Remakes and remasters are a hot commodity these days. During the last thirty days alone we have seen titles such as Resident Evil 3 and Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 undergo this popular treatment. Each time reviewers are faced with a difficult task. How do we review these types of games? Are they viewed as new stand-alone titles all on their own or should the original be taken into account? Depending on who you ask, their interpretation will vary. In the case of Final Fantasy VII: Remake, however, this category feels more complex than ever before, with it neither being a remake nor a remaster.
No, Square Enix's latest entry in the Final Fantasy franchise is, above all else, a reimagining of the original 1997 title, or at least, the first part of it. Sure, it follows the same beats and overall narrative as the classic and features the same characters we have come to know and love. Yet, Final Fantasy VII Remake goes beyond what we can expect from similar projects, discontent with telling the same story and rehashing already tried and proven gameplay. In short, Final Fantasy VII: Remake is an entirely new experience.
Let's start from the beginning.
As with the PlayStation One masterpiece, Final Fantasy VII: Remake opens with the famous bombing sequence by terrorist group Avalanche. This is quickly followed by an intense chase through the streets of Midgar by soldiers from the Shinra Corporation. Despite being much longer, filled with new cutscenes and events, the first couple of hours are a mostly faithful adaptation of its source material. Creator of the remake project, Yoshinori Kitase - who likewise directed the original - gives nostalgic fans exactly what they want. A bigger, expanded and, most of all, beautifully realised PlayStation 4 version of what we have all come to know and love. The ensuing events, however, differ immensely from the original narrative. Instead of just rushing from one bombing mission to the next, Remake slows the pace down considerably, dedicating its time to fleshing out relationships between the main and supporting cast. This time around, the main character Cloud Strife instead gets his own apartment next to his childhood sweetheart Tifa and spends the next couple of hours just living as a mercenary in the slums of Midgar.
There is an unnerving sense of quiet before the storm - especially for those who experienced the story back in 1997. This section of the game allows for the secondary characters from Avalanche to shine, with Jessie the standout. Even smaller characters like Cloud's landlady Marle or the Tifa-obsessed Johnny help breathe life into the otherwise dilapidated Sector 7. We could spend page after page after page describing the attention to detail and amazing characters we meet over the course of Final Fantasy VII: Remake's 30+ hour campaign spread across 18 chapters. Every place Cloud visits on his journey, whether it's the streets of Midgar or the corrupt alleyways in Wall Market, have a unique feel to them with exciting characters - both familiar and new. Accordingly, the remake also copies a few traits from Naughty Dog's narrative-driven games by dedicating hours to having characters walking from A-to-B with wondrous dialogue all the while solving a variety of simple puzzles. Notably, Aerith and Cloud have some great and comical moments together. Fans of character-driven games will find plenty of elements to love here with the English voice cast delivering a stellar performance all across the board. Fans who have become accustomed to the great voice work done by George Newbern as Sephiroth in Kingdom Hearts or Advent Children will be a little disappointed since Tyler Hoechlin isn't as menacing. The same can be said for another fan favourite who we won't spoil in this review.
While introducing a great amount of new content to the universe, there is no doubt many fans will have ambivalent feelings towards the later parts of the game. Without going into spoiler territory, the remake makes a number of unexpected narrative turns towards the end. Being huge fans ourselves, we mostly enjoyed the new third act. We did, however, strongly disagree with especially one change in the story. Despite our dissatisfaction, it didn't ruin an otherwise magical experience. All in all, the team at Square Enix delivers with the narrative. The journey is packed full of memorable moments with high octane action and tear-inducing melancholy. Some chapters have a tendency to drag on for too long whereas a few could've been even longer. Chapters 6, 7 and 10 are particularly frustrating since they are way more time consuming than they have to be. Chapters 2, 3 and 4 however, are some of the best we have ever played - on any system. The way Square Enix masterfully lets the characters explore the expanded Midgar is phenomenal. Chapter 4 is a standout, which tugs at the heartstrings - it was an unforgettable experience. Especially, if you replay it after having finished the game. Fans of the compilation of Final Fantasy VII will likewise not be disappointed. Plenty of references to both Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII and sequel movie Advent Children are to be found in the game. Some scenes echo or even mimic the intense duels found in Advent Children. Without spoiling any details, we can likewise say that Remake heavily implies Crisis Core as being canonical to the game.
The narrative is of course only one element of this extensive project. An element, receiving both praise and scepticism from fans and critics, is the new combat system. On PlayStation One the turn-based mechanics of Final Fantasy VII were groundbreaking. It offered faster-paced battles than your standard JRPG with stylised action and beautiful animations. In 2020, not so much. Basically Square Enix was faced with a huge decision: keep the original or make something new? In the end, battle director Naoki Hamaguchi got his inspiration from a much less known title in the franchise, Final Fantasy XII. It perfectly blends action and turn-based combat. One moment you will swing away with Cloud's massive sword by bashing Square and the next slowing time down to carefully stack abilities. As was the case in the 1997 original, the Active Time Battle (ATB) system returns, which is filled by attacking the enemy. Once the ATB-bar is full, Cloud and crew can execute powerful spells and abilities.
Switching between characters during encounters is easy and effective. You can be shooting enemies from afar with Barret's gun-arm and in less than a second press the directional buttons to assume control of Cloud and deliver staggering blows. It all flows together nicely. Mastering each character in battle is key to your strategy. After we got the hang of the flow during some of the intense boss fights, the combat felt marvellous. Once you have completed all 18 chapters of the main story, the hard difficulty setting is unlocked making encounters even more thrilling.
As with all RPGs nowadays, Final Fantasy VII: Remake features a number of side quests. Unlike similar games such as Persona 5, Assassin's Creed Odyssey or Final Fantasy XV, side quests don't suffer from oversaturation. Quests aren't plentiful and mostly only add to the lore of Midgar, helping them avoid getting repetitive. Besides collecting three cats spread across the slums of Sector 7, that is. Luckily Cloud event comments on how dumb the quest actually is. Due to how the story unfolds, all these extra activities are contained within their own chapter. There is no backtracking until the credits have rolled and chapter select is unlocked. In other words, if you are looking for an open-world game filled with hundreds of hours of gameplay, Final Fantasy VII: Remake isn't it. The game is instead a tightly packed experience where everything is connected to exploring the central narrative.
The manner in which Square Enix brings everything to life is astonishing. Everything from particle effects to facial animations and Midgar itself is a graphical marvel. Known for being one of the first massive 3D productions back in its heyday, Remake is equally as impressive in 2020. Notably, when considering the graphical fidelity of the game, one can only wonder how they have managed to create an experience devoid of any framerate issues, glitches or bugs - no matter whether played on a standard PlayStation 4 or a Pro. This is an achievement all on its own, with so many games releasing in need of patching before they work probably.
Finally, as the credits rolled and we put down the controller we couldn't help but feel deeply satisfied. Yoshinori Kitase, Tetsuya Nomura and all their staff at Square Enix have achieved the impossible. They have remade Final Fantasy VII.