There are many games I wish I could experience again for the first time. Those first moments of wonder and emotion that come with a game you truly love – one that sticks with you as long as Final Fantasy VII has for many – are something you cannot have back, though. These moments, long lost in the faded glow of late-night gameplay sessions, are our own private treasures – something gone but that we find ourselves forever chasing.
But we cannot have them back. They are to be lived and loved as they are – fond memories. Or so I’d thought.
Final Fantasy VII Remake is not a perfect game. There are small elements that bog it down in tedium. Characters whose inclusion baffles the mind. But every morning when I woke up, they were forgotten in my excitement to pick up the controller and get back to Midgar. To savor that joy of meeting old friends again. The depth that was given to characters I’d long forgotten. This sense that I was rediscovering a story somehow familiar, but completely new. This feeling that I had returned to a memory to relive it with fresh eyes, knowing to enjoy every moment I was there.
It’s odd to see a remake so completely overhauled like this. If you’ve played the original Final Fantasy VII, this game manages to take you somewhere that is both familiar and completely different. The world of Midgar is given room to expand into a bustling city, expanded outward into a massive town. The old train yards, the sprawling fields of wreckage and hostile monsters, the oppressive guts and shimmering planetary lifeblood that roils within the Mako reactors – these are all places you’ve seen, just grown to massive size and given this sense of presence that I haven’t felt since I first saw these places.
Final Fantasy VII was absolutely stunning when I first saw it. Coming off the SNES, games just didn’t look like this. Yeah, Cloud was blocky as all heck, but those backgrounds looked almost photorealistic at the time. It gave the game this sense of reality that I just never felt before.
If I revisited it now, those locales would be quaint. Likely pretty blurry on a modern TV, too. I couldn’t go back to them. Yet Final Fantasy VII Remake captures that sense of grim reality yet again, looking gorgeous in its vision of a broken world held hostage by a ruthless power company. The Sector 7 Slums are depressing, but with the bustle of the crowd around you as you walk the dusty streets, it all feels so very real.
I feel this the most in the game’s exploration of corporate greed stripping the planet bare – in its exploration of its themes. The Slums feel like the aftermath of companies given free reign to put profits over people, leaving them scraping for a living in a company that has literally stolen the sun from over their heads. That can turn said sun off with a switch. The Slums are disturbingly real in the warning they offer us about our own lives and the businesses that would strip the flesh from our bones if it was worth anything at resale.
You see people struggling to be happy – to find their place in this world and keep food on the table. You get a sense of the pain they feel every day. It’s not just visual fidelity (although the game does look lovely), but this representation of what you’re fighting for as you work through Final Fantasy VII Remake.
I never much felt connected to the Avalanche, the group working to defeat the Shinra Corporation in the original game. It’s something I dimly remember from the game’s first disk – a stepping stone on the way to battling the game’s true villains. A few hours with the group’s members blowing up reactors made me feel little connection with them as I worried more about those in my party. I didn’t much care what happened to them along the way.
Final Fantasy VII Remake takes more time with the group and its handful of members, though. I initially bristled at the idea of ‘wasting’ time chatting up any characters that weren’t part of the core party members from my memory. Without spoiling things, this game humanizes the members of Avalanche and works to give them actual traits, making me feel more for them and their quest than I ever did before. The time it spends with them helped me feel a connection to what we were doing, allowing me a deeper immersion in the plot.
That said, they can be a bit one-note. There’s not a lot of depth to these characters, with most of their scenes simply reinforcing a single character trait. The new scenes and content involving them helped me feel more of a connection to them, but I wouldn’t say they were interesting or developed all that much. That and the game makes one character’s entire personality into jokes about his weight, constantly making comments about food or hunger or being overweight. This got old REALLY fast, and seems annoyingly out of place. They really couldn’t do anything with his character besides tell fat jokes?
Despite these character limitations, I still FELT something when we did things together. I felt like a part of the cause, and not just someone going through dungeons in an RPG. There was a cohesion in the themes and character and world that made me want to help make things better for everyone.
It doesn’t hurt that improving the world meant bashing machines with a giant sword.
Saying I was hesitant about the combat is putting it lightly. Action combat from the director of Kingdom Hearts? No thanks. However, Final Fantasy VII Remake has a combat system that gives you an incredible sense of weight and power as you swing Cloud’s Buster Sword around — a sense of the impact that comes when steel smashes against steel. Battles feel like thrilling ordeals as you strive to bash massive robots into submission, explosions casting fire all around you.
It’s remarkably straightforward, and yet not. Characters have a handful of basic attacks they can do, and when you charge up your ATB bar (by moving, or much faster by hitting stuff), you can unleash stronger abilities, items, or magic. This ATB system encourages aggression, making you want to stay in the chaos of the battle even if you’re hurting.
Your special attacks add a bit of variety, but they also play more heavily into the game’s staggering system. If you manage to hammer at a foe hard enough, or hit them with specific strikes or spells, you’ll eventually knock them off balance and they’ll take far more damage until they get back on their feet. This gets you trying out multiple abilities on foes until you find the best attack method, making full use of your entire party’s suite of powers rather than relying on a single character or striking style.
With the Materia system, you also choose which spells and abilities to equip. From elemental magic to buffs to healing to passive improvements, these offer a ton of potential battle loadouts to cater to how you wish to play. As such, you can tinker with how you play a great deal with this equip-able magic, making combat an interesting nonstop experiment.
Nowhere is this more clear than the bosses. These creatures – all quite forgettable in the original game – have this incredible presence through their power and durability in Final Fantasy VII Remake. Chopping away at a robot scorpion, hammering at several different points to weaken and stagger it as it sends bursts of lightning, lasers, and missiles throughout the arena, feels thrilling in the amount of things that are going on, and the monumental effort it takes to knock it down. It feels like you’re both trading blows, seeing who will cave from the mayhem first. It’s exciting in its brutality – something that makes sense when you’re swinging a surfboard-sized sword around.
That said, I could see someone finding this combat system a little exhausting. You really have to slam tougher enemies for a long time to take them down, which might feel tedious for some players. For me, it loaned combat a sense of weight and purpose. Even basic enemies were something to pay attention to, and bosses really felt like they were always on the verge of overwhelming you. Given the high stakes of your mission to save the world from a company draining it dry of life, it feels appropriate.
If you’re getting really overwhelmed in combat, Final Fantasy VII Remake lets you do some classic grinding to gain levels, although you have to fiddle with moving back and forth through big areas at times to get foes to respawn. This can take a bit and get a little annoying, but it beats losing to a boss for the tenth time.
You can also take on sidequests at certain points to pick up items and experience as well. However, a lot of these quests you do are quite dull. Going to clobber a handful of monsters in a yard for a mediocre reward isn’t all that great, and the game offers a fair amount of side missions like this. If you’re a clumsier player like I am, you need to do these in order to keep your strength up, but they’re pretty dull fetch quests most of the time. I wish there’d been fewer of them with more interesting things to do, but they do offer some interesting plot rewards that make up for the crummy items at times. Still, I wish more thought had been put into them.
The story itself will feel largely familiar to those who played the original, at least as far as main story beats are concerned. The bigger moments are all in place, but the way you reach them gets expanded on in some interesting ways that heightens the tension of the story. It feels like the plot is given a bit more time to shine, allowing you to feel an emotional connection to it and the characters involved. The game’s new story moments create some tenderness for some old characters, and it also allows for some more nuanced shifts in the classic characters old fans remember. I better understood some motivations and changes the characters went through, and was honestly impressed at new feelings that came for the old cast.
Even so, Final Fantasy VII Remake does wander off the beaten path in ways that feel a little too nonsensical within its world. While the combat felt good despite coming from a Kingdom Hearts line of thinking, the plot and character moments that shuffled into the game from that series are completely out of place. I could feel some definite Kingdom Hearts-style anime nonsense creeping into the game, and I can only hope later editions leave this by the wayside, because it does not fit and only serves to bog the game down at some really odd times.
This kind of storytelling also makes the game tip its hand, narrative-wise, at some weird points. It’s like the writers were afraid that you would miss the point at certain moments, or that they needed some cool bad guy stuff in case you’re getting bored with all of this emotional connection and theme stuff. They’re weird missteps in a game that is otherwise doing good work with its story and characters.
Despite these issues tripping the game up at points, Final Fantasy VII Remake brings plot, character, theme, and combat together to create a connection with it that makes the stakes feel powerful, and that you have a tie in to them. It feels like it’s following a course that you know, yet that is all new to you. These connections, though, would not sync so perfectly without the game’s exceptional soundtrack.
Music binds Final Fantasy VII Remake together, just as the original Final Fantasy VII soundtrack did. It’s instantly familiar as the first notes of each track hit, yet they feel more mature and broad – they have grown as their audience has aged. These lovely reimagined tracks recall old memories of the game’s places, but just like them, they feel different and new. They connect with a powerful nostalgia, calling me back to days when all I had to worry about were my friends and saving an imaginary world.
It’s a powerful, moving soundtrack that wanders through an array of moods, each deeply connected to stories and places within the game. They instantly make these new locales feel like the places they were inspired by, bringing past and present together. They make me feel like I’m simultaneously playing something old and new again, bringing back old feelings I’d forgotten as I look back on Midgar over twenty years later.
Final Fantasy VII Remake stumbles over some plot and character elements in jarring ways, can be dull when you’re chasing critters to please shopkeepers, and can seem oddly timid about trusting the audience to understand its story elements. It can also be a touching way of seeing something you once loved in a stunning new light, a means of making wonderful new connections with favorite characters, and a powerful look at some very real issues in the world we share. It’s an excellent game to play, and also a striking journey that I am excited to keep taking.
Final Fantasy VII Remake does the impossible, somehow allowing me to relive one of the biggest gaming moments of my childhood as if it were new.