It’s taken five years to build the eagerly anticipated Final Fantasy VII Remake, but fans have been waiting a lot longer than that. STACK met with the game’s producer, Yoshinori Kitase, to learn more about the process.

The original Final Fantasy VII, released for the first PlayStation in 1997, was ground-breaking in many ways. It was the first Final Fantasy game to use 3D graphics which, at the time, looked like nothing else around, while its epic story was cinematic in scope and dramatically daring, and its turn-based combat offered a deep but accessible challenge. It was, needless to say, an instant classic.

In later years, the game has appeared on PC (with a PS4 version based on that enhanced version) but Square Enix resisted the temptation to “remaster” the game for modern hardware, something they’d done successfully with several other entries in the Final Fantasy series. Instead, the beloved game would get a top-to-bottom remake, something that was on the cards as early as 2005, when a PS3 tech demo was shown of the opening movie. It looked impressive back then (and can still be found online) but the same sequence in the final Remake is truly next-level cinematic stuff. Most impressive is how seamlessly the pre-rendered movie integrates with player-controlled gameplay.

“One of the big themes for the original game,” says Kitase, speaking through an interpreter, “was that seamless transition between the movie scenes and the gameplay itself. We think we’ve taken that to another level with the remake. The big thing is that the in-game engine graphics have improved so much compared to what they were in the original, and that really has closed the gap between that and the pre-rendered scenes.”

While the 2005 demo was built in Square Enix’s own Crystal Tools engine, Kitase and his team opted at an early stage to build Remake in a heavily customised version of Unreal Engine 4.

“When we announced we were going to do the remake, we started recruiting team members, game creators from all over the industry – not just from Japan, but from all over the world,” Kitase tells us. “So, we felt that rather than go with an internal game engine, Unreal 4 is something people from outside of the company would be familiar with and had experience developing on. It was an easier and smoother way to get everyone working on the game as quickly as possible, that’s the main reason we chose it.”

Unreal Engine does come with many technical advantages as well, and the end result on the PS4 Pro is a truly stunning achievement in graphical terms. The team behind Kingdom Hearts 3, which started development at Square Enix around the same time, were able to help tweak Remake to perfection.

Final Fantasy VII Remake

“After Kingdom Hearts 3 was out, we had a lot of the programmers from their team come over to the Remake team for the final leg of development, the optimisation and final polishing stage. The experience they had with finishing Kingdom Hearts 3 on the same engine really came in handy for that final push.”

It should be noted that we’re not getting the entire story in this remake. Faced with the challenge of telling the game’s story with a much more epic scope, Kitase decided to split the game into several instalments. It’s not yet known how many there’ll be – if Kitase knows, he’s not telling – but this first episode of Remake does stand on its own as a complete story.

“Compared to the original Final Fantasy VII, we’re actually only covering the original story up until the escape from Midgar in this game,” admits Kitase. “But it’s really such a large volume of content that it’s a fully-developed story in its own right. We’ve also done a bit of tweaking at the end of that story to make it feel more like a climax and really work as a standalone. Of course, it’s the first part of a bigger story, but it works in its own right.”

The playable characters in Remake function substantially differently to their turn-based originals, as now you’re playing in real time, able to slow time down to switch between characters mid-fight to use their unique abilities.

“We wanted to make it a more directly controlled, action-like game,” Kitase explains, “but we still wanted to keep the idea of you needing to control all of the characters. So, we’ve made it so you can’t just win by only ever using one character and then ignoring the others. You have to think about which character is the best to use in each situation and switch between each of them as you play the game. Each enemy in the game has a certain approach that can be taken with them which opens them up to take massive damage – these are hidden, by the way, you have to work out the right approach for each different enemy. Switching between different characters to find that right approach is part of the core combat experience. With the original, as a turn-based game, you had a lot of time to think about strategy. You can’t make real time combat as detailed and in-depth as that. But we still keep that balance of the strategic aspect with the action gameplay, we really wanted to have that depth to it.”

“Switching between different characters to find that right approach is part of the core combat experience “

All up, Final Fantasy VII Remake took over five years to create and polish to perfection. But it comes after many more years of fans pleading for a proper remake to be done. Kitase and his team were well aware of the love fans have for the original game – he was the director on the 1997 version, after all – and the expectations that they’d bring to this reimagining of it.

“The reason why it took so long is that it’s such an important game,” Kitase says. “There are such high expectations towards it that we really felt we had to do it right. We wanted to get the gameplay design and the graphics right where they needed to be, to make the version of Final Fantasy that we wanted to give people. We had to do a lot of trial and error before we reached a standard that we were happy with, and obviously that takes a lot of time. If you were going to be satisfied with ‘sort of okay’ we probably could have developed the game much faster. But we don’t want to give people ‘sort of okay’, we want to really give them the Final Fantasy VII they’ve been expecting for such a long time.”

Final Fantasy VII Remake is available now for PS4.

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With 15 numbered games in the series – plus several spin-offs and sequels – there’s a lot of story being told across the world of Final Fantasy. Games in the franchise have generally been fairly self-contained story-wise, though – and Kitase says that Remake will be just as accessible for players entirely new to Final Fantasy.

“It really is designed so that it’s very easy for new players to get into – you don’t need to have played the original game or know anything about the sequels that came out after it. We designed it to be something that would be fresh and exciting and new even for people who have played the original, so everyone coming into the game will have a great experience.”