fast and exciting and complex enough that standard battles don’t become tedious. It’s especially great during some of the big, multipart boss battles, which typically require an extra layer of strategy. Even better, while you can only control one character at a time, you can swap between party members at will. I spent most of the game using Cloud in battles — his impossibly huge sword is a lot of fun — but I would switch to other characters when it came time to use their special skills. It’s a pretty open system, letting you play how you like, and it’s aided by more robust character customization options. Like in the original, you can get new spells and special abilities by slotting glowing orbs called materia into your weapons and armor, but now there’s also a simplified skill tree so that you can keep improving your abilities. It’s not hugely deep or complex, but it definitely makes the RPG element more enticing.

For the most part, the changes to the game are for the better. FFVIIR looks incredible, has satisfying action, and a more comprehensible story. But there are some elements that feel dated — and some of them are new additions. For instance, there are sidequests now. It makes some narrative sense: since Cloud is a mercenary, it seems likely he’d take on jobs in the Midgar slums for extra cash. Unfortunately, almost every one of these missions is a drag. Some have fun story elements, but ultimately, they all involve going somewhere to collect an object, kill some monsters, or both. This isn’t helped much by the fact that FFVIIR is an exceedingly linear game. Going on a sidequest doesn’t mean exploring a huge world; instead, it forces you down yet another beautifully dressed-up hallway. And while the remake fleshes out some of the bit players from the original, it also introduces brand-new characters who go frustratingly undeveloped over the course of the story.

Boss battles can also be an annoyance. While many are clever and exciting, there are several that evoke the worst aspect of JRPGs, with enemies boosted by massive health bars that take forever to take down. On two occasions, I turned to the game’s “classic” difficulty setting — which almost plays itself with characters attacking automatically — rather than deal with dying repeatedly at the hands of a tedious boss. It’s great that this accessibility option exists, but it would be better if those bosses weren’t so annoying.

It’s worth reexploring even for longtime fans

Perhaps the most notable thing about FFVIIR is that it makes a game I’ve played multiple times over the last 23 years into something interesting and new. While the core moments remain untouched, there are new additions and tweaks that make it worth reexploring even for longtime fans. There’s even a new narrative thread about destiny that opens up even more questions. It’s not clear when we’ll get the next episode — the game ends with the ominous line “the unknown journey will continue” — but the remake ends in a way that’s surprisingly satisfying, considering it doesn’t tell a complete story. It mostly wraps up the initial Shinra story and sets up Sephiroth as the true big bad from there on out.

There’s a moment that many players experienced early on in the original game, myself included. Up until that point, the entire story had been contained in Midgar; then, all of a sudden, you leave the city and realize just how big the world really is. It’s almost shocking. So far, FFVIIR has successfully captured that initial feeling — now, I want to see the rest of the world.

Final Fantasy VII Remake will launch on April 10th on the PS4.

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