Packed with great characters, fun gameplay and a newly fleshed-out narrative, the remake of the 1997 classic is a success on practically all fronts.
My first introduction to the Final Fantasy series was about a year ago with Final Fantasy XV. Completely underwhelmed after playing it for a couple of hours, I put it down and never touched it again. I found its characters annoying, the gameplay monotonous and it didn’t capture me as much as I had hoped it would. However, a few weeks ago, after I found myself having just completed Remedy’s excellent CONTROL, lockdown was beginning to rot my brain once again. I realised I needed another game to fill a void and so, admittedly, I bought the Final Fantasy XII Remake on a whim. However, what started as a whim, quickly turned into some of the most enjoyable moments of gaming that I’ve ever experienced. Almost unrecognisable from its original self with added characters, a redesigned combat system (somewhat similar to XV’s but with some quality of life improvements) and a complete fleshing out of the story, Square Enix’s remake has a lot more than a fresh coating of paint.
Visually, Square Enix’s remake is, for the most part, stunning. Improving the graphics in every way imaginable and bringing them to the current-gen console pays off in every visual respect. From the towering steel skyscrapers and gloomy slums to the fluorescent and luminescent Wall Market, the setting to each level pops in a unique way that makes them a beautiful backdrop to the gameplay and cutscenes. The character design (especially for the four-main playable characters) is also excellent with the care of animation in giving the characters a depth of facial expressions and little flourishes that give them a more life-like appeal. While it remains true that the characters are never more beautiful than when in cutscenes, there remains minimal graphical compromise outside of cutscenes which helps the game work as a cohesive whole.
Although, as much as the game is beautiful, as you explore or even look more closely, a disparity between its highs and its lows becomes quickly noticeable. Texturing, for one, is a significant FFVII weakness. While on the sleek high-rises and metallic structures it could be forgiven, it’s in the moments where Enix tries to give some texturing variation that the graphics begin to stumble. Flat, lifeless and often dull, these smaller details often seem glossed over and clunky. The worse by far is in the doors you aren’t meant to open, either looking like a blank slab of nothingness or dipping its toes in the complexity of pixelated art. Keyed with Enix’s unrelenting design of using doors to flourish the more “open” chapters, it becomes hard to avoid the glaring blemish that crops up across the whole game in from of texturing. However, the biggest visual eye-sore of the game comes much in its use of awful pre-rendered backgrounds which seem like they were plucked straight from the1997 original with no graphical enhancement. They are the epitome of laziness, especially when placed in context with some of better graphics of the game. While the player never interacts with these backgrounds the fact that the 3D level design abruptly gives way to 2D rendered environments that try to force perspective quickly mars much of the game’s beauty. It becomes quite literally inescapable wherever you look and becomes a glaring discrepancy placed in the unfortunate limelight.
Visuals aside though, another significant change in the remake is the story and its level of detail. While deciding to split the game into two parts (with no release date or even information on the second part), Square Enix’s decision is fully appreciated when you see how much they accomplish in the process. Adding characters, creating new arcs, fleshing out stories and building upon the foundation of the original lets the story begin to explore its characters more deeply and help make them feel real. As the game progressed, I felt emotionally for the characters and started to care for them in different ways. I often found myself laughing at Barrett’s spiffy one-liners and the accidental cracks in his tough-guy façade or genuinely worried for Aerith when pursued by the evil corporation that is Shinra. Added into the mix is loads of added side-dialogue to help the player learn more about the character by unobtrusive means while much of the exposition of the events in the game are glimpsed from listening into random NPC’s conversations. In fact, the narrative of the game is expanded on so many fronts that it begins to fuel an idea of a living game-world that feels fully alive in its random conversations and moments that litter the real-world. In terms of story and narrative, FFVII is an utter accomplishment that realises its slightly mad-cap premise and works with it, helping to straddle the meta-territory that it sometimes veers dangerously close to. It’s utterly Japanese in its design, but that is its biggest selling point that gives an added charm and charisma that Western RPG’s sometimes lack.
Of course, a game with boring gameplay would make all its accomplishments thus far very redundant, and it’s an added delight that playing FFVII is its greatest strength. Allowing you to control four characters with very different play styles (two close-combat and two ranged-combat), the game has a fast-paced action style that isn’t abated when you use its in-game pause to use certain moves and spells. The game thrives on quick thinking and strategy which imbues each battle with a level of exhilaration that I’ve never felt in an action game before. While similar to FFXV’s combat system, certain additions and the uniqueness of the characters you control helps bring about a sense of personality in the gameplay. This game won’t have you button mashing for its entirety but will have you quickly changing characters, considering new moves and weakness and working in a strategic way to cripple the enemies you face. It’s this combat system that makes up for the lacklustre side-mission design that tends to end in a semi-challenging battle because even after 35+ hours in the game, the combat system never becomes tiring or dull.
However, the game’s best action moments are in its boss fights, which remain reasonably challenging as well as consistently creative. In the first half of the game, each chapter tends to have a boss fight, but it subverts this mechanic brilliantly by placing these challenging battles at different points in the level. Some appear at the end of the chapter, some happen mid or even at the beginning of a chapter, adding an undeniable tension to each encounter and moment spent in FFVII. As you progress through the game though, some sections begin to stir the pot and add more of these challenging encounters (one chapter containing four boss fights pretty much back to back). Slowly, the game raises the stakes of its moments, and it gives way to sheer exhilaration. Yet, no boss battle surmounts the one that happens towards the end of the first half of the game which has you effectively designing the boss before you encounter it. It gives you decisions to choose between the removal of particular abilities and the risk of leaving other skills to decimate your team during the encounter. It’s a simple mechanic and gaming moment, but it felt like an impactful way to implicate the player’s choice and became the defining moment when I fell in love with FFVII whole-heartedly.
Square Enix’s remake is almost perfect. While its visual improvements are something to awe at, every great piece of detail comes at the expense of another it seems. Nevertheless, despite its graphical stumbles, the expanded world, story and narrative coupled with the exhilaration which makes the gameplay and combat of FFVII mean that it’s an enjoyable and mostly immersive experience from start to finish that I could not recommend enough.
Final Fantasy VII Remake is available to purchase now. Watch the trailer below: