During our dark social distancing and quarantining, a remake of a gaming masterpiece was released. Despite fan fears, Final Fantasy 7 Remake (FF7R) is the rightful successor to the original.
Before the original Final Fantasy 7, published in 1996 by Square for the Sony PlayStation, the idea of a game with a complex drama reaching mass appeal was sneered at by business executives, including infamously Square's own North American division and its dumbed-down translation of the game's script. Yet despite that script, this JRPG (Japanese role-playing game) with the blocky polygons is still considered at top contender on many fans' top 10 greatest games of all time lists.
FF7 is a treasured masterpiece, a once-in-a-generation kind of hit that even the company that made it has yet to fully repeat again. Gaming had just entered the realm of the third dimension & the dramatic power that video games could portray had yet to be proven in the west. The games that did have dramatic heft were a rare niche enjoyed by PC gamers and the unusual imported title from Japan.
Then FF7 was released with an $80 million dollar advertising campaign promising: "a story of ultimate conquest, of war, of friendship, a story of a love that can never be, and a hatred that always was. Now the most anticipated epic adventure of the year will never come to a theatre near you: Final Fantasy 7."
The remake, FF7R, is a project not unlike what Peter Jackson tried to do with Tolkien’s The Hobbit. It takes a beloved singular entry and breaks the project into several zoomed-in pieces and extra details to cover up the cracks. Instead of recreating in one game the original PlayStation title and its three discs of content, Square Enix is breaking up the project’s story over three or more games. FF7R is only the first of these.
This Remake is visually gorgeous, and takes the iconic art and settings that were already interesting, if blocky in 1997; and turns them into living art. It's not just the visuals but also the Iconic characters from the original that have been opened, and motivations more thoroughly explored. Characters that were only extras now get their own chapters, and the main characters are fleshed out into more real than real.
One of the lead heroes, Barret Wallace, is a standout. In the original’s English translation of the game's script, he was a Mister T impersonator with a gun for an arm. In the Remake, which magnifies the original's Japanese script, he is now a being with incredible depth of soul and character.
What has not just been magnified but fully transformed is the gameplay. The original emphasized a turn-taking combat style that JRPGs were then known for. Except for Materia selection in the menus of the game, that system has been mostly abandoned, and a new free movement system put in its place. The original design was as much about the technical limitations of the Sony PlayStation as it was for gameplay. This new system shows what Square Enix has learned about combat design and mirrors the lessons learned from previous Nomura projects Kingdom Hearts and FF15.
Combat is challenging but not overwhelming, the system is intuitive and does not take long to pick up. While there are moments where the combat difficulty seems unbalanced (particularly with random mobs) its still remarkably polished in a way most modern games at release just are not.
While purists like me do miss the old combat system, there is a definite advantage in the new one. The cinematic aspects of this game meld seamlessly with combat and all the rest. Which goes to show, as great as the combat is, its only second banana to the story Square Enix is trying to tell.
From the opening chapter as Cloud jumps off the train and your team infiltrates the mako reactor; to the ending duel with the antagonist Sephiroth, this game is jam-packed with drama and panache. Let me tell you, the storytelling, and cinematic-like aspects of the remake work in a way that I’ve rarely seen in any other game before. The funny moments will make you laugh, the sad ones will make you cry. Whether I was in pitch battle or consoling a mourning comrade, I felt a genuine connection to these characters and the situation they were in.
A lot of this has to do with the fact that this title contains the most magnificent musical score inarguably to ever grace a video game. Nobuo Uematsu, the lead composer for this title (and most of the great Square Enix games) manages to pull together a masterpiece that is so moving and breath-taking it would put John Williams to shame. Uematsu is the secret sauce at Square Enix for over 35 years, but his work in this title will outlive him for generations.
While there is a lot to recommend this game, it does have a few flaws. Certain dungeons feel unnecessary and side quests that, while fun, tend to take the urgency away from the proceedings. The level design reflects MMOs more than I would like. Some of the Japanese humor does not translate, but the biggest sin of this title is marketing it as a one-to-one remake.
This title sets up an Avengers: EndGame like situation at the end of the game. Where certain dead characters can come back & the narrative destiny of the original can potentially be undone by the next entries. This is handled deftly and respectfully by the Remake. And it makes me excited to deal with the thematic conclusions of the original title that were hinted at but never adequately addressed in the sequel movie or games. But if your only experience with FF7 is the original and you are hoping for a clean retelling, this may seem like a betrayal.
Despite these controversial changes, Final Fantasy 7 Remake is genuinely a delightful work of art. The gameplay is tight and music enrapturing. Its ability to tell a story, to move its audience with intricate stories, and well-acted characters is the pinnacle of the video game art form. But the game does much more than just rise above meaningless entertainment.
This title teaches essential lessons that we really need In our age of No-Meaning and quarantining. Yes, FF7R is fun and moves the heartstrings, but also asks important questions about the character of Man and of sacrifice. It tells us to find meaning in the face of adversity and find hope in the face of overwhelming odds. FF7R exemplifies the idea that worshiping the god of nature and industry is just as wrong if we lose sight of the human lives in the middle.
FF7R is truly a masterpiece that rightly does justice to the legacy and unique quality of the original that gave me hope as a kid living under challenging circumstances. Days after finishing this title, the music and themes of this game continue to roll around in my mind. I'm genuinely excited to see how Square Enix will handle the next part of this story.