Final Fantasy 7 Remake Review — For the Reunion

Final Fantasy 7 Remake Review — For the Reunion

23 years after Final Fantasy 7 changed the gaming landscape forever, Final Fantasy 7 Remake seeks to revisit Midgar on a scale we could only dream of.

Final Fantasy 7 Remake is here at last. Hoo boy, where does one even begin?

Say what you will about the original Final Fantasy 7, but its influence on the gaming landscape was massive. It’s not a legacy you can simply ignore, whether you like the game or not. There has been a huge amount of hype and expectation for this remake, and the team at Square Enix has seemingly shown every bit of acknowledgment and respect for that going forward. It’s because of that legacy that I must lay down a couple of points before we begin.

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First: I have endeavoured to make this review as spoiler-free as possible. That includes both the events of Remake and of the original. If you don’t know what specifically happens in either, I’ve got you in mind. For those who do know spoilers, I urge you to keep them quiet to fresh players as well. Just go and look up the raw, unspoiled reactions to That Scene from the original; it’s something best preserved for people to experience fresh.

Second: my credentials. I’ve played the original Final Fantasy 7 to completion at least once, and other attempts at playthroughs more than that. This was well after the 1997 release (probably first around 2005), and I went in already knowing about That Scene and other spoilers. FF7’s impact on gaming and JRPGs had been well established by then, so I arrived late. Nonetheless, I thought it to be an excellent game and thoroughly enjoyed my playthrough. It isn’t — and wasn’t — my favourite Final Fantasy game, though it’s never strayed far from the top of the list.

Lastly, I’ve also seen or played most spinoffs (notably Advent Children, Last Order, and Crisis Core). That’s a little less pertinent to this review, but fans of those products can take heart: there are nods to these in the game, as well as style choices that reflect them in places.

Hopefully, now you can approach my words on Final Fantasy 7 Remake with the full context of my connection to the original. It’s inevitable that opinions of Remake from any source or outlet will be coloured by prior attachment and sentiment to Final Fantasy 7 (or lack thereof). As such, take my words as a guideline and use them to make an educated decision of where you’ll land.

Remake Part One

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If you’re an FF7 fan reading this review, you’re probably here to find out how much of the game is present. Remake has been split into multiple parts after all, and this is just the first. Square Enix did this to cut as little as possible from the game, sparing no expense in remaking it to the fullest. Having now finished, I can say that they achieved that aim so far.

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Content wise, there is a full game here, and my playtime ended at 43 hours. This entailed playing on Normal from start to finish along with being thorough and doing as much side content as I could. Further, additional perks and content become available once the credits roll. If you’re worried that you’re paying full price for an unfinished game, don’t; this is as much a full release as any newly numbered Final Fantasy title, and without Final Fantasy 15’s wealth of DLC required to make it whole.

That said, Remake takes place entirely in Midgar, in contrast to the five to ten hours spent there in FF7. Pretty much every locale, scene, and story beat from the original is present in Remake. The additional time is primarily spent to bolster these moments, expanding on dungeons or smaller areas to give them the same scope. A tremendous amount of attention and care has been given to every facet, though. Character banter and dialogues are numerous, with a lot more cutscenes and chances for each to express themselves. Much of the runtime is used well, with new areas and events feeling interesting and consistent with Midgar’s style. Only a small fraction feels like genuine filler.

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Final Fantasy 7 Remake is fairly linear at first. You’ll proceed through a chapter in a fairly direct fashion, with some side areas and branching paths to explore for treasure and extra fights. Once you move to the next chapter, you likely won’t be coming back. There’s a handful of areas where the game opens up, allowing you to explore a more populated area and take part in side quests and mini-games. One area relatively late in the game opens up quite a bit more, bridging a couple of areas together and allowing an open-ended respite before funneling you towards the final few chapters.

You’ll gain access to a chapter selection function once you beat the game, however. This lets you go back with an experience/AP gain increase and find anything you missed, as well as access the post-game content. I’ll come back to specifics later. So, how does it play?

Mechanics, Materia, and More

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Final Fantasy 7 Remake continues the trend of Square Enix games becoming more cinematic and action-heavy in battles. If their aim is to make a playable Advent Children, they’re getting pretty close. This time around, the Active Time Battle (ATB) system of old has been merged into this for a pretty compelling take on an action/RPG.

You start the game as the main character Cloud. Combat will consist of utilizing his basic attacks, as well as manually guarding or dodging incoming damage. Your ATB gauge fills over time and increases when you strike, at which point you can open a menu to expend it. Time slows dramatically in the menu, letting you select from abilities, magic, and items. You can hold up to two bars of ATB (with the option of a third later), and every menu action requires at least one to use. These abilities and spells can be interrupted, but they hit considerably harder than your basic attacks. The damage difference is noticeable, so don’t come in expecting a pure action game; you’ll need the turn-based menu abilities to progress.

Once you get other party members, you can freely swap between them with a D-pad press. Characters you aren’t controlling will play defensive and try to get attacks in when safe. You’ll be the one ordering them to use menu abilities as they build ATB, though, and it becomes quite intuitive to cycle through them as you need.

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To keep things fresh, each party member has a set of different mechanics and playstyles. All have an attack string and guard/dodge options, but that’s where similarities end. The triangle button is dedicated to the character’s unique actions. Cloud swaps to a slow-moving, hard-hitting Punisher stance, Tifa has finisher attacks based on the stacks of an ability she has, and so on.

Charging time is pretty slow if you aren’t getting in the thick of it, but this also leaves you quite vulnerable to attack. Guarding is a trade-off, as it slows your passive ATB gain dramatically, so trying to stay aggressive and dodging smartly is encouraged. This is further compounded by each enemy having a break meter below their health; hit them enough or with certain attacks and you’ll pressure them, which usually stuns them and makes them take more break damage. Max it out, and you’ll stagger them, wherein they’re completely stunned and take a large increase to all incoming damage for a time.

Of the handful of hybrid action/RPG systems the series has tried, Final Fantasy 7 Remake definitely feels the most well-done. It avoids the spamming of items from Final Fantasy 15 and ends up feeling like a Final Fantasy 13 that you actually control.

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If this seems basic, there are further ways to supplement your moves. New abilities are gained in two ways: learned from specific weapons, or gained by equipping materia. Weapons are spaced out throughout the game, and each has a specific ability. Use that ability in battle a handful of times and you’ll achieve proficiency with it, whereupon you can use it regardless of your weapon.

Materia is the major noteworthy mechanic from FF7, and it’s been carried over almost identically to Remake. You’ll find materia orbs as you explore, and these can be set to slots in weapons or armor to gain their abilities. Furthermore, you’ll level the materia through AP gained after battles. A Fire materia will grant the Fire spell to the character while held, for example, and can be leveled up to access Fira and Firaga. Materia can be freely exchanged between characters out of battle, and most strategies for tougher fights will hinge on your setup. Different materia types can offer passive buffs, active abilities, or even massive summons that can be used only in specific fights.

At first, you won’t have much materia to play with, and even fewer slots in your gear to equip them. Cue Remake’s weapon upgrade system. Every time a character levels up, they’ll get 5 SP to spend, with bonus SP available from side objectives later. Each weapon has a unique “core” skill tree, and SP unlocks nodes on it. Each unlock grants the weapon new passive stats, modifiers, or even materia slots. At certain level thresholds, you’ll gain access to new sub-cores to further customize them.

What’s more, each individual weapon gets all your SP retroactively, so no need to pick and choose which to invest in. This means that if you like Cloud’s Buster Sword, you can absolutely keep it relevant throughout the entire game. All weapons have their own unique identity now, with stat priorities and abilities that you can prioritize based on circumstance or playstyle. The build options are quite diverse, and since you can reset them for a small gil fee, there’s no wrong way to approach it.

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All these systems are in service of allowing you to customize your characters for the battles to come. Each ability has its uses, and there’s a good selection of materia to play around with. What I found most limiting about the battles, then, is the action parts.

Those who played the demo might have expressed some misgivings about the lack of variety in Cloud’s moveset. For those who feel that this is pretty basic, I’m sorry to say that it won’t get that much more diverse. Almost every ability and materia is one selected from the menu, not in your basic attacks. The different playable characters and conditions of encounters might shake things up, but it’s the ATB spenders that receive most of your attention.

I found this especially disappointing because my expectations were set quite high from the outset. Exploring down a side path in Chapter 2, mere minutes after where the demo ended, I found the Deadly Dodge materia; this changed Cloud’s attack string immediately after a dodge into a larger AoE one. Finding this so early eased my fears that the combat would feel similar for the whole runtime, then! Surely there would be other modifiers like it if I got this one so early?

Nope! This is almost the only materia like it in the whole game.

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Much later, you can get the Parry materia (which lets you do a short hop and strike back if using dodge while guarding), and that’s about it. All other materia like it is simply a passive effect or occasional long cooldown. Otherwise, it’s all menu abilities that require ATB. This was tremendously disappointing to discover, and more options like that to personalize my general moveset would have been so much nicer to have. Even something like a perfect guard would have been great, though at least Cloud’s Punisher mode has counters on block. Perhaps that’s on me for coming to Final Fantasy 7 Remake having just played Devil May Cry 3, but that’s how I felt regardless.

That misgiving aside, the battles are nonetheless fun experiences. Bosses in particular tend to be larger than life affairs, with multiple parts to attack and various phases of the fight that change their mechanics. Again, those who played the demo will be pleased to note that more bosses play in the vein of Scorpion Sentinel than not. Some encounters can be pretty challenging, though for every game over I encountered (maybe half a dozen), a quick adjustment to my materia loadout and shift in strategy saw me triumph next time.

Even regular enemies have individual mechanics. The circumstances by which the pressure and stagger systems are applied is unique to most enemies, so learning and exploiting their weaknesses makes the experience much smoother. There was a hell of a lot to love about the battles in Final Fantasy 7 Remake, and even if I had been hoping for more, it still stands out as a damn good time.

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Mini-games are also interspersed throughout Final Fantasy 7 Remake. Most are variations of what was in the original, but there’s been a few added just to break up the routine. They were enjoyable for the most part, so there’s not much to say about them save that I appreciate the inclusion. There’s also a coliseum, letting you fight specialized groups under set conditions in exchange for unique rewards.

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After the credits roll, you’ll gain access to the Chapter Select and can revisit any part of the game. You’ll also unlock Hard Mode, which doesn’t serve as a difficulty selection for a new game; instead, you can activate it when accessing Chapter Select. Hard Mode locks out your items and stops MP recovery from rest spots, but offers unique collectibles in exchange. New battles are added to the coliseum also. Those who want more even after the game is over shall find there’s at least a little to check out.

Overall, Final Fantasy 7 Remake kept my attention for the whole runtime. The only real lapses were a few areas of traversal that were overly drawn out, and some of the side quests felt a little mundane. Even so, these featured additional cutscenes and conversations with the cast that really furthered the attachment to the world, so it at least felt worth it to do them once finished.

Tifa fans should do all the side quests in Chapter 3. Just saying.

Regardless, it was an enjoyable game to play. A little more concession to action mechanics would be great, but the hybridised action/RPG implementation was otherwise very impressive. Square Enix definitely seems to have arrived at a happy medium that previous Final Fantasy titles didn’t manage, and I hope they continue with it.

Presenting: Midgar!

Presentation is the shining star of Final Fantasy 7 Remake. The demo made it clear that Square Enix wasn’t messing around, and it’s honestly one of the most graphically striking games I’ve ever seen. If any concerns were had about that level being impossible to maintain consistently, they certainly kept it close. Some of the larger open areas — particularly the slums — suffer from character pop-in, delayed loading on textures (if they aren’t just rough or muddy outright) and other small nitpicks. In addition, some cutscenes with minor NPCs talking to party members can be pretty jarring. They simply cannot match the level of fidelity achieved in rendering the main cast or other notable characters.

When the main cast is the focus and the set pieces are rolling, though? It’s far and away beyond anything else the series — or Square Enix in general — has produced. There’s a lot more daytime than the original game, so there’s enough colour variety to keep it from looking bland. Mechanical dieselpunk designs weave into gritty but “lived-in” slum streets. A pristine plate sector at night gives way to rusting maintenance structures underneath. The tall, clean and imposing Shinra HQ is met with the garish lights and noise of Wall Market. Midgar is a fantastically designed place and a treat to explore.

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It’s not just the city itself that is well designed, though. To Square Enix’s credit, they have taken the sometimes goofy enemy designs from the original and kept them completely intact. High fidelity or no, it’s not afraid to take an enemy that is just a spiky dancing frog and have it make sense. There are even character dialogue and bestiary entries that further suggest how they work or came to be. If things didn’t have to be changed, they weren’t; they were just reimagined and made to fit.

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All of this visual and design splendour is furthered by the audio quality. From start to finish, the voice acting and direction is stellar. Shelving the voice actors that played the characters previously was unexpected, but the new cast absolutely nails their roles. Most have emotional moments or serious scenes that the actors manage to capture effortlessly. Even the NPCs and minor characters have quality voice acting. Shoutouts, in particular, have to be given to Barret’s VA for one particularly memorable scene, and to Hojo who is suitably creepy and sinister in every appearance.

Last but not least on the presentation front: the music. Oh man, the music. NieR: Automata laid the groundwork for implementing dynamic tracks, adding layers as needed to change the tone of the same track at just the right moment. Everything that was learned from that game was applied wholeheartedly to Final Fantasy 7 Remake, and then some. Musical cues and stings are on point, highlighting crucial moments in the best possible way.

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The original soundtrack is regarded as one of the finest works of legendary composer Nobuo Uematsu. Now, most of those tracks have been remixed or remastered in a slew of creative ways, but they almost always fit the tone required well. Some see multiple variations in different areas to wholly distinct effects. Music in the boss fights tends to really stand out, as the longer battles allow them to build up and crescendo during later phases. You know that the music is a highlight when songs are one of the main collectibles and each is a separate remix from their actual game appearance, all done in the style of music that might actually be made in Midgar’s setting. Genius.

There’s quite a lot to unpack and respect about the game on presentation. But all that presentation is in service of one thing: telling the story.

Reunions

I fully intend to avoid spoilers, so I will keep this section relatively brief.

The story of the original Final Fantasy 7 is one of the major elements that left a mark in gaming. These characters, their world, and their tales are iconic and beloved. Every moment of that story has been retained in full, just as Square Enix originally intended. Some trailers have hinted at adjustments and new developments — especially the launch trailer, which I encourage you not to watch for fear of spoilers — but this accuracy was paramount to the developers.

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It’s safe to say that they achieved this. Every notable character, conversation, or location from the original game is included in Remake in some way. There’ll be adjustments, of course; they’re displayed in high fidelity and voice acted this time, so concessions will need to be made. But it’s all here, and the attention to detail in places was honestly staggering.

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With that said, Square Enix had no intention of just retelling the same story verbatim. Additional scenes and moments have been sprinkled all throughout, with at least one early chapter composed entirely of new events. All of it builds on the original framework, strengthening it further. There’s more character growth, banter, and interactions between the cast than ever before. It ends up making them feel so much more real and believable. Even characters I wasn’t certain about initially won me over by the credits. This isn’t limited to the cast either, and gives the same treatment to villains and NPCs.

The fact that this is only a chunk of the complete tale means that certain events, characters, and flashbacks have been brought forward in the timeline. You’ll be seeing Cloud get headaches or recall memories of his hometown right out the gate… and that’s to say nothing of Sephiroth. Even so, all of these concessions are handled with the same care as the rest of the game, so their placement fits and strengthens the whole. Better to portray these scenes and build up the characters now than have them appear out of nowhere 10 hours into a second game, right?

Now… thus far, I’ve been talking purely about parts that primarily concern the original work. If this praise was also true of the wholly original plot threads and changes, I’d have no issues whatsoever with Remake’s story. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case. Far from it.

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Early on, there will be a couple of divergences to the story that seem to be setting up a new sub-plot. These divergences increase in volume over time, and grow exponentially in the last two chapters. All the original beats remain, but they’re interspersed with these divergences, leading to a new climax and expanded conclusion.

And here is where it all started to come apart for me. For a brief while, I was ripped out of Final Fantasy 7 and dumped heavily into an unholy marriage of Advent Children and Kingdom Hearts. It was awkward, it was confusing, and it left me shaking my head in dismay. It felt massively out of place.

Did this part have to change so dramatically? Maybe. It wasn’t a true climax or game-ending point in the original, after all, and I expected some new conclusion and an added boss or two to cap off this experience. Yet, until now, it had been such a solid remake that made measured changes to supplement the classic story. Here, at the eleventh hour, it jarringly erupted into a massive spectacle that honestly felt like underdeveloped fanfiction.

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When I say spectacle, I mean that it was spectacular to behold in terms of graphics, sound, scale… but it comes at a huge cost, and that cost is the integrity of the story going forward. This finale and the accompanying changes have massive implications for the future installments of Remake, all of which feel like they’re going to ride the divergence train at full speed away from the classic plot. Suddenly, the insane turns that things like Dirge of Cerberus took are looking far more likely in the future.

I had been enjoying Final Fantasy 7 Remake throughout the entire runtime, whether it was new or old material. Genuinely, I was loving my time with it. But if the game had been a tasty meal up until that point, the final section soured it. This isn’t just because they tried something new, either; I could easily forgive it if it was just a new thread that tried, landed flat, and wrapped up. No, this sudden divergence has ramifications that could potentially change all future installments in dramatic ways from what was expected, and I now find myself lacking confidence that it can succeed.

In conclusion: old stuff? Great! Supplementary additions to old stuff? Also great! Character writing, development, and worldbuilding? Excellent! Brand new stuff? Middling at best, potentially disastrous at worst. Most of my grievances with the game are almost entirely to do with that final section. I fully admit to bias in the kinds of stories and developments I like, so your mileage may vary. But I cannot say I walked away from the ending feeling happy.

A Final Fantasy For Fans and First-Timers

One of the big questions approaching this game is, inevitably, “Should I play this if I haven’t played the original?” That’s an easy answer: yes. Everything is here that made Final Fantasy 7 such a stand out of its era, delivered with some of the finest presentation we’ve seen in triple-A video game development. It’s a fun action/RPG hybrid with solid gameplay systems, a strong story, and a set of well-realized characters that suitably develop and bond over time. Fans of the original will inevitably spot more references or appreciate the extra nods, but even newcomers should be able to slip in and find plenty to enjoy.

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Next: should you play this now, before the other parts come out? That’s a more tentative response, but yes. Had I not walked away from the ending with such mixed feelings, it would’ve been easy to recommend. Even without knowledge of the source material, the main story and throughline here is clear to follow and wraps up nicely. It’s mostly the setup of larger threads and what’s to come that have me so hesitant to recommend it, and I don’t think the ending was handled well. Buyer be warned, regardless.

Final Fantasy 7 Remake doesn’t replace the original. That’ll be true even when all parts have been fully released. Final Fantasy 7 will be a generational touchstone of gaming with a legacy that has lasted decades, and will remain long after the hype for Remake has cooled. I don’t foresee that same legacy being granted to Remake once the dust has settled, but it nonetheless stands with Resident Evil 2 Remake as a testament to the quality such a project can aspire to.

This is still one of the most excellently presented games I’ve ever experienced, and with a few tweaks for the next installment, that excellence might extend to gameplay and story too. Whatever misgivings I may have going into future releases, it’s undeniable that this was an enjoyable 42 hours marred by a single bad one. Even so, Final Fantasy 7 Remake is arguably the best non-MMO Final Fantasy game released in a very long time. Despite my qualms, it’s been a welcome Reunion.

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