I've never played the original Final Fantasy VII. Readers may remember XV was the first one I ever played, and the only other Final Fantasy thing I had experienced was seeing Spirits Within in the theater. I say all this up front to make it clear that aside from the most basic of information that became part of popular culture, I knew almost nothing about Final Fantasy VII before playing the Remake. That, and info I picked up from the marketing for the Remake, like who Barret and Tifa are. Before then literally the only characters I knew the names of were Cloud, Sephiroth, and "Aeris."
So, what are my thoughts after playing the Remake with my only foreknowledge being a certain spoiler (that I didn't even know when it happened, so I wasn't sure if it'd even happen in this Remake), and lots of people saying the Remake was good?
It's fantastic, and I loved it! The story, the characters, the combat, the setting, everything about this game just clicked, and aside from some generic side quests, I had an absolute blast through it. But that's getting ahead of myself, first, a quick note about SPOILERS. I'm gonna talk them, but not serious story stuff until the back part of this write-up, and they'll be clearly marked. Believe me, I've got thoughts and theories, and if you have any inkling of playing this game, just go play it! Assuming you can afford it, I know how it is.
The first thing that really got me about this game is despite it being based on something from 1997, the setting and initial thrust of the story feel like they were written specifically about this modern moment. Which, maybe is actually kind of a depressing thought if a lot of those themes and ideas about an evil corporation ruling everything/the only elected politician in the city being a figurehead, fossil fuels killing the planet, etc are only more resonant now, twenty-three years later. Of course, I don't know the full extent of the changes and additions made, maybe they really leaned into making the wonderfully mundanely named Shinra Electric-Power Company as evil as corporately possible.
Still, Remake is a game that doesn't even try to be subtle about this stuff. The more well off residents of Midgar live on the upper plate in a nice, clean city of the future, while literally underneath them are the people stuck in the slums. Living in a world where even the sun is blocked out, and light comes from enormous bulbs in that big metallic pizza in the sky. Like glowing pepperonis, there to remind the citizens of the lower level both of the things Shinra provides for them, but mainly that all they get are the leftover scraps not good enough for the people living above.
Of course, like in real life, even the "middle-class" people between those down beneath the pizza, and the corporate elite also have their share of troubles, they're just better at hiding it. One of my favorite sequences in the game (and spoilers in the whited out section) was the bit involving Jessie's parents. She, Biggs, Wedge, and our hero Cloud embark on a nighttime mission that begins with a stop at her parent's house, for everyone other than Cloud to go in and enjoy some delicious homemade pizza. Cloud, however, is really there to sneak in and swipe something, while Jessie's mom is distracted.
The game doesn't tell you this until you get into the bedroom to steal the MacGuffin, but Jessie's dad is dying. Mako sickness, from years of exposure to the very stuff Shinra is pumping out of the ground to power their wondrous city of tomorrow. It's such a simple moment, it's one of those things that has no bearing at all on the main story of the game, but it was an impactful one on what this game is about. Even the people who think they have it well, who can afford a nice house in a nice neighborhood beneath the real sky, even they have it bad, because ultimately Shinra only cares about itself, its goals, and like all corporations, its own profits.
And that sequence goes on to have some really fun combat, which brings me to the, well, combat. I feel like over the years I've given people I know the impression that I have an active dislike for traditional JRPG combat, which isn't...exactly true. I really liked the Paper Mario/Mario & Luigi games back in the day, and I'm currently playing a game that is just straight up JRPG combat, but I like to think I have an open mind about these sorts of things, even though in all honestly I do prefer stuff that leans more toward real time combat.
Then again, that's kind of irrelevant given all the ways the combat was revamped, and redesigned for Remake. It's primarily a real time, direct control system, but mixes in elements of traditional turn based stuff better than any other game I've played. Remake isn't the first game to try to do a mix of real time stuff, and "pause the game to give some sort of commands" combat. The Ni no Kuni games have done similar things, arguably stuff like Dragon Age Inquisition does something similar (though obviously that's derived from a different genre of RPG). None of the ones I've played have ever felt like they really nailed both parts, got them to gel especially well, or maybe most importantly, made me feel like I really needed to use both to succeed.
Remake does all that, and is a complete joy to play. The real time combat just feels good! Cloud and Tifa (the melee characters) especially move and attack with a level of fluidity that I didn't expect from remake of a turn based JRPG. FF XV certainly could feel very fluid, but that was also a game where the base combat was too simple for its own good. Mostly it was just holding Square to attack, holding L1 to automatically dodge, and occasionally using Circle to warp to a target. There was more to it than that, but it didn't have nearly the depth that Remake does.
This isn't just a game about dodging attacks and mashing Square (or holding to do specific other moves), every character has their own special moves, that are all dependent on the Active Time Battle (ATB) meter. The meter fills slowly over time, but goes up faster by actually attacking, to keep things active. These abilities can range from defensive (Barret's Lifesaver which lets him take damage in place of others) to purely offensive (most of Cloud's sword moves, or Tifa's literal Divekick), to magic spells, to things that are just a big mix of stuff. Like a late game ability for Cloud, Counterstance, that puts him in a more powerful form of his usual counter focused Punisher Stance, that lets him counter any sort of attack, instead of just physical ones, and do way more follow up damage to boot! I used that one a lot in the last couple boss fights, it really came in handy!
For a game that is pretty simple to pick up (there's no DMC style intense combo system, for example), there's a lot of stuff to give it the depth to make it interesting. Enemies can be Staggered, which leaves them immobilized and susceptible to bonus damage, and there are moves specifically focused on Staggering. Some stuff will help Pressure enemies, which makes them more susceptible to Staggering, and combined with Stagger focused attacks, or properly utilizing an enemy's elemental magic weakness, it can lead to really great moments where everything just clicks into place.
And it all feels good to use, too. There's a quick select thing for moves (just by holding L1 and using moves you can customize outside of battle), and early in the game I leaned more on that than the "so slowed down it might as well be paused but you can't stay there forever" selection through the menus. Being the person who does tend to favor action games, that's what felt more natural to me. And that's fine early on, when each character only has a couple moves, and it's easy to just pop over to Barret for a bit to use some abilities, focus on some ranged enemies (with his MINIGUN ARM), etc. But it doesn't take long before each character has more things that they can do than face buttons to map attacks to, never mind using items.
The deeper in I got, and the more fights felt like I had to be thinking about enemies' weaknesses, and had to use actual strategy, the more I leaned on that slowed down menu. It turns out giving yourself a few seconds to breathe during a hectic fight makes it easier to plan out things! While I never found this game to be super difficult (perhaps a byproduct of playing it immediately after DOOM Eternal and Nioh 2), it was definitely a healthy challenge that I loved, and it made me really think about its combat systems in ways that most "difficult" games don't. DOOM Eternal and Nioh 2 at their hardest made me feel like I was just flailing, or acting on instinct, and rarely did either make me think about how to best win tough encounters.
Part of that thinking comes before the fights even begin, in the different equipment and magicks each character can equip. The world of Materia (magic orbs) was new to me, but like a lot of Remake, it's a simple system with a lot of depth to it. Weapons and armor have slots, any Materia can be put into any slot, and they can be freely moved and swapped around (at least outside of combat). Cloud may have started with the Fire Materia equipped, but that could be moved to someone else, and Cloud could have Ice magic instead. Or perhaps no magic attacks, and simply have Materia that buffs HP, MP, other stats, or gives him a special Deadly Dodge attack after dodging. There's even linked Materia slots that can combine regular Materia with specific linking Materia for special effects. My favorite being the one that imbued Cloud's sword with fire damage, but the one that heals the character after using the other Materia's attack was another useful one!
And because anyone can equip any Materia, there's so many ways to customize every character, that it really feels like a system that could allow for substantially different builds. Some things do seem to be at least a little set in stone, like Aerith's magic stats, regardless of what anyone equips, just seem to be higher than the others (though through weapon upgrading stuff I'm sure it's possible to really boost that for the rest too), so obviously she leans more toward those. Plus I don't think there's any way to equip her with a melee weapon (despite her clonking someone in the head with a folding chair in one cutscene), so there's obviously still some limitations.
The combat is great, the world and setting are great, and I really like the characters too. Cloud is kind of an a-hole in the early goings, but I really liked his arc of loosening up and doing the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing over the course of the game. Aerith is such a fun, spunky character who picks up on how to push Cloud's buttons in just the right way that she can pester him into doing just about anything. Tifa, the old friend that just wants to help however she can, is always there when someone needs her. Jessie, Biggs, and Wedge, though not full party members, they're the revolutionary trio that are all great in their own ways.
And finally Barret, who certainly has some issues in his portrayal. Not that I have anything to add to this specific discourse about the portrayal of a black character and not so great black character tropes. Other than to listen to people like Austin Walker who are in the position to know what they're talking about, and have spoken about it.
But also Barret's revolutionary voice, the number of times he says things that just feel so poignant, about both what's going on in the game, but also what's happening in the real world today, that I couldn't help but really like him too. A lot of it rings true in ways that I was surprised by, and more than anything else, Barret the revolutionary who never gives up, that's the version of this character that's going to stick with me.
The last thing I want to say about Remake before getting into mega spoilers is that I adore its dedication to silliness. Again, I know very little about the original, but my understanding is that as much as the main story was relatively serious, there were a lot of really goofy, nonsensical things along the sidelines. Rather than just push that stuff away, bury it and pretend it never existed, Remake says, "No, this is part of what made the original so endearing, so let's embrace that." More than anything else, I'm talking about the Hell House fight, which I will not give any other details about, for others like myself with little to no knowledge of the original. I'll just say I certainly didn't see that coming, and just about lost my mind at how ridiculous it was. Loved every second of that nonsense fight.
Suffice it to say, I really loved Final Fantasy VII Remake, and if you haven't played it, I give it a really strong recommendation. I never played the original, so clearly it works for people that haven't!
That doesn't mean I'm done writing about it, I'm just giving a mini-outro for anyone that hasn't finished the game, because up ahead is SPOILER ZONE. And I mean big, end of the game spoilers and theorizing about the following games level stuff.Don't say I didn't warn you!
I knew going into Remake that changes were made, not just more additions to flesh out the world and characters, but changes to the actual story. What they were, I didn't know, but the deeper into the game I got, I really started to wonder about them. Primarily, those spooky robed specters that kept popping up. The ones that swarm all over, pushing and pulling people around, getting in the way at the worst moments, or swooping in to help in moments of certain doom.
That, Cloud's various visions of Sephiroth, and just something about Aerith... It all got me thinking there was something...strange in this game. Like, just a strange mood around Aerith sometimes, counter to her bubbly, joyous demeanor. Or, not counter, so much as it felt like maybe she was just covering up for a deep melancholy, or something...else. Like she knew far more than she was letting on, not in a nefarious way, so much as a...trying to keep something from the others sort of way.
Which brings me to the theory I concocted mid way into the game. Which is that Remake is not just a retelling of FF VII, nor a reboot, re-imagining, etc. It's a Star Trek reboot situation, where it is a separate universe/timeline/whatever, that exists canonically connected to the original, and there are some characters actively aware of this fact. Aerith, through much of the game gave me the vibe that she had some explicit knowledge of this, though I think her secret ended up being her being an Ancient. That said, I still think, whether she realizes it or not, she has some sort of knowledge of that previous timeline, probably due to her Ancient lineage.
Sephiroth, however, I am one hundred percent convinced is from another timeline, and is using his knowledge of what is going to happen to try to shape events differently. The trouble is, those pesky specters show up any time events are going against the grain of preordained Destiny, to prevent things from changing. They even go so far as to bring Barret back to life after Sephiroth kills him, a moment that left me genuinely shocked. At least until I started wondering if the specters would revive him, which they did.
Of course, what good JRPG would invoke the concept of Destiny itself if it then didn't have the characters go and defy that? Which Remake does, with them fighting, and defeating literal Destiny (a feeling I wish I could do given how Bungie is- okay, sorry, I couldn't resist). Then of course it ends with a duel against Sephiroth himself, and the heroes moving forward, where the "Unknown Journey will continue."
So, to recap, multiple characters act like they are acting against the way things are "supposed" to go (Aerith, the one who died in the original and has the most to gain from this, is also the one who seems to know a heck of a lot about Destiny), the game ends with Destiny destroyed, and the characters now having the true free will to do what they want. Of course it's not that simple, as they all need to save the planet. And, presumably, defeat Sephiroth for real.
I'm so excited. Like, I think they could have just done a straight remake, added only to flesh out the characters and the world, and it would have been fine. All the dystopian city state run by an evil corporation stuff is only more resonant and timely than ever, and I think that alone could have been enough. It would have been a good story, and left me interested in seeing where it went from there.
But this? This is such a bold, wild move, and if they are willing to break the mold of Destiny, get free from the expectations of retelling a story so beloved to so many, that leaves my imagination running wild!
Now, I'm sure Remake 2 isn't going to be a wholly new thing. Characters from the original will still return (I think there's a Vincent and a Yuffie?), and locations from the original will still be gone to. But if they're willing to use these characters, and this world as a platform to tell a new, different, more resonant to the modern era story, I'm all for it. Sign me up, I can't wait!
Of course, the problem there being it'll be at least three years before the next one, right? It wouldn't surprise me if it was closer to five, and then an entire decade for the whole story to finish. Assuming it's a trilogy, which, who knows. Could be more! Or less, I dunno!
Regardless, Remake's ending left me pumped, and so excited. It's a great game, and there are so many other great things about it that I didn't even get into here. Most of the areas have a great, lived in feeling, and the music is superb, both in its more orchestral bits, and its smaller, goofier tunes. Absolutely go play it. Maybe it won't excite you as much as it did me, but I'm pretty sure most people will at least have a fun time with the combat, and so long as you like fun, a good time with the story too.