Final Fantasy VII is arguably one of the most important games in the industry. Pretty much anyone who grew up in the PSOne era of gaming had at least some level of exposure to Squaresoft’s classic JRPG. That was over 23 years ago. Since then, gaming as a whole has progressed an incredible amount and there is now a huge portion of gamers that have never even experienced Cloud & Co.’s adventure to save Gaia from tyrannical over-industrialisation. Personally, while I have always had a lot of respect for the game, I never actually enjoyed it myself – though this was mostly due to the fact that it aged quite poorly and I played it quite late. I never properly finished it and kind of just dropped it after the gameplay was just too boring for me. This is where Square Enix looked to change things with the Final Fantasy VII Remake Project. Revamped gameplay, better visual technology and more attention to detail in framing and animation allow for me to have renewed faith in a game that I just struggled to enjoy and my brief three-hour preview session with the game proves it.
The Final Fantasy VII Remake Project (henceforth referred to as FF7R) is something that has been in the works for quite a while, employing the talents of various high-profile ex-FF heavyweights of yore. This includes the director of the original game, Yoshinori Kitase, who was very excited for us to play this revival project and equally as excited to talk about it. Naturally, the original game mechanics and gameplay systems don’t exactly fit into the modern gaming sense, with a lot of strides and improvements made in the turn-based RPG genre (none of them from Pokémon, though). It was always going to be hard to have a shot-for-shot remake of the original given how dated a lot of it actually is, which is why the people over at Square Enix decided for more of a reimagination of the original rather than a stock-standard remake.
Final Fantasy VII Director, Yoshinori Kitase
“The remake is a full reimagining of the classic Final Fantasy VII. So, we didn’t want to just go and make a one-to-one copy of the game or just a remake or remaster in the standard sense. We wanted to go above and beyond that and create kind of a new experience that everyone would be expecting from such a major remake project.” – Kitase-san
Much like a lot of remakes, the main purpose of FF7R is to bring the beauty and wonder of the classic JRPG to an entirely new generation of gamers. While I didn’t exactly fit the target, since I have played the original, I still felt like I was inadvertently another side of the target audience. It is true that there are a lot of people who have probably never even seen Final Fantasy VII and that likely wouldn’t change if it weren’t for this remake. Others probably missed the FFVII boat while it was still current two decades ago, and this remake gives them a chance to see what all the fuss was about but with gameplay that suits modern sensibilities.
The revised gameplay systems, which obviously saw a benefit from the imperfect gameplay of FFXV, are an easy-to-learn-yet-hard-to-master sort of deal. You can choose between your light and heavy attacks, including a charged heavy, as well as different stances. The best example of this was Cloud’s two stances: one is more aggressively offensive and allows for dodging and quick manoeuvering while the other is more defensive and focuses on blocking and counterattacks rather than avoiding damage entirely. The game doesn’t force you into a particular playstyle either, with a mix of the stances working the most effectively but not at all required for success in the game. These new gameplay systems are also mixed in with familiar systems, like quick menu navigation for selecting abilities, items or even limit breaks. It has all been tuned very finely to create a very entertaining and responsive gameplay system — FF7R really learned from the mistakes of FFXV in terms of gameplay, and massively improved on its weaker aspects. However, even though there is a modernised gameplay system, Square has put in the effort to make the game accessible and memorable for fans of the original too, with a classic mode that is more representative of what Final Fantasy VII was in terms of gameplay and combat. In an effort to still maintain that tactical feel of the original, outside of the classic combat mode, you are able to change which character you are controlling mid-combat and it is a feature that you will probably find yourself using quite often. There are a number of enemies that will have attacks capable of stunning the character you are controlling and so you are more or less required to change to another one or risk having the literal crap beaten out of the stunned character. It took me a little longer than I’d care to admit to wrap my head around this so I had to watch Cloud practically get curb-stomped a few times (no deaths, though).
In terms of how it all feels, I found myself quite enjoying the new gameplay systems and combat was in general an engaging and entertaining affair. It was rewarding to learn the enemies’ moves and behaviours, in a similar fashion to how I would for something like Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice but in a far less punishing manner. I battled a number of bosses and used a number of summons as well. Each of the summons has a particular skillset and damage type that can either be incredibly helpful or impressively useless, depending on when you use them. One of the bosses I faced had a severe weakness to fire, so using the fire-based summon would have shifted the odds heavily in my favour – but in a moment of panic I spawned the wrong one in who proved to be little less than helpful.
One of the first things that really stood out to me was the intricate detail that was put into the city of Midgar. A big advantage to modernising the ‘97 classic is the extra detail the artists and designers can put into the world itself. The technology afforded to Squaresoft 23 years ago was obviously more restrictive than what is available now, with some new technologies being put into play in FF7R, but we’ll get to that other tech later. The city of Midgar is both a dull, heavy industrial environment and a bright and vibrant environment at the exact same time. The technical artists have worked very hard at making sure the lighting is adjusted to give Midgar an extra layer of personality, even with some very subtle uses of lighting to silently guide the player in the correct direction. Lampposts have a warm glow and the streets are highly detailed. Midgar is a living, breathing, sprawling city now filled with people and landmarks that create a distinct and memorable atmosphere to a dystopian city. On paper, Midgar should not feel this lively yet its inhabitants have been given a second wind in the form of FF7R and its technological updates.
Reviving Midgar in the modern age also proved to be an unexpected challenge but something that the team was quite focused on. Things like storytelling through the art and the environment, creating atmosphere and tone through lighting and even shedding new light (pun intended) on areas that may not have been explored in the days of old. It was all a difficult task to start out with, but the expansion of development teams and progress of technology since 1997 has had a profound effect on how FF7R has been built.
“Midgar was almost always shown at night. It was always a very dark and closed kind of location. To really show that it’s a much more varied location, give it more character and make it feel more like the living city it was always supposed to be, was always a very important thing. A very specific example of that is we have a very dedicated lighting team on the development team of FF7R, which is a team we never really had before in our development structure. They’re kind of the equivalent to the lighting team you would have on a movie set where they work out how to light each individual set to create the right atmosphere and effect.” – Kitase-san
The biggest driving force behind FF7R is the new tech that can be used to give the game a little extra oomph. Action RPGs have become much more dynamic in the modern generation of gaming, with a much larger focus on seamless transitions. Whether it be for music, cutscenes or gameplay, the transitions have all been refined to be much less stilted and create a lucid flow that makes the game more digestible; you’re spending less time in loading screens while spending more time on the ground, in the action.
Perhaps one of the most impressive improvements and technologies put in place for FF7R is their lip-sync/facial animation technology. Lip-syncing is something that a lot of games get wrong and it isn’t just games that are made in countries where English isn’t the predominantly spoken language. Unless you do full-on motion capture, it’s very hard to accurately mimic the mouth movements and facial expressions that go with speaking any language, and so games can often feel a bit off when they try to do this and get it wrong. FF7R looks to change this with an impressive, AI-assisted, facial animation technology that will detect what language has been selected and the tone of the dialogue in question and will adjust the animation to suit. I’m not sure on the finer details regarding how it works but I can say that it definitely did a great job with my time playing the game. The characters felt expressive and the framing is superb. The camera is placed cleverly so that the essential information in a scene is there and hard to miss, but observant players will be able to pick up on things in the background. The best example of this was when I first saw Sephiroth, the game’s first indication of his presence is him very subtly walking off-screen in the background without so much as even looking at Cloud.
“I think with the camera work and the framing of the shots and just the general camera movement we tried to be a lot freer than in the original because we’ve got so much new technology available. We can do so much more with the cameras these days that rather than sticking to exactly what we had in the original we thought it would be much better to use that technology to it in ways we never could have done originally.
There are a lot of things that this adds that you can see with the new perspective and really get more of an inside view of the world because of what we have with the freedom of the camera. I’ll give an example: the city of Midgar itself. In the original game, we had these fixed CG scenes, individual screens, and you looked down from various different angles but it was generally a bird’s eye view. So you got this great way you can look down on the slums of Midgar and the perspective gave you the impression of those kinds of areas. But now we’ve got the ability to use those cameras in so many other ways that you can actually look up now, and from the slums, you see upwards and you can see the city spiralling out of control up into the sky and really get that sense of scale and what it must be like to be down in the slums and looking up at the rest of the city. There’s much more we can show with the cameras by having them in a freer manner.
When we constructed Midgar as we’d imagined it in our heads, it was actually a bit of a surprise too. I always envisioned the plate as a big circle which covers the slums and stops the sun shining down, creating this really dark and dingy environment. However, when we actually made that as a full 3D model with a camera angle that we were able to move around, we found that the sun does shine more on Midgar than we originally imagined it would have. So, it was surprising to learn about that location for us. It’s an exciting part of looking at the whole world again in the remake, being able to see the things that you imagined one way only to learn that it actually looks a bit different when using more realistic graphics technology.” – Kitase-san
Like the AI technology which measures the tone of the dialogue being spoken and adjusts the facial animations to suit, there is also some AI technology behind the scenes to help with the camera work. It has been created and tooled to ‘work out the best angles to show the action and work with the kind of content of each different scene and adjust to camera work to that through algorithms that are all done behind the scene’, according to Kitase-san. While this is a really cool and effective technology, I’m not entirely sure if this is done while you are playing the game or if it was done internally by Square Enix themselves, and then the changes made by the AI were implemented in the final product, similar to how DLSS is used in Battlefield V. It’s actually quite impressive how much new tech and AI tech there is going into FF7R and I could definitely feel the fruits of their labour coming across as I played.
The voice acting was another area where FF7R really felt like something special. JRPGs are infamous for having absolutely terrible English voice acting (I’m looking at you, Dragon Quest) but I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the voice acting in FF7R was mostly to a high standard. The only voice I really couldn’t stand was Barret. I know that his character is supposed to be the big, grizzly man who looks like he bench presses my entire family on a daily basis but I got tired of his voice really quickly. The voice actors in general hit the nail on the head, understanding how subtle changes in tone can lead to very powerful delivery and it complements the dialogue incredibly well. Adding all the new elements leads to not only the retelling of an iconic story from generations past but also a reinvigorated and explored character drama.
As someone who quietly didn’t care for the original as a game (but respected it for its impact), I can happily say that Final Fantasy VII Remake brings a lot to the table and its technological advancements could allow for it to be one of the most important games in the general landscape of gaming. The use of new and improved technologies in FF7R can serve as a lesson for the entire industry on the importance of technology for assisting in crucial elements of game development and its importance for reimagining older properties. I can easily see this remake being put on the same pedestal as last year’s Resident Evil 2 remake as the benchmark for what a true remake can and perhaps should be. Consider this sceptic converted.