[Review originally published on 6th April. We’re bumping it to 10th April because it’s officially out now on PlayStation Stores]

Platform: PS4
Genre: Action RPG reimagining of a 1997 cultural milestone

Throw a stone in a crowd, and you’re bound to hit someone who actually heard of Final Fantasy VII, one of the most-renowned and universally-beloved JRPGs known to man. Released in 1997, it wowed people with its visuals, made the genre mainstream, created headlines outside of gaming, and created legions of young fans who are probably in college and/or working right now.

Throughout the years, we’ve experienced the semi-failure of adding more Final Fantasy VII supplementary material in the mid-2000s. We’ve even played Final Fantasy games that morphed the franchise into more of a semi-linear 3D corridor walker sim with action-heavy fights with menus; we dug a few of them. But to many, it’s not the same as part 7’s mesmerizing-if-messy gameplay & narrative.

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So Square Enix figured; why not go back to the well with a new vision for Final Fantasy 7? Surely its graphics did not age well and its story needed more fleshing out using this generation’s technology. And the ever-growing demand for a new Final Fantasy game set in Midgar is always going to be around. Trust me; I’ve felt it since my game writing days back in 2008; I never thought this would be the year Square Enix would cave into fan demand while also recreate everybody’s favourite FF game using its current action RPG real-time system.

And recreate they did. Is it actually good? Does it make you want to go back to replay the original? I can’t answer the last question, but I can attest to the first.

When Square Enix puts in their all, it clearly shows. And Final Fantasy VII Remake is a helluva show.

Bombing Mission

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The game’s story revolves around an eco-terrorist group called AVALANCHE who hired a mercenary called Cloud Strife to help them with their guerilla raids against evil life-sucking corporation SHINRA. After a mishap, Cloud ends up in the slums and teams up with Aerith to get back on track with his group. Of course, complications happen along the way. Also, ghosts seem to pop up early in the game to mess with the team, leading to a crucial plot development that may shake up the story’s future, especially for longtime fans.

First, the bad: Final Fantasy VII Remake only covers the early portion of the original Final Fantasy VII storyline way back in 1997. The title is pretty misleading; people will expect this to be the remake of the entire game. If Square Enix were to be a tad honest with its naming conventions here (like dubbing it with an “Episode 1” tagline or something similar), people’s expectations may be tempered. As such, people will expect the full package but will end up a tad disappointed that it’s not the whole story back then.

Having said that, what we ended up getting is narrative & gameplay gold. If you like your stories as bombastic, emotional, and melodramatic as possible -like anime- you will love the new additions and fleshing out.

This rings true especially if you know where the Midgar portions of the game lead and ends at. There are a lot of significant expansions and world-building here that couldn’t have been done if there wasn’t context from the original plot.

Since the designers are making a full-fledged action RPG out of the Midgar experience, why not go all out and flesh out minor characters from the original so that their eventual resolutions have more weight? Remember those AVALANCHE side characters Jessie, Biggs, and Wedge? I actually ended up caring about them, even if I knew their eventual fates based on the original game. Small-timers like the Honeybee Inn owner and slumlord millionaire Don Corneo get their time in the spotlight while not overstaying their welcome.

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Main characters Cloud, Tifa, Aerith, and Barret get more 3-dimensional not just in super-detailed graphics and facial pores. They also have their personalities and relationships fleshed-out in better detail. The 1997 versions of these characters are written in just fine, but their personal storylines don’t offer enough room to breathe through its structure, especially early in the game and the “lost in translation” foibles back in those days. Final Fantasy VII Remake fixes that and adds more significant story beats to enrich the already-existing lore.

My standout character here is definitely Aerith because of her budding interactions with Cloud and Tifa through the 30-hour journey. If you didn’t fall in love with her then, you will now.

Barret comes a close second, who was created just to fill in that tough-guy-with-heart-of-gold niche. We get to see more of his “heart of gold” here as well as the burden he carries being the AVALANCHE leader. These characters get their standout action set pieces and moments gameplay-wise too.

The Remake caters to fans old and new, or even those who never played the original, by adding in nods to FF7 aficionados through flashbacks and foreshadowing. I do think these latter bits are added in abruptly, but they’re short enough to be of no huge consequence even if they’re clearly from director Tetsuya Nomura’s grubby hands.

Speaking of early game ghosts, they end up being a late-game plot element that ends up teasing how the rest of its episodic instalments will end up. Formulate your own stories or theories at the ending; I know I will soon enough in a future video when the game is officially out.

It’s a shame that particular plot element ends up being more as a tease for future games instead of being the crux of the remake itself. Even with that, the fleshed-out plot and the additional narrative is welcome and adds value to an already story-filled game. And when the game goes nuts with the action and story beats, that’s when it truly shines.

Let The Battles Begin!

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The best part about all of this? The game also gets top billing and is not a total cutscene-fest. Even when I skipped most of its story bits in another playthrough of the game, the majority of the 30 hours spent here revolves around a lot of fighting, quest-completing, collectables-hunting, and character/Materia-customizing.

Battles are in real-time; you control Cloud but can switch between Aerith, Tifa, and Barret depending on your current party composition. As detailed in previous writeups we did, you slowly build up ATB meter that you can use for your special abilities, spellcasting, and item usage. When you pull up the menus to do your commands, you slow time down to a crawl. It’s still moving, so you can’t take your sweet time with the menu, essentially capturing that feel of ATB madness back in the 90s Final Fantasy games on the SNES. But now with more lush fireworks and Buster Sword swinging in great detail.

You don’t need me to reiterate how good everything looks and sounds in motion. Square Enix is at the top of their game here, using nothing but its high-quality in-game graphics engine for everything from fighting to story. Everything blends perfectly for the eyes and ears here.

Back to the game: each of your party members is distinct from one another. Cloud is your melee guy who can switch between a fast offence stance and a slow-moving counterattack-savvy stance. Barret fights long-range with his gun hand while also taking damage for the team with his specific Life Saver and Iron Body techniques. Tifa is a hit-and-run character who relies on kiting foes while Cloud and Barret distract foes, and Aerith is a ranged spellcaster who comes with a charged attack.

Controlling Aerith is both a joy and a curse because she comes with the default support and healing spells that I can use from a safe distance. At the same time, I eventually became a prime target because the game’s party AI loves to just stick to blocking, dodging, and basic attacks.

It’s not a complete game-breaker – half the time I made it out of a tough fight the first time is because of the AI’s impeccable evading. But this does mean I have to manually make my party members cast the spells and use the skills I want. Fortunately, that bit gets intuitive after a few hours of play.

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You also have a plethora of upgrades and customization at your disposal. You collect Materia orbs which determines your spells and passive abilities; Fire Materia lets you cast Fire spells and Steal Materia gives you a new skill that lets you pilfer rare items from enemies.

You also collect new weapons that cater to your playstyle and also award you with weapon skills you can inherit. You can also upgrade the weapons you like by unlocking its buffs & skills on its core; the higher the weapon level, the more cores and skills you unlock. It’s simple to follow yet lets you customize your arsenal to your liking.

You’ll need to level up these items to get the best versions of a particular spell and extra stat bonuses by, you guessed it, fighting. A lot.

True, the battle system takes some time getting used to in the first few hours. You have to dodge and block attacks to mitigate damage. You have to cast your spells at a safe distance lest you get interrupted by enemy attacks. You have to switch characters constantly so that they’re casting the right spells and attracting the right kind of enemies. You’ll also need to exploit enemy weaknesses so that you can “stagger” them for more damage, as well as put them in a “pressure” state so that their stagger meter builds up faster with consecutive assaults.

Once the game eases you in with its pacing and main missions, you’ll be an ATB-using party-switching pro midway, and you’ll purposely just waltz into a scrapyard arena just to fight the next wererat or weird Final Fantasy VII mutant(s). Protip: Cloud’s Punisher stance is very useful early-on as some enemies are antsy to wail on you.

Those Who Fight Further

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Fighting regular mobs and encounters is fine and all, but the boss fights here are the main reason you’ll want to keep replaying the game’s action portions. What used to be simple “turn-based” battles against Midgar’s earlier stable of foes end up becoming exhilarating action setpiece battles that are challenging and spectacle-inducing.

Standout king fights include the Air Buster where you have three stages of the battle each requiring your party member’s talents, the chariot-riding Eligor who ends up taking the fight in the air, and a new SHINRA mutant boss crowd control skirmish that channels a bit from the 80s movie Aliens.

The Hell House boss fight mid-game will also teach you how to exploit elemental weaknesses and make you learn not to rely on the same weapons and Materia setups for all battles. It puts up a barrier that reduces all damage it receives mid-way, but it’s prone to be staggered faster once it’s down. Which means you’ll have to keep a good distance to attack it when this happens.

I learned that the hard way after a few retries. These boss battles can wreck you on the first try, but they’re no less exciting for it. Final Fantasy VII Remake turns the seemingly mundane spreadsheet choir into memorable encounters that test your skills to no end.

The levels and dungeons leading up to these pivotal boss moments, however, could use a bit more work. While not entirely as boring as Final Fantasy XIII’s wallpaper tube levels, I do wish there were more secret bio-lab stages and fewer sewer corridors. In fact, the game tends to repeat its stages albeit with alternate paths halfway through.

The game’s camera, while generally easy to follow and tracks well, can hinder your fights once in a while. In one instance, I’m fighting ghosts in an enclosed space; half the time I keep getting bombarded with projectiles hard because I can’t tell what’s happening off-screen while I’m wailing on a target. Thankfully these moments are few and far between, especially if you rely too much on lock-on when fighting foes.

Simply put; this is the best version of Final Fantasy’s recent action RPG combat, surpassing Final Fantasy XV and Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII because of its multi-party options and materia-slash-weapon system.

Under The Rotting Pizza

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Final Fantasy VII Remake lets you relish in its combat a bit more with its sidequests. Throughout “quiet” moments of the game where you get to explore the area you’re in at your own leisure, you can take on sidequests to earn more money, more items, and even some discounts at the game’s vending machines and merchants. These can sound quite mundane from your “kill a bunch of flying drakes in an abandoned factory” to “find a bunch of kids and tell them to go back to school”. That sort of JRPG nonsense you expect.

Fortunately, you only need to do one or two before you can move the plot along. Though I’d suggest taking your time and playing through them; most of these quests yield pretty cool rewards like Cloud’s Nail Bat (that focuses on critical damage) and Materia on the cheap. For the latter, you’ll meet a kid named Chadley who makes Materia if you collect battle data from him. You can do this by either staggering foes or using the Assess skill to gather their strengths and weaknesses.

You will also be able to get free Summon Materia -essentially a free powerful party member you summon that comes with a powerful attack once its Summon time is up- by beating it in a virtual reality fightspace. Either that, or just explore certain areas in a story mission thoroughly. Each of the 18 chapters in the game has a lot to offer content-wise, from its hidden items to its minigames.

Ah yes, the minigames.

Final Fantasy VII is notorious for breaking the game flow with its plethora of side activities and minigames. In the remake, they’re short and straight to the point. They’re not too demanding, they add a ton of levity to the tale, and they’re short. My personal favourites are at Wall Market. You have exercising side games and even a dance-off with a brothel owner in a peculiar Project Diva-esque rhythm game, which purposely uses quick jump cuts & stage flashes to obscure the buttons you’re supposed to press.

It’s things like these that add a lot of colour to the game while also not bogging the rest of the game’s flow down.

The best part with all of this is when you’re done with the game, you can select any chapter you want and replay them as you see fit. Mostly to find whatever missing loot you need, or just do some quests and minigames right.

You can also tackle Hard mode to play the action bits with more hard-hitting enemies and new spins on them. And you can just jump straight to the fights, so if you happen to hate that motorcycle chase sequence, you can just jump ahead to the Roche SOLDIER battle instead.

The Saga Continues

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Final Fantasy VII Remake is a remarkably ambitious undertaking because it attempts to take the first 5 to 6 hours of a classic JRPG storyline and expand it into its own game with its own action-savvy spin. If you’re taking Square Enix’s other experiments into account like Dirge of Cerberus or even the remarkable Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII, FFVII Remake blows them out of the water.

They learned from their past failures, took what worked in their recent games like Final Fantasy XV, and Type 0, and ended up with a stacked experience.

Personally, I enjoyed the heck out of Final Fantasy VII Remake, even if at times it’s long in the tooth. As someone who loves the Final Fantasy series but also wishes it moves away from its past, I should have treated this remake with indifference. Instead, I ended up enjoying my trip back in memory lane, now reforged into this generation’s Final Fantasy along with its positives and quirks. Plus, Hard mode is more than enough to make me take on SHINRA’s finest once again.

Above all else, it made me care for Final Fantasy VII all over again while also giving me something new to cherish. That’s a tough undertaking, considering Final Fantasy VI is my all-time favourite. We will see more sequels to this remake, but I count this as a bold new(ish) step into taking something old and making it anew and relevant again.

Long story short, Final Fantasy VII: Remake is a grand experiment that succeeds on all fronts. It may seem like a blatant cash grab at first, sure. But dig a little deeper into this Northern Crater, and you’ll find a lot to fall in love with.

Pros

  • Great combat system & gameplay.
  • Compelling story material makes you cherish its cast & additions.
  • Simple-yet-intuitive weapon & Materia-tweaking mechanics.
  • Will make Final Fantasy VII fans orgasm.
  • Breathtaking visuals & audio.

Cons

  • Interesting plot developments show up at late game.
  • A few boring levels & pace-breaking tasks.
  • Incredibly misleading game title.
  • Camera in combat occasionally gets in the way.

FINAL SCORE: 90/100

PS4 copy of the game provided by PlayStation Asia.

Also, if you’re a huge Final Fantasy VII fan, add an extra 10 points to the score. You probably pre-ordered the game already anyway.

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