Final Fantasy VII Remake is not the OG game with better visuals. It’s a remake, sequel, and spinoff wrapped in one. It’s a chance for Square-Enix to bring a franchise into a new age, except it often feels lost in a ever-evolving design philosophy. It pulls on the heartstrings of nostalgia while frustrating us with half steps. Its existence begs the question – What is a final fantasy game in 2021?
Stuck At A Crossroads
Final Fantasy games have always been turned-based affairs. In the old days, a group of heroes would line up on the right side of the screen and the enemy on the left. Everyone waiting for their ATB gauge to charge before dealing damage. Back then, fun was in the management of your team. Did you assemble the best team with the best equipment to overpower a boss? Or did you miscalculate and now find yourself on the receiving end of an ass whopping? Many of us grew up on this system, but nothing can stay the same forever.
Over the years, the combat system in Final Fantasy has transitioned from static to fluid. Characters now freely roam the battlefield, with Cloud feeling more like Kratos than Locke from Final Fantasy VI. The decision to shift towards action is a welcomed change. It’s so satisfying to swing the Buster Sword in real-time. But that freedom is held back by tradition.
The trouble with combat starts with the Stagger meter. In Remake, the objective is to string together attacks to build an enemy’s stagger gauge. Once an enemy is staggered, you can deal significant damage for an easy kill. Of course, not every enemy or boss is the same, so you must utilize different tactics. The ATB gauge, however, locks those tactics behind a timer. I want to string attacks together as quickly as possible. And because stronger enemies require more damage to build the gauge, I need access when I want. Instead, I’m handicapped because I have to use the ATB meter for actions that shouldn’t require a timer, like the use of items. How can you present me with an action game but not give me the tools to play like an action game?
Alongside ATB management is character management. What made older FF games fun was the ease with which I could manage the battlefield. No one moved unless I commanded it, which I could use to my advantage to keep my team out of harm’s way. However, in Remake, each character I’m not playing with has an AI that does its own thing. Unless I’m constantly switching between characters, my team can find itself in life-threatening situations. Switching between party members, while fluid, always felt a bit jarring because I never knew what position I would find myself in. Compound this with the fact that non-controlled characters’ ATB gauge would build slower, and you find yourself in situations where what you want to do versus what is possible does not match. This disconnect of plan versus gauge would often leave you open to enemies that seemingly had no meter at all.
I can’t help but wonder if Square-Enix believes that, in some way, turn-based mechanics are what makes a Final Fantasy game. Would it still be a Final Fantasy game if those traditional combat mechanics were absent? Would it be that bad if Cloud played more like Kratos? If I didn’t switch between teammates but issued commands like Gears of War or Mass Effect, could we still call it a JRPG? Why give us this freedom of movement and expression through combat only to hamper us with ATB? There’s nothing wrong with either system. The traditional turn-based system would have worked in this game, just as a completely new action-driven system would work as well. However, you have to pick a side because straddling the fence is only hampering the experience. Just ask people how much they enjoy the camera angles and aerial combat.
A Better Cast of Characters
Where the game excels is in character development. There is such a deeper relationship between characters on display in Remake. Cloud and Barret build what feels like the old buddy-cop relationship as they travel through Midgar. Jessie, Biggs, and Wedge, once throwaway characters, become people you care about. The game makes you want to listen to the side conversations. The care each voice actor puts into their character brings richness to the dialogue. Unlike the old days where we had to make up the voices based on the text, we can hear the nuance in the conversations and are rewarded for it.
A Story Lost In Time
The story has always been the heart of every Final Fantasy game. We all can remember our favorite moments in a Final Fantasy game. In FFVII, it’s Sephiroth walking through the flames of Nibelheim. Which such a memorable story, it was important that Square-Enix delivered on the retelling of a classic. And for the most part, they nail it. But like most new age Final Fantasy games, they couldn’t help themselves.
All the significant moments that you remember from the OG version are in this game. Cloud still falls through the roof of the church, and you’ll still wander through Wall Market, but the developers tweaked many of those classic scenes. For example, the encounter between Avalanche and President Shinra plays out differently than the original version. Instead of watching a man walk out only to utter a classic villain line(“kill them”), we get a conversation between an evil CEO and a group of rebels. The game provides more backstory to the motivations of Shinra as a company. Of course, the most significant change occurs in Wall Market. However, I’ll let you experience that sequence for yourself.
The game also adds small touches that add some depth to the story. There’s the Shinra soldier who recognizes Cloud from his old days in Shinra’s army. And there’s the trip to the upper plate to visit Jessie’s parents. The Wutai conflict also plays a more prominent role in the story, which gives the plot points more credibility.
There are some downsides, however, mainly concerning side quests and level design. Those of us who played the original game know that the Midgar section isn’t that long. And Square-Enix couldn’t sell you a $60-$100 game with only a playtime of 8-10 hours. So they padded the game with side quests and extended sections of the game. Unfortunately, these additions never match the excitement and engagement of the primary story beats. The side quests are primarily ‘fetch quests’, and certain sections drag on longer than one would like. The game tries to reward you for your patience, but you’re often left feeling like there was a better use of your time. Slowing the story after pivotal moments creates problems with the pacing. After watch Avalanche blows up a reactor, the last thing I want to do is help some NPC find some cats.
And then there’s the addition of ‘Fate’ as an antagonist. The reason the story of the original game worked so well is that there was a central villain. Sephiroth served as the primary vehicle for the story. Every move the Cloud and company made was to stop him. We left Midgar to chase Sephiroth. But what happens when Sephiroth isn’t the focus? Certain revelations muddy the motivations of just about every character in the game. I don’t know if we’re chasing Sephiroth or doing something completely different from the game’s original plot. If that’s the case, then this isn’t Final Fantasy VII. It’s a spinoff, which isn’t terrible unless it becomes a complete mess which definitely could happen. Instead of ‘group stops the bad guy. Saves the world’ we have to spend hours on YouTube listening to fan theory.
Final Fantasy VII Remake feels more like a demo than a ‘Part One’. A collection of ideas and potential design philosophies to be used in future Final Fantasy games. It’s a game stuck at the crossroads of history and progression. For every step forward, the game makes two steps back. I told my good friend Tilt there’s a great game underneath all the confusion. I just hope I get to experience that game in Part Two.