The most legendary game in the hallowed Final Fantasy series makes a comeback 23 years later, reimagined as a visually sumptuous cinematic adventure.
By the time Final Fantasy VII arrived for the original PlayStation all the way back in 1997, the legendary game series was already a decade old. And while going back to play the original is a stark lesson in just how incredibly far video games have come in the past couple of decades, it remains one of the most beloved chapters in the Final Fantasy canon, rich with story, action and atmosphere.
So when Square Enix started teasing the idea of remaking the game for more modern hardware, showing off a PS3-based version of the intro cinematic in 2005, fans started getting excited. It would be another decade before the remake actually got under way, though, and after years of development, it’s finally here. Unlike contemporary remakes (such as the recent Resident Evil releases), Square Enix distinguishes this new version from the original by adding Remake to the title.
And that’s important – because while this new imagining of the game covers many of the same scenarios and story beats of the original, everything here is shiny and new. A little controversially, the original game’s story has been broken up into three parts for the remake – and this is just the first (the other two could be years away). The sheer size of this first part – 90GB across a pair of Blu-ray discs – gives you an idea about why. Everything in Remake is bigger, better, prettier and more epic than its source material.
“Everything in Remake is bigger, better, prettier and more epic than its source material.”
The story centres around the city of Midgar, as moody mercenary Cloud Strife joins eco-warriors Avalanche to blow up a Mako reactor owned by the evil mega-corporation Shinra. The explosion goes a little too well, and chaos ensues in the city as Cloud and his companions try to escape the clutches of Shinra, save some friends and, eventually, try to escape the city.
Now, this is a Final Fantasy game, so while the plot sounds wafer-thin, it comes loaded with exposition, attitude, mysticism and even humour. Despite only covering a third of the overall story of the original game, you can look forward to a play time of around 30 to 40 hours – make no mistake, there’s a lot of expanded story going on here compared to the original release.
Combat is flashy, chaotic and well-designed, with the player mainly playing as Cloud but able to either switch to, or give orders to, the other members of the team, opening up the possibility for tactical puzzles. Cloud may wield a sword so ludicrously large it makes every other RPG sword look like a toothpick, but he can’t do everything. For example, giant hulking pile of action movie one-liners Barrett has a gatling gun for a hand (!) and is therefore the perfect one to jump to when there’s enemies out of reach of Cloud’s enormous black stick of death. The combat is all real-time, but selection of each character’s special abilities from the menu slows things to a near-pause so you never need feel afraid to strategise and try something new from your ever-expanding toolkit.
The game is very generous to new players; on the default ‘Normal’ mode, combat feels great but you’ll soon run up against some pretty brutal challenges, something that many will love sinking their teeth into. But a huge number of Final Fantasy players are here for the story, and Square Enix knows that all too well. The ‘Easy’ difficulty is perfect for them, still giving players the feel and experience of the flashy, crunchy combat without throwing up anywhere near the amount of roadblocks.
For now, Remake is exclusive to the PlayStation 4, so it’s perhaps not surprising that it’s been optimised to the core for that console. For starters, the game looks absolutely incredible. If you go back and watch painstakingly rendered movies in the series like Advent Children or the earlier Spirits Within, you’ll realise what a remarkable achievement this game is visually. Character models are meticulous and gorgeous, environments are dense and detailed, and there’s a tendency to stop every so often and marvel at how all this is coming out of a console at the end of its life cycle (we played on a PS4 Pro, but reports are that it’s just as jaw-dropping on the base PS4).
2016’s Final Fantasy XV was acclaimed for many things, but its load times were beyond ridiculous (sometimes measured in minutes). There’s no such problem here – the game loads fast, streams its world smoothly, and swaps between pre-rendered video, in-game cutscenes and gameplay so seamlessly it’s impossible to tell for sure which is which. The game engine of choice for Remake is Unreal Engine 4 – also used for Kingdom Hearts 3 – and it’s proven to be a good call, as it outdoes Square Enix’s in-house engines in every way when tweaked and optimised as well as this game has been.
If there’s one little gripe to be had about the game, it’s the English language voice acting, which is always competent, but too often comes across as a bit stilted and awkward, especially Cody Christian’s performance as Cloud. There’s plenty of known voice talent here – the legendary John DiMaggio, for example, as well as Britt Baron from Netflix’s Glow as Tifa. Perhaps it’s more a result of having to fit the English dialogue to the game’s pacing – but the good news is that the original Japanese audio is included for those who’d prefer it. It’s such a tiny thing, though, and most won’t mind a little melodrama with their high fantasy.
So, after such a long wait and so much anticipation, it’s safe to say that this is the Remake Square probably visualised way, way back when they put together that PS3 tech demo. It’s taken years for technology to catch up to the dream, and more years to realise it, but Final Fantasy VII Remake is a treat for fans, a world of surprises and indulgences for newcomers, and one of the most gobsmackingly beautiful games you’ll play this generation. It’s a stunning achievement in every way.
Final Fantasy VII Remake is available now on PS4.