SPOILERS ABOUND – FOR PRETTY MUCH EVERY FINAL FANTASY GAME, PLUS SOME OTHER GAMES AND MOVIES – YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!
Final Fantasy VII Remake is finally here – after years (23 to be precise) of spin-offs, tie-ins and oh-so-beautiful teases, Square Enix has finally heeded the call of its core fanbase and returned to that most glorious of wells, the one which made them a household name. Well, in part…
To jump back a few steps, I think it’s important to set out my history with the Final Fantasy series, and VII in particular. The unique nature of Final Fantasy VII Remake (which I’ll refer to as “Remake” going forward) means that it’s highly likely that each player’s particular entry point into the series will have a huge influence on how they view Remake once the credits roll. My entry point into the series was the original Final Fantasy VII, released in 1997 when I was just 8 years old. Final Fantasy VII changed my relationship with games consoles. Given the man hours I have put into gaming since, it would not be overly dramatic to say that Final Fantasy VII changed my life (hear me out!)
Before the original Final Fantasy VII, I had a Sega Megadrive and played games such as Sonic the Hedgehog, Street Fighter 2 and Streets of Rage intermittently. These games would hold my attention for an hour or so. I was lucky enough to own a Playstation at launch, along with copies of Crash Bandicoot and Tekken. Again, these games would hold my attention for an hour or so. Then Final Fantasy VII arrived, the first game I ever played (arriving as it did before Resident Evil 2 and Metal Gear Solid) with a robust, mature narrative that had me hooked: Midgar’s grimy dystopia; AVALANCHE’s conviction; themes of loss, grief and inequality; Cloud’s insecurity and the extreme steps his mind took to shield his own battered ego from it. All of these story elements coalesced to create something astounding, the likes of which I had never seen in a video game.
Though the narrative and the dialogue were aimed at a mature audience, even a child could grasp and enjoy this story. I must admit that I lost the thread in places – the Jenovah Reunion theory, Sephiroth being revealed to actually be residing in the Northern Crater, pretty much anything involving Vincent – the convolution for which the series is known definitely crept in, but I managed to get to the end of the game with a good idea of what was going on and what my motivations were. I could not beat Sephiroth’s final form, returning a couple of years later to see it through and watch the end credits roll. Final Fantasy VII was the beginning of my gaming story, a lifelong love affair with RPGs and a long and tempestuous romance with Squaresoft (now Square Enix) games. Since finishing Final Fantasy VII, I have returned to complete it three more times (including just before playing Remake). I’ve beaten Ruby and Emerald Weapon, bred a gold chocobo, traversed the Ancient Forest and the Sunken Gelnika, obtaining the Ultimate Weapons and final Limit Breaks for each character along the way. Over the years, I have probably had more mileage out of Final Fantasy VII than any other game. I went on to complete Final Fantasy VIII (twice), IX (twice), X (three times, paying as much attention to the side content as I gave to VII’s), XII, XIII and XV. Essentially, I have given huge chunks of my life to every mainline Final Fantasy since VII, as well as other Square Enix series such as Dragon Quest, Kingdom Hearts and even Lost Odyssey, by original Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi. As such I feel qualified to speak from the perspective of a long-time fan of Final Fantasy. If you are a more recent (XIII or later Kingdom Hearts games onwards) convert to Square Enix games, your view may well diverge radically from mine. Depending on your viewpoint, read on if you wish to have your bias either confirmed or challenged.
The Road to Final Fantasy 7 Remake
For me, the wheels came off the Final Fantasy series in dramatic fashion with Final Fantasy XIII. I hated that game when it was released – by which time I was 20 years old and therefore more capable of understanding a mature and complex story. Sadly, Final Fantasy XIII featured a nonsensical story filled with one-note characters and was hell-bent on drowning the player in a sea of expositional dialogue littered with terminology which made my head hurt to even attempt to decipher. I soldiered on to the end, but neither cared about nor understood the characters or the world. Worse still, the strategy-focussed battle system of old had been thrown away and replaced with something that essentially played itself, requiring very little input from the player. I was even disappointed with the way the endgame had been structured, with the most powerful enemies and their rewards only becoming available to the player after having beaten the main story. I am not a fan of this structure in any role-playing game, as it removes the narrative justification to spend my time grinding these challenges (to become well-prepared to fight the final boss). In short, the entire game was, to quote the great Jim Sterling, “some Kingdom Hearts bullshit.” I never played the sequels.
I want to stress that I don’t hate the Kingdom Hearts games. I have played each of the mainline Kingdom Hearts games through to completion. However, it is not controversial to say that the over-arching narrative of the Square-Disney hybrid is an incomprehensible mess. In order to even have a cat in hell’s chance of understanding what is going on in Kingdom Hearts, the player has to have played a deluge of obscure spin-off games. In order to have a realistic prospect one needs to possess a degree in quantum physics and have their notes to hand at all times.
Kingdom Hearts 3 is an enjoyable game to play but its enjoyable narrative moments, for me, come exclusively from the Disney half of the partnership. It’s the individual Disney stories told in each game world that keep me engaged. I say again: Square Enix, many of us do not like the hearts and darkness of Organisation XIII, the many incarnations of Sora or Roxas or Ansem or his Heartless or Nobody. These elements are not relatable. They do not deal with human emotions or themes. They deal in the abstract in a way that is very difficult to pull off.
It must be said that these high-science-fiction concepts are not new to the Final Fantasy series or Square Enix’s back catalogue in general. I loved Final Fantasy X but the “Dream Zanarkand” plot-thread is notoriously difficult to follow and feels like an unnecessarily complicated justification for killing Tidus off at the end. He could have just died or become Yuna’s final Aeon and that moment would have been much more poignant. The Chrono series (which, to my shame, I have never played) is entirely founded on similar ideas. Final Fantasy VIII is, despite the criticisms of that game, the best example that I can put forward in gaming of a time-bending story done right. The ending of Final Fantasy VIII is a genuine jaw-dropper, revealing that Squall’s actions in the final chapters are what led to the events that set up the beginning of the game. The entire game is a paradox!
Unfortunately given Square’s preoccupation with them in recent years, stories dealing with time-travel or multiverse theory are extremely difficult to tell – see Bioshock: Infinite, Kingdom Hearts and Final Fantasy XV as examples of such stories told badly. It is not shameful to admit that Square have now used their best ideas in this space and focus instead on different themes (or, as in most of Remake, revisit old ones.) Tetsuya Nomura has already conclusively proved that he is no Chris Nolan, as very few auteurs are.
When Final Fantasy XV was released, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. It was by no means perfect – the story was not up to the series’ best. It was disjointed, bizarrely relying on the player having first watched a prequel movie in order for Noctis’s most tragic and formative moment to have any real emotional resonance. What’s more, the main villain’s backstory and motivations are hopelessly obscured (again to set up a spacetime-travelling reveal and ending sequence intended to drop jaws that instead raised eyebrows). The gaping holes in the story had to be fixed by later DLC releases, by which point many including myself had given up on understanding any of this and moved on.
In spite of all that, Final Fantasy XV was still a good game. It was a huge step in the right direction for Square Enix that helped lay the foundations for Remake. The battle system was a marked improvement over XIII’s and the relationships between Noctis and his companions were fantastically well written and executed. XV marked a triumphant return to human, relatable themes in Final Fantasy games. The game was of course also eye-wateringly beautiful. It was the first Final Fantasy that I and many others had enjoyed since XII. It is an even more amazing achievement given the litany of well-documented difficulties that XV endured during its decade in development hell.
At Last, The Promise Has Been Made…
Final Fantasy VII Remake was announced at E3 2015 to much fanfare. I had never been more hyped about a video-game release. The trailer brought a tear to my eye, made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, and prompted me to get in contact with an old school friend (and fellow Final Fantasy VII enthusiast) to share my excitement. At last the promise had been made and the long wait for Remake began.
In the months and years that followed, news of Remake was few, far between, and in many cases, troubling. The announcement that the story would be broken up and released episodically caused alarm and accusations of a cash-grab from the fanbase. Even worse, the project appeared at times to be approaching the precipice of the same development quagmire in which FFXV became stuck, ultimately stagnating. Two years were lost when Square announced that they were taking development of Remake entirely in-house after initial partner CyberConnect2’s work was found to be unusable.
I rationalised that I’d rather Square Enix gave Remake the care and attention it deserved. If that meant waiting, I was happy to wait. If that meant an episodic release schedule, I was happy to pay £150, £200, essentially whatever it cost to see the Remake project through.
By the summer of 2019, the release date was set – 3 March 2020 – though that date was ultimately pushed back to 10 April 2020. At midnight on April 10 my digital pre-order was ready to play and I, along with scores of other fans who had been sitting in lockdown eagerly watching their timers count down, started the game. The good news: it was all worth it.
Remake: The Good
Remake is a strong contender for the best Square Enix game ever made in many departments. Like the original Final Fantasy VII, at times it feels like a new high watermark for the genre at large. It is lovingly crafted from the best elements of every Final Fantasy game which came before it. The battle system is the best it has ever been (yes including the old turn-based battle systems) and is an absolute joy to use. Influenced by the action-RPG system pioneered by Bioware in Knights of the Old Republic, the player can run around, dodge, block and use basic attacks in real time, but also pause the action to bring up a command menu through which more powerful abilities and spells are executed. The catch is that these abilities and spells require ATB charges to use, forcing the player to engage with both the action and tactical elements of the system. In order to succeed in Remake, you will find yourself having to rapidly switch between characters, firing off basic attacks to build up their ATB charges. Once your characters are ready with their heavy artillery, the tactical aspect of the combat system kicks in. You will queue up volleys of spells (accessed by equipping the corresponding materia, just as in the original game) and abilities from every character, target said enemy’s weakness with the aim of staggering it (a mechanic from Final Fantasy XII but used to much greater effect here) and then unleash your strongest techniques whilst the enemy is in this staggered state, for huge damage. The attack animations for every move are awe-inspiring without exception, all rendered in graphics that are, except on rare occasions, bordering on photo realistic. The end result? The most bombastic battles ever seen in a JRPG.
Layered on top of these systems are weapon abilities unique to each character (which can be learned through continued use and then utilised whether or not the original linked weapon is equipped, in a system reminiscent of the weapon abilities system from Final Fantasy IX). Weapons themselves can be upgraded to add perks and stat boosts, operating much like the sphere grid from Final Fantasy X. In summary, the gameplay is underpinned by a perfect blend of action and RPG elements – the culmination of decades of innovation by Square Enix in which the best of all of the modern Final Fantasy games comes together to challenge and entertain the player.
The game is just as impressive in the graphical department. At times I spent moments doing nothing but standing still and swinging the camera around, trying to get the perfect angle for a screenshot of a moment I wanted to come back and savour later;it really does look that damn good. Some commentators have criticised the odd dodgy texture or jarring instance of pop-in, but other than in one place in particular I barely noticed. These sorts of minor technical issues can be easily forgiven in a game of this scope, and these hiccups never affect the main cast, or indeed anywhere your eye is naturally drawn.
I reserve the highest of praise for the story elements which, for 38 hours of the game’s runtime, represent the biggest step forward here. Any concern that spending 40 hours in Midgar would leave the game feeling bloated are (mostly) squashed within the first two hours of playing. Story sections which flew by in the original are now fleshed out, with swathes of time dedicated to careful character development, world-building and the ominous foreshadowing of events yet to come. Companions hurl cheeky one-liners in battle or converse as you travel the game world, much as Noctis and friends did in Final Fantasy XV. These lines evoke the feeling of being amongst old friends, a comfort many of us are missing in the current climate.
One new section forces Cloud to wade through the ruins of the blast site after the initial bombing mission, which is a revelation that shines a light on the collateral damage caused by AVALANCHE’s actions. The section is profoundly uncomfortable and caused me to question the morality of Cloud and co.’s actions in a way the original game never did. The game is full of these moments and is all the better for it. This attention to detail is not limited to the main cast either, with Biggs, Wedge and Jessie all receiving fully fleshed-out character arcs. AVALANCHE’s demise at the destruction of the Sector 7 pillar is all the more emotionally hard-hitting as a result.
Remake: The Bad
I say that the fears of the game feeling bloated are mostlysquashed because there are some unfortunate instances of this. Some dungeons are undoubtedly designed to waste time in mostly uninspiring ways. The game will force you to pull levers (and more levers and more levers), backtrack, slowly traverse a narrow pathway or endure a tedious puzzle where there used to be no such annoyance. The sidequests are also largely filler – uninspired fetch and kill quests – though even the worst of them give something back by way of meaningful rewards. I will hazard a guess that these sections are more annoying for familiar players like myself, who will be keenly aware that these sections are eating away at time that could have been spent better elsewhere (i.e. after Midgar). These sections are more baffling in view of the fact that there really was no need to pad out this game – I’m over 40 hours in with some endgame content left on the board and have started a new playthrough on hard mode. Would this game feel any less than great value for money with 5 hours of filler stripped out? I don’t think so. I happily spent £50 a piece on Capcom’s remakes of Resident Evil 2 and Resident Evil 3. Both games combined do not touch the volume of content on offer here, although any meaningful comparison of the approach to those remakes and this one would require an entirely separate article.
The revamped soundtrack is another minor disappointment, replacing the punchy electronica of the original’s iconic tracks with orchestral reworkings which are nowhere near as catchy as their inspirations. The camera also has difficulty framing fights against airborne enemies, even when lock-on targeting is engaged.
I also found myself asking whether Sephiroth’s increased presence here would make all that much sense to new players. Someone coming to the game fresh will likely have no idea who Sephiroth is in the early going. At this point, he is yet to brutally murder President Shinra, which is the event by which he is introduced to the player in the original, prompting Cloud to explain his backstory with the big bad to the rest of the group by way of sit-down in the village of Kalm. Kalm is the point in the original game where the player starts to build an understanding of who Sephiroth is and what his motivations are, and Remake never gets there. Confusingly even to me, Aerith seems to know exactly who he is and what he wants, despite having no history with him whatsoever.
None of these niggles significantly detracted from my enjoyment of the game. They are minor criticisms of an otherwise great game. It’s also important to consider the context here – Square lost two years when they had to throw away CyberConnect2’s work and start over.
One could argue that Square still hasn’t learnt from the mistakes made with Final Fantasy Versus XIII (now XV) – they announced Remake too early and thus painted themselves into a corner whereby they had to get this game out in a semi-reasonable timeframe, or risk squandering the goodwill they had generated with the announcement. This task was no doubt made more difficult by the fact that Tetsuya Nomura, Remake’s director, spent much of the game’s development spreading himself too thin, also acting as the director Kingdom Hearts 3. Kingdom Hearts 3 is another Square Enix game (in a growing list) developed at a positively glacial pace. The company has openly admitted that such painfully long gestation periods are not intentional –Yoshinori Kitase told Game Reactor as long ago as the year 2006 that a “[1-2 year development cycles] is something we need to follow up”. The issue is persisting years later, sparking a dramatic reorganisation of Square’s business units carried out in order to “increase the efficiency of workflows and make more effective use of resources”, according to company president Yosuke Matsuda. This reorganisation was carried out in response to an investor confidence shaking 60 percent fall in year-on-year operating profit to Q3 of the 18-19 fiscal year, as reported by GamesIndustry.biz and other outlets. Whichever camp you fall into, the fact remains that the Remake team must have been under extreme commercial pressure to get the game into players’ hands, both on schedule and in accordance with their promise that Remake would be a complete experience with a volume of content comparable to any other mainline Final Fantasy game. Against that backdrop a touch of filler, the decision to introduce Sephiroth earlier in the story and a few ugly textures are even more easily forgiven.
Sadly, my criticisms of Remake do not end there. It gives me absolutely no pleasure to say this (which will be abundantly clear to any reader of this article), but the final hour or so of the game takes a hard turn into the absurd, plunging the narrative into farce. So much so that it fills me, as a lover of the original game, with a looming sense of dread…
Remake: The Unknown Journey
In fairness, the nonsense that occurs at the end of Remake is signposted throughout. The mysterious Whispers (dementors) appear to harass you throughout the game. I thought they were terrible from the get-go, but presumed they at least had something to do with the Jenovah Reunion (they appear in black cloaks similar to the garb worn by the many Sephiroth clones wandering the world of Final Fantasy VII). The Whispers appear at seemingly random times in the story and their motivations were never clear to me.
Alarm bells start to ring when the Whispers’ purpose is finally explained by Red XIII and Aerith in the Shinra Headquarters in Remake’s final chapters. At this point it is made clear that the Whispers exist to keep the story of Remake on track with that of the original. These “arbiters of fate” as Red XIII describes them are the literal manifestation of the shackles that the original game’s story places on Nomura’s creative genius. Barrett is murdered by Sephiroth and then quickly resurrected by the Whispers (a fake-out death even worse than the infamous “death” of Glenn in The Walking Dead, a howler which sparked the steadily declining viewership of that once great TV show). This event occurs solely to ram home Red XIII’s explanation of a few moments ago. Despite the fact that Barrett would be dead right now if not for the Whispers and that no one seems more excited than Sephiroth for these Whispers to be defeated (they are of course protecting a storyline which leads to his defeat), the party decide that these shackles must be cast off by the sword, fists and gun-arm of Cloud and co.
What follows is nothing less than some Kingdom Hearts bullshit: Aerith inexplicably rips open a hole in spacetime and our heroes must pass through it into a gap between dimensions, where they are met by the physical embodiment of Destiny. Destiny is a 2020 reimagining of the giant Heartless boss from the original Kingdom Hearts and is assisted in battle by its three lieutenants, heavily implied to be future versions of Cloud, Tifa and Barrett who are fighting to save the original story (which must now be considered the “bad” ending). As the battle progresses we are shown iconic scenes from the original – Aerith’s death, the wonderfully ambiguous ending of the original game showing Red XIII and his cubs standing on a hill overlooking a Midgar reclaimed by nature, the death of Zack Fair – implying that these scenes may no longer play out exactly as they did before. You defeat Destiny and have reset the timeline. Sephiroth appears in full pub philosopher mode to spout some cryptic lines (example “that which is yet to happen does not yet exist”). The ending sequence shows a scenario in which Zack survives his showdown with the Shinra death squad and carries Cloud to Midgar. The title card reads “The Unknown Journey will continue…” and we are left with a myriad of questions as to what the hell will happen next.
My best reading of the ending sequence and what it means for the remainder of the Remake project is that Square Enix (and admittedly some sections of the fandom) clearly believe that the controversial new plot points are a creative necessity inserted in order for the game to give itself a chance to remain relevant. This is a concern I can empathise with. The unexpected and emotionally affecting twists and turns in the narrative were a large part of what made the original so special. 23 years on, I understand the desire to wrong-foot players once more in a way designed to have the same kind of impact as the key events of the original.
My worst reading (and the one I am unfortunately leaning toward, scarred as I am by a decade of Square Enix’s poor storytelling) is that the remake project has been hijacked by Tetsuya Nomura’s rampant ego. The ending is a bitter pill to swallow and calls into question the motivation for producing this remake at all – has the Final Fantasy VII name been attached to guarantee sales, thus propping up Nomura’s unfathomable desire to retell the same nonsensical Kingdom Hearts story (FFXV’s messy over-arching plot is another example of this) that I, at least, gave up trying to follow or care about many moons ago?
If you are a fan of the reimagined ending know this: I am not a purist. The original game exists and if nostalgia is your only driver for playing Remake, you’ll have just as much fun playing the original, as I have recently. I am happy for changes to be made to the original story. Throughout the game, Remake departs from the original story in ways that enhance and augment it. The shift to Shinra becoming a much more politically astute, cerebral, enemy is the most impactful and very intelligently implemented. Shinra no longer relies solely on brawn to fight AVALANCHE, instead deploying their vast resources to manipulate and outsmart Barrett and co., turning public opinion against them. This sounds like a small change but in fact opens up a whole host of new directions in which to take the story, setting up the nation of Wutai and the Shinra-Wutai war to be much more central to the plot this time around. The increased focus on Reeve’s internal conflict sets the stage for Cait Sith, probably most people’s least favourite character from the original, to play a much more memorable part in Remake than he did in the original game.
My problem with this ending is not that it departs from the original but with the way Square Enix has decided to manage this departure. Like the other departures, Square Enix could have just, well, done it! We did not need this convoluted, contrived, heavy-handed and derivative internal narrative justification to depart from the original story. Square Enix had already done the groundwork, repeatedly warning us in press releases that Remake would not follow the original game beat for beat. I was prepared for potentially another character (please not Tifa) to take Aerith’s place at the Forgotten City, or at some other point in the story. I for one would have preferred Barrett to have died on the end of Sephiroth’s absurdly large sword, rather than have him die pointlessly and be immediately resurrected by fate-ghosts.
I can certainly see what Square-Enix are trying to achieve with this new ending. Unfortunately, my initial reaction was far from positive. This new twist does not have the emotional heft of Aerith’s death or the death of Joel’s daughter in the opening moments of The Last of Us. Neither does it have the jaw-dropping quality of the ending of Final Fantasy VIII, or the Darth Revan reveal from KOTOR, both of which were masterful, taking inspiration perhaps from the twist in The Sixth Sense (which is to say that on a second go-round they were subtly signposted bait-and-switches which elevated everything which came before). Those moments felt well-earned, well-crafted and emotionally engaging. They are seared into gaming memory for all the right reasons. Contrast the ending of Remake, which felt tacked-on, unnecessarily complicated and only served to undermine everything which came before. That is to say, it felt very “Kingdom Hearts” and left me feeling cold. The grin that I had plastered across my face for 95 percent of Remake’s runtime was replaced with audible huffing and puffing as my eyes rolled so hard, they risked popping straight out of my head. At one point I actually asked the otherwise empty room: “what the fuck is this?” The sad fact (recently brought into sharp relief by Game of Thrones writers Benioff and Weiss) is that a bad ending has a tendency to spoil everything which came before, no matter how good the preceding content was.
The biggest problem with this ending is that Zack’s death is the single most important event in the entirety of Final Fantasy VII canon. Zack’s survival would create a fundamental problem with the story which there is no easy way to fix, as his death serves as the foundation for Cloud’s entire character and redemption arc. Cloud’s similarities to Zack are hinted to be a driving force in Aerith’s attraction to Cloud. If Zack survived in Remake, which is hinted at but not made clear, none of the original Final Fantasy VII happens (Cloud would probably still be ineffectual and reliant on him at best, a mako-poisoned vegetable at worst).
Given the high standards set by the first 38 hours of this first part of Remake, this is not how I expected to be feeling as the credits rolled and it is taking some time for this long-time Final Fantasy VII fan to process. One could argue that, by taking a hard turn from the original story, Square have succeeded in recreating the same feeling of shock and awe that was conveyed by Aerith’s untimely death in the original. Considering the well-trodden nature of the original story this could fairly be described as something of a triumph. Certainly, I cannot remember the last time I had such a strong reaction to a video-game narrative.
It is also too early to judge the success or otherwise of the new direction. I can see a universe in which this reimagining is a success. Nomura may be setting up for an ambitious Chrono-inspired story with branching paths, allowing players to make Remake essentially whatever they want it to be. Perhaps the story will eventually make painfully clear that Aerith’s death is unavoidable, or unavoidable without another sacrifice being made in her place. How comfortable you are with what will now be an even more uncomfortable wait for the sequel will depend on your level of confidence in latter-day Square-Enix storytelling.
As it stands, Final Fantasy VII Remake is a near-perfect game, but also one that stands at a crossroads. It is a project on the precipice of becoming one of the most controversial, or one of the most successful, games franchises in gaming history. Time will tell if the multiverse plot device will turn out to be just that and quickly discarded or become something central to the plot of the Remake project going forward. For now, I start the wait for the next chapter in Square Enix’s never-final fantasy series as I started the wait for this one: anxious, a little disillusioned, but above all, perennially optimistic.