Final Fantasy VII is a game which continually meditates on the relationship between people and their relation to the lifeforce of the natural world. At the beginning of William Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey,” the speaker reflects on how the passage of five years finds him revisiting natural scenes that have brought him peace and contentment:
Five years have past; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur. –Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
That on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky. (ll. 1-8)
For the speaker in Wordsworth’s poem, the natural world provides a continual and unfailing source of mental and spiritual rejuvenation. Even during his five-year separation from the scene, the vision in his memory continued to benefit him, and he acknowledges their impact by declaring that “Oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din / Of towns and cities, I have owed to them, / In hours of weariness, sensations sweet” (ll. 25-27). It is these sensations which rejuvenate the soul, and hence the speaker avers that it is memories of experiencing the natural world, pure and tranquil, which are responsible for “that best portion of a good man’s life, / His little, nameless, unremembered, acts / Of kindness and of love” (ll. 33-35).
Five years have passed! Five summers, &c., since the pre-order of Final Fantasy VII Remake became available on Amazon. In that time, we have experienced trailers, screenshots, demos, surveys, delays, and countless interviews. Yet far from filling an expectant and hopeful audience with a rejuvenating tranquility, the information released has proved dismaying and divisive: “thoughts of more deep seclusion”, indeed! But the hour is at last upon us: the curtain is raised on this, the putative first act of Square Enix’s series of Final Fantasy VII Remake titles.
Suddenly, the last twenty-three years present a perplexing dilemma for the reviewer: should the Remake be judged like any other game as a stand-alone work–evaluated experientially and reviewed as it is found by a person playing through it from beginning to end, unaware of (and therefore not taking into account) any connexions with the original and any details hidden from the player at the moment of experience? Or, should the Remake be judged by what it claims to be–a Remake–and thus held to account for its treatment of the original, and reviewed with the presumption of the original experience and everything since? Clearly both are valid–even necessary–approaches, albeit contradictory ones withal. This review represents one determined fan’s attempt to Square(Enix) that circle.
Final Fantasy VII Remake is set in the technological metropolis of Midgar, a massive urban centre ruled unilaterally by the powerful Shinra Electric Power Company. Originally several separate villages, the rise of the Shinra Company and its technological development of Midgar resulted in the incorporation of the villages as eight sectors of a single city. As the Shinra Company began construction of an elitist utopia on immense metal plates high above the ground, the middle- and lower-classes soon found themselves economically relegated to the ‘undercity’, the polluted, poorly-lit slums on the ground beneath the Midgar plates.
It is in Midgar that Cloud Strife, a mercenary, is hired by Avalanche, a group of eco-terrorists. The Sector 7 cell is headed by Barret Wallace, an enormous man with a gun for an arm; other members include Tifa Lockhart (Cloud’s childhood friend), Jessie Rasberry (their technical expert), and Biggs and Wedge–one of the Final Fantasy series recurring shout-outs to the Star Wars series. The game opens in media res with Cloud engaged on a mission to bomb the Sector 1 Mako Reactor–one of eight Midgar power stations which draw mako from within the planet and convert it into usable electricity. It is this technological innovation which has allowed the Shinra Company to revolutionise not only Midgar but the world, bringing countless advances to the people (and enormous wealth and power to the Shinra Company).
However, Barret and the other members of Avalanche believe that mako is not merely a convenient energy source: they contest that it is, in fact, the lifeblood of the planet–effectively, the souls of all living things are made from mako. When a living thing is born, it is animated by mako which comes from the planet; and, when a living thing dies, its life-force returns to the planet as mako. Therefore, converting mako to electricity in a reactor is in actual fact the destruction of the souls of every living thing. And, as more of the finite amount of mako is converted, fewer living things can be created, with the eventual outcome being an entirely lifeless planet.
Avalanche’s assault on Shinra quickly spins out of control: out of their element against the totalitarian Shinra police state, their every step is observed and used against them as Shinra sabotages their own reactors to make the Avalanche threat appear far more dangerous than it is, thus turning the people against the eco-terrorist faction. To cap off matters, in a successful attempt to frame Avalanche, the Shinra Company drops the Sector 7 Midgar plate onto the slums below, destroying one-eighth of their metropolis. And, to further inflame the public, the Shinra News Network (SNN) alleges a connexion between Avalanche and Wutai, with whom Midgar was recently at war. With the public turned firmly against Avalanche and Wutai, the Shinra Company finds itself ideally placed further to exploit the panicked and enraged population. The scene is thus set for a showdown between Avalanche and Shinra, with the player’s party members seeking an opportunity to clear Avalanche’s name (and get some revenge as well).
Along the way, Cloud and his associates meet with Aerith Gainsborough, a flower seller from the Sector 5 slums who is also the last surviving direct descendant of the Cetra, an ancient race of humanoids who settled the planet and were in harmonious communion with its lifestream. Hojo of the Shinra Company has long pursued Aerith whilst stringing along the Shinra Company which funds him by promising that his research will help to lead the company to the Cetra’s ‘Promised Land’–a place where people will live in communion with the lifestream. President Shinra misinterprets this to mean a physical place of boundless mako, which he intends to exploit, and so he funds Hojo’s research unstintingly. But Hojo’s intentions are far more nefarious and deadly, revolving around his experimentation with the creature Jenova.
Cloud is also thwarted by appearance of the malicious Sephiroth, a legendary hero of the Wutai war who disappeared five years ago. Throughout the game, Cloud has painful flashbacks which compel him to engage with Sephiroth, who alters Cloud’s perceptions of the world around him. Cloud periodically remembers fragments of an event related to Sephiroth, involving Tifa and her father, although the details are never fully-assembled in this part of the Remake. Likewise, Sephiroth’s connexion both to Hojo, and to the tattooed figures he uses throughout the game, go unexplained, although these are all part of the original game’s story.
(In the original Final Fantasy VII, Hojo is as misguided as the Shinra: having uncovered the frozen figure of Jenova in the northern wastes, he mistakes it for a Cetra, although it is in fact their archenemy, a planet-destroying monster of terrible power. Sephiroth himself is long-dead, killed five years before by Cloud, after Sephiroth destroys Cloud’s hometown of Nibelheim. The appearances of Sephiroth in the present are in fact Hojo’s human experiments, created with the infusion of Jenova and Sephiroth cells, each tatooed with their experiment identification number–a detail carried over into the remake. Jenova’s power turns the experiment’s subjects into clones of Sephiroth, and her dark energy draws them endlessly towards her in a movement called ‘The Jenova Reunion’, the culmination of which will see her reassemble in full power and union with Sephiroth, ready to call down the power of Meteor to destroy the planet–whereupon Jenova will feed upon the lifestream liberated by the deaths of every living thing on the planet.)
The board of the Shinra Company–Heidegger, Scarlet, Reeve, Palmer, and Hojo–generally cooperate with President Shinra’s plans, although Reeve begins to show signs of wavering in his commitment to the company’s increasingly wicked actions. In one scene present in the remake (but not in the original), a robotic cat is seen rushing to the scene of the Sector 7 plate destruction, only to arrive too late to prevent the calamity. This scene is inexplicable to someone unfamiliar with the story of Final Fantasy VII: only later in the story is the character, Cait Sith, introduced at the Gold Saucer–and yet later still is it finally revealed that he is controlled by Reeve. Neither of these events are present in the first part of Final Fantasy VII Remake, so for players new to the series, the event is inexplicable and remains so through the end of the game.
The Remake adheres to the storyline of the original in only the most general sense, becoming increasingly distinct from it as it progresses. It is for this reason that the staff of The Day Tonight have opined that it might be better if the game were marketed as an ‘alternative telling’ of Final Fantasy VII rather than a remake, which implies a faithfulness to the plot of the original work. For, in the Remake, key differences from the original begin to crop up almost from the beginning. Many changes are likely due to the developers’ belief that it was it necessary to pad out the game’s length in order to justify selling it at $60(US). The Midgar sequence of Final Fantasy VII is approximately four hours long as compared to the approximately thirty-five hour length of the Remake. Formerly small areas have been greatly expanded, distances between locations have been massively increased, fight sequences (especially bosses) take considerably longer, and a number of extremely ordinary MMO-style (e.g. go kill X monster, go find X cats, go to X location) side quests have been added to several chapters, many of which involve backtracking to previously visited areas.
Cutscenes new to the Remake are present throughout the game in great number, a fact which is driven home in the credits sequence when scores of clips from the various cutscenes are silently played in an overlapping and scrolling collage. By and large, the cutscenes represent some of the best moments of the game, despite not having the absolute fidelity of the most current CGI technology. Indeed, throughout the game the graphics are of a very high quality, with widespread and noticeable issues largely limited to environment texture rendering: and these are likely only on show because of Square Enix’s pandemic-related inability to issue an intended Day 1 patch, widely reported as meant to address graphical and other technical issues. The effect is only occasionally noticeable, but it does not seem to affect any of the characters (only environments), and its overall effect on the game is negligible. However, it does represent a willingness to ship the game in a technically incomplete state. But, although another delay to make the corrections to the master would have been the position of absolute principle, it is also important to consider that Square Enix could not have predicted that the pandemic would interfere with their efforts to provide a Day 1 patch, and that had they been able to do so, it would have obviated the need for a delay.
The plot details recounted above are largely followed from the original game. It is where the Remake adds detail not present in the original that the developers clearly felt they had more license to indulge a desire to reimagine the world of Final Fantasy VII. The addition of dementor-like ‘whispers’ (also called ‘Arbiters of Fate’) at key scenes comes early on in the game, but only increases in frequency and intensity as the story progresses. Fan theories have speculated that these wispy figures are (1) beings meant to preserve the original game’s storyline; (2) a Chrono Cross-like attempt by the party from the original game attempting to change the outcome of their actions; or (3) additional Sephiroth clones whose fates are not directly addressed by the original or remake. However, all three of these theories are contradicted by the Remake, which makes it clear that the whispers are a new creation which the players believe are meant to be guardians of ‘destiny’ (that is to say, the destiny of the characters in the Remake, and not the destiny of the characters in the original game). Consequently, the whispers both help and hamper the party, both preserve and alter the original game’s storyline, both aid and frustrate Sephiroth, and eventually serve as part of the final boss battle sequence, in a multiparty battle reminiscent of the end of Final Fantasy VII.
In fact, it appears as though the whispers have been added purely to make people speculate. Their addition does not improve upon the original plot–quite the contrary, because their inexplicability and contradictory behaviour only make the plot more opaque. Worse yet, their involvement in the plot is a recurring deus ex machina that removes agency from the player and the characters alike, allowing the developers to force plot events in directions that they never would have gone, and to otherwise change aspects of the original game’s storyline without a meaningful narrative purpose or justification. That decision evidences a lazy and purposeless mindset of interference with the player and the storyline, and demonstrates the absolute hubris of Tetsuya Nomura, whose infelicitious hand can be felt behind many of the changes imposed in the Remake‘s new vision of the story of Final Fantasy VII. As one reader has observed, Final Fantasy games have a long tradition of strange plot twists, but there is a fine line between that sort of move and the sort of ludicrous nonsense that characterises the typical ‘plot’ of Kingdom Hearts. Time and again, Nomura demonstrates his creative inability to keep the two approaches separated, a defect summarised in his redesign of Rufus, in which he replaces the Vice-President of Shinra’s iconic white military trench coat with a dress made of belts.
Thus it can be seen that not every difference between the original and the Remake is additive; many of the changes are contradictory, and it is hard to see why they were taken unless it was for the envious purpose of change for the sake of change, to brand the old title by making changes in the new, and so prove the superiority of the Remake if not ownership over both. These moments are the Remake‘s worst and most painful forays–the survival of Wedge and Biggs from the fall of the Sector 7 plate does not merely strain logic to the breaking point, it passes into the realm of the ludicrous. In his final moment, Wedge is seen clutching at his cat as the multi-billion-tonne plate comes down on his head. Later, he is found bruised but alive in a newly-added underground research area. It is possible to imagine the ground giving way just before impact and somehow, miraculously, saving him from being crushed into a jelly. But Biggs, dying of his wounds in the support pillar itself, would have been crushed into dust by the fall of the plate. Watching the plate fall, players old enough to remember might well be reminded, horribly, of the collapse of the World Trade Centre, and what little there was to find in the terrible aftermath. Indeed, the framing of the game event seems intended to invite such a comparison. But it is for this very reason that the miraculous survival of Biggs and Wedge diminishes the totality and finality of the horror of such an event. In Final Fantasy VII Remake, everyone gets out alive. It is a history judiciously corrected, and thereby deprived of the ability to say anything meaningful about the true nature of villainous catastrophe, incomprehensible loss, and the ends of grief.
When the Remake adds without contradicting the original, it generally does so in a way which is at the worst merely insignificant; and, there are many moments where additions to the game are entertaining or even improvements. The removal of many of the Shinra Building puzzles (mostly intended for a 2D game map) are a minor disappointment, especially when so few things are added to replace the content. But what has been added may be considered a microcosm of the rest of the game: a 3D auto-jumping platforming section (uninspired and time-consuming but insignificant), but also an expanded role for Deputy Mayor Hart which preserves his avaricious streak, and a much-expanded role for Mayor Domino who now not only roots for Avalanche, but is shown to be the person responsible for helping Cloud and his friends evade detection by Shinra’s building security. Likewise, the removal of the ‘Full Frontal Assault’ option for Shinra building infiltration has been replaced by a mandatory parking garage assault (so, effectively the same frontal assault style engagement, but in a more plausible location). This is followed by the choice of the stairs or the elevator, which were the choices of ascent available in the original game where they were linked to choosing to infiltrate via a frontal assault or rear door. In the Remake, the player can experience in a single trip both the thrill of the assault and the choice of ascent (boring and exhausing stair climb versus a trip in an elevator and entertaining encounters with Shinra security and ordinary employees).
But, with all the positive additions, there are many which are deleterious. The expansion of the original material for the Remake might be better thought of as an inflation. In the original, the player will spend hardly more than a few minutes in each locale, because the entirety of the Midgar sequence is over in a mere four hours. The pace of the plot and the gameplay is extremely fast, not only for the time but especially for today, where the amount of time developers need to spend in creating engaging locales means that they prefer to force gamers to linger in those locations, thus justifying the development. In the Remake, the player will spend hours in each location around Midgar, and sometimes more than an hour moving from one location to another. Moreover, many of the locations are revisited, necessitating lengthy treks until Chapter 14 (of 18) when Chocobo fast-travel becomes available (and only fully and freely available after an optional but lengthy side quest).
Consequently, many of the Remake areas and gameplay sequences wear out their welcome before they conclude–a situation much worsened if one is familiar with the original game and eager to move on to the plot and location that is only five minutes away in the original game. The developers do try to drop plot into these lengthy sequences in order to keep the storyline delivering whilst the player plods through the large areas and connexions between them, but all too often the only thing going on during the gameplay sequences is the characters talking to one another about things unrelated to the overall plot. In one particularly egregious example, Hojo’s laboratory in the Shinra building (a single floor of one double-wide screen in the original) becomes a multi-floor dungeon, including ‘The Drum’, with its four associated wards and their associated door lock puzzles, strings of battles, and required party switching to navigate the whole before culminating in a boss fight. The sequence is made worse by the absolute linearity of the environment: what appears to be a logic puzzle related to the order in which to open doors and extend walkways quickly reveals itself to be–as almost every other area in the game–a linear path with only the merest appearance of branching routes.
In what is the most obvious change, the classic Final Fantasy-style battle system has been reimagined as an action battle system, in which the player controls one of the three party members at a time, inputting attack commands to build the ATB meter, segments of which can then be expended to utilise magic and items or execute combat abilities. At that level, it works extremely well. However, the developers did not intend for AI to replace the need for players to control the other characters just as they do in the original game, so the AI is punitively stupid: when characters are not being controlled by the player, they will often almost idle in place, building ATB very slowly (although they tend to be good at dodging most attacks). Correcting this is billed as the primary feature of Classic Mode (which is locked to the Easy Difficulty setting); but even in Classic Mode, only the character under player control will auto-attack. In fact, the developer’s intention seems to be that the player will frequently change between active characters, building their ATBs and executing actions round-robin style. When the game is approached in this way, the ATB speed is so great that battles become chains of abilities resulting in almost trivial encounters on Normal difficulty, even with boss fights, where difficulty is largely down to the easy-to-master action-rpg dualism of (a) attacking vulnerable parts of the body and (b) avoiding attack patterns, including by hiding behind obstacles. AP is earned after combat, building the materia attached to weapons and armour, which in turns confers the ability to use spells, abilities, and effects by the character. Character weapons each provide a different skillset, upgradeable by the player, tailored to different styles of play such as high physical or magic damage, increased life and defence, or increased critical hit damage and rate. The whole system is highly satisfactory, allowing for great customisation and easy improvement without being either too clumsy or fiddly.
The English voice acting throughout is never worse than passable, and in an intelligent move the Japanese voice acting uses the exemplary Advent Children cast. Some of the English characters fail to hit the mark–Sephiroth is a notable example, although his voicework seems to improve later in the game. Some characters positively shine: Heidegger and Biggs, for example, never put a foot wrong, and have voices and delivery which exactly suit the characters. Likewise, the soundtrack has been beautifully handled. Nearly all of the tracks from the original come out improved from their pass through the Remake‘s music department, with only a few exceptions (the original Wall Market theme, for example, which has become an obnoxious beatbox track played in a bandit-infested section of the ruins). In addition, the game contains thirty-one low-fi remixes of classic Final Fantasy VII tracks, including tracks not ordinarily heard in the Midgar sequence, such as the theme for Costa Del Sol. Unfortunately, these tracks can only be selected by finding the audio discs in the game and then playing them at a jukebox, next to which the character must stand. If a collectible disc is missed, then it can be found later in the post-game, after the final boss fight and credits. When the game is saved post-credits, it will allow selection of any of the game’s eighteen chapters, playable on any difficulty with dramatically increased EXP and AP rewards, including a Hard Difficulty unlocked by beating the game. In this way, any missed items can be reobtained, and the chapters can be revisited with a new level of challenge intended for a max-level party.
The ability to revisit content from the storyline only seems useful to ordinary players if that content was ignored the first time through, otherwise it seems to be firmly in the realm of material intended for completionists who want the platinum–not the hardest feat, but a time-consuming one given that it would involve a further thirty-plus hour foray into the game and its content. Yet, the amount of content added to Final Fantasy VII Remake as compared to the original game is less astonishing when one begins to realise that quite a lot of it has been cribbed from points in the plot which occur later in the original game. This raises the question of what will be done later in the remake series: the Nibelheim reactor’s egg-like capsules in which human beings are soaked in mako is revealed early on, and they are seen in numbers in The Drum. Aerith’s explanation of the Ancients and the Cetra is also moved up so as to form a part of this game. The reference to Sephiroth and his tattooed clones (in this case, Messrs. 2 and 49) is also made more explicit through cutscenes, although it probably still remains unintelligible to a player ignorant of the original game’s storyline. It remains to be seen what the result of cannibalising the later plot of Final Fantasy VII will mean for future installments of the Remake.
In addition, the end of the Remake also poses problems of its own. After the series of boss fights that comprise almost all of the last three chapters of the game, Cloud and company defeat the whispers (and a gigantic arbiter of fate), and another Sephiroth clone. During these final battles, the party has visions of the storyline of the original game: such as meteor falling on Midgar, and Red XIII running towards an overgrown Midgar five hundred years later. These, Red XIII says, are a vision of what will happen if they should fail. But, of course, these are events that transpire when the party succeeds in the original game. Yoshinori Kitase told fans that, “We’re not drastically changing the story and making it into something completely different than the original. Even though it’s a Remake, please assume the story of FF7 will continue as FF7 always has.” But if the party is now actively working to subvert the end that they achieve in the original title (and on which Advent Children is based), it is hard to see how this will result in a Remake that “will continue as FF7 always has”. In a spirit of intellectual charity, it is worth remembering that this is only the first part of a multipart remake project, and represents only small fraction of the overall story of Final Fantasy VII, so there is a great deal still left to address and plenty of time to resolve fan concern. But, the changes made in this Remake do not all speak to the ability of the development team to make thoughtful decisions about how to handle the legacy of the original title.
At the end–after the cinematics have played and the credits have rolled–how is Final Fantasy VII Remake to be judged? As a stand-alone work? As only the first part in a multi-part remake? Or as a remake of the classic 1997 title? Is there even a way to synthesise these disparate and justifiable approaches to the game? Certainly trying to provide a review for all seasons has been the intention in the explanations given above–but for this reviewer, it is far more difficult to neatly resolve the title into a letter grade that can simultaneously address these approaches. So, from this point on, as in so many of the best RPGs, only one path can be chosen: the question must be “is the game good; is it worth playing; should I spend my money to buy it?” alone, and all considerations must be weighed only insofar as they facilitate an answer yea or nay to that question.
“The price of freedom is steep,” Zack Fair says in his final stand outside of Midgar, and when the scene plays out at the end of the Remake it is hard not to shed a tear for the doom of Zack, tortured by Shinra for four years, escaped with Cloud all the way to Midgar to find Aerith, only to die on a hill overlooking the city itself–Zack who will never make it to Aerith, and whose memories will be coopted by Cloud until Tifa helps him to confront the truth of his own past. The price of freedom is steep, for Zack, for the characters in Final Fantasy VII, for everyone who has the freedom to make choices that affect the world for good or ill. The ending song, “Hollow“, an astonishing vocal remix of the original Midgar slum theme, “Lurking in the Darkness,” with its harmonica riffs and guitar calling upon the theme to Crisis Core and lyrics referencing Cloud’s memories of Zack, heightens the poignancy of the moment as the memory of Zack passes by Cloud and Aerith. Aerith who herself must die, in the fullness of time! Yes, the price of freedom is steep!
And, ay, there’s the rub: the price of freedom has pith only because it is so frequently ignored; freedom has a high price because it is bought for the unaware and the indifferent with the blood of the innocent and the good. That is the lesson of Crisis Core and Final Fantasy VII alike. Looking at Final Fantasy VII Remake in retrospect, as the credits rolled to remind this reviewer of the game’s countless cutscenes–impressed by execution but angered by indefensible changes and frustrated by inexplicable plot details–the whole became somehow more affecting due to its faults, those things that I wish I could change, but cannot. It served as a reminder that there is a destiny we have to face, and the question is whether we can live with it or not. This review and others criticises the developers for some of their choices, and that criticism is deserved. But this reviewer cannot say–will not say–that I would prefer they had never created the game. Does this game make me angry? Yes. Do I find its treatment of the source material too cavalier at times? Yes. Would I have done it differently? Yes. Should you play it? Yes. It is a good game. It is a remarkable game. It is an exceptional game. It is a game that does a great many things impressively well, even beautifully well. It is a game that we will talk about for the rest of our lives. And if one determines to scorn it because of the reality that there is good inextricable with the bad, one is more than simply cheating oneself out of the experience of a twice-in-a-lifetime gaming moment.
For the end really is worth the sacrifice and the frustrations along the way; they are the price of the freedom to explore the incredible, flawed masterpiece that is Final Fantasy VII Remake. It is a steep price, to be sure–but, nevertheless, our future history will show it to be a price absolutely worth the paying.
Title: Final Fantasy VII Remake
Genre: Action Role-playing
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: PlayStation 4
Released: 10 April 2020 (PS4, WW)