As someone who didn’t grow up with the 1997 original that is so beloved by a huge proportion of gamers (and I might say blindly) there’s something to talk about with the remake that released in 2020.
So let it be said: the original Final Fantasy VII… is overrated.
If you didn’t grow up with it, or play it at its release, playing the game now is difficult. It is the first 3D Final Fantasy game. Pioneer? Yes. Clunky? Yes. Graphically terrible; considering its predecessor is a beautiful 2D sprite-based game, and its successor (released only a year later) had 3D in-game character models merging with full motion video cinematic cutscenes.
It is rife with silly and frustrating mini-games. All. The. Time. While some of the characters are decent (generally more fleshed out than the over-abundance of characters seen in Final Fantasy VI) some of them are just empty. Yuffie? Annoying and skippable. Vincent? Empty and also skippable. Cid? Guy went to space and back again, adding nothing to the story. Cait Sith? Literally worked for the enemy to spy on you, but you agree to have them join the team anyway.
Then there’s Cloud… possibly the most generic JRPG protagonist out there. Suffering amnesia, he doesn’t know what’s happening, and the player has active choice in how he reacts to things, making him a sporadic, unrelatable character.
But… developer Square Enix finally gave what the ravenous VII fans wanted. Ironically, the fans wanted what they could never actually get: the perfect remake. Creatively, Square Enix should have ignored the impossible request… But… money.
The remake arrived, and oh boy, is it a multi-faceted experience of joy and utter dross.
Let’s start with the good, because it is the first thing you see.
The game is gorgeous.
You can really see that Square Enix put a lot of effort into making this game look phenomenal. They have a track record of providing Final Fantasy VII fans with spin-offs and full blown cinematic features, so this game had to look its best. It is the best looking Final Fantasy game so far.
The combat is also excellent, and very intuitive. Some fans saw red flags at the mention of mixing turn-based “classic” gameplay with the newer real-time combat of Final Fantasy XII and XV. But genuinely, the Remake combat system is extremely good and they should definitely continue using it for other instalments.
Coupled with this, is the materia system. These are crystals that your party members can equip to learn new skills, magics, and abilities. In the original, this made all the characters blank slates; each could do the same actions if given the same materia, which was disappointing. But in Remake, the materia system feels far more alive, with characters who would benefit certain materia over others.
Next, with joy, is the characters. Goodness me. This is such a massive improvement on the original. Our characters are dynamic and richly fleshed out; they have worries, they have personal struggles, and they have agency in the storyline. Even side characters such as Biggs, Wedge, and Jessie, are relatable and you feel something for them. There’s even new characters introduced, such as motorbike-riding baddie Roche, who adds a huge amount of camp flair. It is wonderful.
Then there is Cloud. Who went from being a stagnant player surrogate and became possibly the most relatable of all of them. And he has an arc! He has honest-to-goodness development from start to finish.
Plus, the game isn’t overly serious. It has a lot of fun with itself, riffing off the original’s 1990s trappings wonderfully. The sequence in Chapter 9, within a location known as Wall Market, has some of the most memorable moments of any Final Fantasy game.
Sounds pretty great right! So what’s wrong?
Well, the game design.
Let’s start with the immediate choice any player would have in starting this game. You get to choose your difficulty. This is choice is: “Normal”, “Easy”, or “Classic”.
Straight away, “Classic” is terrible. Supposedly designed to appease the fans of the original, “Classic” is a mode where the characters attack and defend autonomously, allowing the player to focus on spells and abilities. This. Is. Terrible. In real-time combat, the last thing you want is dodgy AI doing whatever it wants. With your characters excessively blocking, not reading telegraphed attacks from enemies, combat will take three-times longer, and you will not be dodging attacks nearly as effectively as you need to.
Now we get into the meat of the problem. Normal mode. The choice difficulty for any gamer; this is the mode the developers expect you to play. Final Fantasy games are not exactly hard (compared to say… Dark Souls) but they also aren’t easy. Final Fantasy games are as much inventory management and tactical strategy games as they are straight forward battles. You are expected to use items and abilities wisely. You need to learn enemy abilities and counter them appropriately or get completely destroyed. You need to save valuable resources for the boss encounters or tricky enemy set-ups.
Final Fantasy VII Remake on Normal is easy. The game drowns you in items. It gives you frequent places to rest, which fully restores the health (HP) and magic (MP), and you can return to previous rest points with almost no consequence, making items that restore these values almost pointless. Even magics that counter status effects, like poison, are completely overpowered and mean you don’t need items that are designed for removing these effects.
By the time you reach the final boss, you will be swimming in items. You can just spam items to win at that point.
But, if I told you there was a “Hard” mode unlocked after beating the game once, a mode that lets you KEEP all your items from the previous playthrough, then you would say: “Ah ah! Cinema Cocoa, that’s why you save all your items!”
Well, you’d be mistaken.
Because Hard Mode is the biggest joke of them all.
In a baffling move, Square Enix made it so that Hard Mode disables your ability to use items. Oh yeah, you still HAVE that metric ton of items in your inventory, you still GET items as you play, but arbitrarily you cannot use them. The rest points also don’t restore MP, just health.
This is absolutely senseless, and basically destroys the gameplay of Final Fantasy games. So not only does the “Normal” mode not require items because magic and attacks are so powerful, but Hard Mode takes items away anyway. So 90% of Hard Mode is exactly the same, only enemies take four presses of “attack” rather than just two.
You are even limited in your magic use, given that you cannot restore MP at all during a chapter. This means that you will be using regular attack abilities over magics, which chances are you already were in Normal mode. Hard Mode removes too much from the Final Fantasy tactical rulebook: no items and no spells that aren’t healing spells. Challenging? Yes. Arbitrary? Absolutely.
There are a couple of moments when Hard Mode actually does something different. A boss or two will use a new attack, or bring additional enemies to fight beside it. But these moments are so incredibly rare that it is actually frustrating when they do. It feels arbitrary.
Speaking of frustrating. With Normal mode being so easy, with enemies that don’t challenge you enough (like other Final Fantasy games) you don’t learn enough. With Hard Mode, often it is the same; not enough learning. You get into patterns during combat, you know what works, so you do it over and over again.
Then the game gives you a difficulty spike like a brick wall. It says: oh, your reflexes aren’t fast enough? Sorry scrub, go away and practice more.
Let me be clear: This is after eighty hours of play. Only two trophies missing. 98% of the game done. Yet it hits you like a freight train. It is like going into an exam that the teachers did not prepare you for in the slightest.
So, the takeaway from that is: don’t bother playing this game for “completion”, just play it the once and enjoy the pretty graphics and great characters. Because these things are genuinely really good, and playing Hard Mode (without sounding like a sourpuss) ruins the experience and reveals just how shallow the entire experience actually was.
A final, more nuanced fact that should not be ignored about Final Fantasy VII Remake… involves another game from the franchise, called Final Fantasy XIII.
If you were to draw a scale, and list all of the games in the franchise from best to worst… your average Final Fantasy fan will likely have the original Final Fantasy VII at (or near) the top. They will also have Final Fantasy XIII at (or near) the very bottom of the list.
Now there will be VII fans who see the approaching parallels and confirm that they are one reason to hate Remake. But there are a lot of VII fans who adore Remake and hate XIII despite these very clear parallels existing.
The gameplay is linear.
It is worth mentioning, if one removes their rose-tinted glasses, that the original VII was also linear. But Remake is extremely linear. In fact, it is so linear that the game arrests your control of the camera and your character on regular occasions to force you along a set path. The game is beautiful yes, but it is uncompromisingly strict.
Your character’s speed is regularly throttled as well. Chapter 8 has a horrendously long sequence with you pinned behind a slow-moving character, forcing you to walk and walk and walk and walk. This is fine for the first playthrough, but that Hard Mode I mentioned? Yeah, this isn’t so fun multiple times. It sucks.
Want to get all the trophies quickly? Well, enjoy doing this exact part of the game, with you stuck behind a slow-moving NPC, multiple times!
What does this have to do with Final Fantasy XIII?
Well, XIII’s supposedly awful gameplay was because of “the corridor”. The game, graphically, is the characters running on suspended linear pathways for a great deal of the game. Certainly, XIII was on-the-nose about it: “Hey, this is a path you cannot deviate from”, but functionally both games are exactly the same. Remake just dresses it prettily and distracts you with all the familiar characters saying the funnies.
Also, Final Fantasy XIII was the game to introduce the “Stagger Gauge”, a system that features front-and-centre in Remake’s combat mechanics. The player uses special attacks to fill a gauge on an enemy, fill it, and the enemy enters a weakened state for a limited time. This is the same in both games.
And yet… XIII is forever shunned. Why? It is still a beautiful game today, it has good characters and amazing music? It even has a combat system more similar to turn-based than Remake does? Because Remake has Cloud, and Tifa, and Barret, and Aerith and…. Sephiroth….
The final problem with Final Fantasy VII Remake, is that it is an episodic game. In fact, “Final Fantasy VII Remake” is a misnomer; it isn’t true. This isn’t a remake of the classic game, this is a remake of the original game’s first six hours of gameplay, ballooned into a 60 hour experience.
While the daring plot-deviations they made in Remake should be applauded, there is some worry that by the time Square Enix finish this “Remake”, they will need to remake part 1 again just to make it measure up to the later entries. Especially if they fix the garbage Hard Mode by then. At least Final Fantasy XIII had its open-world section in the same game.
So that is the struggle with Final Fantasy VII Remake. It takes a bit of time to talk about it… because the problems are nuanced. Honestly, the game outstays its welcome in the worst ways, and the best way to enjoy it is to play it the way it was clearly designed to be played: like a movie.
The characters are fun, the music is awesome, the graphic fidelity is outstanding, the camera likes to tell you what to look at and when. It is more or less a movie that allows you to press buttons.
Don’t look for more depth, because there isn’t any. Unless you consider arbitrary game design with brick wall difficulties “depth”.
Play it once and have a great time!