Final Fantasy 7 Remake Is Like Stepping Back In Time

There are so many things about Final Fantasy 7 Remake that, in the hands of another developer or another time, would not happen. The corridors. The trope of flipping a switch, only to find a locked door, a key and switches more. Long sequences where your ability to run is removed. Random difficulty spikes out of nowhere. The padding.

Final Fantasy 7 Remake features so many of these moments that, genuinely, do not need to exist. And yet none of it matters, because Midgar is alive – not just once more, but perhaps, truly, for the first time.

Final Fantasy 7 Remake‘s biggest question was always how much story Midgar had left. Most of Final Fantasy 7’s story is what happens after you leave Midgar, chasing Sephiroth around the world, the truth behind Mako and the reactors, and the bonds forged between the members of Avalanche throughout.

(Note: there are no major plot spoilers in the below review, but there is a video showing some light footage of the early segments of what the Sector 7 slums are like. It’s not until much further down, and again, no major beats, scenes or fights are revealed.)

All that character development, all those plot twists and time for FF7’s legendary soundtrack, took most people about 60 and 80 hours to work through, although you could blast your way through in something closer to 40 or 50 hours if you were persistent. The remake isn’t quite that fleshed out: most people will end up at the end, or very close to it, after about 30 or 35 hours.

And that time could have been a lot shorter. When you meet up with Aerith for the first time, separated from the eco-terrorist crew, you’re immediately thrust into a battle inside Aerith’s church. There’s a mini-boss fight. Cut scenes. Transitions. An attic to climb through. Passageways that can only be walked, not run.

Much of the first 10 hours is full of this: places the developers wants you to see, areas that demand to be savoured.

However, some memories are best remembered, not lived.

The advantage of revisiting Midgar after all these years is that there is so much of Midgar that deserves new life and character, a vibrancy that was impossible to imbue on the original PlayStation with all of its limitations.

The more you loved Final Fantasy 7, the more you will find to love and appreciate in Final Fantasy 7 Remake.

It’s a lot of the little things brought to life in slightly different ways. The moment you discover Aerith’s house for the first time and the world lighting kicks in a second late, revealing a wonderful forest shrine encapsulated by flowers, herbs, hills and scrap surrounded by a waterfall. The sound kicks in with the sound of Aerith’s words, and the whole scene has so much more heart than Square could have envisioned back in the ‘90s.

It just wasn’t possible to bring something to life this way.

Without venturing into spoilers, the same applies when you run into Don Corneo’s hive of depravity, Sector 6’s Wall Market. It has a heart and design almost reminiscent of Shinjuku’s night life sector, with small streets, alleyways to slip into, tiny eateries and the occasional hawker.

Discovering Wall Market for the first time in Final Fantasy 7 Remake is less like reliving the past, and more like the wonderment of seeing the Golden Causer for the first time. A lot of the old activities make a return – there’s the famous squat-off in the gym, and you’re still trying to save Tifa.

But the sector has a life, a vivaciousness and cheek that brings everything to life. I don’t want to spend hours exploring Wall Street in the original Final Fantasy 7.

In the remake, I never want to leave.

For all of the lengthy corridors and outdated design tropes, these areas make the hours worthwhile.

But even fans will have trouble forgiving how outdated some parts of Final Fantasy 7 Remake actually are.

For one, the game graphically loses a lot of its lustre as soon as a cutscene ends. There’s a persistent pop-in issue with textures of all kinds, with things like doors, walls and floors not loading in fully until you’re standing right in front. The most egregious quirk happens sometimes with character models, where they develop this kind of shimmering effect that looks like a noisy halo.

The worst instance can be seen in Corneo’s Colosseum, when you finish one of the later fights that lets you hang out in the arena for a bit. Simply turning Cloud around the spot highlights how severe this shimmering can get:

NPCs frequently pop in from close distance, visibly so. Even things like signs, doorways or objects two feet in front of you will have an astonishingly low level of detail. They’re the kind of graphical anomalies you expect from a game in 2013 or 2014, not one in 2020.

It’s not a dealbreaker; it just stands out so glaringly, especially against the sharpness and detail in many scenes, particularly close-ups with the main cast or antagonists. You’ll see it the worst with unimportant NPCs: Cloud or Aerith will look pristine, almost photorealistic, and they’ll be standing across from a model with the same amount of detail from a Fallout game.

It’s not the end of the world, though. What’s more grating is the filler.

It’s always telling what a publisher does and doesn’t show off during a preview. For Final Fantasy 7 Remake, people were treated to the same section as the demo, the following chapter where you escape back to Sector 7, and then the demo skipped forward a few chapters to the second Mako reactor.

What wasn’t shown in the preview was the hour-long snore fest into the second Mako reactor. You need to collect some more explosives for the second job, which necessitates a trip to the plate, a mini-boss fight of sorts, a few minutes of backstory, almost 10 minutes of travelling, and so on.

That part is genuinely good, because you get more backstory into Jessie, a little look at life on the plate outside of the reactor, a bit more humanity from the whole crew, and generally the kind of world building that everyone hoped the remake would have.

It’s the fourth chapter, enroute to the second reactor, and when Aerith tags along to the Sector 7 slums later on, that the padding is at its worst.

These sections offer little in the way of gameplay, character development or anything genuinely interesting. The sector 4 plate interior is an excuse for tired, old switch-flipping puzzles, where you run back and forth, occasionally moving a walkway about to look for some extra rewards. Chapter 9, which marks Aerith and Cloud’s journey back towards the Sector 7 slums, is just as bad. The level design is flat, visually uninspiring, and filled with time-wasting crane puzzles where you move Aerith around on robotic arms just to proceed.

And the tropes are reused far too often. As soon as you see one of the puzzles, you know two more are coming. The worst chapters all follow this level design, whether it’s asking you to run around the sewers looking for keys, switches to flip, or just because the developers knew the game would be too short if you weren’t forced to double-back every few minutes.

Coming from the masterful designs of The Witcher, the refinement of games like God of War or Horizon: Zero Dawn, or really any modern major RPG in the last few years, large swathes of Final Fantasy 7 Remake feel stale. And it’s not because Final Fantasy 7 Remake is a long game by modern standards. It’s just that, sometimes, it feels like one.

That said, fans won’t mind. Even those who don’t consider themselves fans of the franchise, but ones who hold some warmth in their heart towards Cloud’s adventure – or those who insist FF7 was the pinnacle of the series in 3D – will have a true blast seeing what an expanded Midgar looks like. The game has some genuinely outstanding moments too. I can’t give away spoilers, but there was one segment of gameplay so brilliant, I Chromecasted a local recording of the scene to the lounge room just so my fiancee could enjoy it with me.

I can’t recall any moment in a game over the last year where I’ve wanted to grab someone and make them immediately watch. Final Fantasy 7 Remake has a few of those.

The combat system works well too, rewarding a good amount of aggression paired with sensible preparation. Some of the side quests and boss fights mean players will run into some enormous difficulty spikes out of nowhere, simply because there’s no natural ramp for most of the game. Cloud can run in, wail on a character, and for the vast majority of fights you can get through doing pretty much that.

The AI occasionally plays a good support – sometimes they need a bit of encouragement, and in more than a few fights I caught Aerith hanging around flat-footed not building up her ATB metre. But, really, you need to take active control of the entire party. The boss design means that you’re more reliant on staggering a boss than doing outright damage, and as the game develops you’ll run into bosses that frequently switch up their vulnerabilities and immunities on the fly. These fights can go for 10, 15 and sometimes even 20 minutes – but none of them ever felt unfair.

Some of these fights will be much harder than fans remember, if only because impatience and incorrect inputs were less of a problem with turn-based combat. The revamped Abzu fight is a good example, where a clean win is as much about juggling damage between the party and getting individual characters out of harm’s way, as much as it is casting the right spell. But it’s some of the side battles that present some of the most difficulty. Some creatures are more adept than others at interrupting spells, attacks and locking down characters entirely, and you get almost no warning about this. If you’re interrupted or bound mid-cast, you’ll not only lose the attack, but you’ll lose the ATB charge used to activate the ability or spell.

But ATB charges most frequently through attacks, so you’ll need to be aggressive to win most fights cleanly. It’s very reminiscent of Final Fantasy 15, but without the easy get-out-of-jail card that Noctis had by teleporting to a nearby object to recharge.

For many, reviews are the bedrock of gaming consumer advice, the last line of defence between time and money invested wisely or poorly. People spend hours reading or listening to the words and sounds of people they think might match their tastes, and a good many continue to follow those creators, those writers, those influencers or websites who fall largely where they do.

Final Fantasy 7 Remake, on the other hand, is the gaming equivalent of what people would call “critic-proof”. It’s the term film critics coined to franchises like Transformers, which were financially successful irrespective of Michael Bay’s tortured treatment. Put simply: you already know whether you love this game or not.

So the way I choose to think about Final Fantasy 7 Remake is whether the game is as good as it could have been. Is this the ultimate culmination of what a reimagining could have looked like?

Probably not. There are too many sequences that serve little purpose, offer little detail, and fail to wow the eye. Many of the traversal elements between sectors could have, and probably should have, been cut entirely.

But this isn’t a reason to avoid Final Fantasy 7 Remake, merely a reason to be aware.

What Square have produced is the gaming equivalent of a soap opera. At its best, there is a flair and flourish that perhaps only the Yakuza series could possibly match, and Yakuza doesn’t have the same fluidity or depth of Square’s combat system. My only real complaint is that the companion AI tends to be too passive; frequently, you’ll switch characters, only to discover that they have no ATB charges at all.

In a nutshell, though, that is the Final Fantasy experience. It doesn’t always make sense, and you love or hate it for it.

That’s the cornerstone of the experience, and the remake’s true strength. It is absolutely a Final Fantasy game, one that could never be accused for emulating anything else. There are truly sublime moments, warming segments of humanity, screens full of particle effects, heart-racing moments where a summon comes to save the day, and a rhythm and flow in battle that sings.

Other parts beg to be justified: Traversing through sewers, the needless body-blocking of passages through locked doors, passageways that lead to more passageways, and tired puzzles that have no right belonging in a modern video game. These moments aren’t ones that send you dashing in excitement for your partner; they’re moments that send you running for a pillow, screaming pointlessly into the void for relief. Why is a modern video game this way?

The answer, for better or worse, is because it’s Final Fantasy. The game knows what it is and, more crucially, what it wants you to experience. This is not a modern RPG where the player is in control, but merely going along for the ride.

Many video games sell the player on the illusion of control and freedom. Final Fantasy cares not for that orthodoxy. People have held onto the drama, the ideal and the drema of revisiting Midgar once more, not just for years but for decades. Final Fantasy 7 Remake brings that world not just back, but back to life.

The reincarnation is a little clumsy, but that’s hardly reason enough to reject a drink at Seventh Heaven. Go on. Tifa’s waiting.

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