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When I was young and didn’t feel like going to school, I did what every kid would do: try very hard to convince my parents I was sick.  After spending a lot of time putting on the most lackluster performance of someone being sick, I finally convinced them to let me stay home.  I spend the better part of the day laying in bed, playing Final Fantasy VII. When kids worried about their test scores and what Nathan was going to do during lunch, I pondered the events that would transpire after I left Cosmo Canyon.  Ah, to look back on the problems I had when I was young.

Final Fantasy VII was the first game that impacted me on an emotional level.  It was the first game that made me think about what a story consisted of. It introduced me to the concept of storyline twists, what villains were made of, and what it took to become a hero.  It showed me that people change and evolve, and perhaps people that didn’t care about others could become attentive and strong leaders. The game taught me about loss, how to cope, and how to move on.  

I know that I was not the only person to have similar experiences with this game.  Final Fantasy VII became a staple in video game culture to the likings of Legend of Zelda and Mario.  Cloud Strife, with his giant buster sword became an icon, and so did his counterpart: Sephiroth. Seeing an eventual remake of this game was a no-brainer.  But what time is the right time?

April 10th, 2020 was apparently the right time for Square Enix to launch their re-imagined magnum opus.  Final Fantasy VII Remake (FF7R) is a magnificent, enthralling experience that pulls you in, embraces you with the memories  you had of younger days, and doesn’t let go until you have taken in, and felt every ounce of what it offers. It takes what you loved about the original and expands on it, creating a more immersive experience, and gives emotion behind pixels.  Background characters have moments to shine, and the little bits and pieces that you remember from the original are here. Final Fantasy 7 Remake is like a love letter to your dedication and fandom. But does the text truly show it’s appreciation for us?  Let’s find out.

Note: I will state that this is going to be a spoiler free version of a review.  I will go over the basics as if you never played the original Final Fantasy 7. I will draw comparisons to gameplay from the original, but aside from that, no spoilers.  Just commentary. Plot points will be discussed elsewhere.  I will say that the story is wonderful.

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The toughest challenge in modern day design is taking a game and creating a great combat system.  It needs to be responsive, it needs to be welcoming, and easily expanded upon. It doesn’t need to necessarily evolve, but there needs to be a level of ingenuity that makes players think about how they are playing and how to enhance their experience.  FF7R changed the spectrum of combat from the turn-based style we all loved and made it more into an action combat style of gameplay.

No modern role playing game has perfect combat, but FF7R gets it damn close.  Square Enix has seemed to take everything that has worked in previous Final Fantasy games and combined into some sort of Frankenstein’s monster.  The stagger system from Final Fantasy 13 is there, where the more you hit enemies with certain attacks, the quicker they become knocked down and vulnerable to massive amounts of damage.  It has the swiftness of Final Fantasy 15, where every swing of the buster sword has weight to it, but also feels fluid in most scenarios. It even has the spice of Kingdom Hearts 3, with attacks that lunge you forward, closing the gap on enemies that may be at a distance.  

The square button is your regular attack while triangle acts as a special move that is unique to each character.  For example, Cloud goes into punisher mode, delivering harder strikes but are much slower and leaves you open. The combat system makes you think about what you should be using at specific times.  Not every fight can be beaten with just Cloud endlessly hacking away at the enemy health bar with little to no regard for anything else. The gameplay requires you to think, to follow the proper steps to achieve your end goal.  FF7R knows this, and it has additional systems for you to expose in order to achieve your goal.

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Now, it wouldn’t be Final Fantasy 7 without the famous materia system.  It is back, and very little of it has been changed, which is a great thing.  Don’t fix what isn’t broken, right? Like in the original game, the materia system allows you to socket your weapons with various types of multicolored magic marbles.  Green materia are typical spells like fire, blizzard, and poison. Blue materia are typically socketed with green materia to create additional effects. Yellow materia is reserved for combat techniques like stealing and absorbing enemy abilities to throw back at the enemy.  Purple presents passive attributes that make certain aspects of combat easier like giving you a boost in hit points or magic points. Red materia is for summoning beings from other plains to assist you in combat. The materia gains levels as you defeat your enemies as long as you have it slotted within your weapon.  As they gain levels, the spells become more and more powerful, delivering devastating blows to enemies that might be weak to certain elements.

Weapon selection has also been enhanced, making you think about what you want to bring with you in battle.  Each weapon you find in Midgar has various stats that are suited for different styles of combat and evolve over time. Some weapons are good if you use magic abilities a lot, as others are good at delivering raw damage.  Like materia, as you gain experience so do your weapons. To keep each weapon relevant during your time in the game, you can upgrade your weapon. You can increase some stats of the weapon such as attack power, magic abilities, and even gain additional materia slots.  On top of that, each weapon has a special ability tied to it. Signifying that the typical cycle of finding new powerful weapons and discarding the old one immediately is a thing of the past.

In order to keep the FF7 flavor, combat becomes a bit more hectic with the addition of the active time bar (ATB).  You have two blue bars that fill up over time, and when one or both of them are filled you can execute additional abilities, use spells, or use an item.   As you pull up the menu, the game slows down, allowing you to make your decision easily and without a massive amount of pressure. It gives you time to think about your next move or find that elixir in your pocket.

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Offensive capabilities are well thought out and are accompanied by two active maneuvers: guard and doge.  You can guard against attacks using the R1 button, lowering the amount of damage you take and outright nullifying certain attacks.  The circle button is reserved to quickly step out of the way and dodge some attacks. The problem with both of these is how they are executed in battle.  As enemies move fast, it becomes harder to defend yourself with your guard. So you have to opt for the more reasonable dodge roll. The problem is that the dodge roll doesn’t work in the same typical fashion in other games that feature a dodge roll mechanic.  You are still vulnerable to damage as you roll out of the way from enemy attacks. Some enemies project their attacks on the ground, and by the time you realize what is going on, you don’t have enough time to properly get out of the way.

There is a bit of relief though.  You can freely swap between characters in battle, or use the trigger buttons to command your teammates to perform a certain ability.  Swapping, attacking, building up the ATB gauge, then executing your plan is usually easier than hoping the computer does the right thing in battle.  If you give a character all the healing spells, you have to keep an eye out and hope that character helps you when the time comes. Otherwise you are kitting out your characters with the same materia just to survive combat.  FF7R could have benefited from the Final Fantasy 12 gambit system, where you can set parameters for your teammates that react to certain combat situations. This brings me to the most controversial opinion on the game: it is too difficult.

The first battle with the Scorpion Mech is a memorable one to say the least.  In the demo, the battle is long and very difficult. Many people on social media felt ashamed to admit that they used so many phoenix downs.  The retail release features a less punishing battle but it’s still a tough one nonetheless. This continues to plague the game the further you get into it.  For me, I played the game on normal difficulty until one particular boss broke me, making me kick the difficulty down to easy.

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I noticed the difference in these two difficulties is incredibly pronounced.  Normal difficulty doesn’t feel normal, it feels rather punishing. Enemies hit very hard and fast, and they do not take enough damage and become very hard to stagger.  Boss battles become half hour bouts, and since you have no idea what you are going to face, you don’t always have the chance to equip yourself with the most effective gear.  A single materia can change the tide of battle, if it’s the elemental one that adds the linked elemental materia to your weapon damage, and you happen to have the element that the boss absorbs, you might as well start the fight over.  The battle was lost before it even started.

On easy, the fights are much quicker, faster, and you stagger enemies effortlessly.  It becomes unbalanced in your favor. But the odd thing is that even though I feel guilty about steamrolling the game at the same time it feels way more fun.  I feel as powerful as Cloud is supposed to be. I don’t have to stress myself out on certain aspects like what I have equipped, and is it the most useful thing I can have?  Easy mode might be the best mode to play for many gamers who wish to experience the story without the combat feeling overwhelming or punishing. Especially parents with kids who don’t feel like spending a half hour fighting a boss, only to die at the end and redo the entire fight over (a.k.a. me).  

The last bit I will talk about when it comes to gameplay is the easiest to discuss because it seems to be a function that fails in almost every game and that is the camera. Many times you will focus on one enemy and another will hit you off screen.  This also leaves your rolling and blocking abilities to be entirely useless. The camera also gets stuck in some places, leaving you to move around a bit more just to get the perfect angle to perform certain out of combat abilities.

As I said before, FF7R gets the combat pretty damn close to perfect.  It makes you think on your feet and use the skills and abilities that you have at your disposal, even though you might not realize that you have it.  It’s a lot of trial and error, and in some circumstances when a battle is tough and getting you down, it feels great to finally overcome that which was holding you down.  Unless you are on easy mode. Then it’s pretty simple, most of the time.

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At times the game is absolutely beautiful to a level that makes my wife gasp at Sephiroth’s glorious and well conditioned hair.  Other times the game doesn’t load the environment correctly, making you feel you are wandering in a slum of literal shit from the residents that live 984 feet above you.  Many times I have seen rusted doors look like grey and brown pixelated slabs.  

It’s clear that Square cut corners in some aspects of this game.  I don’t want to say that the game was rushed (it’s been like ten years), but when the main characters are perfect models and everyone else around them looks like a sack of potatoes with a generic face duct taped on, it breaks immersion a bit.  You can almost tell how important a character is to the story based upon how well rendered they are.  

Although this can be problematic at some times, it’s understandable why they cut some of these corners.  The particle effects when you execute a particular special move is jaw droppingly gorgeous. The colors that fill the battlefield as you are shooting bolts of fire at distant enemies are some of the best effects I have ever seen in a game.  When enemies are defeated and their bodies dissipate into green glowing orbs that disappear into the environment, it doesn’t feel out of place. These are where the graphics feel incredibly detailed, and it makes me think about what parts of this game took precedence over others.  You are not going to care about the 5th twin at Wall Market while you are slicing and dicing robots and looking dope while doing it.

Skyboxes look fantastic, and looking at the underside of the upper plates of Midgar make you feel like an ant.  At times when you are looking down from high up, you get this perspective that you never saw in the original game.  FF7R does a wonderful job at setting this dark tone through the destruction that plagues the slums. There are certain parts of the game that stops and allows you to take in the scenery, almost begging for you to hit that screenshot button.  It’s a dreadful shame that this title is lacking a photo mode when it’s clearly begging for one.

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You can hear the click every time Cloud takes his sword off his back and puts it back on.  From the clanging of swords to the impact of a lightning bolt striking a robot, the game oozes audio perfection.  Even when you travel, you can hear the change in tone when going from running on dirt to running on solid metal. Menu cues are distinct and don’t blend in with the chaos that surrounds you in the battlefield.  You can even hear the sounds of the ATB ding, sending you the cue to use an ability or spell.

Despite all the effects sounding amazing, we aren’t here to discuss this particular aspect of sound.  Sure, it’s great and really adds to the game and it is not to be denied or passed over. But it’s the remade music that is the real highlight of this game.  The cascading orchestral magnificence pulls you in immediately upon starting the game. The horns that blare the first time you lay your eyes on Midgar, in all of its glory, makes the scene truly breathtaking.  The low hums of violins that resonate as you explore the slums create a sense of ever present danger, keeping you on your toes every step of the way.

Saying this soundtrack is immersive doesn’t do it justice.  It tugs on your heartstrings and it personally brought me back to the first time I experienced this game.  One of the greatest feats of this title, besides the music, is the impeccable voice acting of the cast. Every character is so well versed, acted, and fit perfectly.  Every voice is exactly how I imagined it to be when I played the original game; especially Barret’s.  

Final Fantasy 7 Remake is a wonderful title held down by a less than wonderful episodic concept that actually makes a lot of sense when you finish the game.  This volume does take place entirely in Midgar, which is the first disk of the original game. Details about volume 2 have yet to be divulged, and currently are unknown.  It is easy to dismiss this game due to that fact, but in all honesty, it is worth experiencing. If you haven’t played the original title but are interested in this one, I would suggest playing it.  There will be a lot of elements that may be unknown to you, and the nostalgia factor will not be there, but you will be able to experience a well made story filled with mystery.  Is it filled with tons of fan service? Of course it is, but the game changes itself and adds more where the fan service feels just right while not isolating people who didn’t play the first game.

It took me around 35 hours to complete the story and all of the side quests, and to be honest I feel like I got my money’s worth.  If you are someone that wants to hunt for trophies, you can spend at least another 35 hours getting the platinum. Even though I have finished the story, and had a wonderful experience, I can’t wait to jump back in to tie up some loose ends.  I also can’t wait to load up the game just before volume 2 is eventually released. Hopefully it won’t take another 5 years.

 

Note II: Thank you for reading.  As I mentioned before, I kept a lot of the story elements out.  I will be writing another part of this review that goes over my thoughts on the story. 

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