How do you remake one of the most beloved video games ever made? Why would you even risk it? It would be like remaking Jaws, Casablanca, or the original Star Wars film. Final Fantasy VII was a sprawling saga spanning eighty hours of memorable characters, lengthy battles, and tearful heartbreak. There is no way Square Enix could do it justice… and yet they have.
If you have never played the original, then all you need to know is the story follows Cloud Strife, an ex-SOLDIER. He used to work for the Shinra Corporation and is imbued with Mako, the life blood of the planet. Shinra are also responsible for sucking Mako out of the ground to power the cities, but this is killing the planet. A small team of rebels known as Avalanche have paid Cloud to work with them to blow up the Mako reactors.
Those of you have played the original game will recognise the characters and most, but not all, of the plot. The rest has been utterly transformed. The static backdrops from the original game are now huge areas to explore, cities packed with hundreds of people, cats and dogs raising their heads as you go by. It looks amazing, as do the hundreds of cutscenes. That’s not to say they are long, most lasting a minute or less, but all are perfectly framed with subtle effects which are often missing in games. Focus shifts subtly between characters and when needed, the music cuts out completely so you get the full emotional performance from the actors.
Every character is a delight, beautifully animated and now fully voiced. Moving from text to spoken words has added new layers to the characters. Where Aerith seemed rather soft in the original game, she now has a cheeky glint in her eye and pinch of sass, Madame M, owner of a massage parlour in Wall Market is a particular stand out, sashaying around with a fan and having tantrums, and the whole Avalanche team are a joy. Barret, Tifa, Biggs, and the rest are all perfectly realised down to the smallest detail; Aerith has an almost skipping run, Cloud bounces around like a gazelle whilst Barret often ends spectacular jumps by tumbling to the floor in the exact opposite of a hero landing.
The new battle system blends the old ATB system with real time combat – it sounds like a mess, but works perfectly. Battles start with real time attacks that build up your ATB bar which is split into two portions. When one of these is filled, you can shift to bullet time, allowing you time to flip through a couple of menus and select a special attack, magic, or use an item such as a potion or Phoenix Down. A Classic Mode is also available, which automates the non-ATB elements of battle.
Weapons also come with special moves that can use ATB, and limit breaks and summons similarly return. Shiva, Ifirit, and others from the original game are joined by new summons, but they are now AI controlled characters who roam the battlefield rather than the single attack behemoths from twenty-three years ago.
However, battles are no longer limited to just a few enemy characters, some can have fifteen or more running around the screen, and random battles – by far the most annoying thing in the original – have been binned. Now you progress through a series of pathways with enemies mostly kept to large open areas, although some battles do occur in confined spaces that can make them even more exciting. It’s here where Cloud’s new Punisher mode comes in to play, by swapping to this you lose access to your ATB bar and associated magic and abilities, but instead get powerful sword attacks allowing you to really pummel groups of enemies.
Combat only forms part of the game; head to Wall Market and you won’t be raising your sword for a good few hours. This area is packed full of bars, clubs and other ‘adult’ entertainment, plus a gym where you can have a squat off. At the centre is the Honeybee club which, true to the trailers that teased Cloud dressed up as a woman, has turned a joke from the original game into something altogether more fabulous and gender fluid. Square have really pulled out the stops, making a bold statement in what is the most fabulous ten minutes of video gaming I have ever seen.
Final Fantasy VII Remake handles the more solemn moments just as well. Aerith’s mother has a wonderful sepia-toned flashback and Barret’s anger after a certain event is visceral and real. It’s surprising just how much of an emotional impact the game creates. One catastrophic event has you walking slowly through crowds of terrified people running for their lives, somewhat echoing the opening scenes of The Last of Us. Every character has been voiced, even the background NPCs who you have to regretfully pass, children calling for their mother, unseen casualties crying for help, it is genuinely upsetting.
The game has so many wonderful touches, from Barret singing the original game’s battle sting when he completes a fight, to Don Corneo’s amazing hair and belly physics, and, of course, the music. Songs from the original game return, some almost identical, others re-worked, but all of them are toe tapping and catchy. Given the game’s somewhat erratic development, swapping teams during production, it’s just amazing how much they have crammed in. When you get to Shinra’s headquarters there’s a five minute ‘VR’ sequence that has you flying through gorgeous landscapes that must have taken months to create. Square Enix had no need to do that – a voice over and some pictures would have sufficed – but they have lavished the game with detail at every opportunity.
With Square approaching this as a trilogy of releases, a full playthrough of this first part will take around 35 hours, but you’ll be drawn back in by being able to return to previous chapters to finish off any side quests and discover additional story elements you might have missed. You get to keep all your gear and any unlocks on your weapons, and these can either be assigned manually or auto-assigned depending on your play style.
It’s hard to pick faults, but I would say the end of the game does suffer from the same problem as many Marvel movies; there’s just an awful lot of smashing and explosions. Taking on boss battle after boss battle is a little tiring. The AI of the summons could also be a little better, as I once found Shiva standing and blankly firing into a large crate that was between her and the boss we were fighting. There were also a couple instances when the static skybox images that surround the play area seemed very low resolution and at odds with the polish of the rest of the game.