Final Fantasy VII Remake's mix of newness and nostalgia was a thrilling and intoxicating mix for me

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bigsocrates

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Edited By bigsocrates

The original Final Fantasy VII was a milestone game for me. It was the biggest game in the world when it was released in 1997, setting my school ablaze with rumors of its production values and 4 disc length and it was hyped on the back of its breathtaking cinematics, which promised a whole new level of fidelity in gaming. It was the reason I got a PlayStation despite being a primarily PC gamer growing up, and though no game could ever live up to the level of hype it had, it came damn close. I loved almost everything about it, from its cyberpunk aesthetic to its wild inventiveness to its epic scope. It wasn’t perfect, of course. The script and characters could have been stronger, especially with the flawed English translation. It was full of minigames, many of which were shallow and/or bad. While I liked big chunks of the game after you leave Midgar it failed to maintain the propulsive plot or focus and became more of a big meandering mess, with somewhat confusing objectives and lots of obscure secrets if you wanted to get the full party and have the full experience.

Despite these flaws, the game holds a special emotional place in my heart and I never planned to go back to it. I don’t tend to replay old 40 hour games anyway, and there’s no way Final Fantasy VII could hold up to my nostalgia, especially with how messy the actual story and characterizations are. I didn’t want an FF VII remake for similar reasons, but once I saw the image of Cloud and his giant sword in an 8th generation Midgar I knew I’d have to play it. The pull to see what could be done with it and modern technology was just too strong (and I’m sure Square Enix was counting on that.) I’ve now reached the credits, had about a month to digest it and…overall I had a fantastic time. It’s one of my favorite gaming experiences of the generation even if I’m not sure how good a game it is. Final Fantasy VII Remake is so soaked in nostalgia and familiarity with the source material that I can’t separate it from my feelings about the original. Would I like this game as much if it didn’t star Cloud, Tifa, Barret and the rest? I’m not sure. I’m not even sure I care. But the game managed to reach me in a way I didn’t expect, even if it, again, couldn’t live up to its own hype.

Final Fantasy VII Remake starts off perfectly, with a mission to destroy one of Midgar’s 8 mako reactors. You’re shoved right into the boots of emo-mercenary Cloud Strife as he accompanies gruff rebel leader Barret Wallace and some comedic relief side characters in their mission. Cloud has agreed to do this ostensibly for money but it soon becomes clear that he’s also doing it at the behest of a childhood friend who he cares about. While the plot and many of the story beats are ripped right from the original game, immediately there’s a coherency and depth of characterization that wasn’t there in ‘97. This is a modern game not just in how it looks and plays but in its understanding of storytelling and character. Cloud is an actual character this time, not just a cypher who does whatever the scene needs, and while he starts off as a moody jerk he does open up over the course of the game. Voice acting and careful facial animation help tremendously in delivering nuance and hesitation where the original game’s written script simply couldn’t, making this Cloud much more human than the first version.

Despite his silly hair and ludicrous clothes Cloud looks like a human in a human world, and his character feels much more real than it did in the original game. This is my favorite version of the character.
Despite his silly hair and ludicrous clothes Cloud looks like a human in a human world, and his character feels much more real than it did in the original game. This is my favorite version of the character.

In addition to its improved character and story chops, the game also improves on its predecessor by moving in real time, with a well-designed battle system that splits the difference between action and turn-based, giving you direct control of any party member you choose during fights but also letting you issue commands for magic or abilities to that character or others as the active time battle gauge fills. It makes combat feel visceral and exciting, and adds a lot more skill into things like blocking and dodging at the right time, while also adding the menu driven layer of magic and special actions over the top to give it just enough traditional JRPG flavor. The original FF VII’s menu driven fighting could get tedious, with waits for gauges to fill only made worse by frustrating loading times. None of that plagues the remake. Obviously fights take place in the main environments instead of separate screens so there’s no loading, and the first few hours of the game are drenched in atmosphere and action as you complete your mission.

The Remake expands on much of what was in the original, with a lot more dialogue, more expansive locations that feel like they’re situated in an actual city, and a lot more stuff to do in its Midgar locations. This isn’t surprising given that the game took me 40 hours to beat and only focuses on the Midgar arc, while the original took me 45-50, of which 5-10 took place in Midgar, but I enjoyed the ways the new game was able to slow down and take time with its locations and characters, fleshing them out and expanding them while staying true to not just the original vision from the first game but the idealized vision I had in my head. They found the core of what was there in 1997 and from those blueprints they built more expansive and better realized versions worthy of 2020. In many ways it’s a remarkable achievement, not just for how good it is but for how bad it’s not and how many pitfalls it avoids.

This is decidedly a 2020 game, and at times it looks truly spectacular. The art design makes Midgar feel like a real city, not just an abstraction.
This is decidedly a 2020 game, and at times it looks truly spectacular. The art design makes Midgar feel like a real city, not just an abstraction.

Unfortunately FF VII Remake can’t maintain the impact of its first few hours, and as the game continues it shows a lot of flaws. While Midgar is much expanded from its original form, it feels very small for a 2020 game location. We’re used to huge open worlds with sprawling cities where you can go anywhere and do anything, and FF VII Remake’s Midgar is very much a constrained world, not only featuring only a mere handful of locations, but small, linear, and constrained locations at that. I never expected Midgar to offer the freedom of the world map from the original, or even a modern open world game like Spider-Man or Infamous, but the actual size of what’s there in the connected portions is pretty disappointing.

A lot of dust has been kicked up online about the inconsistencies of the objects and texture works in FFVIIR and it’s also well-deserved. There are parts of the game that look as good as any game I’ve ever played, and I’d say its cinematics are among the best of any game, which is important because a large part of FF VII’s original appeal was those gorgeous cinematics, on whose back the game was sold. Cloud looks like an absolute badass doing incredibly intricate motorcycle stunts and daring last minute rescues of falling comrades, and there are a metric ton of cut scenes that really sweep you up in the story and action. On the other hand there are places where I genuinely wondered if they had re-used a texture from the original game, and many of the skyboxes and ground textures viewed from on high just look atrocious, like grainy pixelated messes. My nostalgia did not extend back to PlayStation era texture work, but here we are regardless.

Woof those blurry houses in the background. Is this an intentional callback to the bitmap backgrounds from the original game? It sure looks like it, but in a game with a lot of questionable textures this was...not a good idea.
Woof those blurry houses in the background. Is this an intentional callback to the bitmap backgrounds from the original game? It sure looks like it, but in a game with a lot of questionable textures this was...not a good idea.

Similarly, the new game features a bunch of minigames and interactive segments that have the same simplicity of the PS1 originals, back when developers were still trying to figure out how to make games work in 3D and what you could do with environments in RPGs. FFVIIR has a lot of “puzzles” that involve finding the only interactable object in the environment and pressing the button or pulling the switch. It has traversal segments that involve pressing forward on a sequence of blue arrows, or navigating a character hand over hand across some monkey bars while dialog plays. There’s even an (optional) 59 flight staircase, though that features some pretty amusing character bits, but literally no gameplay but navigating your character up flight after flight of stairs. I did have a little nostalgia for these things, which feel like intentional nods to the old game, but their simplicity wore on me after a while and I wished that they had been fleshed out in some way with actual puzzles or some kind of interesting control scheme.

Oh look, a minigame. The motorcycle stuff is among the best minigame material in the game but it's still very simple by modern game standards.
Oh look, a minigame. The motorcycle stuff is among the best minigame material in the game but it's still very simple by modern game standards.

That fun, fast, combat from the early game also bogs down as you get further in, mostly because unlike many games and RPGs in particular where your characters feel stronger as they go along, in FFVIIR you often start to be overmatched and legitimately threatened in a way you weren’t earlier. I didn’t wipe a lot; this is not a difficult game, but there were lots of later fights that took me a long time and required I actually use some of the ethers and other items I’d been saving up all game (I ended the adventure with plenty, but as a dedicated RPG hoarder I was surprised to find them necessary.) Bosses and even normal enemies also toss your party around a lot, both with frustrating status effects like time stops and toad curses, and just from massive sweeping attacks that stun lock you and/or send you sprawling. You get interrupted a lot in late FFVIIR, and it impacts the fun because much of combat ends up revolving around finding a character who has almost a full bar of ATB, taking control of them to charge it faster, and then healing whoever’s in trouble. The AI controlled characters are not very effective fighters and while they are often okay at defense, they suck at avoiding big area attacks, which means you’re constantly having to keep everyone’s health up and make sure they’re properly shielded etc… It becomes less about action and more about management, which leans into the RPG aspect, but is also less fun, especially because it takes a long time for your non-active characters to charge up their ATB bars, so often you are forced to control someone you might not want to just to raise her ATB gauge so you can cast a spell or use an ability you need. Meanwhile you hope that Cloud or whoever else isn’t getting destroyed by the enemy or moving totally out of position (especially frustrating for Aerith, who can create magical objects in the battlefield that buff or protect a character, only to have the AI totally ignore them and run to the opposite side of the fight when they should be standing behind the shield.) It’s worth noting that you never get to pick your party in FF VII Remake, except in some optional combat challenges. The game always gives you a party of 1 to 3 characters of its choosing, and sometimes does a switch and throws you immediately into combat, which can be frustrating if it suddenly removes the primary healer from the party and doesn’t give you a chance to shuffle materia before the next fight.

The combat looks incredibly dynamic, and offers an old school read out of results on the side of the screen. Enemies get tossed around like rag dolls and it's all just incredibly satisfying.
The combat looks incredibly dynamic, and offers an old school read out of results on the side of the screen. Enemies get tossed around like rag dolls and it's all just incredibly satisfying.

As you can see I have a long list of complaints, and it’s not even exhausted. The last quarter or so of the game involves one long mission where you encounter only a few new NPCs of note and spend an enormous amount of time traipsing around the game’s most visually boring dungeon without any of the fun world-building that the first parts have. There are a lot of areas that get re-used for multiple battles, like a little dirt enclosure near Aerith’s house that exists only so you can fight a series of encounters there at various points. The ending involves a series of crescendos to the point where once you reach the final fight you feel drained and just want to finish because there have been so…many…bosses in a row that you’re just exhausted. Aerith’s voice actress is not up to the standards of the rest of the cast and the character suffers as a result (though I have always been team Tifa. Team Tifa for life!)

But despite all this I really liked the game. I didn’t love the back end quite as much as I did the opening hours, but I did the vast majority of the side quests, messed around with optional combat challenges, had genuine moments of emotional reaction to some of the characters, and really enjoyed spending time back in this world. It’s a better game than FF VII in a lot of ways. The relationships make sense, the new battle system is a lot of fun, and the music is…the music is outstanding. There are remixed old songs, new songs, songs that are pure fan service, and they are almost all tremendous. Very few games are worth playing for the OST alone, but FFVIIR comes very close.

But beyond the good and bad of what’s actually in the game, I think my feelings were ultimately defined by my nostalgia for the source material. The Remake did enough to tap into those old emotions and to make me care about these characters again. It’s not just that the new version of Barret is a likable hothead whose constant anger and black-and-white thinking is softened by his love for his daughter and his friends, it’s that he’s Barret…an old friend from my past. Aerith’s clunky voice acting didn’t matter so much because it was just nice to spend time with her again, and to get to know her a little better in the extended sequences and material (not to mention her expanded friendship with Tifa, which is a delight.) Tifa is an incredible character in the remake, but I can’t be objective on Tifa anyway, I was always going to love her unless they totally botched the character, and they didn’t. She’s always been the best. Even Cloud’s petulance and lame false bravado comes off as less annoying than it might because as a teenager I related to his identity crisis, and I still can, even though I probably wouldn’t like him if he was a character I first encountered as an adult.

FF VII Remake uses nostalgia to smooth the rough edges of what is ultimately a very uneven package. It sometimes feels like an unfinished game (I didn’t hit any bugs but some of those textures and skyboxes are very rough, and there are lots of areas that seem hastily put together under budget constraints.) That’s not even addressing the elephant in the room, which is that the story literally isn’t finished because it’s only the first third or so. The game spends a lot more time digging into Shinra and making it a more impressive antagonist but it doesn’t know what to do with Sephiroth, whose sense of menace seems to rely on the player knowing a lot more about him than this game is willing to show and who is both a major focus of some key cut scenes and also completely absent from the screen for long stretches, to the point where I could imagine new players being very confused as to what his exact role is. I feel like Sephiroth’s place in the game would seem totally out of place for someone who didn’t know the outlines of what happened in the original. FF VII Remake also ends with a climax but without anything close to a resolution, and if you hadn’t played the first one and seen the whole story you might feel shortchanged. But I didn’t.

You spend a lot of time in the sewers in this game but at least they're nice sewers. Note the mailbox is another example of a totally out of place asset, with terrible rounding and a very blurry texture for Ps4. Meanwhile the wood pallets look almost real.
You spend a lot of time in the sewers in this game but at least they're nice sewers. Note the mailbox is another example of a totally out of place asset, with terrible rounding and a very blurry texture for Ps4. Meanwhile the wood pallets look almost real.

I did something with FFVIIR that I haven’t done in a very long time. I stayed up all night playing it. I found myself glued to the screen and the controller as the hours flew by and suddenly it was 2 AM, so I went out and did my shopping for the week (it was a great opportunity to practice social distancing by hitting the 24 hour market when it was empty) and then came back and played until about 3 PM or so, when I finally collapsed. I think I put something like 15 hours into the game in a 20 hour period, and that’s not something I can do anymore as an adult. I wouldn’t have been able to if adult life were anything like normal at the moment. But for those 20 hours, full of sugary cereal, Doritos, pizza, and Final Fantasy VII I was 15 again. I wasn’t stuck in a seemingly endless quarantine dealing with the uncertainties of 2020. It was 1997 again and I was Cloud and his friends trying to stop Shinra and track down Sephiroth and save the world. I was transported through video games and nostalgia not just back to a game world of my youth but to feeling young again, and totally invested in a game. Ultimately I didn’t save the world, and staying up all night at 38 is very different from doing so at 15 (same with eating too many Doritos to be honest) so I’m not sure I’ll ever do it again, but nostalgia and FF VIIR got me there, and for that alone I have to appreciate it despite all its flaws.

They say you can’t go home again, and that’s mostly true. But sometimes the stars align and you are able to spend a few dozen hours back in a place you thought you’d never be again, and it feels enough like it did that time to recapture some of the magic. That’s what FF VIIR did for me, and it was worth every penny of the price of admission.

In the end this is all I wanted. The characters from my teen years brought forward into the present. I missed these guys and I'm glad they're back.
In the end this is all I wanted. The characters from my teen years brought forward into the present. I missed these guys and I'm glad they're back.

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