I never really cared for the original Final Fantasy VII. I found that a lot of its tone and empathy was undermined by the text-based dialogue and the combat was not at all enjoyable (I can’t believe I’m going to be crucified in the first sentence of this review). In fairness to the game, a lot of its systems and design was the result of the technical limitations of 1997 and it was still a remarkable game for its time. Going into the Final Fantasy VII Remake, I wasn’t exactly expecting to enjoy it a whole lot. I’ll be one of the few people that admits they enjoyed Final Fantasy XV, as incredibly flawed and not great as it was. And so, with the knowledge of the updated gameplay and general game design, my preview with the remake of the 1997 JRPG still left me quite surprised with how improved it felt compared to FFXV. That preview session left me with such a good impression that it immediately put the remake onto my radar. Leading up to release, after the gauntlet of a month that was March, I was quite excited to dive into the whole game. Now that the time has come, I find myself confused with its (sometimes) disjointed tone, technical blemishes and inconsistent character delivery that get in the way of a truly enthralling experience and (mostly) well-paced story.
Final Fantasy VII Remake (henceforth referred to as ‘Final Fantasy VII’) is set in the world of Gaia, where a tyrannical energy company known as the Shinra Electric Power Company has built what is basically an empire in the sky. The city of Midgar is built high into the sky, towering above the slums of below. It’s powered by the life essence of the planet itself, a fuel source known as ‘mako’, and the continued use of this resource is destroying the planet. People that can afford to live it up in the city live high up in the different sectors of the city, which are all surrounded by the eight mako reactors of Midgar. People that can’t afford such luxury are often stuck in the slums below, with natural sunlight being a rare occurrence due to the sheer size of Midgar and its plates. You assume the role of Cloud Strife, a SOLDIER (a physically and mentally enhanced fighter produced by Shinra that’s hooked on mako worse than our very own Zach Jackson is on dud games) during his job helping the resistance fighters known as Avalanche deal a devastating blow to Shinra by destroying one of the eight mako reactors. Cloud’s story is but a humble one. He goes on to achieve great things, using his prior knowledge and experience with Shinra as a guide of sorts to lead him against the fascist organisation he was once a part of.
At its heart, Final Fantasy VII tells a story of rebellion, growth and kinship. You see the bonds between would-be enemies form and you see long-standing friendships strengthen and become a force to be reckoned with. Cloud positions himself as the cold, distant mercenary that will do anything as long as he gets paid to do it, something which remains consistent throughout the entirety of the game, yet his stance on it becomes increasingly lenient as he interacts with more people and truly sees what Shinra has done to the world. The scale of Final Fantasy VII’s overarching plot is a large one, spanning across a large number of chapters. While we only get to see the events that occur within Midgar, there is a surprising amount of depth and exposition placed within the relatively small section of the game. The original game spanned across four discs, with Midgar not even taking the entirety of the first disc, so it really comes as no surprise that Square Enix has gone through great lengths to justify such a small section of the original game becoming its own standalone thing in what is presumably a series of remakes.
Final Fantasy VII is very much a case of there being more than what meets the eye. If you are to take everything at face value you end up doing the game, its characters and its world a massive disservice. While this does not mean that every NPC is a fully fleshed-out character, there are examples of where reserving your judgement is a smarter decision overall as your preconceptions may just leave you feeling like a piece of shit when you learn the truth behind these characters. An example is with Barret, his first impressions aren’t very good as he is clearly a very dated character with quite average voice acting and delivery that leaves quite a bit to be desired. However, you very quickly learn why he’s so enthusiastic about taking Shinra down and saving the planet. I know my frustrations with him as a character slightly subsided when I learned the reason behind his motivations, but not by a whole lot because he’s still a pretty bland and annoying character.
The voice acting is an area where Final Fantasy VII had the most to gain. Good voice acting can be the make or break for a game’s story. A great example is with Metro Exodus, where the tonally anemic voice acting complete cut through the emotionally rich and empathic dialogue/tone. Not being able to convey emotion or tone with voice acting is a big problem and it’s something that Final Fantasy VII mostly gets right. There are some instances where the voice acting for characters is…questionable, like with the aforementioned Barret who just comes off as the Wish.com version of Mr T, a counterfeit character that no one wants. His delivery, for the most part, is just tone-deaf, it’s almost like he is perpetually angry even though it’s clearly not always the case when you get to see him in situations that aren’t kicking Shinra’s troops to the curb. The other good example would be Biggs. His character has a very deep and soothing voice that is impressively tone deaf. I don’t think you ever really hear his voice change all that much until Chapter 12, where his voice becomes surprisingly emotive and expressive out of nowhere. In all fairness, however, there are some excellent points for the voice acting. A personal highlight is with Aerith, whose voice perfectly suits the bright, charming and naive character that she is and correctly conveys any emotion and expression that her character puts forth. The quality of the voice acting is so weirdly inconsistent I still can’t quite figure out whether it has more good than bad or vice versa.
Something that Producer Yoshinori Kitase focused on during the preview event was the brand new facial animation technology which would analyse the dialogue and correctly match the facial expressions with what was being said to create tonally consistent cutscenes. I can confirm this does…not a whole lot. There are absolutely some instances where this technology works and it creates some beautifully expressive and communicative scenes. You really feel like you can understand what these characters are trying to communicate to you, both in terms of their vocal expressions as well as their facial expressions. It very clearly takes two to tango and, at its high points, Final Fantasy VII hits the nail on the head. On the other side of the coin, however, is where the technology seemingly does nothing. There are definitely some instances where it feels like a character’s face barely moves when they are talking or when their general tone communicates a certain level of emotion. These instances where the facial animation doesn’t quite work as well really dull the tone of what is happening, not to mention that the facial animation outside of the key cutscenes is impressively average. The regular animations are quite carefully created as well, with certain body language and stances being created to become key identifying features for specific characters. A great example of this has to do with Aerith, once again, whose general movements are a little more freeform and bright when compared to someone like Tifa, whose animations are a little more rigid (due in part to her proficiency in martial arts). Through this, Square has created an interesting dynamic in the way each character moves and it’s something that a lot of games really don’t go the extra mile to do. It really made each character feel like their own unique personality rather than just a different face on the same model.
The gameplay of Final Fantasy VII is probably one of the biggest changes from the original. The series has long since departed from the classic turn-based strategy of old (thank God) and instead opted for a more action-oriented form of gameplay. This refocused gameplay still retains a sense of tactical thinking and adds player reactions to the equation, tasking the player with the need to dodge, block and counter where necessary. You can analyse enemies through the use of the Assess Materia (effectively magic) and learn about their resistances and weaknesses which range from elemental damage to statuses. There is almost always a weakness to exploit and learning which skills to apply where is some of the most fun that I had in the game. The moment-to-moment gameplay is significantly more refined than that of Final Fantasy XV but it still retains one main issue, the camera. This is a facet that FFXV wasn’t so bad with because of a lot of the landscapes were massive, open environments. Final Fantasy VII does not have this luxury and, instead, you find yourself in more closed environments where the camera can quite easily get stuck behind walls or be pushed right up to you so you cannot see anything. It isn’t incredibly noticeable at the beginning of the game but, towards the end, you really feel it as more and more enemies are able to push you around. I had instances where I couldn’t actually tell where I was being hit from because all I could see was Cloud’s arse, something which I’m not normally opposed to but that was neither the time nor the place. If you are to play this give, for the love of all mako, do not use the lock-on feature. It’s terrible and almost got me killed number of times. The only problem with not using the lock-on feature is that your character tends to just attack enemies at random if they are grouped together. How could Square get the camera so wrong?
In addition to the general camera issues, the overall game design gets old quite quickly. There are a number of periods within Final Fantasy VII where you are placed in an open section and you can either ignore all the side quests and just progress the story, or you can complete all this stuff and realise how boring all that extra content is. Most of it consists of bland fetch quests or kill quests against monsters that you have probably fought before or are going to fight sometime in the near future. After the second open section, I was already over this design and quickly shifted to just skipping it all. If you want all the best stuff you’ll need to clear the map but I didn’t really feel it was worth all that laborious work. The only time it felt right was at the beginning as you are completing mundane tasks on behalf of a resistance effort and that’s how you get the people’s support, by doing the mundane tasks they don’t want to do. Thankfully, there aren’t a huge number of side activities to do but the ones that do exist certainly become a drag.
On an audiovisual level, this remake is incredible. Reflections are surprisingly crisp, lighting is very accurate and most textures are high-quality. This is all while managing to run at a perfect 30 frames per second. Throughout my entire time playing the game, not once did I ever have a frame drop. Admittedly, this was on my PS4 Pro and I’m not sure how the game would run on the base PS4. The game definitely had issues with LOD bias (level of detail), with a bunch of textures either popping in when they should have already been fully rendered or just failing to load properly at all. The doors in the slum areas are the biggest offenders of this latter problem but I noticed LOD bias issues were quite common. Hopefully Square is able to fix this. The audio isn’t exactly perfect either. This game has absolutely no idea how sounds travel. Being more than a couple of metres away from a character who is talking makes it sound like they are trying to talk to you from the other side of a thick concrete wall. It made walking dialogue unbearable as you would have to adhere to the slow speed of the NPCs to be able to properly understand what they were saying. With all these audio problems, however, the music is by far one of the standouts for Final Fantasy VII. The Final Fantasy series as a whole has always had a knack of incredible scores and musical set pieces and this remake is no different. Orchestral re-recordings of classic songs that undoubtedly saw a benefit from the constant performances of the live Final Fantasy Orchestra that travels around the world are excellent. They create a great atmosphere, especially within some of the bigger moments within Final Fantasy VII’s 20-or-so-hour campaign.
Final Fantasy VII Remake is a technically remarkable game that effectively recreates the 1997 JRPG classic that I didn’t care for. From the gameplay updates to the more emotive form of storytelling, fans of the original and newcomers alike will find themselves quite pleased with Square Enix’s efforts. There are some glaring issues like a less-than-stellar camera, inconsistent voice acting, disjointed tone and technical blemishes that make for weird experiences, but at some of these problems can be fixed with patches and the other problem can be overlooked if you are in the need of an enthralling tale about rebellion and growth.
Reviewed on PS4 Pro // Review code supplied by publisher