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FINAL FANTASY VII REMAKE Review: A Cyberpunk Eco-Fable For Our Time

The planet is dying. Greedy corporations recklessly harvest the planet’s dwindling natural resources while grandstanding politicians exploit a crisis and unfathomable loss of life in order to line their pockets. Those who sound the alarm are decried as propagandists, hucksters, and traitors working with our enemies. The downtrodden, radicalized through being forced to bear the weight of systemic failure and crumbling infrastructure, now find themselves taking violent action against the rapacious criminals running the show. While this feels like a fairly apt description of the world in which we live, I’m describing the world of Final Fantasy VII Remake, an audacious, politically charged cyberpunk thriller that feels more relevant than ever.

Remakes by their very nature are self-indulgent exercises and more often than not contribute to the slow, agonizing death of art in favor of commerce. Why make something new when you could remake something familiar and cash in on an existing intellectual property? But while Final Fantasy VII Remake is certainly guilty of strip-mining our youths for nostalgia like the Shinra Corporation slurping up the planet’s lifeblood, there is a beating heart and a vibrant soul that pervades this remake, allowing it to transcend cynicism and say something meaningful about empathy, environmentalism, and destiny.

It’s also fun as hell. For a game announced five years ago, based on a game that released 23 years ago, Final Fantasy VII Remake isn’t just one of the finest RPGs in years; it is a balm for a weary soul, an outlet for sadness and rage and feelings of impotence during a time that feels increasingly hopeless with each new headline and unprosecuted federal crime. It also forces you to grapple with the realities of the cycle of violence you as a player and a character perpetuate, which was not something I expected to have to contend with on my journey back to Midgar.

Cloud Strife, the hero of Final Fantasy VII Remake

Final Fantasy VII Remake is a game that I have been champing at the bit to play for years. To put it mildly, I am bringing two decades of baggage to this review. My obsession with the original Final Fantasy VII runs bone-deep. As I mentioned in my preview, Final Fantasy VII was not only the reason I bought a PlayStation (shout out to Santa Claus and allowance money), but introduced me to the idea of role-playing games. While much hay has been made of its signature “super-deformed” polygonal art style, Final Fantasy VII sucked me into its sweeping story through a mix of deep characterization, thoughtful worldbuilding, and the way it seamlessly blended sci-fi and fantasy together to create something bigger than the sum of its parts. From lurking on LiveJournal roleplay blogs to scouring early internet forums for hidden secrets to writing my own original FFVII tabletop role-playing game in some long-forgotten Five Star notebook, Final Fantasy VII sits proudly atop the list of my favorite games of all time. Naturally, when Final Fantasy VII Remake became a reality, I was nervous that it wouldn’t live up to my sky-high expectations.

And while Final Fantasy VII Remake is not a perfect game, it is perfect to me.

A tale as old as 1997

Final Fantasy VII Remake's protagonist Cloud Strife is over it already.

Without spoiling too much about the game, Final Fantasy VII Remake adapts the original game’s approximately six-hour introduction and expands it into a full-fledged game of its own, with expanded storylines, reimagined game mechanics, and deeper characterization. Your mileage may vary, but my playthrough—in which I spent a reasonable amount of time completing optional side quests—took me about 40 hours when all was said and done. It’s a far cry from the three-disc-long, 100-plus hour journey of the original, but this new game is anything but insubstantial.

Final Fantasy VII Remake takes place in the city of Midgar, a dystopian corporate-owned metropolis ruled over by the sinister Shinra Electric Power Company. This mammoth city is divided into discrete sectors, each with their own massive power plant that harvests something known as mako energy, a fictional fossil fuel that may or may not quite literally be the planet’s lifeblood. The city itself is divided across economic lines by a gigantic circular plate. The wealthy enjoy cleaner air, modern amenities, and live topside while the working class lives in slums, eking out a hardscrabble existence in tenements of scrap metal, besieged by pollution, monsters, and a sense that nothing will ever get better.

You play as Cloud Strife, a spiky-haired, big-ass-sword-carrying mercenary who only cares about his next paycheck. Although you have joined forces with Avalanche, a ragtag group of eco-terrorists who are striking back against Shinra Electric Power Company, he couldn’t care less about their struggle; he’s just hired muscle. This disdain is met with contempt and derision from Barret Wallace, the towering beefcastle with a machine gun for an arm who leads this Avalanche cell as they carry out a series of power plant bombings in an attempt to bring the fight for the planet’s life directly to the people who are bleeding it dry. Barret’s bombastic dialogue and questionable, stereotype-heavy characterization in the original game have been softened and we see a more empathetic side of a man who is fighting for a better tomorrow for his daughter because the alternative feels like suicide.

Final Fantasy VII Remake's Barret Wallace

Other Avalanche members like Biggs, Wedge, and Jessie previously felt like cardboard cutouts, red shirts designed to propel the story until their time to shuffle off-screen conveniently arrived. By expanding the story, we not only get a sense of the traumas and forces that compelled them to political violence, but we also see them contend with the human cost of their radical actions. Seeing the aftermath of a bombing raid, with dazed and confused citizens in the streets bemoaning their fate and trying to make sense of the sudden devastation, makes not only the characters but the player pause to consider the consequences of their actions in a way that feels unexpected for the genre.

As the story unfolds, Cloud, and hopefully the player, begins to shed his apathy through his encounters with his fellow party members, Avalanche soldiers, and the citizens he helps–and hurts–along the way. Cloud and Barret are joined by Cloud’s childhood friend Tifa, a brawler with a heart of gold and deep-seated reservations about whether or not Avalanche is doing the right thing, and Aerith, a florist from the slums of Sector 5 who harbors a potentially world-changing secret. Longtime Final Fantasy VII fans may be disappointed to hear that these are the only playable characters, but you’ll encounter plenty of familiar faces and newly created friends and foes along the way, too.

I'm no geometry expert, Final Fantasy VII Remake fans, but that looks like a love triangle to me.

By and large, this chunk of the overall story manages to withstand the pressures of being stretched to be five times longer than it originally was. While some of these additions feel like the equivalent of anime filler, much of it serves to imbue these characters with a deepened sense of humanity and complexity as the game explores the morality of resorting to violence to effect change in the face of unabashed villainy. As many have noted, the places where the story suffers are in its side quests, which don’t have the same sense of variety, urgency, or importance as the main storyline. The fact that many of these quests are given to you by forgettable NPCs doesn’t help, but the gameplay itself is so damn fun that I didn’t care that I had to clear out yet another area of monsters terrorizing the locals; I wanted to prove that I’m the hero of the slums and see if it could shake Cloud from his perpetual state of impassivity.

But what about those big-ass swords?

Final Fantasy VII Remake's Cloud Strife unleashes a deadly attack

Ah yes, what would a Final Fantasy game be without people wearing way too many belts wielding improbably large blades and using crystalline orbs to unleash magical hell on all manner of murderous monsters? The combat system, as we have reported previously, is a savvy blend of old and new. Final Fantasy VII Remake takes the free-roaming, frantic combat of modern action RPGs and gives it a strategic twist through the active time battle (ATB) gauge, a throwback to the turn-based system of the original. Once your characters use enough basic attacks in order to fill up their ATB gauge, you can enter a fugue state of Quicksilver-esque bullet time as the world around you slows to a crawl and you peruse menus to determine which unique ability, magic spell, or item you want to unleash. Although you can only actively control one character at a time, you can issue commands to the characters you aren’t controlling through a few simple button taps. It’s a system that feels awkward at first until you get the rhythm of it down, and then it feels so perfectly Final Fantasy that it’s hard to imagine anything else in its place.

Because combat can be genuinely challenging in Final Fantasy VII Remake. You can’t simply button mash your way to victory. You’ll need to properly position yourself to avoid devastating attacks, parry incoming blows to reduce damage and potentially unleash a brutal riposte, and analyze the situation to figure out the best combination of spells and abilities to emerge victorious. For example, if your enemy leaps away from you and takes flight, you’ll want to switch away from Cloud to a long-range fighter like Barret or Aerith, who can keep doing damage despite the distance. This isn’t to say that the original Final Fantasy VII was a cakewalk, but Remake has a surprising amount of strategic depth to its combat system that made even unexpected side quests feel as challenging as late-game boss battles.

And speaking of boss battles, if you like fighting massive, screen-filling enemies with multiple stages and deadly superweapons, then Remake has you covered in spades. You will dispatch everything from murderous mechs to demonic haunted houses to chariot-riding ghouls, and each one will push you to your limit (and your limit break if you’re not careful).

Final Fantasy VII Remake's materia system

Adding further depth to the combat system is the addition of unique abilities for each weapon, as well as a system of weapon upgrades that feel reminiscent of Final Fantasy X‘s Sphere Grid. For example, Cloud’s Iron Sword allows him to use the Triple Slash ability, which as its name suggests, allows Cloud to strike three devastating blows in quick succession. As you use the ability in combat, you unlock a proficiency bonus which upgrades its effectiveness, and eventually, you permanently learn it regardless of whether or not you have said weapon equipped.

The weapon upgrade system lets you take things a step further with skill points that you unlock in battle and through collectible grimoires. These points can then be spent to give your weapon bonuses to attack power or magic power, additional material slots so you can use more spells, critical hit bonuses, and so much more. You earn them concurrently for every weapon you have, so no matter ho deep into the game you are, you can choose the perfect weapon for any scenario and have it kick as much ass as you do.

As for materia, Final Fantasy VII Remake‘s ever-present orbs that grant you incredible magic abilities, support skills, and the ability to summon enormous guardian spirits, there is no shortage of options and fans will likely spend hours devising the perfect combinations to optimize each character’s effectiveness. In addition to familiar options like elemental magic, Final Fantasy VII introduces new materia options to help you make the most of its semi-automated combat system. For example, you can equip the Synergy materia with an elemental magic materia to allow characters you aren’t controlling to blast off a fireball or two in response to the attacks of the character you’re controlling. Or if you want to make sure you’re keeping your HP up, equip one of your party members with the Auto-Cure materia and thank the heavens when you don’t burn through all the Phoenix Downs this side of Sector 7 in a single fight.

These are the small quality-of-life changes that may feel at odds with the original game, but then again this is no facsimile of the original; it’s a unique beast all its own.

To be continued…

Final Fantasy VII Remake's Sephiroth

It isn’t all mako-suffused sunshine and slum-grown roses, though; the most frustrating part about Final Fantasy VII Remake is that it is being episodically released. Excuse me, I misspoke: The most frustrating part about Final Fantasy VII Remake are the mini-games, which nearly pushed me to my quarantine-addled breaking point until I conquered their foul congeries of bastardized rhythm gaming. The second most frustrating part about Final Fantasy VII Remake is that it is being episodically released. After 40 hours of creating a living, breathing world filled with memorable characters, we leave them at what truly feels like the outset of their journey. Final Fantasy VII Remake ends on the precipice of yet another great adventure, but unlike the original, I now have to wait between one and five business years to play it. Don’t get me wrong; I’m deeply grateful to everyone at Square Enix for making this in the first place, but it does feel a bit like narrative edging, especially when we know there is so much more to come.

That said, if Square Enix can shorten the release cadence between new entries, and maintain the level of quality established by Final Fantasy VII Remake‘s first part, then gamers are in for a treat that can sustain us well into the next generation of consoles. Because at long last, the Final Fantasy VII that existed in our imagination feels as vivacious, visceral, and real as we always knew it could. With Remake, Square Enix has thrown down a gauntlet for all those who want to reimagine classic video games for a new era of technology and a new age of gamers. It is no longer acceptable to merely slap a fresh coat of paint on an old game and call it a day; if you don’t want to lovingly rework, rebuild, and reimagine the potential of your original game, then just put the original on a digital storefront and call it a day. Anything less is sheer laziness. And as Final Fantasy VII Remake teaches us, no one ever changed the world through laziness.

Rating: 5 out of 5

Final Fantasy VII Remake is available on April 10 on the PlayStation 4. 

Images: Square Enix

Dan Casey is the creative director of Nerdist and the author of books about Star Wars and the Avengers. Follow him on Twitter (@DanCasey).