Before we dive in, I would like to assure you, dear reader, that this review will contain zero spoilers.
Final Fantasy VII is a beloved game, and that is primarily due to its story and characters. You are likely in one of two camps; the long-time fan who wants the REMAKE to stay faithful to its source material and deliver those same emotional roller coaster of emotions remember so fondly. It does, well kind of, mostly. Or, you know next to nothing about the adventure ahead of you. In either case, the less I say, the better.
I have said this before, but it is worth mentioning again, nostalgia is one of the most powerful drivers in modern gaming. With Gen X and Millennials making up a massive proportion of the gaming market publishers are keen to tap into their wallets lined with so much rose-coloured glass. For that reason, we've had numerous remasters, remakes, reboots, decades late sequels, and even prequels to beloved games released way back in ye olde days of yore, dial-up internet, and pay per minute hint lines. I have actually lost count of the number of games I've reviewed and played recently that originally saw the light of day pre-Y2K. But I can't think of one that has been more hotly anticipated than the long-awaited remake of Final Fantasy VII.
Final Fantasy VII is one of the most important games to have ever been released. It effectively brought Japanese Role-Playing games to the mainstream in the west. And helped establish Square, now Square Enix as a powerhouse game developer and publisher that has remained equally beloved both within and outside of Japan. It also cemented Final Fantasy as a legitimate and massively profitable global tent pole franchise for the company. FFVII was also one of the titles that helped the PlayStation dethrone Nintendo to become the gaming platform of choice for the second half the 1990's.
Final Fantasy VII has not remained dormant for the last twenty three years; it's been remastered, ported, modded, emulated, decompiled, reimagined, memed, and re-released, but it was the announcement of the REMAKE that really got gamers excited. And now after a few delays and some interesting design choices, it is finally here. So, was it worth the wait? Did they manage to update it without losing the old magic? Does Sephiroth still have the most magnificent hair in video games? It has changed, considerably in places. It also has some serious issues, but it's still unmistakably Final Fantasy VII, and Tifa is still… so wonderfully Tifa, while Sephiroth's mane remains peerless in its magnificence.
As I said at the top, I will not go into the story, but it is worth noting that while the fundamentals remain, much has changed in Midgar in the last quarter-century. The story presented in this remake feels more personal and intimate. It is also slower with more time given to each of the games core cast. Every character feels more fleshed out and is given time to express themselves. Yes, the game retains its cheese, melodrama, and idiosyncrasies, but thanks to some solid voice acting it managed to suspend my disbelief for the duration. The core story beats remain mostly intact, but they hit different, and with a different cadence. For the returning faithful, you will notice some significant changes, but none of it feels out of place despite some actions playing out in unfamiliar ways.
Unfortunately, there are some less than desirable or outright baffling changes to go along with the good, and they come with a cost. That cost is pacing with more than a little dead air inflating the story needlessly. While I appreciated a lot of the extra character work, the story does stumble and stall as a result, taking away a fair amount of the drama at least for a short while. There are also some new side quests which feel like filler and serve no purpose except to increase the time to complete. Perhaps one of the more perplexing additions is when a new a brand-new character is introduced with an accompanying boss fight, that makes no sense, is given little context, goes nowhere, and is never resolved or revisited later in the game. It is executed with the typical Square flair for the spectacular but ends up falling completely flat, and that is despite him having one of the coolest looking motorcycles I have ever seen in a video game, and I do love motorcycles. In all, there were about five or six times in my 41-hour playthrough where I felt the game had derailed and lost the all sense of urgency or direction, which is quite the accomplishment for a game this linear. I still enjoy the story, but it is overstuffed, and considering that REMAKE is as long as the original game in terms of hours, but only manages to tell half of the original's story it all feels like Square Enix are just attempting to justify splitting the game in half and selling it to you twice.
But the story is only part of the equation, as with any JRPG combat it a massive component, and that is certainly the case here, and this is where the most significant game changes have occurred. Gone is the turn-based ATB "Action Time Battle" system from the original, instead now we have a real-time hack and slash system, with an optional (but strongly recommended) tactical pause feature. While the game does give you the option to play purely in real-time, I wouldn't advise it as most of the fun is in utilising the new ATB bar and command system, which is reminiscent of the original turn-based system of the original game. Successful attacks will build up your ATB bar and once filled you can slow down combat to a crawl to execute a powerful special move, cast a spell, access your inventory, or summon a big nasty to fight by your side.
When it all comes together, combat is a thing of beauty with stunning flourishes, cinematic spectacle, pulse-pounding action, and nerve-wracking stress when the odds turn in another direction. Pulling off a combination of evades, blocks, and well-placed attacks, and then unleashing a bombastic spell to obliterate your enemies is endlessly entertaining, and with over one hundred enemy types you will have plenty of opportunities to try alternative tactics with other characters, with different and progressively more powerful abilities. But there are also issues, and some of them are glaring. First up is the camera. The narrow field of view can make tracking enemies difficult in crowded fights, and the lack of a jump button turns combat against flying enemies into a camera juggling nausea-inducing mess as melee characters will automatically jump when you use your primary attacks against these flying foes. It makes combat feel messy and takes too much control away from the player.
On the other side of the equation are the boss fights, and they are glorious, teeth grinding, cinematic battles of attrition where you will need to change tactics multiple times, and master all of the skills and abilities you've learned up till that point. Whether human or monstrous behemoth, every boss encounter is epic and unique, never easy but also never cheap. What makes them stand apart is how Square Enix presents them. The staging is spectacular in every sense, and each phase of combat is punctuated with a short scene emphasising the evolving threat. It imbues each encounter with a sense of drama and personality that would be entirely at home in your favourite epic anime series. Goku would approve.
Combat is not only decided by the actions you take while standing toe to toe against an enemy; a significant deciding factor is how you are equipped. While Cloud and co will level up over the adventure, gaining health, power, and magic points, the real nuts and bolts comes down to your gear, and specifically your weapons. You will discover additional weapons throughout the game, but your old ones will never become obsolete. You can upgrade your weapons over time, imbuing them with additional abilities, stat improvements, and magic. In addition to levelling and improving your weapons is how you use Materia. Materia can be slotted into weapons and gear, and it unlocks new abilities, spells, or monsters you can summon. Materia will improve over time as you use the abilities or spells it gives you access to improving their effectiveness and power. Learning a foes weakness and equipping the appropriate Materia and weapons to exploit that weakness could be what ends up deciding the outcome of the more demanding enemies and bosses you will face. Being able to swap these abilities out so easily helps keep combat fresh, and allows you to try new tactics, or maybe you just want to set things on fire, because fire looks cool.
Which I guess brings me to the graphics, and they're surprisingly a bit of a mixed bag. The cinematics are as you would expect from Square Enix, jaw-dropping. Stunning animation, gorgeous high-fidelity visuals, sumptuous use of colour and light, they are stunning, but at this point would you expect anything less? Just as remarkable are the core cast, each one is highly detailed and flawlessly motion-captured, giving them all a sense of realism while still retaining that uniquely Final Fantasy spin that does just enough to keep us out of the uncanny valley. They are some of the very best character models I have seen in any game. Where things start to fall down though is the world they inhabit. Low-resolution textures abound. Doors that literally look like they were taken from a PS2 game are some of the more obvious offenders, but they are not alone. A lot of the architecture looks twenty years out of date, which looks even worse when juxtaposed against the highly detailed character models. The mattes used to show the city of Midgar when viewed from up high look flat, blurry, and ultimately unconvincing giving the impression that rather than looking down on a sprawling city, you are instead walking above a badly drawn map. There is also constant pop-in of NPCs and other objects when you walk around the world, and a persistent texture streaming issue where only parts of an environment will have their high detailed texture actually trigger. It could be that the frankly hideous textures are a result of a bug or an engine issue, but regardless of the reason, the game looks very ugly in places, while being breath-taking in others. Ultimately it feels rather underwhelming, which is disappointing for a game utilising so many capital letters.
When taken as a whole Final Fantasy VII REMAKE is a success, but one that maybe does not quite live up to its legacy, and certainly not the hype. There is a lot of game here, with plenty to do, and a lot to like, and I have certainly not covered everything. The story is just as heartfelt as it ever was, and in places hits even harder. The self-serious tone is undercut well with some well-placed humour, and for those of us coming back to visit old friends, we get to see more of them and learn a little more about them as well. I certainly appreciated that Square Enix gave us that opportunity, but there is too much padding, and the fact that the story is not finished is a frustration. Battles are better than they ever were despite some persistent issues which hold it back from being exceptional. And the graphics are amazing, except when they're not and when they're not, they are awful. In the end Final Fantasy VII REMAKE is a good game, but I wanted it to be great, and it just isn't.
+ Boss battles are exceptional.
+ Fun and reactive reimagined combat.
+ Expanded story and character exploration.
+ Retains the core Final Fantasy VII DNA.
+ Character models are beautiful.
+ Solid voice acting.
- Game feels drawn out so it could be cut into two pieces.
- Combat can be clunky and awkward in places.
- Underwhelming graphics can be seen in every scene.