Final Fantasy VII fans have long clamoured for a remake. But why?
Final Fantasy VII was a near-perfect gem of a game, for its time. It also occupied a unique cultural place among gamers. It felt like it was – and should be – untouchable.
But as years went by and gaming advanced, I couldn’t help wonder what it could be with modern looks, mechanics and storytelling.
Now, 23 years after the release of the original, that question will finally be answered. Or at least in part. FF VII Remake will be released episodically, with each episode purported to be the length of a full, meaty game.
I took a look at the free demo of the first episode (available on the PlayStation Network Store). Here are my observations:
It’s surreal playing a remake of a game that I first played when my brain was in its prime developmental years. It became ingrained in my mind in a way that only something experienced during that time can be.
The remake caught me off guard – and delighted me – when I discovered that the Mako reactor (essentially a power plant) that I know like the back of my hand revealed a much greater, fleshed-out version of itself. It had so many more nooks, crannies and doors than the original. It felt like a real place – a great modern recreation.
Based on the hour-long demo, developer Square Enix has done a really nice job of catering to nostalgia while evolving the game’s systems.
During battles in the original, you waited patiently on your side of the battle field while your ATB (Active Time Battle) gauge filled up. When it did, it was that character’s turn to make a move. FF VII Remake evolves that battle system in a natural and, more importantly, fun way, taking cues from previous FF games and action RPGs in general.
And I believe that change is emblematic of the demo in general: evolution and polish – mostly (I’ll get to that later).
In battle now, you’re free to do basic attacks whenever you want, switching between modes at will (for the character Cloud, this was simply a faster, lighter style and a stronger, slower one). While this is happening, the ATB gauge is still filling up. When it does, you have access to more specialized moves and magic.
The same section in FF VII was a simple tutorial that you could generally blow through, ending boss included. Not so here. The combat is much more challenging and relies on a good grasp of the tools at your disposal. The famous mechanical scorpion boss at the sequence’s climax forced me to focus, paying attention to all its movements, and changing back and forth between Cloud and Barret as the need arose.
And when it comes down to it, that’s what I want out of this remake. I don’t want a game I can casually blow through because I know all the nuances. I want a retelling that will challenge me and surprise me, in narrative and combat.
Though a narrative surprise may be difficult – how much could they change the story? – the developers seem to be putting more emphasis on certain story beats, weaving them more fully into the story at large, and I’m interested to see where they go with this.
The only standout problem I had with the demo was with its characters. There’s a degree of camp to be expected from any Final Fantasy game, but it seems like the effort to bring these characters into 2020 resulted in caricature rather than character. It feels like they were lifted fully from their 1997 counterparts and weren’t given any modern nuance.
Cloud is still basically a moody teen, Barret still feels like a bad stereotype from the blaxploitation era (except worse because now he has a voice) and the members of Avalanche, who are essentially eco-terrorists, are all so plucky it defies belief.
This may have worked when the characters looked like chunky cartoons without mouths (and when this was the level of characterization we expected). But something about the slick new presentation of everything else makes it all feel incongruous.
I hope that down the road, other characters veer away from camp.
Whether due to delays or by intention, it’s good that Square Enix waited so long to remake Final Fantasy VII, despite all the fan fervour. Awkward characterization aside, they’ve created what this game deserves – at least as far as the specific vertical slice the demo shows.
But I’m not sure about the episodic release plan. On one hand, I’m worried about how long we will have to wait between each release and how much of the game will be filler to pad out the length. On the other, the world of FF VII is one I’d like to see fleshed out, perhaps with some side characters explored.
I have high hopes for Final Fantasy VII Remake and I’d say the demo looks like a pretty good start.
Sam Stewart has a diploma in theatre studies, a degree in film studies and has worked professionally in both areas. He also works in the tech industry and loves to indulge his lifelong passion for video games, from the classics to new releases.