The fact that remakes of both Resident Evil 3 and Final Fantasy 7 arrive just a week apart is pretty incredible, especially because they couldn’t be more different in their approaches as far as a “remake” goes. While RE3 is a mostly faithful modernization of its original, Final Fantasy 7 is less a remake and more a complete reinvention. It swaps turn-based combat with exciting real-time action and expands the first leg of the original story by dozens of hours – including with a bit too much filler and some convoluted new plot points. The long wait for this revival may not be a perfect reunion, but with or without nostalgia in play, it’s still a great JRPG in its own right.
Of course, Final Fantasy 7 Remake is actually only the first in what is planned to be a series of as-yet-unknown length that will, if it’s ever completed, retell the entire story of the 1997 JRPG classic. This game only covers the events that take place in the city of Midgar, where Cloud Strife and his freedom-fighting allies battle the evil Shinra corporation that run it. That means roughly the first five hours of the original have been stretched into a campaign that took me more than 33 hours to complete, and there are still a few optional stones I left unturned.
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It’s an odd decision that undoubtedly results in some structural problems, but also gives the city and its heroes more time to become fleshed out as interesting characters – even smaller ones like Avalanche’s Jessie, Biggs, and Wedge have time to become nuanced and compelling co-stars. This new telling regularly jumps between shot-for-shot recreations of the original, welcome expansions to existing sequences, and brand-new scenes that offer either enticing new perspective or pointlessly dull padding that frequently makes you retread previously explored areas.
Bust a Move
Thankfully, the guiding star through areas new and old is FF7R’s combat, which more than proves itself to be endlessly engaging across dozens of hours and against more than 100 different types of enemies. I’ll admit that I was initially sad to hear this remake wouldn’t use the original Final Fantasy 7’s turn-based Active Time Battle (ATB) combat, but the way that iconic system has been transformed into real-time brawling is exceptional. And though you only directly control one character at a time, you’ll constantly be giving orders to and swapping between two more mid-fight.
While you can hack away at enemies all you want with the square button, doing so charges up your ATB bars, which you can then use on unique weapon abilities, equippable spells, and items. Pulling up the command menu to pick one of these things slows time to a crawl, letting you comfortably pick actions for your entire party in the middle of combat – but that persistent slow creep forward adds a tension to every choice that truly reminded me of the frantic decision making the original elicited. (There is a “Classic” mode difficulty option, but all it does is automate all your actions in combat apart from ATB use, making it a strange middle ground I didn’t enjoy.)
Button mashing won’t get you very far.
Every character also has a unique ability mapped to triangle that doesn’t use ATB – for example, Cloud can switch to “Punisher Mode” for extra damage but reduced speed, while Tifa can unleash a big finisher that’s powered up by one of her abilities. You can also dodge and guard at will, and you’ll need to do so a lot. Though it never got super challenging on Normal difficulty, there’s enough nuance to it that just mashing square to unleash flashy basic attacks won’t get you too far.
In addition to a health bar, enemies have a stagger gauge that stuns them and increases the damage they take when full. It’s a system we’re seeing more of nowadays, but the clever twist is that every enemy’s stagger gauge fills in a different way. Sure, some of the more basic guys like Wererats and Shinra soldiers you just need to hit a lot, but others might be weak to a specific elemental magic, require you to dodge a certain attack, or cripple a body part in order to stagger them. Those differences keep combat fresh the whole way through, and I loved learning the puzzle of how to take down each enemy.
Should You Play the Original First?
The short answer to this is yes because it’s still a great, old-school RPG. But whether or not you need to play it before this is a little murkier. It may be a remake, but it genuinely does feel like an entirely new game at times, and you’ll generally be able to pick up the story here regardless of your experience with the original.
That said, if this is your first experience with Final Fantasy 7, you’ll undoubtedly miss out on a lot of references, a handful of inside jokes, and that general warm and fuzzy feeling nostalgia offers. But it’s still a super fun game without all that – although, once you reach its finale, I imagine newcomers will be hopelessly lost by completely unexplained teases that I assume work to set up its sequel.
That variety is a big part of why FF7R’s boss fights are so incredible, too. These cinematic showdowns are as intimidating as they are exciting, always multi-phase confrontations that rarely left me mindlessly swinging my Buster Sword. It’s incredible to see how returning bosses have been reimagined as well, with what were once throwaway creatures like the sewer-dwelling Abzu transformed into epic confrontations full of newfound personality. These bosses have unique moves to learn and avoid alongside weak points that need to be taken down in strategic order with the right moves. And the way cutscenes are woven in at pivotal moments always put a smile on my face.
And even though I loved the spectacle of fighting a giant monster or robot, some of my favorite fights were actually against human enemies. FF7R has clearly taken some notes out of the Kingdom Hearts playbook (not always to its benefit, but more on that later) and these intimate, often one-on-one duels are a great example. Each of these bosses are interesting and unique from each other, but they all rely heavily on parries, dodging, and waiting for your window to strike. They play out like an overpowered anime duel in the best possible way.
Switching characters feels a bit like switching weapons.
Another important factor to conquering any fight is how you use your party. You’ll have up to three of the four total characters available and fighting at once (with your team determined entirely by where you are in the story). The ones you aren’t controlling will attack and defend well enough on their own, but nowhere near as effectively as when you take direct control – and crucially, they won’t use ATB bars unless you tell them to, which can easily be done from the command menu. This juggling act of managing the ATB of three characters at once can be thrilling when you’re also worrying about the robot trying to pummel your face, and it’s intuitive enough that I got the hang of it quicker than expected.
You’ll often need to switch the character you’re controlling directly too, since each one feels like a specific tool for a certain job. Barrett can more easily shoot down flying enemies, Cloud can quickly increase stagger, Tifa can lay massive burst damage on exposed enemies, and Aerith can send out big healing or magic damage as needed. Swapping between them sort of feels more like switching weapons than people in the heat of things, especially if you need to jump onto another character to more quickly charge their ATB for a specific move. While I spent my most time with Cloud, I’d also find myself frequently switching between them just because they were each a lot of fun to use.
Weapon of Choice
It’s good that their playstyles are so different, too, because any Materia can be given to any character. These collectible orbs are slotted into equipment to give a character spells and buffs, allowing you to make whoever you choose act as the mage, healer, tank, etc. of your party (although their base stats do have some influence on that decision as well). This flexibility is really pleasing, and I found myself swapping Materia and roles frequently as the story shook up my party composition.
There were certainly times where that got frustrating, however. It’s leaps and bounds easier to adjust your Materia here than it was in the original, but people can come and go from your party so often that I found myself in menus reslotting my rarer Materia more than I wanted to be. Materia ranks up as it’s used, so even if I had duplicates the ones I had equipped consistently were always better, and moving that Rank 3 HP Up Materia to a new character every time I was forced to switch parties certainly got old.
FF7R’s weapon system also had me digging through menu management more than I would have liked, but it’s such an intriguing system overall that I didn’t mind nearly as much. As opposed to being the quickly replaced stat increases that they so often are in RPGs, new weapons are persistent items that you’ll gather, keep, and upgrade throughout the campaign. Each one has a unique ability that can be earned permanently through use – things like Aerith’s AoE Sorcerous Storm or Cloud’s awesome Infinity’s End finisher – and that always gave me an incentive to try a new weapon out. Each character only has around a half dozen to find total, so you don’t get a ton of these game-changing upgrades, but my party, weapons, and Materia shifted around so much anyway that things never went stale.
Upgradeable weapons offer tons of flexibility for your party.
As you get stronger, your weapons can even be upgraded with a currency called SP that they earn automatically as the character who carries them levels up. SP can be spent on simple stat boosts, like increased physical or magic attack, or more unique effects, like one that heals you when enemies die or another that increases your damage when you’re at high health – there are also some effects unique to each character, like a set percentage for Tifa to enter a fight with her finisher (and fists) already powered up. The upgrades aren’t too exciting on their own, but the overall result is a huge benefit: each weapon stays relevant over the entire course of the campaign, growing in strength alongside you.
Upgrades cause a weapon’s strengths and weaknesses to become magnified over time, giving them different roles depending on how you want a character to play. Cloud’s signature Buster Sword offers well-rounded damage, but his Iron Blade can sacrifice that for defense. The Hardedge is a physical attack powerhouse, while the Mythril Saber is all about magic power – and though the Nail Bat (yes, the Nail Bat is back) is weaker by default, you can upgrade it to land tons of critical hits. It even transforms Cloud’s Punisher Mode attack combo into a single, home-run swing. I found myself frequently switching weapons as my Materia builds and party changed, but thought it was poetic that my favorite ended up being the starting Buster Sword by the final chapters.
Running through levels that range from the Midgar slums to industrial Shinra facilities (the visual variety here is actually fairly impressive for a set of locations limited to a single city) and swinging these powerful weapons was always fun, even if that was usually because of the enemies themselves rather than their surroundings. The level design in FF7R is serviceable but fairly simplistic; they’re generally just a linear series of paths with larger areas to fight in and not much to think about beyond some simple puzzles or hidden items to sniff out. The abundance of tiny bridges that you have to slowly walk across and stacks of boxes you have to tediously sidle past definitely didn’t help get to the good stuff, either.
Final Fantasy 7 Remake Gameplay Screenshots
While almost everything from the Midgar section of the original game is here – with some rooms being recreated exactly as I remember them and others extravagantly evolving in spectacular fashion – there’s also a whole lot of new stuff too, though not all of it is what I’d consider an improvement. Generally speaking, I love that this brief section of a much larger RPG has been zoomed-in on and fleshed out with real character development and a more robust story, but there are places where those additions elevate the source material and others where they drag both it and this new game down.
Anything that offered more context or insight into either Midgar as a city or the characters I once knew as blocky PS1 blobs was phenomenal. I loved meeting Jessie’s mom, learning Wedge is a cat lover, or seeing that Biggs clearly has anxiety – and I even enjoyed just getting to visit lively Midgar neighborhoods full of innocent bystanders living their lives while Cloud and friends attack their Shinra providers. I particularly appreciated one new mission that has you wrestling with the need to turn off the giant sun lamps that provide light to Midgar’s slums in order to progress further, giving more direct weight to Avalanche’s actions. These infusions of humanity were incredible and welcome, whether they were in entirely new sections or expanded existing ones.
Many additions elevated the source material, while others were just dull filler.
What I didn’t love, however, was when FF7R clearly decided it needed more stuff, regardless of quality, for the sake of achieving “full” RPG length. The most dull of these pop up whenever Cloud reaches a new residential area of Midgar’s slums – all of which are wonderfully detailed and brimming with life in a way that was truly magical to see realized – where he’ll be asked to do odd jobs as part of his mercenary work (something we previously never saw him do in Midgar outside of his work with Avalanche). The problem is that these are, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the weakest parts of this entire game.
Suddenly, the unique and foreign world of Midgar gives way to bottom-of-the-barrel JRPG tropes: a shopkeeper who unironically wants you to go kill some rats, a teacher who asks you to find her boring students around town, multiple fetch quests that send you looking for random items for essentially no good reason. All of this kills the pace and belittles the importance of the high-stakes events going on around you in the most cliche RPG sort of way. Their stories are rarely interesting, but worse is that nearly all of the combat areas in these quests have you retreading areas you’ve already completed, sapping these segments of FF7R’s strength in variety.
While these side quests (as well as more amusing arena-style fights and minigames like darts or Wall Market’s signature squat competition) are entirely optional, skipping them will cause you to miss extremely valuable items and unlocks – things like unique weapons, rare accessories, and much more – and can sometimes even minorly influence sections of the story later on without warning. I completed nearly all of the side quests, but more felt forced to do so out of a sense of obligation rather than amusement. Most of the time I was on one I couldn’t wait to get back on track.
The noticeable padding isn’t entirely limited to side quests either, unfortunately. One required mission later on in the story also has you retreading a previous section in what felt like little more than tried-and-true filler. I’m certainly not opposed to this remake inserting more than just added detail – the way the Train Graveyard has been reworked, for example, is truly fantastic, along with another fun new level near the end – but there’s a notable issue: Square Enix clearly wanted to make changes, but didn’t want to alter the core plot, which means many of its more elaborate inserts are entirely irrelevant to the story at hand. It reminded me a lot of the filler episodes and movies of popular anime: these diversions can definitely be fun, but nobody in the story will ever really mention them again and nothing about the plot will actually change as a result. If you could somehow skip some of them entirely, you wouldn’t even realize you’d missed anything at all.
The irrelevant padding isn’t limited to side quests.
A great example of this is Roche, a brand-new character who shows near the start of the story for an extra motorcycle chase scene (these sequences are still about as thin as the original was in 1997) and a single fight with Cloud, and is then bafflingly never heard from again. Sure, it’s a fun fight, and he’s a cool character, but his inclusion (alongside the entire new scenario around him, for that matter) is so irrelevant to the plot that he stands out like a sore thumb.
Thankfully, regardless of padding, this story is at least told in gorgeous fashion. The cutscenes here are truly magnificent to watch, and the graphics are generally stunning both in and out of them. Not to mention, the music is unbelievably good throughout, featuring excellent remixes of iconic songs that stretch past the walls of Midgar. There is some truly wonderful cinematic spectacle on display here, even if some of that spectacle (like my friend Roche) makes my eyes roll so hard I get dizzy.
To Infinity and Beyond
One major concern I had before starting FF7R was whether or not this previously brief Midgar section would feel like enough of a complete story on its own, and the result is mixed. Square Enix has done a great job of making this feel like a bigger story, and showing Cloud’s cold merc heart and awkward social demeanor soften over time gives vital character development to a section of the original that didn’t have much. That said, it’s impossible not to feel like this is anything but the setup for a bigger story we don’t actually get to see yet – because it is. I once again became invested in Avalanche’s fight against Shinra, but I was ultimately left wanting a more satisfying conclusion to this story, as well as a little anxious for how the next game might pick up from where this cliffhanger leaves off.
This remake also raises a metric ton of questions that it doesn’t deliver any semblance of answers to – some of these are clearly nods to fans of past games that will be incomprehensible to anyone out of the loop, but a lot of the totally new stuff (like the new hooded adversaries already shown off in trailers) is convoluted and confusing regardless of your previous experience. The way FF7R wantonly spouts nonsense that it just expects you to roll with toward the end of its story can only be properly described as “Some Kingdom Hearts BS” – and I say that as a fan of Kingdom Hearts. On top of that, its insane climax left me with a bad taste in my mouth no matter where the story decides to go from here.
A few parts can only be described as “Some Kingdom Hearts BS.”
Apart from additions that work toward making the world of Midgar and its people feel more real, the theme behind most of FF7R’s newly inserted plot points is one of uproarious spectacle with very little thought. Bear in mind, I was almost always having fun thanks to the excellent combat and I almost always enjoyed what I was seeing thanks to the amazing presentation. The issue isn’t that there are new story elements, but that most of them fall apart the moment you think about them too hard.
One post-game highlight, however, is that as soon as the credits roll you are given access to Hard Mode and the option to jump back into any of its chapters with all your current stats and equipment to complete missions, gather items, or just replay it from the beginning. That means you can seamlessly roll into what is basically a “New Game+,” or just finish up things you may have skipped past. I plan on diving back in to tie up some loose ends and throw some more darts, partially because of just how easy Square Enix has made it.