You’ll find no harsher critic than me when it comes to Square Enix’s initial plan to remake the 1997 classic video game Final Fantasy VII. At first, like many fans, I was ecstatic to hear that the beloved RPG was getting a facelift for the modern gaming era. But as details trickled out, with the remake pitched as a full-priced, “Chapter 1 of ?” title with no details as to when the majority of the original game’s story would actually be available, that ecstasy began to wear off. The project soon felt like a cash grab, a way to capitalize on nostalgia while hooking players into a prologue with no promise that the payoff would be worth it, even with a lot of personal time and dollars spent. I was of the opinion that it’d be better to wait for a price drop, thinking that the $60 tag was too much for a game that couldn’t possibly have enough content to warrant an immediate pick-up. But after 30 hours in my first playthrough, and much more to do after the fact, I’m thrilled to say I was dead wrong on all counts.
Final Fantasy VII Remake doesn’t just add a polish to the original title, it lovingly remakes it from the ground up with absolute devotion to the game and its fans, improving upon it in just about every way. It’s still too early to say for sure (this review comes roughly 6 hours after a marathon 14-hour playthrough to finish the campaign) but the Remake might actually surpass the original. Shocking, I know. More shocking still, if the rest of the Remake titles continue in this way, the new version(s) might actually be better than the original game itself. Final Fantasy VII Remake is gorgeous, dynamic, and absolutely thrilling to play, with a timeless story that hasn’t lost its relevance, characters who are as charismatic as ever, and an engaging style of combat that goes to insane levels in the game’s extensive final chapter. It’s a must-play for fans, new and returning. (My no-spoiler review continues below; stay tuned for more spoilery write-ups to come.)
Final Fantasy VII Remake tells the tale of Cloud Strife, an ex-SOLDIER now eking out an existence as a mercenary in the mako-powered industrial city of Midgar. Cloud teams up with Avalanche, an eco-terrorist cell hellbent on taking down the Shinra corporation for what they see as evil, energy-draining devastation of the planet itself. Cloud teams up with Avalanche’s Barret, Jessie, Wedge, and Biggs before crossing paths with his childhood friend Tifa and the lovely and perplexing Aerith, all of whom have a part to play in the story as it unfolds. While the original game used this plot as setup for a much bigger story, Remake takes place almost entirely in Midgar following the battle of Avalanche against the forces of Shinra. I didn’t think there’d be enough story to tell here, but Remake wrings every ounce of solid storytelling, incredible action, laugh-out-loud humor, and heart-breaking, tear-jerking character moments out of the conceit. The genius of expanding the Midgar Arc is that, the more time you get to spend with these characters and the more you get to know them, the more that you feel for them when events play out as they inevitably do, despite the best efforts of members of both Avalanche and Shinra (and others). And that idea of destiny vs free will factors into the game in a huge way.
That’s not to say Final Fantasy VII Remake is a perfect game. There are some minor technical gremlins scattered throughout: The collision system is, at times, downright hilarious as NPCs crash into Cloud & Co. during dramatic scenes or your own allies bumble into chairs during a stealth mission. The game’s auto-upgrade system for weapons leaves a lot to be desired; you’re better off customizing each weapon individually. And the character movement is occasionally floaty and a little wonky outside of battle, much like the original. However, the game is rock-solid; no game-breaking bugs, no soft-locks, no crashes. And with a solid interface for customization, upgrading, and the combat system itself, things are pretty smooth-going for the most part.
As for the gameplay itself, Remake was an absolute blast. I’m most interested to see how newcomers to the title receive it; old-heads like me who played the original a ton should appreciate the many, many mini-games and forced slow-down sequences in this new version, ones that are specifically put in place because of the ’97 title but may be a bit confusing for newbies. If you loved train puzzles, games of coordination involving flipped switches or form-perfect squats, or even pulling off the perfect dance moves in the original, you’re going to have a ball in Remake. However, most of the game is actually a gorgeous, sweeping narrative that takes control away from the player, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find a lot of people complaining about this. That’s a fair criticism considering that the majority of the playthrough is either a walk-and-talk or extended cinematic sequence with no real failure options or narrative choices; I also miss the ability to grind levels and gear while searching for beasties to steal from. But the story and its bigger-than-life characters are essential for Remake to have impact, at least as important as getting to fight your way through monsters, battle bosses, navigate urban mazes, and gather as much loot as you can along the way.
And that brings me to the combat system. My first playthrough was in Classic Mode, essentially a “set it and forget it” style that plays more like a Story Mode in an easy difficulty. Your player character–you can swap among them during battles or even set your favorite as lead–will move, block, and attack on their own, freeing you up to keep an eye on menu management. (You can take control of your character at any time or even turn this mode off mid-game.) It’s not turn-based combat, but it’s as close as we’re going to get. Also, you can’t use items, magic, or skills (or summons…) at will, you have to wait until a bar fills up to trigger activities; the Haste spell is your friend here. That’s a bummer but you get used to it. However, I can definitely tell that I’m going to need to polish up my fighting skills more if I want to attempt Normal or even the newly unlocked Hard Mode (in which no items can be used and only HP is restored at the many rest stops scattered throughout), especially for the final chapter of Remake which is one of the most intense sequences I’ve played in a long, long time.
Without giving away any spoilers, the final chapter is bonkers, balls-to-the-wall insane. The game feels like it’s going to end about a dozen times, which is both good and bad (and very, very exhausting in the best possible way). It feels like the game designers kept coming up with things they wanted to tack onto the end: mini-games, character cameos, reimaginings of classic Final Fantasy 7 mainstays, bigger and bolder takes on the main theme of the story, and a new path forward for the future of the franchise. I’ll leave it there. It suffices to say that so much happens in the final, let’s say, two hours that your brain will have a hard time taking it all in. All the better to return to the game in many replays as we wait to see what the future of Final Fantasy VII Remake holds for all of us.
Final Fantasy VII Remake is absolutely worth your time, attention, and money. It’s a must-play for fans of the original title who will have a blast revisiting the nostalgic game in a gorgeous, contemporary retelling, while newcomers will find a solid, compelling, and engaging RPG that’s perfectly suited for the modern era. Final Fantasy VII Remake sets a high bar set for the Square Enix team looking ahead, but for the moment, it’s the game to beat this year.