Final Fantasy 7 Remake review: Bloated, and beautiful

Final Fantasy 7 Remake review: Bloated, and beautiful

1997’s Final Fantasy 7 was always audacious, a game ahead of its time.

I can see what Final Fantasy 7 was meant to be when I replay the original, not despite the blocky character models and the awkwardly inserted pre-rendered interludes and backgrounds, but because of them. I’ve always seen beauty in the parts that fall short, the moments where you can sense the developers’ vision of what the game could be hitting the edges of what was possible at the time.

Playing the original release of Final Fantasy 7 in 2020 reveals a game with the energy of someone trying to create a blockbuster with the resources of a high school play. The vision, and the scope, of an epic was always there. The technology was still being developed. It’s that tension that still makes the original game one of the most interesting experiences of its era. The hardware was powerful for its time, but the team already wanted — and probably needed — more.

So what happens when those technical limitations are gone, replaced with 23 years of progress?

Final Fantasy 7 Remake happens, but how you feel about Square Enix’s effort to remake Final Fantasy 7 today — greatly expanded and unhindered by the technology of yesteryear — may say more about your feelings on technology and nostalgia than the game itself. You may see the original as a timeless masterwork or a dated relic, and the lens through which you view this second chance to get it “right” will depend on what you think was “wrong” about the game in the first place.

Keeping what works

One of the most remarkable things about Remake is that, despite expanding the original game’s opening sections many times over, it still feels extremely faithful to the original.

Remake takes the first six hours or so of the original game—the part that takes place entirely in the stratified, metal city of Midgar—and expands them into a roughly 40-hour narrative. The rest of Final Fantasy 7’s story will be told in future games. And, though it’s embellished with several new narrative detours, the broad strokes of the story are mostly the same.

You primarily play as Cloud Strife, a reticent mercenary with spiky hair and a mysterious past. Cloud falls in with a group called Avalanche— who are either brave resistance fighters or cowardly eco-terrorists, depending on who you ask — to prevent the Shinra Electric Power Company from sucking the planet dry of an important natural resource called mako. But Cloud is non-ideological, at least at first. He’s just there for the money.

[Ed. note: Final Fantasy 7 is a very old game, but some of the details discussed in this review could be considered very light spoilers.]

Cloud’s characterization here is tricky, and only partially successful. He needs to be emotionally distant, because his unavailability is a crucial part of his character arc, but he also has to hold our attention as the central figure of the narrative. And while the original game got to take Cloud through his full journey as a character, Remake is stuck with the Cloud we know at the beginning of that journey. He too often ends up feeling like a blank slate, a stand-in for a general “hero” character, but thankfully he’s surrounded by much more expressive characters who pick up most of the slack.

There’s Barret, the head of Cloud’s Avalanche cell. Barret always felt like a clunky stereotype, with his tendency for furious outbursts and confrontational language, even in 1997. Square Enix was overly fond of this character type at the time: See also Aya’s partner Daniel from the 1998 game Parasite Eve.

That stereotype didn’t entirely define Barret then, and it certainly doesn’t now. We’re given more time to see him being tender with his daughter Marlene in the remake and, while many of us may have rolled our eyes at his angry lectures about the fate of the planet before, it’s now much easier to relate to his righteous outrage at a company that is aggressively pushing the world into an ecological crisis from which it can’t recover. Barret still suffers from some outdated racist characterizations, but the expanded scope of this section of the story at least gives him more to do, and more time to show his humanity outside of what was originally little more than a caricature.

Tifa was always my favorite member of the Avalanche crew because of her no-nonsense demeanor and her tough physicality, and she’s fine here once again, as is Aerith, the flower girl with a deep connection to the planet and a crucial role to play in its fate.

For all of this game’s expanded length, however, I didn’t come away with an enriched or newly complicated understanding of these characters. They’re familiar, and I was glad to see them again and to spend time with them, but nothing this game offers with regard to them took any chances or meaningfully affected my impression of who they are.

That’s less a criticism of Remake than it is high praise for the original which, in its comparatively lean six-hour Midgar intro, already made Tifa and Aerith feel like characters I was going to remember for the rest of my life.

Over time, Cloud gradually gets more personally invested in Avalanche’s struggle, and finds that a figure who has played some mysterious role in his past, the enigmatic Sephiroth, is on his own destructive quest on behalf of the planet. But Remake ends just where the original’s narrative really gets going, and turning FF7s introduction into a full release presents some interesting storytelling challenges. Without spoiling anything, it’s fascinating to see the credits for this release roll right when you originally glimpsed the world map beyond Midgar in the original game.

The moment that once offered a thrilling feeling of liberation as things really opened up has been replaced by … well, a new climax that exists as part of the larger, new story. Remake delivers an ending that makes me feel as if I’ve earned a temporary, but significant, victory, while also being clear that there’s more to come.

The whole thing still seems stretched, sadly. Most of Remake’s added running time comes not from meaningful new explorations of familiar characters and their relationships, but from things that feel tangential to the main story. For instance, an entirely new quest finds you learning a great deal about a character named Leslie, who didn’t appear in the original game at all, and who works in the service of crime lord Don Corneo.

Taken on its own terms, it offers interesting insight into Leslie’s conflicted loyalties and nicely complicates a supporting character who might otherwise have seemed simple, but it also feels a bit superfluous to the game’s narrative core.

Leslie could be removed from the game completely and the story would still work, and we know that for a fact because we’ve already played that game. What we don’t know is whether his character has only begun a larger arc that will pay off in a larger way in future releases. It’s important to remember that we’re stuck trying to judge these changes without knowing everything about how the story plays out, so some criticisms, or even some praise, should be considered temporary pending the release of future games.

An updated character model from Final Fantasy 7 Remake shows the extra detail put into how each character looks.

Image: Square Enix

Where Remake does do some great work enriching our understanding of characters from the original game is with Biggs, Wedge, and Jessie, the supporting members of Cloud’s Avalanche cell, who were only vague character sketches before. Here, an early detour to the home of Jessie’s parents not only lets us see a suburban neighborhood where people live in relative luxury compared to those in the slums down below; it also gives us a clear sense of just what Jessie is fighting for, and what she has personally sacrificed for her political ideals. Even the people who benefit, at least superficially, from the existing power structure have reason to overthrow it.

The opportunity to spend more time with these characters early on becomes crucial later in the story as the battle between Shinra and Avalanche escalates, and the possibility that some characters could die becomes more real. More characters are now more human, and this raises the stakes of the story substantially, although the boss battles do everything they can to deflate that sense of urgency — we’ll get to that in a bit.

Painting with a more detailed brushes

Reviewing this game in the traditional sense is complicated due to the massive shadow cast by the original, but at least the creative team is aware of that. For all its new narrative content, it’s all but impossible to consider Remake as a new, standalone work, because it is so clearly, and so often, working to engage with our familiarity with, and nostalgia for, the original.

So maybe, to look at this release critically, we have to start at the beginning. What actually makes Final Fantasy 7 so beloved? What should the aims of this kind of remake be? What should be preserved, and what should be erased? It may not even be possible to separate what so many of us loved about the original release from the technical aspects of its creation, especially since removing those limitations changes the game in so many fundamental ways.

The remake trades the original’s various, and usually static, camera angles for a more modern, and now-standard, third-person perspective. But while the original’s cameras may have been borne out of necessity — due to the game’s use of pre-rendered backgrounds that were required to show that much detail on screen — the constantly shifting perspective gave the original a sort of kinetic visual energy that’s lacking in the remake. The first release, to overuse a term, is much more cinematic, despite its relatively primitive looks.

A look at an updated environment from Final Fantasy 7 remake

Image: Square Enix

There’s power and meaning to seeing Cloud as a tiny figure far below you, dwarfed by the industrial machinery of the mako reactor, early in the original game. There was artistry and creativity in those choices about how to frame different scenes. It was directed, in other words, even if that direction was created out of necessity. The new camera angle has virtues of its own, though. While the original game’s perspective can keep you at a bit of a remove, in Remake, as the people of Midgar’s slums suffer, you’re right there in the thick of it with them, moving through crowds as people lament their inability to find work, or express the trauma of living in such violent and unstable times.

So the remake gives as much as it takes. There are visually stunning moments here that weren’t possible in the original. Late in the game, after a colossal disaster has left much of Midgar’s landscape in ruins, you can look down and see buildings piled atop each other far below you like a mess of children’s building blocks. It’s a gutting sight to behold.

Characters have more freedom to show emotion due to the huge amount of detail made possible by modern hardware. When stunning gold and purple sunlight streams in over the horizon of Midgar after part of the massive metal plate blocking the view is removed, you feel the ways in which the world our heroes call home is experiencing massive, irrevocable change .. for good or ill. Updated visuals aren’t always just there for their own sake; Square Enix has found some added meaning in the new tools at their disposal for this release.

Other aspects of the game and its story benefit from the Remake treatment as well, perhaps none more than the somewhat infamous Wall Market section.

In the original game, Cloud and Aerith come to Wall Market to aid Tifa, who has offered herself up as a “bride” to the lecherous crime lord Don Corneo in order to extract some vital information from him, and Cloud ends up dressing in feminine garb to be allowed into his mansion. The original game suggested that Cloud’s need to dress as a woman was something to be discussed in shameful whispers, and the way it mocked the “manly” men at the local gym for possessing a feminine wig that Cloud must win doesn’t age very well.

Cloud’s quest to gain entrance to Don Corneo’s quarters is now significantly more elaborate. He must earn the approval of Andrea Rhodea, a man who runs a local establishment called the Honey Bee Inn. Earning Rhodea’s respect means sharing the stage with him in a simple rhythm game dance number, and the wonderful thing about this edit is that the sequence with two men dancing together isn’t played for laughs at all, but is instead presented as something both joyous and fun.

Cloud gets dressed up to meet an important contact

Image: Square Enix

Cloud is then transformed into “a vision of beauty” by Rhodea’s crew in an upbeat, sexy scene, and when Rhodea tells our newly transformed hero that true beauty is a thing without shame, and that Cloud should never be afraid of it, my withered transgender heart grew three sizes. An out of touch joke is turned into a sincere and fun moment of growth and expression in the Remake, which is quite a tonal shift from the original game. A tremendously welcome one.

I wish I felt that all of Remake’s efforts to expand on the original were this vital and successful, but many of them just weigh the game down and interrupt the effective, economical pacing of the original.

Remember the sight of a giant robot hand in the ruined underpass that Cloud and Aerith pass through? It was a wonderful throwaway detail that helped flesh out the world, but it’s now been expanded into a series of basic puzzles in which you must take control of large mechanical hands to move objects and lift Aerith to places where she can lower a ladder for Cloud. It’s these moments where Remake’s philosophy that “more is more” starts to show its own limitations.

I was sometimes reminded of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, which takes J.R.R. Tolkien’s genteel children’s book and turns it into three epic, bombastic blockbusters, seemingly failing to understand that it was the relative quaintness of the book that many of us actually adored. Just because the team now has more freedom to show something, or turn a background detail into a puzzle or side-quest, doesn’t mean that it always should, and the result is often self-indulgent.

And perhaps nowhere is Remake’s tendency to embiggen everything, regardless of the tonal cost it has on the overall experience, more apparent than in combat.

Everything larger than everything else

Combat now happens in real time, a huge shift from the original’s turn-based design, but you can only guard, evade, or use standard physical attacks when a fight begins. Your ATB (or Active Time Battle) gauge fills as you attack or take damage, and full segments can then be used to cast spells, use items, or take advantage of your special abilities.

You only control one character directly at a time, but you can switch between your party members at will, and time slows to a crawl when you pull up menus to spend your ATB gauge charges or to issue commands to other characters. Combat often turns into a fairly simple affair of using the Assess ability to view an enemy’s elemental weaknesses, exploiting those weaknesses via magic to fill its stagger gauge, and then whaling on it to finish it off. It’s more active, but is that what we’re looking for? Is that what Final Fantasy 7 needs? I’m not so sure. It’s different, but not necessarily better.

The problem with Remake’s combat isn’t one of mechanics, but pacing. This game loves its boss battles. You may think that the original FF7 loved its boss battles, and it does, but Remake game really, really loves its boss battles. Practically every boss fight against a giant mech or a malevolent spirit or a possessed house or yet another giant mech is a multi-stage affair in which you can feel the team straining, as the battle wears on and the enemy shifts from one attack pattern to another to another, to make the battle feel tremendously epic, as if this is some threat the likes of which your party and the world has never faced before.

There are diminishing returns for this kind of approach, however, and when every boss encounter is ramped up to the extreme, eventually epic just becomes another word for exhausting. It’s hard to feel like the stakes are being raised by each battle when you know a bigger one is just an hour or two away or, even worse, a comparable one has recently taken place.

Huge monsters do battle across a purple sky

Image: Square Enix

Remake also adds side quests to Cloud’s time in Midgar, but their effect on the overall experience is negligible. Side quests can be a way to deepen our sense of the world and the people who live there, but only if they’re used well.

Side quests in Remake are awkwardly cordoned off from the rest of the game. At a few points, typically upon arriving in a new town, you’ll have an opportunity to stop progressing the main story for a while and run around doing errands for people, but that opportunity closes the moment you decide to resume the central quest. This format prevents the quests from feeling like an organic, integrated aspect of the world and the lives of its people.

And the content just isn’t very interesting. You might have to find cats in different spots around the slums, or do a generic go-here-and-kill-the-monsters quest for a generic NPC. They’re filler, in other words, and not particularly enjoyable or inventive filler.

For every unnecessarily elaborate new environmental puzzle or boss battle or side quest, though, there’s a new character moment, or a conversation between characters that casts the game’s political concerns into sharp relief.

For instance, when you enter the insulated elegance of the Shinra building toward the end of the game, Tifa expresses her awareness that many Shinra employees have no understanding whatsoever of the oppression and suffering that their work fuels. They’re just ordinary people, trying to provide a decent life for their own families. Barret replies that that’s no excuse for their complicity. It’s a nicely complicated moment, one that acknowledges that Final Fantasy 7 has always been political.

Remake doesn’t deny that or try to simplify the game’s politics. On the contrary, it makes the fight for the fate of the planet feel personal and urgent, and it allows characters like Tifa to have misgivings about what the right way is to wage that battle, even as she knows the battle must be fought.

Better, or just different?

Remake is wildly uneven, poorly paced, and not entirely successful as a game in its own right. It takes a game that still feels staggeringly ambitious and often turns it into something more traditional, even if every aspect of the experience is so much more technically advanced.

But Remake is also the very best thing a game can be: fascinating. It forces us to confront our subjective tastes, and asks us to consider what we value in the games we play. Your feelings about Remake will be determined by what you, personally, valued in the original release.

It’s a mirror held in front of each member of the audience. What are your favorite parts of Final Fantasy VII, and did Square Enix enhance those aspects of the game, make them worse, or remove them altogether? Every fan of the original is likely going to have a slightly different answer to both questions.

Gaming has grown, and so have we, but what have we lost in the transition? This isn’t a replacement for the original game, it’s another take on the same ideas, blown up to fill multiple releases in a way that feels artistically justified in some ways and mercenary in its approach to becoming a commercial juggernaut in others.

We know where we’ve been, and this beginning of an updated version of that experience gives us some idea of where the modern Square Enix thinks we’re headed. The biggest question left is whether fans will agree with its assessment.

Final Fantasy 7 Remake will be released April 10 on PlayStation 4. The game was reviewed using a final download code provided by Square Enix. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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