Nostalgia is a funny thing. Final Fantasy 7 was one of the first games I played that I wanted to devote my life to, and there have been whispers of a remake for years, teases and rumours building the anticipation to fever pitch.
And here it is – Final Fantasy VII Remake for PS4.
It would be tempting to give it a perfect score for the parts where Barrett cheerfully hums the victory music, or when you first bump into Aerith, or a host of other moments that shed more light on a game that completely dominated its era.
However, move past my childlike enthusiasm for Cloud “sad eyes” Strife and his merry band of ecowarriors, and the game reveals faults including sluggish pacing, some dodgy combat mechanics and a few truly bizarre moments. If you’re a Final Fantasy fan, you can probably stop reading this now and go and buy it, but for anyone wondering how it might stand up as a game in its own right, keep reading.
First things first. This game isn’t a complete remake, but a reimagining of the first chunk of Final Fantasy 7, covering the first game’s introductory moments in the monolithic city of Midgar. Future episodes are planned, but 35 hours into the game, I’m still uncovering plenty of depth, so it might be easier to imagine this game more akin to the Mass Effect trilogy – one story sprawled out over hours and hours of play.
Square Enix has been a little shy about communicating this in the message, so it’s key to know that you’re getting a full-sized game that actually only represents a segment of the original Final Fantasy 7, although you shouldn’t feel shortchanged with the depth of what you’re getting.
One Wing and a prayer
Purists will likely grump at the early introduction of details that don’t appear in the original game until much later, with the villain of the piece Sephiroth showing up in a dream sequence as soon as he can be shoehorned in.
The core story, of Cloud Strife getting involved with the ecological terrorist group Avalanche, is still present and correct, it’s just that there’s so much extra content that everything feels like it takes a lot longer.
With this in mind, these later plot elements being brought forwards make more sense to tighten the game’s structure: after all, the original FF7 drops its big exposition bomb in the town of Kalm, with a cutscene so long it has a save point in the middle.
Here, this opening salvo of Square Enix’s remake efforts doesn’t even take you that far, so most of the key plot details introduced at that point wouldn’t have made it into the first game. The padding in the game can be frustrating, but there’s also a confidence to the storytelling that sees the game go to some unusual places, and it’s a decision that’s worth applauding.
“One of the best looking games of the generation”
Praise should be given to the game’s aesthetic. I feel like FF7 Remake (as I’m going to call it moving forwards) is one of the best looking games of this generation, and while it’s easier to notice this during the action-packed set pieces, the game’s visuals resonated with me most when you’re walking through Midgar’s streets, picking your way through knots of people while bathed in the glow of flickering neon lights.
Maybe it’s because – at the time of writing – I’ve been inside for 20 days due to a country-wide lockdown, but the way that people gather on the streets of Midgar feels incredibly well done, and it’s satisfying just to exist in the world: I spent 20 minutes exploring the world around me the first time I was let off the leash for the first time, and I don’t think I’ll be the only person to immediately get drawn into the city.
The character redesigns are all distinctive and interesting, and besides the declaration that I would 100% die for Jessie, I’m genuinely enthusiastic about pretty much everyone’s redesign. It still feels like the Final Fantasy I fell in love with, albeit with plenty of new bits and pieces for fans old and new to enjoy, and it all adds up to one big dumb well-told story, with well-rounded characters doing interesting things.
One particular dance-off left me unsure whether I should perhaps add or subtract a point from the game’s score.
Prepare for combat
Ultimately, the game lives or dies on the revamped combat system. The real-time brawls are the biggest single change, mechanically, from the launch of the original game back in 1997, and as you’ll be playing this game for somewhere in the vicinity of 30 hours, how fresh that feels is going to dictate whether a lot of players click with it or not.
During your playthrough, you’ll cycle through a few different characters, and my general feeling is that melee-heavy characters like Tifa and Cloud come out very well, with combos and special abilities helping you move around the battlefield and dominate enemies.
The game doesn’t get the same level of success with ranged combat, magic use and summons, which often feel quite unwieldy.
Every special action in combat requires a full ATB bar to be used, meaning you can’t just hide at the back and spaff magic spells into the fight, but for some reason item use also requires an ATB charge, meaning you can take a hard hit and have to totter around on your last legs for long enough for the game to let you pull out a potion.
It’s frustrating when you consider that items are already limited by the fact you have a short supply of them, and it’s one of a few different choices that I thought was confusing in the early game and started to find remarkably grating as I worked through the game.
Ultimately, FF7 Remake is a flawed gem.
It’s a solid entry to the Final Fantasy franchise and worthy of continuing the legacy of Final Fantasy 7 itself, a game that has broken loose of the fantasy RPG series and acquired a fanbase of its own stretched across games, novels and even a movie.
The game has its problems, but chances are you won’t care much about them.
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