This review may contain minor spoilers.
Final Fantasy 7 should need no introduction, but for those of us who have not had a chance to play the original on the original PlayStation, here’s a brief summary. Final Fantasy 7 is set in the stratified city of Midgar owned and run by the Shinra Electric Company, where the city’s upper class lives and works on giant plates suspended over the slums below. The player follows Cloud Strife, an aloof, mysterious mercenary with a big sword as he works for the radical ecoterrorist group AVALANCHE in their efforts to sabotage Shinra. After successfully bombing one of Shinra’s reactors, things rapidly go downhill as the group discovers a conspiracy that puts the very planet in jeopardy.
Final Fantasy 7 Remake is less of a remake and more of an adaptation of the original story. While many of our beloved characters are intact, and a lot of the story beats are the same, it greatly expands on the source material. It feels like both a homecoming and a fresh take on the story with something for everyone, whether you’re a fan who’s been waiting over two decades for this or a new player interested in one of Square Enix’s most iconic characters.
FF7 Remake’s gameplay diverges from the original in that it’s an action-RPG in the vein of Kingdom Hearts and Final Fantasy 15. Battles take place in real time, with every character having a basic attack and a unique attack. After landing enough hits or blocking attacks, an ATB gauge fills up, which can be used to perform special attacks, spells, or use items. Commands slow time significantly, allowing you to plan out your attacks or take a breath to reassess the situation. While 15’s battle system felt kind of like playing on autopilot, FF7 Remake has a greater emphasis on exploiting enemy weak points with correct usage of materia and skills. You won’t get very far just spamming the same moves over and over again on the higher difficulties. To keep things engaging, the game hops from extended story beats, to combat, to little minigames. One segment might have you slaughtering sahagin in the sewers for an extended period, before being interrupted by cutscenes, before engaging in a water pump-clearing minigame that leads to a couple more fights. It almost feels like Kingdom Hearts in this regard, where different chapters have their own gameplay palate cleansers to offer.
While the original was good, the medium was somewhat limited. Text and low-poly models were all we got, and while breathtaking for its time, it’s difficult to convey mood and subtext when your characters can’t really make facial expressions. With the advent of modern computer graphics, though, the story of Final Fantasy 7 comes alive. Barrett, the headstrong leader of AVALANCHE, is just as over-the-top and passionate about saving the planet as he was in the original. Cloud is a laconic emo pretty boy who likes to look cool. Aerith still has a smart mouth, even when being faced with armed opposition. But now, we get to see them in even more depth than ever before – Barrett’s loud persona helps whip the team into a passionate fervor. While Cloud acts like an edgy brooding cool dude, his facade gets dropped around his childhood friend Tifa, and his act slips on more than one occasion. Tifa herself goes through some rather strong character development, starting off somewhat hesitant of AVALANCHE’s violent methods. Even Aerith, whose overly-cutesy, vulnerable waif persona was a point of contention in adaptations of 7’s story, is back to being cheeky and mischievous. She’s still pretty cute and crude, but in a way that doesn’t conflict with her portrayal as a capable young woman.
Midgar looks absolutely gorgeous in HD, from the sprawling tunnels of the plate’s train stations, to the Sector 7 slums, to the ruined church and the decadent squalor of Wall Market. Locales that were 15 minute jogs become memorable, character-building sequences. FF7 Remake does a great job of making me care for one-off characters and fall in love with established ones all over again. The other members of AVALANCHE – Biggs, Wedge, and Jessie – were little more than window dressing in the original. Now, with the addition of more sequences between the first and second bombing missions, I found myself actually being invested in them and their problems. Even Cloud, whose mercenary work is barely touched on in the original aside from his insistence of being paid, gets sequences between major plot events where you can actually do odd jobs and sidequests for folks around the slums. Existing scenes get extra love as well. While the crossdressing quest in the original already being funny, the remake’s retelling of it elevates it to positively gut-busting. Cloud in a dress has to be seen to be believed. With the expanded array of sidequests, the game handily tracks your progress for you, ensuring that you don’t forget where you are in a questline – and most sidequests allow you to instantly teleport to the quest giver on completion, so you waste less time wandering around.
Dusted in a healthy coat of nostalgia, fanservice, and polished to a mirror sheen, Final Fantasy 7 Remake makes me feel almost exactly how I felt when I first played the original many years ago. It’s a reunion that I welcome with open arms.