Note: This feature contains some spoilers for a very old game and a remake of that very old game.
Any fans of Final Fantasy might want to stop reading at this point. That's right, the first sentence. Admission time: I never played Cloud Strife's seminal adventure on the original PlayStation, nor any other Final Fantasy title. The closest I got was watching my cousin play Final Fantasy IX; I remember being sort of fascinated by it, but I'd be lying if I said I understood what was happening onscreen. Essentially, I have zero affection for the franchise. It's not that I think the games are bad, I just never got into them. However, something changed recently: Final Fantasy VII Remake was made available to PS Plus members.
At first, I thought I'd ignore it, but how could I turn up the chance to play it for free? This is a remake of a game that (more or less) single-handedly popularised JRPGs in the west. It's a game frequently recognised as an All Timer, one of the greats, a masterpiece. Demand for a remake had been going strong since 2005, and how could you not feel the excitement when it was finally announced at E3 10 years later? People really like this game about a muscly man with a daft name, and now I can play the remake for free. I guess I should, I thought.
Before I began, though, I thought it would be fun to get my Push Square workmates involved. They know full well I'm not a big fan of JRPGs, so I wondered how far through the game they thought I'd get before calling it a day. Robert Ramsey had the utmost faith in me, betting I'd see it through to the end. Sammy Barker was less sure, putting his money on me dropping out around the second time you go through the sewers. Liam Croft was the least optimistic, claiming I wouldn't start the game at all. Alright chaps, challenge accepted.
Spoiler: I did start the game. With no nostalgia for the original, and no reference point whatsoever, I began my quest of curiosity. All I knew going in, having absorbed scraps of information over the years, was that you play as a man named Cloud, and someone named Aerith is killed half-way through. I've seen the clip. Absolutely cream-crackered by a nasty bloke with a sword. Just utterly minced.
Anyway, first impressions were very good. The sweeping opening cutscene is fantastic; it has this amazingly grand scale, zooming right out to show you the preposterous scale of Midgar. The cinematic quality is there, and it initially really grabbed me. It introduces you to the Avalanche team, with Barrett, Biggs, Wedge, Jessie, and of course, Cloud Strife. I'm afraid to say that Cloud's somersault off the train to land on the platform did not strike me as cool. This isn't a cool guy. Like, who does that? It immediately cemented in my mind that this dude's a bit of a douche. Still, I couldn't write it all off just on that.
Unfortunately for Final Fantasy VII Remake, the characters open their mouths and speak. I'm sorry, any fans still reading despite my initial warning, but I disliked a lot of the dialogue. Of course some of it is perfectly fine, but I was amazed at how predictable the characters are — they fall into classic archetypes immediately. I found it impossible to get attached to Biggs and Wedge, who feel disposable from the start, but personally I couldn't get on board with the characterisation and dialogue in general. I get that Remake is only part one of a larger project, but everyone felt very one-dimensional to me. I also understand that this is a retelling of a game from 1997, so of course there's going to be some awkward or wonky dialogue. Even with that in mind, I struggled with the script and the characters for most of my time with the game.
One aspect I did grow to enjoy was the combat. To begin with, I found it overly complex. It presents itself as a hack-n-slash action game, but it isn't really; basic attacks are just a way to charge up your proper moves, accessed in the ATB menu. It's a strange hybrid of real-time action and selecting commands, but once I wrapped my head around it — as well as frequently swapping characters — I found it to be quite satisfying. Boss fights in particular became a highlight for me, figuring out their weaknesses and exploiting them as best I could. I also loved the overall flair of combat, with great animations and effects as you throw magic and slash away with oversized swords.
I think a highlight for me was actually the insane mission with the bike guy. I had to look his name up, and it's Roche. Cloud and the gang are riding motorcycles to reach Jessie's old home and go about some Avalanche business, but this man rocks up, twirling his bike around like it's a conker on a string, and it's just so ridiculous. Fighting him while driving was one thing, but he shows up again, and it's a sight to behold. I think I enjoyed the game most at these moments, when it isn't afraid to embrace the absurd. Another example would be the bit where you literally fight a demonic house. I'd never seen that before.
Unfortunately, things were starting to wear thin for me by the time I got to the Don Corneo section. The game is extremely inconsistent in its pacing and even just its visual quality, and I found it all to be pretty jarring. I almost quit out in the part where you have to operate the robotic arms to move shipping containers — so clunky and, more importantly, wholly unnecessary. The game is far longer than it needs to be because of sections like this, and really, I think they're what prevented me from beating the game.
That's right — not only was Liam wrong about me starting, but Robert was wrong about me finishing. Sammy won the bet in the end, but I didn't make it as far as the second sewer section (one was plenty). Where did I call it quits? The haunted train yard. To be clear, it wasn't so much this particular part of the game that made me put down the controller, it just happens to be where I've left it. I think I reached a point where I just got tired of the whole thing.
Little things were starting to grate — having to hold down Triangle to pull levers (but not all the time!), the forced walking sections, the dialogue, some seriously bizarre cutscenes, and more. Additionally, things clearly intended to hype up long-time fans were completely lost on me. Stuff like Sephiroth sporadically appearing, for instance, lost any of its impact, because I didn't (and still don't) fully understand why it's a big deal. I appreciate that people love the original and love the remake, but for me, I just grew tired of the game's nonsense. I'd boot up my PS5 and think about what I should play. Final Fantasy VII Remake would cross my mind, and I'd let out a sigh. I couldn't keep it up — especially knowing there were so many more hours to go.
I've accepted it's not for me, and that's fine. I can live with that. I'm glad I gave it a solid try, but I think this will probably be it between me and Final Fantasy. Funnily enough, Liam hadn't played the original before playing Remake, and he absolutely loved it, so don't let me put you off if you're in the same boat. I'm not sure what the moral of the story is, to be honest. I want to say trust your instincts, but at the same time, if you're given the opportunity to try new things, you should. Do those messages conflict? Kind of. I'm stopping the feature now.
Do you empathise with Stephen's assessment of Final Fantasy VII Remake? Have you similarly struggled with a beloved game? Sprinkle some Phoenix Down in the comments section below.