Worth the wait.
Final Fantasy VII Remake is a fascinating game to review. Many people will be hopping into this game having never played the original Final Fantasy VII so I have written the majority of this review with the intention of avoiding spoilers for both. However, as someone who played and has a deep affinity for the original game, the way this game relates to the original, specifically in terms of its approach to some narrative decisions, was a significant factor in why I have given it the score I have and is worth addressing. As such, the following review will be spoiler-free up through the Final Score and Pros and Cons section, with a final post-score spoiler section dedicated specifically to how those spoilers impact the overall review.
The original Final Fantasy VII from 1997 has always held a special place in my heart. It was the first PlayStation game I ever played, long before my family even had a PlayStation of our own. I have vivid childhood memories of spending weekend sleepovers with my childhood best friend playing through the game at his house or sneaking away from a church pool party at my Youth Pastor’s house to play his copy of the game.
Experiencing Final Fantasy VII Remake is one of the most visceral gaming memories that I have ever had, and I imagine I will be hard-pressed to ever encounter something like this again. The amount of care and detail that went into expanding the polygonal character models and matte paintings from the original into a fully realized Midgar led to an almost never-ending series of smiles across my face. Around every corner, I was excited for what familiar element I would see made new again more than 20 years later.
The story of Final Fantasy VII Remake largely follows the same trajectory of the initial Midgar section from the original Final Fantasy VII. You begin as Ex-SOLDIER-turned-mercenary Cloud Strife, joined up with a squad of freedom fighters to engage in a bit of corporate sabotage/eco-terrorism. Barret Wallace, easily recognizable by his large frame and the giant machine gun where his right arm should be, leads a cell of Avalanche: guerilla fighters opposed to the dominant Shinra Company and its efforts to extract mako energy from the planet to further its own greed and power. Cloud was introduced to the group by his childhood friend Tifa, a bartender and martial artist who truly packs a punch. When a mission goes awry, Cloud crosses paths with Aerith, a flower peddler with a unique connection to the planet Avalanche is fighting so hard to protect.
Many people questioned how Remake would effectively turn what takes 5-10 hours in the original game and stretch it out into a 30-40 hour experience. Square Enix tackles this in two main strategies: expanding on the narrative and characters of the original story and introducing a series of side quests into certain chapters of the game. While most of the game’s 18 chapter story features recreations of many of the original game’s iconic locations and sequences, others take us completely off the beaten path in order to get more backstory on expanded or brand new characters, or to better flesh out the world of Midgar itself. As for the side quests, some of Midgar’s cities – originally limited to a few static screens in the original game – feel far more vibrant and lived in, with many of the citizens in need of a mercenary with Cloud’s skills. Pretty much every side quest helps add a bit of context to the characters and life of the world, in addition to the obligatory rewards like new equipment or items.
At the end of the day, yes, this is still the first chapter in a larger story of games but I would compare it to sagas like Mass Effect or Dragon Age where this title absolutely stands on its own merits. With a variety of collectibles, alternate scenes dependent on game choices, and a Hard Mode that unlocks after completing the story and introduces a completely new challenge with tougher bosses and the inability to use items, I personally enjoyed about 90 hours with the game.
One of the most profound updates in Final Fantasy VII Remake is how Square Enix has reimagined the Active Time Battle (ATB) system of the original game. While many RPGs of the time featured strictly turn-based combat, Final Fantasy VII built upon the system they had first introduced in Final Fantasy IV, where characters acted on a timer instead of turn-by-turn and the action didn’t stop while you decided what to do. Final Fantasy VII Remake combines that concept with some of the more action-driven combat ideas they explored in Final Fantasy titles like XII, XIII, and XV.
Combat is a hybrid of turn-based and active combat. ATB gauges will slowly climb if your characters aren’t doing anything but they will climb significantly faster if you rush toward the enemies with your basic melee or ranged attacks. Once an ATB gauge is filled, you can go into a menu-based Tactical Mode where time slows to a crawl while you select what Ability, Spell, or Item you want to use and who to target. Each character also has a Unique Ability that can be used in combat to build their ATB gauge. Each of the four playable characters (Cloud, Barret, Tifa, and Aerith) feel unique and fun to control and the combat is definitely designed to take advantage of easily switching between characters with the push of a button.
In addition to the usual RPG fare of elemental weaknesses and resistances, enemies also have a Stagger meter that can be seen as an evolution of a similar mechanic in Final Fantasy XIII. It’s easy enough to dispatch weaker foes with basic attacks but when it comes to tougher enemies, as well as the game’s dramatic multi-phase boss battles, filling Stagger meters to create a brief window where you do extra damage becomes an exciting component of the fight, and absolutely essential if playing in Hard Mode.
The much-celebrated Materia system from the original game makes a return. Materia are equippable orbs that can be found or purchased around the world and come in five different varieties, often with the ability to level up with newer, stronger power. These interchangeable items allow you to equip a wide array of active skills (like new spells or abilities) and passive perks (like increase HP/MP bonuses or the ability to enter a match with an ATB boost). Additionally, each character can equip a single Summon materia, allowing you to call otherworldly creatures to fight alongside you for a limited time.
Summons cannot be used at will like in the original game. In Remake a Summon bar will occasionally appear, usually in more difficult battles. Once the bar is full, characters can use ATB to call the summon into battle alongside the party. The summons will operate autonomously but you can use more ATB to direct them into using specific moves. Once their timer has run out, the summon will use one final devastating attack before departing.
One of the other notable changes in character customization for this game is tied to a set of upgradable weapons for each character. As character level increases, they acquire SP that can be spent on the weapons to unlock new skills, attributes, or more materia slots. Each different weapon also has an Ability attached to it that you can permanently learn through repeated use.
All of these different elements combine to create an incredibly fun and rewarding combat system that never got boring in my 90 hours with the game.
With these characters being developed during a very different era of gaming, I had reservations toward how they would be modernized. Most notably, their original adventures were purely driven by the text with no vocal performances attached, and the closest we saw to these characters emoting was the occasional blocky late-90s FMV. How these characters would translate to a 2020 game was a bit of an unknown, especially given Square Enix’s somewhat shaky track record with performance direction.
Fortunately, everyone in the core cast and all of the notable supporting characters do an incredible job bringing these characters and this story to life. Cody Christian is appropriately stoic and reserved as Cloud but also has a number of wonderful moments when he lets his guard down. Briana White is wonderfully charming as Aerith and avoids the trap of playing the character with too much frailty. Britt Baron fills Tifa with power, while also showcasing her doubts and uneasiness with some of Avalanche’s more violent tendencies. One of the greatest benefits of the expanded time with these characters is the opportunity to establish a budding friendship between Aerith and Tifa, and White and Baron fill these moments with a delightful amount of heart and warmth. Even the supporting cast of Avalanche characters get much more time to shine with Erica Lindbeck’s Jessie getting the most to play with, as her shameless flirting is a perfect contrast to Cloud’s colder demeanor.
The game’s MVP though is John Eric Bentley as Barret. One of the more over-the-top characters from the original game (heavily influenced by the larger-than-life Mr. T), Barret could have been the easiest character to screw up in Remake. But Bentley masterfully imbues Barret with a huge heart and inner life worthy of the character’s bulky frame. Through his grand speeches about trying to save the planet, we see him as a leader worth following. They never feel the wrong side of cheesy, but instead have the fire of a true passion behind them. Through his relationship with his daughter Marlene, we see the unexpectedly soft and protective father. And through the game’s most emotional moments, Bentley doesn’t hold anything back in showing us rage, devastation, and loss all at once. And somehow, he’s also the only character that could get away with singing the iconic victory theme following the occasional battle.
Ever since Square Enix recreated the opening cutscene of Final Fantasy VII as a tech demo to showcase the power of the PlayStation at the 2005 E3, fans have clamored for the world of Midgar and beyond to be recreated on the latest home consoles. Final Fantasy VII Remake delivers in ways I couldn’t have imagined.
The thing that impressed me most about Final Fantasy VII Remake’s visual design was when I realized late in my initial playthrough just how few pre-rendered cutscenes the game had featured. Many prior games in the last twenty-odd years feature an overabundance of beautifully animated cutscenes that look steps above and beyond the design of the core game. But in Remake, Square Enix’s animators have done such an incredible job designing the character models and environments around them that almost all of the big bold cinematic moments are being rendered in-engine and absolutely nothing is being lost. I even found myself better appreciating and understanding scenes from the original game – scenes that I have probably seen dozens of times – because of how the updated design was able to convey the action more clearly compared to the original presentation.
Speaking of the character models, it is truly incredible how every character feels like an appropriate evolution of their blocky polygonal original PlayStation models. Perhaps even more impressive is how so many of the iconic enemy designs from the original game have been translated to a modern look and feel, and that all of those enemies feel natural in this world. Floating jellyfish-type enemies are recontextualized as surveillance drones. Giant mechanical bosses like the Scorpion Sentinel and Airbuster are presented as the mighty designs and prototypes of Shinra’s Advanced Weapons Division. Even some of the most obscure enemy designs get showcase moments in yet another way this game left me excited to see what was around every corner.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Final Fantasy VII Remake’s soundtrack. The original game features some of the most iconic video game music ever created from the master composer Nobuo Uematsu. As with so many other elements of this game, Remake shows great reverence for the songs of the original and redefines them for a game released in 2020 as original themes are presented with full orchestral accompaniment or remixed with new tunes built on top of them.
As someone who never thought we’d actually get a remastered take on Final Fantasy VII, and was cynical enough to believe that even if we did, it might not be that good, I was blown away by what the team behind Final Fantasy VII Remake has managed to pull off. It is a phenomenal love letter to the original game, with a remarkable combat system that wonderfully blends action and turn-based mechanics together. The cast shines across the board as they bring these iconic characters to life, with the writing supporting the evolution of the characters from their original 1997 counterparts. And the art and sound design are among the best I have ever experienced.
Is the game perfect? Of course not. No game is. Almost all of the mini-games are way more tedious than fun. There are some minor pacing issues both in the story and when traveling between areas of the game that feel more empty than they needed to. And there are absolutely elements of this game that will leave players who are new to the story of Final Fantasy VII completely confused (most notably leaving big bad Sephiroth as a pretty nebulous presence with unknown motivations). But all of these elements felt trivial in the grand scheme of this fantastic achievement.
Final Fantasy VII Remake combines incredible story, characters, gameplay, performances, and design and mixes it all in with the best kind of nostalgia to craft one of my all-time favorite gaming experiences.
10 / 10
That Phenomenal Game
- Incredibly fun tactical action combat
- Compelling characters
- Gorgeous visual and sound design
- Exciting boss encounters
- Engrossing approach to telling a familiar story
- Occasionally tedious mini-games
- A few slow traversal sections
For more on Final Fantasy VII Remake, you can check out the episode of That Nerdy Site Show with Trevor and Cameron discussing Spoiler-Free Impressions or their Spoiler-Filled chat with guest Brandon Gann.
From here on out, the review will address spoilers from this game, as well as light spoilers for the original Final Fantasy VII.
The biggest narrative change throughout Remake is the introduction of mysterious figures resembling Dementors from the world of Harry Potter. The figures, eventually introduced as Whispers, appear at seemingly random times throughout the adventure, sometimes adversarial like when they attack Cloud and Tifa in the Sector 7 Slums prior to the second bombing, and sometimes helpful like when they help Cloud and Aerith escape Reno and a squad of Shinra soldiers in the Sector 5 Church. The true nature of these spiritual figures is not made clear until the end of the game and the revelations surrounding them and how they figure into the rest of the story are a key factor into what makes this game a 10 for me.
The Whispers are described as the arbiters of fate and it starts to become clear that everything they’ve been doing throughout the adventure has been a series of attempts to keep events playing out just as they did in the original 1997 game. Jessie, not Cloud, is originally assigned to the second bombing mission in this adventure so the Whispers attack Cloud, Tifa, and Avalanche in order to sideline Jessie so Cloud can replace her and go on to eventually fall through Aerith’s church. And when Cloud’s first inclination here is to fight Reno, the Whispers rush in to separate the two, leading Cloud and Aerith out the back so they can escape via the Sector 5 rooftops, as they did in the original adventure.
We’re not just replaying a beautifully redesigned version of the original game’s opening sequences in Midgar. Final Fantasy VII Remake is a sequel to the original Final Fantasy VII where Sephiroth has somehow survived the events of the original game and traveled through time or into an alternate dimension in order to reshape events. As this revelation was explored in the game’s closing chapters, the rebooted 2009 Star Trek film sprung to mind. The events of the original game happened. Cloud joined up with Avalanche for a bit of eco-terrorism before being unwittingly wrapped up in a much grander story and saw the death of a beloved companion before ultimately his party managed to put an end to Sephiroth’s plans to destroy the world. But just as Spock Prime was sent back in time in Star Trek and changed events leading to a new set of adventures for the crew of the USS Enterprise, Final Fantasy VII Remake concludes with your party fighting, and ultimately defeating, these Whispers in an attempt to take destiny into their own hands.
Sephiroth survives to battle the party into future games but the adventure is no longer beholden to the journey of the original. The Whispers won’t be there to course-correct the butterfly effect changes that Sephiroth is introducing into this world. We’ll almost certainly still see plenty of iconic moments and locations echoed from the original game but people who played the original and those who did not are on much more equal footing in terms of knowing what comes next. And it has left me more excited for the future of Final Fantasy than I have been in nearly 20 years.
Final Fantasy VII Remake was reviewed on a PlayStation 4 Pro unit through a digital retail copy of the game. That Nerdy Site’s Review Scoring rubric can be found here.