Whilst the Final Fantasy VII Remake wasn’t officially unveiled until E3 2015, I feel as though gamers had been eagerly awaiting its announcement ever since Square Enix re-created the intro FMV to the game to demonstrate the capabilities of the PlayStation 3 back in 2005. That fresh representation of the opening sequence that RPG fans worldwide held close to their hearts was pretty special, so naturally it would ignite a bombardment of desperate pleas for Square Enix to simply remake the entire game. There were years of whisperings and rumours that it was indeed in production, but it never materialised into anything official – well, not until the ‘E3 of Dreams’ in 2015 where the game was showed off at Sony’s press conference. Believe me, it was one hell of a momentous occasion and I still get emotional thinking back to it now.
Nearly five years on from that initial reveal, Final Fantasy VII Remake is finally in the hands of gamers – albeit in an incomplete form with subsequent episodes expected to launch SOMETIME in the future that will eventually see the adventure reach its conclusion. Thankfully, this escapade through a reimagined and refreshed Midgar proves to be something truly amazing, with a lot of heart, care, and innovation put into revitalising the Final Fantasy VII experience into something that feels familiar to fans whilst also implementing plenty of new ideas from both a gameplay and story perspective.
Don’t be fooled by the fact that this is going to be an episodic release – Final Fantasy VII Remake is an epic game that’ll take a good thirty-hours or so to beat, whilst it’s full to the brim with additional extras to keep you coming back for more. It’s also one of the finest games that Square Enix have ever released, and believe me, it’s not just the nostalgia that’s making me say that.
Final Fantasy VII Remake puts players in the role of Cloud Strife, an ex-SOLDIER for the Shinra Corporation that rule the roost over the city of Midgar, albeit with an iron fist that sees them putting power and profits before the well-being of its people. They also just so happen to put it before the planet with their reactors absorbing Mako, which is considered the lifeblood of the planet. Whilst this is generally accepted by most of the population, there are some that aren’t on board with it – enter Avalanche, a ‘terrorist’ cell that look to destroy these reactors and bring down the Shinra Corporation for good. When they hire the help of Cloud to take down a reactor, it triggers a string of events and conspiracies that’ll not only change the fate of the city of Midgar, but also the world as a whole.
So listen, I’m sure just about EVERYONE knows how the plot of Final Fantasy VII goes, so I’m not going to go into too much detail here. However, I will mention that Square Enix have made a LOT of changes – not necessarily to the core plot points, but to how everything plays out. Almost every sequence across the game has been extended in some shape or form, but in a meaningful way that genuinely fleshes out the experience and feels particularly enlightening to see unfold. You’ll see characters in a whole new light, whilst certain elements of the extended story get introduced much earlier on. It’s a good thing, especially for those who already played through the original game and were a little disappointed that they wouldn’t see certain characters until later releases down the line.
One good example of this comes with the members of Avalanche who played more of a bit-part in the original game. Whilst Wedge, Biggs, and Jessie are definitely recognisable characters, you spend a lot more time with them here and partake in all-new missions that really flesh out their roles. You’ll learn more about their personalities too, such as how Wedge is so desperate to seek Cloud’s approval, how Biggs is a natural worrier who overthinks things, or how Jessie had a dream to be an actress (and even took on the leading role at the Gold Saucer before her time in Avalanche). These may seem like minor details in the grand scheme of things, but they all feel particularly special for returning gamers who thought they already knew everything about these characters. That’s just one small example too, with Final Fantasy VII Remake going all out in its story re-inventions in places – it’s as fascinating as it is brilliant.
Gameplay-wise, Final Fantasy VII Remake will be familiar to anyone who has played an RPG before, with players working through an assortment of locations full of characters to interact with, side quests to take on, shops to peruse, and objectives to complete that progress the story. There’s more emphasis placed on exploration this time around when compared to the original, with a few additional locations to explore and side missions to complete that are completely unique to this version of the game.
The locations that will be a bit more familiar to players feel completely different too – whilst there are landmarks in place that will make them recognisable to most, they’re much larger and expansive in scale than before. Fortunately, this didn’t come at the expense of their ambience, with locations like the Sector 7 Slums, Wall Market, and Shinra HQ feeling more immersive than ever. Square Enix clearly haven’t just gone for the direct remake approach here, but have rather re-invented Midgar to be more fitting of the modern standards of video games whilst still maintaining all of its features that made it so iconic to begin with.
There are some elements of the game that have been built from the ground up to be unique though, including the combat which has been completely revamped. Gone are the turn-based random encounters of the original, with Final Fantasy VII Remake feeling more like Final Fantasy XV or even the Kingdom Hearts series with its real-time action-orientated approach.
Players will mash the attack button to dish out standard attacks, whilst their ATB meter charges with each action they take. When charged, player can spend the ATB meter to perform different actions, such as the use of abilities, magic, and items. It adds a strategic element to each encounter, with players limited to standard attacks and defensive manoeuvres until it’s charged – this also means that you can’t even heal yourself if your ATB isn’t charged, so you’ve got to plan ahead and keep an eye on your stats or you could find yourself in a vulnerable position.
Each character also has access to special abilities that are activated with the triangle button. For example, Cloud can activate his ‘Punisher’ stance which makes his attacks much more powerful but at the expense of his manoeuvrability. Barret on the other hand has a charge attack that he can use, which dishes out heavy damage on his target – this has to be manually charged after each use though, so you can’t utilise it care-free. These abilities can be a big game-changer mid-battle and there were plenty of showdowns that I only managed to scrape through thanks to their use, so they’re definitely worth paying attention to when in the midst of combat.
You’ll rarely be alone in combat, with Barret, Tifa, and Aerith joining you across the game. They’ll mostly act on their own, though you can switch between them if you fancy utilising Barret’s gun-arm or Tifa’s heavy-hitting punch combos yourself. In fairness, each character has their own different strengths and weaknesses that can prove particularly advantageous in certain showdowns, so you’ll never just want to stick to Cloud alone. Alternatively, if their ATB meter has charged you can assign them actions by pressing one of the shoulder buttons, so you do get a lot of control over the flow of battles regardless of whether or not you switch between party members. I mean, sometimes we DO just want to be Cloud, right?
The varying enemies that you face off against each bring something different to battle too, with the new action-focus meaning enemies can unleash a variety of different attack types upon you. Some enemies are particularly mobile for example and will attack from afar – these are best handled with ranged attacks, so you’ll want to either use Barret or some of your magic abilities. Some enemies might unleash attacks that affect a specific area, so you’ll have to make sure you steer clear of danger areas in the environment to avoid taking damage. These sorts of things are especially present in the boss encounters, which aren’t only epic in scale but spread over multiple phases that’ll see you constantly switching up your tactics in order to take them down. I actually think they’re some of the best boss encounters that have been seen in ANY Final Fantasy game, so expect some pretty awesome battles.
They can also be pretty tough, but fortunately enemies can be staggered which allows the player to unleash some devastating damage. Enemies will become more vulnerable if you use abilities or elemental attacks on them which they are weak to, with their stagger meter charging with each attack that lands on them. Once full, they’ll be momentarily stunned and more vulnerable to attacks, making it the perfect opportunity to wipe out a good chunk of their HP. Taking advantage of these staggered moments proves mighty important in combat, so it’s definitely something you’ll need to keep on top of – luckily, you can assess enemies to find out their weaknesses, which adds a further strategic element to each encounter.
I absolutely loved the combat. I didn’t know if I’d actually appreciate the new approach that the game has taken after loving the original so much, but I was constantly in awe of how smoothly the action flowed together and how much diversity was on offer with each encounter. Sure, there will be occasions where you can just mash away at the attack button and succeed with ease, but those encounters that require strategic thought (particularly the boss battles) will keep you thoroughly entertained throughout. It’s bloody fantastic.
Whilst the combat has been reinvented for the most part, there are some elements that remain the same. Materia makes a return, with each bringing with them different abilities that your party can use when equipped. A lot of these abilities are made up of your magic skills, such as fire, thunder, cure and so on. However, there are some Materia which bring with them specific skills, such as an auto-cure, a dodge attack and so on. Each Materia will also boost your stats in different ways, whilst they can also be levelled up to unlock stronger versions of each ability.
Of course, Summon Materia makes a return too, which allows you to get the help of one of the series’ iconic creatures during particularly tough battles. Unlike the original game, you can’t summon them whenever you want, but when they do make an appearance they’ll fight alongside you for some time before eventually leaving the battle after unleashing their most powerful attack. Again, this is more similar to the way that summons worked in Final Fantasy XV than the original game, but their sporadic appearances ensures that they don’t imbalance the combat in any way.
Between the exploration and combat, Final Fantasy VII Remake manages to absolutely nail how an RPG should feel. However, it brings with it plenty of other gameplay mechanics that just make the experience all the more enjoyable, such as all the different equipment you can use, the weapon upgrades that allow you to fine-tune your character’s capabilities, the battle challenges which offer additional Materia as rewards, and, of course, the mini-games which give you fun little endeavours to get stuck into. I actually got completely hooked to the game’s darts mini-game, which is probably the best example of the sport that I’ve seen in ANY video game. It just shows how much depth there is to the game and just how much there is to see and do when exploring Midgar.
I could heap praise on Final Fantasy VII Remake all day, but even I have to admit there are a couple of flaws. It can feel a little linear in places for example, with the dungeon instances typically following one set path and blocking other alternate routes when you do try to explore. There was also some obvious pop-in on display when exploring some of the larger environments, with characters simply appearing from nowhere as you run through them – in fairness, this wasn’t as bad as I’ve seen in other games, but it was still pretty obvious in places.
I can’t end this review without talking about the visual and audio presentation, which is of the highest quality throughout. So the visuals are outstanding – there’s no denying that, with the environments and character models packed with detail. Honestly, looking at the game world and seeing this new take on some of its enemies was just breath-taking, with Final Fantasy VII Remake easily standing out as one of the best-looking games on the PlayStation 4.
It’s the soundtrack which won me over the most though, with its re-arranged takes on the classics from the original game managing to re-capture the enchanting vibe that they had the first time around. Returning players will just have a massive smile on their face as they hear their favourite tunes from the original game with a new twist, whilst some of the new pieces that are included manage to maintain the high quality that players are used to. The only thing that’s missing is the victory jingle when you’re successful in combat, but even Barret will give you his own rendition of that on occasions…
Final Fantasy VII Remake is an outstanding game that doesn’t only live up to all expectations but also manages to completely exceed them. I wish I could go into detail about every tiny thing that makes the game so special, but to do so would be unfair to players who just deserve to uncover them all themselves. Just know that every element of the game comes together perfectly, whether it’s with the rewarding exploration, the action-packed combat, or the stellar visual presentation that’ll keep you in awe throughout.
I’ll admit that the sense of nostalgia from my younger years made Final Fantasy VII Remake all the more special to me, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that this game isn’t spectacular in its own right. Final Fantasy VII Remake is simply one of Square Enix’s best games ever, and it’s still as ground-breaking, epic and charming as it was back in 1997.
Here’s hoping it’ll be a shorter wait for the next episode…
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform(s): PlayStation 4