The train pulls into the station and, in a flare of acrobatic expertise, a blonde haired, giant sword wielding soldier descends from the roof of one the carriages. Cloud Strife is back, and this time he has hands.
Final Fantasy VII Remake is a contemporary retelling of the first act (or first disc) of the 1997 iconic JRPG Final Fantasy VII. Returning to all major plot points, and throwing in some new ones, the game expands on the world of Midgar and freedom fighter group Avalanche’s plot to stop the evil Shinra corporation from abusively mining the planet’s life forces.
It is great to see some major characters return bringing a heap of nostalgia in their wake. Yet, there might be value in asking whether Final Fantasy VII Remake relies too heavily on the idea of the player’s enjoyment of the original. “Remaking” old representations, stories and ideals for the same players back in 1997, there is potential that Square Enix might just have missed the mark on truly making this experience contemporary.
Big Guns And Big Swords
Where more recent single player Triple A games have leant greatly into the narrative, Square Enix have clearly focused the majority of the gameplay experience around the combat system, putting it at the heart of the player experience. This is probably because the story, already rich and complex from the original, needed only expanding.
A modernised take on the classic turn-based system used in the original, Final Fantasy VII Remake recalls key features like the ATB bar, materia and limit breaks all repackaged to create a seamless new battle system.
Centred on staggering your enemy into a damage susceptible, semi-paralysed stupor, the new combat experience is quicker and far more strategic. The combination of varied player character fighting styles and specific enemy weaknesses, makes each fight a small puzzle, one where you must know your enemy, be familiar with your characters skills and strategic with your equipped spells and abilities to maximise damage and gain the upper hand. You have to learn new patterns to stagger enemies in the right way. All this makes combat complex, engaging and deeply rewarding.
On top of this, the weapons and armour mechanics add a great deal of depth to the combat, and its certainly the right balance of easy-to-understand and challenging. The levels of weapon load out and equipment customisation gives you heaps of variety. Considering how much fighting the story makes you do, Final Fantasy VII Remake does not fall short of encouraging it’s players to find the play style that is right for you.
The major advantage to lengthening the first act into one complete game meant that there is ample opportunity for world building and character development. This gives us the chance to learn more about slightly unfamiliar characters like Jessie, Biggs and Wedge, and delve even deeper into the characters we are familiar with. Watching the warming of Cloud Strife’s cold, mercenary exterior is something of a gift, a glimmer of a maturity and vulnerability that is far more complex and rewarding than the original. This is greatly helped by the return of the extraordinary soundtrack that matches the emotions of the story and characters, complimented by the vastly improved graphics.
The disadvantage to expanding a five hour plot into thirty plus hours of gameplay is what to do with all that space. This is one of the downsides of the game.
Final Fantasy VII Remake captures all the essential moments and feelings of the original but pads it with some rather unsubtle filler. It could be said that the side missions and extra material, when not embellishing important characters, are there to help develop the world, making it a richer place to play in. Yet, this is already achieved through the expansion of the main plot points and story missions.
Instead, these side quests and extra filler work more as jarring instants in the narrative tempo, interrupting the pace and, at times, starkly contrast the tone. The desire to continue is really fuelled by the excellent combat system (along with the constant reminiscing and the longing to get to the end of the first disc!).
Remake of Tone
Alongside the story and combat, there is a significant tonal characteristic that adds another dimension to the game. There are many points where the game demonstrates its want to please its audience, using a sense of self-awareness to remain connected to, and stand separate from, the original.
When we stray off the main path of the mission to look for treasure, the gun armed character Barrett observes what we are doing. This tongue in cheek nod to the player’s choice to explore every corner of the map is funny. When we win a battle, Barrett can sometimes be heard chanting the famous victory jingle as his own way of celebrating. Again, this is funny and it demonstrates a level of maturity, telling the players it is aware of where it came from.
Early on in the story, we see Cloud’s iconic Buster Sword strike the upper threshold of a doorway. In addition to this, many NPCs can be heard commenting on the sword’s impressively large size. These moments are another nod to the players and fans of the original.
All these small details allow the developers to situate themselves within the community of the game’s fans. It says, “we know,” “we’re laughing too and we’re amazed by the same things that wowed you!” It says, “we played the original too.” Yet, this relationship between player, developer, original and Remake has contemporary cultural blind spots.
The maturity comes from being self aware but it is not fully recognised. It seems to be shallow and lack proper exploration. For example, Final Fantasy VII Remake seems to completely ignore remaking it’s representation of women, opting to keep Tifa in a questionable, sexualised outfit. If the game is reliable in its sense of awareness, there if is shortfall in not changing the way Tifa is dressed, missing a chance to demonstrate how the game can both remain firmly tied to the original and be a new experience, for a more aware audience.
Final Fantasy VII Remake relies heavily on the player’s sense of nostalgia for the original. And, at times, I was certainly in it for the same reasons. To see the familiar grimy streets of Midgar, play the brilliant motorbike sequence, and watch Cloud bring down monsters with his Buster Sword, was far more satisfying than I had expected.
The combat system is both familiar and new, with a complexity that keeps the game interesting and exciting from opening to closing credits. The improved graphics and return to the epic soundtrack, further situate Final Fantasy VII Remake as a stand alone game, firmly connected to the original.
Yet, being a stand alone game and remaining tied to the original is problematic, too.
Standing alone on a plot based only on the first act of the original, leaves large gaps. These are inevitably plugged with filler so the game can meet the thirty plus hours gameplay quota. This encourages instances that jar the pace, disrupt the tone and laden the experience with the unnecessary.
Furthermore, baggage, that might have been accepted or ignored in 1997, has been carried over its ties to the original. Uncomfortable and troubling representations of genders have little places to hide in game with industry leading graphics and an awareness of the community around it.
Ultimately, I am left wondering if putting the Remake tag in the title was a way for Square Enix to warn any new players to the franchise that there was something that came before. It seems like this gives Final Fantasy VII Remake the chance to bury any of the bad moments in the fact it was based on an original but, greatly celebrate all good moments.
Although my experience was, in a majority, fun, I am left wandering whether this might be a far less enjoyable game for someone who hasn’t played, or isn’t even aware, of the original. Maybe you wouldn’t be attracted to Final Fantasy VII Remake if you were not familiar with its history? It is a Remake after all.