Final Fantasy VII is a game that for many was a genre-defining experience. So many people were awakened to the possibilities of JRPGs when it was released. The scale of the story combined with the series’ first foray into 3D, the love that people felt for the cast, and the spite for the game’s villain all worked together to make Final Fantasy VII a legend in the mind of an entire generation. It is this unbridled enthusiasm that can lead grown adults to squeal with pleasure as the opening notes of One Winged Angel play over a Smash Bros reveal trailer. It is this passion that leads to heated debates about fan theories, favorite ships, and whether or not Aerith’s name should be spelled with an S. Love it or hate it, the original Final Fantasy VII had a massive impact on the world of gaming, and its presence is felt strongly in the excitement of its fans. This excitement led to the expansion of the FF7 universe to include an animated film as well as a number of sequel and prequel spin-off games.
It’s also an excitement I never deeply felt, because I was six year old when Final Fantasy VII originally released.
My earliest memories of this game are seeing my stepfather playing it. I distinctly remember Barret standing…somewhere and the little dialogue box popping over him. “What is this?” I asked. I don’t remember if I was told the title of the game, only that I wasn’t old enough to play it. So I shrugged and went about my day. It would be almost ten years after that before I began to learn of FF7 through the power of pop culture. Seeing Aerith’s iconic death scene on gaming shows like X-Play, watching Advent Children with my sister’s neighbor (wow that’s a longer story than I really want to incorporate into this introduction), and meeting Cloud as a side character first in Kingdom Hearts Chain of Memories and then later in other games in the series. Events like this helped me to develop my general knowledge about the game and made me interested enough to want to check it out on my own. I got the opportunity during the PS3 era to play the game for myself, and while I did enjoy my time with FF7 it didn’t hit me with that same impact that I know so many other people felt. Instead, what I felt was the game’s age and the ways that it failed to live up to the world and characters who had been built up in my imagination over so many other experiences.
I came to Final Fantasy VII Remake (I’ll often refer to it as FF7R in this article) late as well, although not nearly as late as I arrived to the original game. Honestly for a long time I didn’t have plans to play it. Modern Square Enix is the butt of a lot of jokes in my household and the idea of a chapter-based remake where you pay full-game price for small sections of what used to be a standalone game sounded ridiculous. My interest in the title grew, though, when the game came out and I started to see some very compelling reviews and articles. I didn’t care about seeing spoilers so I dove deep, learning all about how FF7R grapples directly with that meta question of “what does it even mean to remake this game specifically?” Ideas like these really grabbed my attention, so when the game became free for Playstation+ subscribers I jumped on the opportunity to scoop up the game and try it out for myself. What I experienced was in many ways the game I hoped to play when I first tried the original as a teenager.
By the way, I am going to dive deep into spoilers here, so if you don’t want them then you may want to bookmark this article until you have finished the game for yourself.
I assume most folks reading this will already have plenty of familiarity with Final Fantasy VII but for those who don’t, let’s talk the basics. FF7R tells the story of a mercenary named Cloud who is trying to begin his career after spending a vague amount of time serving as a first class SOLDIER for the megacorporation Shinra. On the surface Shinra is an electric company but we learn quickly that there is a lot more to them than that. With their own military force, a space exploration division, and invasive research into human experimentation, this company has become synonymous with the city in which they are based and have total political control. At the beginning of the story, Cloud is working with a “terrorist” organization called Avalanche to destroy one of the reactors Shinra uses to drain the planet of its life force in order to produce energy for Midgar. Cloud is a rather unwilling participant in all of this and his initial goal is to get paid and get out, but as circumstances beyond his control drag him deeper and his past comes to haunt him, he learns that capital D Destiny has plans for him far beyond what he can imagine. FF7R is a game about grappling with fate, and in a fascinatingly meta experiment the “fate” that Cloud and company must reckon with is the story of the original game that this one is remaking. If you are a fan of the original who is coming to this game expecting a beat-by-beat retelling of the old story, you will come away disappointed. FF7R is not just FF7 with a new coat of paint; it is the question of whether “FF7 with a new coat of paint” is a game that should exist at all, or if instead we need something new.
This theme of destiny or fate justifies a mechanical aspect of the game that I imagine is controversial for some players: the incredibly linear structure. If you’ve ever heard a sweaty nerd talk about why they hate Final Fantasy XIII so much you’ve probably heard them talk about how the game is just a bunch of hallways for a majority of the story. There’s no freedom to explore, there’s no opportunity to deviate from a very strict path laid out for you. In tabletop roleplaying games there is a concept called “railroading” where your dungeon master forces you through highly planned scenario; any attempt by the players to make creative choices is interpreted in such a way that it always leads to the conclusion the DM prepared for in the first place. FF7R feels very railroaded for most of the experience and for some this can certainly be a turnoff. But what impresses me about the game is that this design choice feels like it is on purpose. Because the game is about fate, there are times when you can literally watch the representatives of fate railroading you onto a specific path. There’s a scene in Aerith’s church where the whispers – ghostlike beings who enforce destiny by making sure events play out the way they did in the original FF7 – have appeared in such force to stop you from deviating from the original story that you are blocked from looting treasure chests and materia that you can clearly see within reach. By preventing you from exploring of your own free will the designers make it so that breaking free of destiny is something you want to accomplish by the end of the game. The things making you experience FF7 as it was before are clearly portrayed as bad. Destiny is what is constraining you, railroading your game experience to these narrow hallways and preventing you from doing anything differently from the original experience. Mechanically, the designers are showing you that maybe you don’t actually want this to be the same game you’ve played already. That game is holding you back from newer and more exciting possibilities.
During the game’s conclusion there is a moment where the heroes are staring out of a portal that leads to what will be the final encounter of the game. It is the moment where Cloud and his companions have to choose once and for all whether or not they are willing to play by the rules of fate. In this moment, Tifa asks Aerith what it is that lies beyond the portal – and by extension, of course, what’s next for us as players when the shackles of Final Fantasy VII are finally broken. Aerith’s answer is a poignant one: “boundless, terrifying freedom.” My hope for FF7R part two is that this promise is kept not just from a story perspective but mechanically as well. Now free of its destiny to be the original game, I hope that the developers show us in the worldbuilding that we are free from constraints by giving us a much more open world to explore and allowing us to resolve events in an order we determine for ourselves. But I’m getting ahead of myself, talking about hopes for the second game when I still have the first to review! Still, this to me is what I love perhaps the most about FF7R. I love it when games tackle philosophy in an engaging way, sharing that philosophy with you through not just the story but the mechanics as well.
The gameplay was the aspect of FF7R which I found perhaps the most worrying going in. I had watched the combat trailers during the game’s marketing and knew that the remake left behind the original turn-based format for a more action-focused style. I’m generally most comfortable playing games where I can take my time and perform more poorly when playing action titles, so I was concerned that FF7R wouldn’t feel great for me as I dove into the combat. But while there certainly were some growing pains in the beginning, I grew to appreciate the new possibilities opened up by making the game more active. That said, the game does have a classic mode where the action part is primarily handled by the game itself so you can focus more on giving tactical commands to your characters. I didn’t try classic at all during my time with the game, partly because classic mode also defaults to “easy” difficulty which didn’t really feel like what I wanted from the experience (this is something they are apparently fixing in Intergrade, the PS5 version of FF7R).
During combat you can move freely through the environment with the left stick and adjust the camera with the right. The square button is a basic attack, which you can perform freely at no cost to either your ATB or your MP. Landing basic attacks on your enemies builds your ATB (active time battle or active time bar) and when segments of the bar fill up, you can press X to open the tactical menu. Tactical mode essentially freezes time and opens up a menu allowing you to choose from special actions like using an item, casting a spell, or using a weapon ability. Most of these actions cost 1 ATB but there are some that will take 2 (the full size of your bar without using any special abilities to alter it). Circle is your dodge while R1 is your block, the former totally avoiding damage if you get out of the way of an attack while the latter reduces damage and gives you some ATB for your trouble. Blocking is generally better than dodging but there are certain attacks where dodging is the only effective method of preventing the effects. Which defense is more appropriate for a particular enemy or attack pattern will become more evident as you play and generally involves a bit of trial and error. Finally, each character has a unique ability activated with the triangle button, part of what helps each one to have a distinct playstyle.
There are four playable characters in FF7R: Cloud, Barret, Tifa, and Aerith. Cloud is a stance character who can change between operator mode (quicker movements, weaker attacks) and punisher mode (slow moving but strong attacks with the ability to counterattack). Barret unleashes a barrage of powerful blasts from his cannon or does a charging melee attack depending on which weapon type you have equipped; either way, he then has to recharge. Tifa delivers a special move that increases the stagger damage bonus against an enemy; and Aerith charges up a special attack that deals more damage against one or more targets based on how long you build a charge. This is just the tip of the iceberg as far as what differentiates characters from one another. Each one feels different to play as thanks to different movement speeds. Barret feels appropriately heavy while Tifa can zip around the battlefield no problem. Their basic attacks feel different, too, and there’s a clear contrast between Cloud’s weighty sword blows versus the long-distance orbs of magic thrown by Aerith’s staff.
In addition to basic differences in movement and attack patterns as well as their unique abilities, each character also has weapon abilities that are unlocked by equipping and practicing with different weapons throughout the game. These abilities help to further define and refine the roles of each character. Tifa is all about the stagger meter, with moves that make it more likely to pressure opponents as well as moves that increase the damage multiplier for staggered enemies. Barret is a tank who can reduce his damage and knockback taken as well as redirecting attacks from allies to himself before then unleashing big attacks that work best when using the full ATB meter. Aerith spends time setting up by summoning familiars, establishing magic circles, and throwing up shields before then unleashing powerful long-ranged attacks from a position of safety and power. Cloud has a balanced set of abilities for increasing stagger, dealing big damage to staggered foes, attacking from a range, and making defensive maneuvers. You can spend the majority of the game just playing as Cloud but each character has at least one section where you will have to play as them, and really there’s a richness that comes from flipping between characters as needed and experimenting with their fighting styles. Personally during my time with the game the only character I didn’t love to play as was Barret; I found his role of long-ranged tank to be a weird one in the original game and for me that weirdness transferred over to the remake as well.
I’ve mentioned the concept of stagger a few times now. Stagger originated in Final Fantasy XIII and has been ported over to remake. Each enemy has a bar that, when full, causes them to be stunned temporarily and take extra damage. Different enemy types may be staggered in different ways, varying from the straightforward “deal lots of damage to them” to more complicated concepts like hitting them with specific spells, crippling body parts, or waiting to attack them during specific openings in their attack pattern. Various abilities can fill the stagger meter faster or increase the damage multiplier for staggered foes, making this mechanic a key part of your battle strategy against most opponents. It is such an integral piece of the combat that I consider the Assess materia to be a must-have tool in this game, as it teaches you how to effectively stagger most of the enemies you face.
Materia are essentially equippable skills which improve over time, expanding the possibilities for your characters and helping you to further customize their specializations. Materia can teach characters magic spells, grant them new skills such as stealing items or copying enemy skills, or even grant passive improvements to your character such as a boost to HP or MP. There is plenty of materia in the game to build each of your characters to your unique vision for how they should play, though you’ll certainly find some more useful than others. Lightning materia for example is a must at pretty much all times as many mechanical enemies are vulnerable to Thunder and some have immense physical defense or cannot be staggered except by magic. I don’t necessarily recommend this build for everybody, but during my run I had Cloud as a paladin of sorts whose materia was dedicated to healing while the other characters in my party would cover the elemental attack spells. You could change things up for your own Cloud by having him focus on offensive magic, or by equipping materia that improve his versatility and potency in entirely non-magical ways. It’s yet another tool for helping each character to feel unique from each other.
I mentioned already that each character has a variety of weapons that each teach a different skill (anybody a fan of Final Fantasy IX?). You learn weapon skills by using them but weapons also come with what’s called a proficiency bonus, a type of action you can take in order to speed up the rate at which characters master the ability of the equipped weapon. This generally involves the ability the weapon grants; Aerith’s Arcane Ward for example is mastered faster by first placing the magic circle and then using it to doublecast an offensive spell. Weapons have value beyond the abilities they teach, though – each weapon can be upgraded with a level-up resource called skill points that unlock buffs for your character’s weapons. These can be as simple as increasing attack power or as complex as boosting critical hit chance when at low HP. This also allows you to add materia slots to weapons, which helps to keep early game weapons viable rather than making them completely irrelevant when something new comes along. Generally speaking the weapons feel pretty balanced and for most of them I can see an argument for why you might be interested in focusing on that one.
The final thing I want to discuss before ending this review of FF7R is the fanservice. Any game predicated on appealing to your nostalgia for an existing title is bound to incorporate some fanservice, and as I described earlier my concern for Remake was that this fanservice would be little more than cheap pandering to get me to spend gobs of money on a product I already have, and to do that multiple times. Naturally Square Enix is a company and that is still their ultimate goal, but they managed to deliver on the fanservice in a way that feels like at least a couple folks on the dev team really wanted to write a love letter to Final Fantasy VII. There’s some quality nostalgia to be felt here and I think no section of the game better emphasizes that than your time in Wall Market.
Wall Market is an iconic story arc within the larger Midgar arc of the still larger complete storyline of Final Fantasy VII. Cloud and Aerith see Tifa bound for the wife audition of dreaded crimelord Don Corneo and set out to rescue her, realizing that their only way to get inside is to also participate in the audition. This involves putting Cloud in a dress and to get the gear he needs he travels to a number of different locations in the market: helping the drunken father of a beleaguered dress merchant, training with the colorful participants of a local gym, and getting a makeover at the scandalous Honeybee Inn. Remake revisits all of these story threads but does each of them in a way that adds more richness and color to the world, as well as giving more respect to the lifestyles reflected in the gaudy and extravagant Wall Market. The iconic music of the market returns in FF7R as a battle mix, a sort of jazzy hip-hop reimagining of the original theme that put the biggest smile on my face the first time it came up.
In addition to treading familiar ground in Wall Market, the game also adds a colosseum there where the characters are roped into a competition in order to get a dress for Aerith. These colosseum battles are a fanservice gold mine; the classic victory fanfare plays after your victories and the characters even do modernized versions of their old celebration animations that played at the end of each battle in the original game. The moment that really made me flip my lid, though, was the final battle of the colosseum sequence. FF7R found a way to bring back the Hell House random encounter from the original FF7 and recreate it in a way that felt justified in the setting, an appropriately ridiculous obstacle in an area where the ridiculous is expected. The way in which Remake lovingly revisits classic scenarios from the original game with refreshing interpretations of the music while also grounding every moment in a world that feels internally consistent is amazing. Each chapter I was excited to see how a familiar moment would be revisited, all while waiting for the buildup to that final payoff where the heroes shake off the original story and set out to do something new.
As I finish my time with FF7R, so much of what I experienced now has me looking forward to the future. Mechanically, I wonder how much of what I already have will carry over to the sequel. Do I get to keep my Cloud as he is, with the materia, stats, and weapons I have painstakingly built up over forty hours with this game? How will the game grow in scale in terms of power when my characters already have access to the series’ strongest elemental spells? I think about characters like Yuffie, Cait Sith, Red XIII, Cid, and Vincent – how will they play compared to the characters we’ve met already? What unique abilities and new fighting styles will they bring to the table? Then of course there is that promise of “boundless, terrifying freedom;” what will this mean for the story we know from the original FF7 and how closely part two of the remake will match? Will we continue to see familiar scenarios reimagined in new ways with clever re-interpretations of the classic music? Or does breaking away from the destiny of the story mean we can now see and experience totally new moments?
It’s scary to think that the wrong choices could lead me to have a negative impression of part two after part one turned out to be such a positive experience for me. But my wrong could be just right for someone else, just as there are those who wish the remake was simply a nicer looking version of the story they already knew. It’s the “terrifying” part of Aerith’s freedom – the fear of the unknown, and the looming possibility that the new adventure will turn out worse than what we knew before. For our heroes this is the threat that the ending of their journey could be more devastating: more friends could be lost, more destruction had, and Sephiroth could even achieve his goals instead of being defeated. For the players, it is the idea that whatever new direction the story takes may not satisfy like the old one. Will Aerith still die by Sephiroth’s hand? Will the renewed possibility that she may not die make it hurt all the more when the sword pierces her belly a second time? If she lives, will it feel earned? Or could it be a cheap act of fanservice that steals the potency and poignancy of the original sacrifice? I imagine these questions plague the devs and drive a lot of their discussion about the game they are setting out to create. For me, it’s fascinating to think about, and whether or not it all turns out great in the end I think it’s very cool that Square Enix even opened the door to these questions with the finale of Remake part one.
I think my Final Fantasy VII journey – the journey of a kid who was a bit too young to appreciate the original in its time but who still loved the idea of FF7 – made me the perfect target for what FF7R set out to do. This game is a fascinating exploration of what the hell it even means to remake a game with the legacy of FF7 while at the same time finally presenting the world and story of Midgar in a way that’s consistent with what I imagined before I played the original game. Stronger mechanics, deeper characters in a world with more internal consistency, all underscored by compelling reimaginings of the original soundtrack – Final Fantasy VII Remake is the version of Final Fantasy VII I always wanted to play, and I couldn’t be more satisfied with how it ultimately turned out.