Final Fantasy VII Remake: A Triumphant Return to a Beloved Classic

As I discussed last week, the original Final Fantasy VII had a significant impact on me when I was younger. Naturally, then, I was eager to sink my teeth into the remake that released last Friday. I managed to wrap the game up last night, and let me tell you–it was a wild ride. I loved (almost) every second of it. If you haven’t had a chance to try the game yet, don’t worry; this review will be spoiler-free.

Final Fantasy VII Remake is a modernized version of the opening eight hours or so of the original Final Fantasy VII–that is, the portion of the game that takes place in the city of Midgar. On the face of it, it sounds like that would make for a pretty short game, but don’t worry; a ton of content has been added, bolstering the game’s runtime significantly. I put about forty hours into it before hitting the end credits, personally, and there’s still more I could do if I wanted.

The biggest difference between Final Fantasy VII and Remake is the core gameplay. While the original was a traditional turn-based RPG, the new version is an action RPG, with combat taking place in real time. Players can switch between party members at will, with each character having their own unique abilities and methods of attack.

While combat seems simple at first–characters can use a basic attack with the square button and have a signature attack mapped to the triangle button–there’s a surprising amount of depth to be found once you master the basics. Each of the four controllable characters (Cloud, Barret, Tifa, and Aerith) have distinct fighting styles. Cloud uses powerful sword strikes, while Tifa strings together long combos of quick punches and kicks. Meanwhile, Barret and Aerith are ranged combatants; the former can unleash a deluge of bullets while the latter casts strong (but slow) magical attacks.

Signature attacks are surprisingly varied between characters; Barret’s is simply a stronger version of his regular attack, while Cloud actually alternates between two different combat modes with each press of the triangle button. My favorite, however, is Tifa: her default signature attack is an uppercut, but by using her Unbridled Strength ability (more on abilities in a moment), she can gain progressively more powerful versions of her signature attack while also boosting her basic attack power and getting access to longer combo chains.

On top of their basic and signature attacks, characters learn a number of additional abilities as the game progresses. Each character starts out with one ability (in Cloud’s case it’s Braver, which fans will recognize as his first Limit Break ability in the original game) and gains more through the use of new weapons later on. (The weapon system in this game is quite interesting, too, but I’ll touch on that later.) Different abilities have different effects, but they require ATB to trigger.

ATB stands for Active Time Battle. This was the system that the original game used in combat; each character had an ATB gauge, and when that gauge was filled, they could take their turn. In the more action-oriented Remake, ATB is reworked into a system that allows the player to utilize abilities and magic. Characters can use their regular and signature attacks at will, and when they do so, they fill their ATB gauge. Once that character has at least one gauge of ATB filled (everyone gets two ‘units’ of ATB), they can pull up the command menu and spend ATB to execute special abilities, cast spells, or use items. Oh, and pulling up the command menu slows combat to a crawl, so you don’t have to worry about getting attacked while you scroll through your ability list.

I really like this ATB system. It’s a nice way of maintaining an element of FFVII‘s turn-based gameplay despite the switch to an action-oriented style. It also gives each character a wider array of powers without cluttering up the controls. While ATB gauges do fill slowly over time, they fill much faster if the character is actively attacking. This has two effects: firstly, it turns tricky fights into interesting risk/reward scenarios–if you’re low on health, do you try to outrun your opponent for a long time until your ATB finally fills and you can cast Cure, or do you aggressively attack to fill the gauge much faster? Secondly, it encourages the player to swap between different characters more frequently. If you know Barret has the perfect ability to take down this boss, you’re going to want to control him directly so you can get that ATB gauge filled ASAP.

Another important element of combat is the stagger gauge. Enemies have a stagger gauge that can be filled by dealing damage in particular ways; for example, a robotic enemy’s gauge might fill up when that enemy is hit by lightning magic. Certain character abilities are particularly good at building stagger too. Once this gauge is full, the enemy is staggered, meaning they are temporarily stunned and take more damage from attacks. Knowing the best way to stagger an enemy is crucial, especially in the more difficult fights.

The first time I played the demo version of Final Fantasy VII Remake, the combat felt extremely difficult. The first boss, Scorpion Sentinel, was particularly punishing. By the time the full game was out, though, I’d figured out the systems a bit; I had a better feel for my abilities, and it became easier and easier to figure out who I should play as and when to spend ATB. It’s a fun, fast-paced system that offers just the right amount of challenge.

Naturally, to fight effectively, you need a decent weapon. As I mentioned earlier, I think the weapon system in Final Fantasy VII Remake is great. Each character can gain six different weapons over the course of the game, and each weapon grants access to a new ability. The character can use that ability while the weapon is equipped; if they maximize their proficiency with the weapon in question, they can use the ability permanently, regardless of what weapon they are wielding. Weapon proficiency is raised by undertaking specific actions while the weapon is equipped (for instance, staggering enemies or defeating foes with the weapon’s ability).

Of course, in addition to teaching new abilities, weapons also alter a character’s stats. Different weapons have different base stats, but they can also be upgraded in different ways. See, when a character levels up, they get Skill Points that can be spent to upgrade weapons. These upgrades generally take the form of bonuses to attack power, defense, and other stats. Occasionally, they will have a more nuanced effect, such as “Reduce the Cost of Healing Magic by 20%,” but they never do anything that drastically changes the way the weapon works. As you gain more SP, your overall weapon level increases, giving each of your weapons more upgrade options. Some weapons focus on increasing your defense; others give you lots of bonuses to magic; still others offer a balanced selection of upgrades across all stats. It’s up to you to decide which weapon best fits your style, and I love that–the fact that no weapon is inherently better than another allowed me to keep the iconic Buster Sword equipped throughout the game without falling behind in terms of damage.

Materia is another important element of a character’s gear. Each weapon–and piece armor, for that matter–has a set number of materia slots (though for weapons, this number can often be increased through upgrades). Materia are crystals that grant the use of magic. If you’ve got two available materia slots, for example, you could equip Fire Materia and Healing Materia to gain access to the Fire and Cure spells. Equipped materia gains ability points after every fight, allowing it to level up and grant access to more powerful spells. Not all materia grants the use of magic, though–some grant non-magical abilities (like the Assess Materia) or improve a character’s stats (like the HP Up Materia). Also, sometimes a piece of gear will have linked materia slots, meaning the materia in one slot can affect the materia in its linked slot; one example of this would be placing the Magnify Materia in a linked slot with the Ice Materia, which would allow the character to target all enemies simultaneously with the Blizzard spell (rather than only targeting a single enemy, as would usually be the case).

All of this–the characters’ unique fighting styles, the variety of weapons and abilities, the materia–comes together to create a system with a surprising amount of depth and a satisfying degree of character progression and customization. It’s honestly one of the more robust action RPG systems I’ve played in recent memory.

Well, that covers gameplay; what about plot?

In terms of plot, the game is very similar to the original, simply with more elaboration. In general, things are expanded on, not changed outright. There are a few notable exceptions, but as I want this to be a spoiler-free review, I’m not going to discuss them here. Perhaps I’ll write another post about those changes after the game has been out a bit longer. For now, I’ll just say that if you love the story of the original Final Fantasy VII, you’ll probably enjoy the way this remake expands on things–and, of course, it’s fun to see classic scenes recreated with cutting-edge visuals.

One of the best things about Final Fantasy VII Remake is the way it deepens the characterization of its main characters. Cloud and Tifa particularly benefit from the additions to the narrative, with each of them receiving a bit more nuance than their original incarnations. It’s more apparent now that Cloud’s bravado is an affectation, and the relationship between him and Tifa feels much stronger than in the classic game. Tifa also gets more personality here, and we see her grapple with the moral complexities of working with a violent organization like Avalanche in a compelling way.

Something that I feel the need to address, though: Barret. Barret is the only major character who is a person of color. Unfortunately, he is also a walking stereotype–that of the angry, violent black man. His voice acting this time around particularly plays to this trope; watch the trailer if you’re not sure what I mean by that. Admittedly, as the game progresses he tones things down a bit, and it becomes clear that he is a deeply insecure, vulnerable man who has been putting on this tough-guy front throughout the game, but as a white guy I’m not really in a position to judge if that does anything to justify this. Honestly, I don’t feel I’m in a position to comment much on this at all–I can’t speak for a community I’m not a part of. All I can say is that it is apparent to me that the character could and should have been handled better. That’s not to say I don’t like Barret–I actually love a lot of elements of his character. I love seeing him slowly open up to Cloud; I love his adorable relationship with his daughter; I love his moments of comic relief and the incredible empathy he has for his friends and his world. He’s a wonderful, layered character… when the narrative allows him to be.

Despite this glaring misstep, I thoroughly enjoyed the overall plot of the game. It stays largely faithful to the original while expanding on it in fascinating, fun ways. Though I can understand why some of the changes are controversial, I enjoyed them. I do feel that the final chapter is a bit underwhelming, but that’s due more to the game’s design than what’s happening in the story; most of the last chapter is a prolonged and repetitive boss fight that felt more like something from Kingdom Hearts than Final Fantasy VII.

There’s one last aspect of Final Fantasy VII Remake I want to touch on: the music.

When I first started the game, I found myself on the verge of tears. It wasn’t because I was finally playing the remake I’d clamored for for years. It wasn’t because I was watching a beautifully re-animated version of that opening cutscene that had taken my breath away more than twenty years ago. It was because of the music.

I tend to form strong associations with music. I still can’t listen to Pink Floyd’s Animals without thinking of Final Fantasy IX, because I discovered that album and that game at nearly the same time; if I was playing the latter, I was probably listening to the former. Likewise, I usually had Bringing Down the Horse in my CD player while I was working through the original Metal Gear Solid, forever linking the two in my mind.

For FFVII, though, I didn’t have any alternate music playing in the background – I just enjoyed the game’s soundtrack, composed by the incomparable Nobuo Uematsu. The battle music, the victory jingle, the character themes… they’re all burned into my memory. I used to have a CD mix of my favorite music that included piano versions of both Tifa and Aerith’s themes. Hearing this soundtrack that I’d grown up loving, now rendered as beautifully recorded music rather than console-generated note data, moved me in a way I wasn’t prepared for.

I might be biased by my love of the original, but Final Fantasy VII Remake blew me away. The combat, the story, the music–all of it combined to create a stunning gaming experience. If you loved FFVII back in the day, I really can’t recommend this game enough. if you’ve never played a Final Fantasy before, I’d still urge you to give this one a try, with one caveat: this isn’t quite as perfect a jumping-on point as publisher Square Enix would like you to believe. There is some stuff in here, particularly towards the end of the game, that won’t make a lot of sense to you if you aren’t familiar with the original game. I wouldn’t let that stop you, though–after all, you can buy the original on every major platform right now, and if you don’t feel like playing through a twenty-year-old game you can always look up key info on the internet!

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