In the world of Final Fantasy VII, withered, hooded figures roam the world and warn of a coming reunion. To fans of the game-changing 1997 original, Final Fantasy VII Remake is a reunion of its own. This is our homecoming.
The stunning cinematic intro brings us back to Midgar with a level of detail we could have only imagined back in 1997, beautifully recreating the iconic opening of the original. The fans who are waited most of their lives for this moment will know how special this felt., within minutes it is clear that Square Enix has no intention of letting us down.
The mission that follows plays out very similarly in structure to the original, only with extra scope, the entire reactor map is undoubtedly bigger than the entire original game combined. This mission thoroughly introduces players to the combat system, which we will touch on in time, but predominantly this stretch of the game serves to introduce the newcomers to the world and these characters while also easing in the lifelong fans before the game begins dropping massive, shocking changes to the story.
As soon as this mission is over and Cloud is tasked with making his way back to the Sector 7 slums, the true scope and ambition of Final Fantasy VII Remake are made clear. This previously simple journey from one end of a pre-rendered screen to another has been expanded to a fully-fledged chapter of its own, the once peaceful and relatively sparse streets of Midgar are alive with activity as the Mako reactor explosion spreads devastation across the sector. Citizens are seen cowering in fear, you overhear their conversations, Shinra soldiers are on full patrol as they search for the perpetrators. There are other major changes made in this section which will be avoided for fear of spoiling the surprise for others, but the idea of taking a moment from the original game and expanding on it in logical ways that deepen your emotional experience with them persists throughout the game.
Beloved, familiar locations have been reimagined as vast spaces teeming with life. Every new setting is stunningly realised, yet still comfortingly familiar with the use of key landmarks to make old fans feel at home while still giving us something exciting and new around them. As a kid, I always imagined what it would be like it actually walk around this world. To explore beyond the edges of the frame. It feels like I am finally getting to do that here. Pivoting the camera upwards to see the massive, looming plate of the upper city and truly feeling like I am living under its shadow. Walking around the bustling Sector 7 slums and discovering new corners and new faces, it feels like I am actually part of this world at last.
Populating this deeper, richer world are characters every bit as interesting and fleshed out. Beloved supporting characters who only received a handful of lines in the PlayStation original get chapters dedicated to them, we get to discover their personal lives and learn their backstories. The emotional impact these characters have on the story is greater than ever.
The core cast is similarly brought to life with the same attention to detail. These are perfect depictions of the iconic characters we grew up with, yet afforded even more time to flesh out what made them so beloved in the first place. Cloud, Tifa, Barret, and Aerith are the same characters we loved, only they feel more present and real than ever thanks to great character-centric writing and pitch-perfect performances. Whether they are playing out a cut scene or interacting in combat, everything about these characters feels right. Their relationships are deepened, the dangers they face feel more foreboding than ever.
Final Fantasy VII Remake’s story is where the game takes its biggest, boldest swings. The game only covers the first part of the original’s story, which lasted roughly eight hours in total, whereas the remake lasts upwards of forty. They have expanded simple subplots into important chapters, included optional side quests to provide entertaining micro-narratives for added world-building, and layered in entirely new story concepts to give lifelong fans something new to sink their teeth into, all while enhancing the personal and dramatic stakes.
All the emotionally stirring storytelling and compelling character arcs would only go so far without an exciting, engaging game to hang them on and Final Fantasy VII Remake resoundingly succeeds on this front. The new and improved combat system is simply put the best I have seen since God of War.
Far from a simplistic setup, all four of the main buttons serve a function. You have your basic strike, your special strike which modifies your strikes to be more powerful for a brief period, as well as a dodge button and a command button that is used to access special moves, magic abilities, your item list, and Limit Breaks and Summons whenever they are available in combat.
The franchise basics remain intact, with your HP and MP signifying how much energy and magic you have in battle, while AP is earned by landing strikes or dodging incoming attacks which charge up and can be spent using the command button.
The Materia system has been retained but refined somewhat, very little of the classic system has been changed, but they have made it far easier to trade Materia between characters.
Limit Breaks function very much the same as before, only you need to be far more precise with your use of it as you could set one off when an enemy isn’t near you and completely whiff it, while Summons are completely refitted for use in the new real-time system meaning you only get one summon per fight but your summon joins the battle as an active participant and you use AP points to trigger special moves. This is a great spin on the classic staple.
The biggest new addition to the combat is absolutely the weapons mods system. Every weapon comes with ‘cores’ which have sub-cores that can be modified to unlock boosts to your HP, MP, attack power, etc, and additional cores can be unlocked and modified as your weapon levels up with use. New weapons can be purchased or won throughout the game, each with their own unique stats and cores to be upgraded. It’s an extra layer of depth to the traditional weapons system, giving each weapon its own specific functions so you never have to ditch a weapon entirely, and will find yourself switching between weapons throughout the game as certain battles will likely need you to try different weapon and Materia load-outs to better serve your strategy.
Every individual sub-system works together to create a vastly deep combat system, allowing for massive amounts of experimentation in combat, especially in the elaborately structured boss battles.
The enemies you face are all wonderfully realised here, retaining many of the weirdest designs from the original. If you think a monster might be too weird to be found in this game, chances are you are probably wrong.
Outside of the exploration and combat, a component of the original that was so crucial to its enduring appeal is the use of mini-games. One-time mechanics that added variety to the game and offer unique challenges and the remake nailed this aspect. The squatting contest is back, to name a few, and a dynamic new dance mini-game leads to an all-time great gaming moment. Some of the things in Final Fantasy VII Remake must simply be seen to be believed, the game is as unapologetically eclectic as it’s predecessor.
The save system is one of the few things from the original that has been completely scrapped as saves can be made at any point and story-oriented checkpoints are generously dotted around stages, no longer will you have to seek out a save point this could be spread hours apart. This may rob Final Fantasy VII purists of the challenge of making it to a save point before dying, but it certainly makes the game more accessible. Another welcome tweak to the system follows in-game deaths and offers you the option of resuming action from a save game, a checkpoint, or directly before your last battle so you have a wealth of options on just how you want to re-approach a difficult section of the game.
The presentation of the entire game is simply stunning. A few minor technical issues with textures aside, this is a beautiful looking game. This is an improved take on the Final Fantasy XV’s style with the added benefit of making use of Final Fantasy VII’s stunningly unique designs. The world and the characters within it all look incredible. Familiar but refreshingly new and more alive than ever.
Nobuo Uematsu’s classic score has also been reimagined, beautifully, by Uematsu along with other franchise veterans Masashi Hamauzu and Mitsuto Suzuki. Every theme sounds perfectly in tune with the classic originals but gorgeously enhanced with full orchestration. Other fan favourite tracks that don’t make it into the main score are available as fun remixes that you can purchase in markets around the world and replay at any jukeboxes you find.
Everything about this gaming experience feels like the Final Fantasy VII that I know and love, only new. Familiar yet radically different. It took me back to those happy days of playing the original over the Christmas period of 1997. From the beautifully reimagined notes of Uematsu’s “Prelude” to the revitalised new visions of classic moments, I felt a sort of peace that I have not felt in some time with a game.
This is where we address the nostalgia factor. Every life accrues a certain amount of pain and regret, it is unavoidable, but we all have a point in our life where none of that has happened yet and life seemed simpler and things still had a chance of being better. Final Fantasy VII was my anchor to that moment. It was my home.
The word nostalgia comes from combining the Greek words “nostos” (homecoming) and “alga” (pain) to signify the pain of returning home. When we look back to our past, the pain invariably follows, even the happiest personal memories can be tainted by our mistakes or misfortunes, but when our nostalgia is tied to a work of art, the feeling is very different. It is why our fondness for the songs and films and video games of our youth carry such intensity where more personal memories may fail us, they are a moment in our life when we remember nothing but our happiness and everything else fades into the aether.
Final Fantasy VII Remake has that same quality for me. This is a great game in it’s own right but it is a transportive one for this lifelong fan. Returning to Midgar, reliving the adventures of Cloud, Tifa, Aerith, and Barret, takes me back to a moment where all I can remember is the magic of discovering this world and reliving the emotional swells of this epic story. With a tear in my eye and a smile on my face, I finally came home.
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