‘Final Fantasy VII Remake’: The Perfect Game to Get Lost in During Quarantine
The new PS4 game provides a stunning diversion.
Why’s this whole thing gotta be such a big pain in the ass? This question asked by Barret Wallace, an eco-terrorist with biceps larger than my head and a minigun where his right hand should be, articulated something I’d been wondering for several of the preceding 25 hours. I had been playing the Final Fantasy VII Remake quite nearly nonstop, interrupted only by a few hours of sleep, and was getting a little annoyed.
It’s kind of shocking that it actually exists, though. Developer Square Enix (back when they were still Squaresoft) first floated the idea of remaking the classic 1997 role-playing game in the early 2000s, but as the years passed the idea of merging it to modern hardware seemed increasingly impossible. Final Fantasy has long embraced the cinematic, offering stories bursting with intriguing characters and gorgeous imagery. A mid-aughts gaming franchise, the 2005 animated feature film Advent Children, and numerous spin-off games followed. Though there’d been discussion of bringing the game to the PlayStation 2, and then the PlayStation 3, it never happened. In 2015, the game was officially announced for the PlayStation 4. It would be five years before it hit shelves—and even then, it would only be a piece.
You see, this is only part one of what ultimately will be a series of games that retell and expand upon the events of Final Fantasy, and it’s one that focuses its entirety on the city of Midgar, which clocks somewhere between 5-15% of the original game. Much like Peter Jackson and The Hobbit, they’re going to just keep going; even director Tetsuya Nomura doesn’t know how many parts there will ultimately be (though the answer is almost certainly “too many”). It feels less like a genuine creative choice than something dictated by financials—as though the developers started to build Midgar, realized just how much money and effort it was going to take, and then decided doing it halfway only to then realize the rest of the game wasn’t going to work, so they went all-in on the one setting.
There is a version of this whole endeavor where Midgar is all you need. Unfortunately, that’s not what we have. Final Fantasy VII Remake (though it is part one, it’s not subtitled as such) is ultimately beholden to its namesake, and the realization that none of those big narrative threads were going to pay-off only really came as it was all wrapping up—and it was frustrating. New, seemingly important characters were popping up all the way through to the game’s final minutes (literally!). So many questions, so few answers. It makes me wonder what was I doing for those 34 hours. Because at the time, it sure seemed like a lot.
Our protagonist is Cloud Strife, an anime boy with spiky blond hair and a sword only slightly smaller than himself. He’s an ex-SOLDIER (capitalization theirs)/current mercenary who’s been hired by the aforementioned Barret Wallace’s group, Avalanche, to do some eco-terrorism and stick it to big bad corporation Shinra. He’s connected by his childhood friend Tifa Lockhart, who is also a member, and eventually becomes one of the gang—along with the mysterious and magical Aerith Gainsborough. Some are more interesting than others (and a few too many play the role of potential love interests). But none of that goes anywhere either, because then how would they mine the drama of those looks?
The most immediately obvious difference between the original and its remake is the look: going back to early 3D games can be a bit painful at times, and though Final Fantasy used a hybrid 2D/3D style, it’s nothing close to what the remake is on a PlayStation 4 Pro with a proper HDR screen. The pre-rendered cutscenes are gorgeous, of course, but even in-game it’s very attractive—albeit inconsistent. The main characters look amazing, as do some of the more frequent non-playable characters, but there are also plenty that look flat and awkward. The same level of care and craft did not go into the arrogant manager on the train as the man pointing a minigun at him.
This inconsistency is found throughout, and not just in terms of visuals. You can tell which parts of the story were really important to the team and which were not—which quests exist to waste your time, and which they feel really serve a character purpose. For example: one sequence has a goal of, quite literally, “Wait for a meeting to finish,” and you’re not in the meeting. It’s absurd and a waste of time. Barret’s not the only in-game character to point it out, and just because the game is self-aware enough to say, “Maybe someone’s playing a prank to make us run around,” it doesn’t make it any less of a waste of time and energy.
The act of running around is a mixed bag as well, because character movement isn’t nearly as precise as the developers seem to think it is, often requiring you to make a number of slight adjustments in order to be in exactly the right spot before you can interact with an object. It seems weird to say that a game with hours of non-interactive cutscenes needs to get out of its own way and let things play out, but it’s a function of inconsistent application.
This really came to a head for me around 11 hours in, during a moment that should be among the most emotional in the entire experience. Cloud is asked by Aerith’s mother to leave her out of his mission, and to go without saying goodbye. To her, he is nothing but a SOLDIER brought up by that evil corporation and a danger to everyone around him. He made his choice, and even if he wants to believe he’s past it…well, he wears a giant sword on his back at all times. It made me truly sad, because I was invested enough in both Cloud and Aerith that I didn’t want to go, but knew she was right. I knew they would reconnect down the line but this was it for a while, and I would miss their banter.
All of this would be impactful if the way you leave the house in the dead of night didn’t require you to avoid a bunch of stupid crap laying around on the floor. The first time, I opened the door and once the room-leaving animation stopped, wiggled the analog stick to the left ever so slightly and knocked over a bucket. Out came Aerith sending me back to bed, making me repeat the task all over again. I failed the second and third times—with Aerith getting increasingly exasperated and me getting genuinely furious, because even if the movement controls were good enough for this, which they most certainly are not, the idea is so ill-conceived.
And the kicker? She knew Cloud was leaving and rushed on ahead to meet him. You’re without her for maybe five minutes. I got all worked up over nothing. Still, I was glad to have her back. She’s probably my favorite character of the main cast (though not to actually play as).
While you almost always traverse the world as Cloud, you go into battle with up to two others and can switch between them at will. This is an even more fundamental difference between the original game and its remake. Final Fantasy VII featured turn-based combat: in between each action, the game pauses and waits for the player’s command. Nothing happens until they’re ready. In 1997, turn-based combat was the standard, but it’s far less common today, with the Final Fantasy series itself dropping it a few years back. The Remake’s battles take place in more or less real time. Depending on the character you’re controlling, you hack, punch, shoot, or magic your way through things. And some of those things are way more fun to do than others.
But this is not a traditional action game: each character has special abilities and spells—some innate, others equipped—accessed via menu. Bringing up the menu does not stop the action, but it comes close, letting you watch things play out at a fraction of the speed. It’s pretty mesmerizing if you do it in the middle of a grand movement.
There will be purists who don’t like this, who want all of the glitz and spectacle coupled with throwback interaction, but the new system can be genuinely exhilarating: juggling up to three different characters’ attacks, abilities, spells, items, and the various meters that they affect requires both short-term judgement and long-term strategy, and when it all comes together, it’s awesome. Sometimes, I shouted at my TV in frustration; others, I roared in victory.
Of course, within a reality of New York on pause, many frustrations matter less. And so, the idea of stuffing thirty more hours of stuff into six-ish hours of actual story isn’t so bad in the age of quarantines—this is the only time in history where more filler could be considered a positive. Sure, there were some hours of frustration, irritation, and exhaustion (possibly from lack of sleep), but I spent a literal day-and-a-half in another world where I didn’t have to worry about the coronavirus or a cratering economy.
I miss it already.