Well, here we are. The time has finally come for us to review Final Fantasy VII Remake, and it's surreal. We vividly remember the official announcement at Sony's E3 2015 press conference, and that trailer still gives us goosebumps. But now that we've actually played it, is this the remake of a stone cold role-playing classic that we've always wanted?
Unfortunately, there's no clear cut answer to that question. If you're a huge fan of the original Final Fantasy VII, this remake will undoubtedly stir some emotion. Seeing its iconic characters and the memorable city of Midgar realised in full 3D can really send a shiver up your spine, and for the most part, it's clear that a lot of love was poured into this project.
However, Final Fantasy VII Remake struggles to live up to the gigantic expectations that have been placed upon it. It's easy to say that any game would crumble in the face of such pressure, but at times, Remake doesn't do itself any favours. Much like Final Fantasy XV, bits of it feel somewhat confused or misguided -- and it's these moments that hold back an otherwise rousing return to the world of Final Fantasy VII.
But let's start with the facts. Final Fantasy VII Remake is not a full remake of Final Fantasy VII. It only covers the Midgar portion of the adventure -- the opening eight hours or so of the original release -- but the whole story arc is greatly expanded. In that sense, this is just the first game in Square Enix's Final Fantasy VII Remake "series" -- despite the fact that there's no indication of this in the name itself.
Right now we don't know when the next instalment is coming, but for what it's worth, we do think that Remake feels like a complete game. No, it doesn't cover the entire story of Final Fantasy VII -- not even close -- but Square Enix has managed to make it feel like its own thing. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and running through it will take you at least 25 to 30 hours or so. 35 to 40 if you want to see and do everything that the release has to offer.
Things kick off exactly as they did in the original. Cloud Strife, antisocial mercenary for hire, fights alongside eco-warrior organisation Avalanche, as the group attempts to bring down Shinra, the corrupt power company that rules with an iron fist. The overarching conflict between Avalanche and Shinra that fans will remember remains intact throughout, but certain plot points are explored in far greater detail, while other, entirely new scenarios have been slipped into the existing narrative.
Many of these fresh ideas bring welcome nuance to what was once a pretty straightforward story, but without spoiling anything, this is not an exact replica of the 1997 classic. Changes have been made, and while we do think that, ultimately, it's more interesting to see Remake try something different, there are specific choices that will inevitably be at the centre of hardcore debate in the weeks to come.
The result of all this is a retelling that's obviously familiar, but still manages to surprise. The quality of main story cutscenes is fantastic, and although the writing is undeniably cheesy, the dialogue is endearing, and delivered with charm. The main playable cast -- Cloud, Barret, Tifa, and Aerith -- are all pretty much perfect, even if there are a few too many anime-style grunts and sighs for our liking.
Anyway, the storytelling throughout the main campaign is very enjoyable -- bolstered by certain scenes that quite simply blew us away -- and the additional beats only serve to enrich the experience. Square Enix could have quite easily buggered the whole thing up, but as it stands, it feels like the plot has been given the respect that it deserves. That said, the story probably won't resonate quite so well if you're new to Final Fantasy VII. There are times when the narrative relies heavily on nostalgia, presenting characters, scenes, or concepts in ways that'll seem downright weird if you're coming into this completely blind.
Still, it's one hell of a ride. We did find ourselves questioning the plot's pacing every now and then, but the game makes up for any drawn-out moments with its final few chapters. The last third or so of the release is clearly a cut above, and it's relentlessly entertaining.
Sadly, it's not all over-the-top Shinra-busting goodness for our spiky-haired hero. "This sucks," says Cloud, as he's searching for lost cats in a Midgar slum. You're right Cloud, it does suck -- so why are we even doing this? That's a question you'll ask yourself more than once as you go through Remake's largely uninspired side quests. These optional objectives show up whenever Cloud and company arrive at a new settlement, and finishing them nets you some neat rewards, like rare materia or equipment. Mercifully, there aren't many tasks to undertake -- there are only 20 or so throughout the whole game, and they generally don't take long to complete -- but unless they feature a cool boss fight, they're rather vapid.
And this is where Final Fantasy VII Remake fumbles; it features some truly baffling design. For example, the number of times that you have to squeeze through a gap in a wall, or crawl under some rubble, or slowly, slowly edge you way across a suspended plank of wood borders on parody. You climb so many identical ladders. Not all of these forced movements can be masking a load screen, surely?
You'd hope not, anyway, as Final Fantasy VII Remake is unashamedly linear. A small number of outdoor environments are literally just corridors that you run along. No battles, no cutscenes, no interactivity whatsoever -- just hold forward on your stick until something triggers. To be clear, the vast majority of the game isn't like this -- there are usually some branching paths with treasure chests, and combat encounters are fairly common -- but the difference in level design quality can be jarring.
Speaking of quality, Remake sports some of the best visuals on PlayStation 4, hands down. Well, at points in the main story, at least. The first bombing run right at the start of the game, for instance, is stunning. Exploring the Sector 5 slums, not so much. For whatever reason, Remake has a serious issue with environmental textures. You may not notice them as you're casually jogging through an area, but the problem is very, very hard to miss when you're chatting to non-playable characters, or sitting through a cutscene.
Textures can be so bad that we honestly thought it was due to some kind of bug. But no, this is just how the game looks. Even on PS4 Pro, on a 4K TV, surfaces can look dreadful -- like they haven't loaded in properly. We're talking PS2-level fidelity here, and it boggles the mind. Again, Remake is a very linear adventure, so it's hard to imagine how it ended up looking like this when the PS4 boasts so many gorgeous open world games. We can only hope that this issue is patched.
Fortunately for Final Fantasy VII Remake, many of its (mostly) minor flaws are forgotten when you're basking in the heat of battle. Its combat system fuses free movement and one-button combos with time-pausing menus and tactical commands. At first it can take a little while to wrap your head around how it all works, but when it clicks, it's magical. In a way, this feels like the evolution of Final Fantasy's trademark Active Time Battle system -- giving players more direct control over the party, while also retaining the strategic edge that turn based combat allows.
You control one character at a time as the competent AI handles your allies, and you can switch freely with the d-pad. Each combatant has their own distinct feel: Cloud is agile, yet his huge sword has a heft to it as he blocks and counters an incoming blow. Barret is slow but devastating at range thanks to his gun arm. Tifa is lightning quick, but she needs to chain unique attacks together in order to deal maximum damage. Everyone's easy to get to grips with, but there's a surprising deal of depth when it comes to mastering each party member's potential.
Combat is without a doubt one of Remake's greatest strengths. Hitting weaknesses with elemental spells, pulling off a last-second heal, or staggering your opponent with a perfectly timed assault is immensely satisfying, and in the game's best encounters, everything comes together to showcase what is an excellent system. Boss fights in particular are outstanding; they deliver jaw-dropping spectacle as well as intensely tactical combat time and time again.
In fact, Remake can be pretty tricky. There are a number of encounters that demand caution and a good understanding of the many tools at your disposal, but if you're having trouble, you can always switch to 'easy' at any time. There's also the curiously named 'classic' mode, which has your party move and perform basic attacks automatically as you dish out commands. Weirdly, though, 'classic' doesn't stick with the default difficulty. Instead, it lowers the difficulty to 'easy', which seems like a bit of a shame for those who want a more turn based feel, but don't want to lessen the overall challenge. More options would be nice.
Tying combat together is character progression, which is also a highlight. Final Fantasy VII's masterful materia system is still in place, allowing you to fully customise your party's capabilities. Materia orbs are found throughout the game, and when slotted into your gear, they can provide stat boosts or give characters access to magic. And in Remake, some materia can even alter set actions. For example, 'Deadly Dodge' lets you pull off a sweeping melee attack after performing a roll. Playing around with materia and working out potent combinations is still fantastic fun.
And then there's the all-new weapon upgrade system. In Remake, each character gets a number of weapons, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Some weapons promote physical attacks, with upgrades that bolster strength. Others focus on materia-based upgrades, letting you slot additional orbs. The bottom line is that this new system gives you the freedom to create your own unique party. You can transform Cloud into the gang's primary magic user with the right sword, or you can augment Tifa's speed to the point where her onslaught seems endless. The upgrade trees aren't massive, but they still have a notable effect on how you play, and branching out can quickly become addictive.
Final Fantasy VII Remake's combat and the systems that support it hold the whole experience together -- especially when you're chasing down side quests and you don't have the quality of the main story to keep you engaged. But there is another component that acts as a glue, and that's the soundtrack. In short, Remake's music is excellent. Many of the original's themes and tunes are here, but they've all been brilliantly and beautifully reworked.
Measured against the immense expectations that surround it, Final Fantasy VII Remake is a great game that will inevitably disappoint some fans. That said, playing through the Midgar storyline 23 years later is giddily surreal, and the game does a fantastic job of expanding the existing plot, while also pushing a surprising amount of fresh ideas. Some frustratingly poor level design hampers the fun at times, and visually the game is all over the place, but when it's at its best, Remake is brilliant, and it's elevated to even greater heights by an excellent combat system. It may not be the perfect remake that we've all been dreaming of these past five years, but it is a thoroughly enjoyable, nostalgia-driven ride that understands the magic of Final Fantasy VII.