Final Fantasy VII Remake review: a brave new lens on a stone-cold classic

The remake is much more than a simple adaptation – it’s a fully fledged upgrade of one of the most beloved JRPGs around

I don’t envy the team behind Final Fantasy VII Remake. In reimagining a stone-cold classic, they’ve drawn the burning gaze of millions of fans who are more than ready to pick apart every single upcycled pixel. The impossible legacy of the 1997 original has led to an extended universe of animations and spin-offs, enshrining characters like Cloud Strife into the history of games and the wider cultural context. Even if you haven’t played it, you’ll be familiar with the spiky-haired sad boy wielding an impractical sword, and there’s a compelling reason for that, one that has been excavated in this painstakingly crafted love letter to video games.

Pressure abounds, but Square Enix has taken its sweet time to reinvent Final Fantasy VII for a new generation, building an experience that retains the hallmarks and obscure tone of the original, but is unexpectedly brave – it’s bold enough to take into account its own legacy and still broach new territory, toying with the expectations of dedicated fans.

In splitting one game into parts in the style of The Hobbit films, the experience stretches what would be six hours in the original into 30 or 40 in the remake, which gives players plenty of time to soak in the rich dystopian trappings of Midgar and become more acquainted with the personalities of its vibrant characters. I’m sure this is music to the ears of those who’ve played the original. It’s the perfect storm of being faithful to its source whilst introducing careful flair, but what about the uninitiated? Is Final Fantasy VII Remake worth the effort for those without any skin in the game?

final fantasy vii remake review
Credit: Square Enix

The answer is a resounding yes. You start your adventure by joining a troupe of eco-terrorists on the eve of their most dangerous score: Cloud Strife has been drafted in to help destroy a Mako reactor, a brutal structure that is turning the lifeblood of the planet into a for-profit resource.

This benefits the Shinra Electric Power Company, the game’s villainous fascist mega-corporation that crushes the working-class citizens of Midgar into indentured servitude through information control. Geographically, Shinra’s metal plates and sun lamps leer ominously over a series of slums and shanty towns, where families try to build lives out of clods of dirt and fragile dreams.

This premise was cathartic in the late 90s, but with a revised script, voice-acting and lived-in, finely detailed environments, it cuts even deeper now as our society slides helplessly into climate oblivion. And that’s just the set dressing.

final fantasy vii remake review
Credit: Square Enix

The main event of Final Fantasy VII Remake is the combat system, a careful split between tactics and action. Players can pause proceedings to pick spells and perform special abilities, but not before they earn enough power to do so by pulling off cut-throat combos and evading their enemies. This turns each battle into a brain-teasing dance, with every new chapter coaxing out a different style of play, asking you to rebuild your team and assess and exploit weaknesses to topple a rogue’s gallery of inspired enemies, from armoured guards and mutant lizards to anthropomorphic households.

Now that enemies are placed throughout maps instead of being random battles, the way you encounter combat feels natural. The game dips in and out of cutscenes and hands control back to the player at exciting moments, but the transitions between story and gameplay feel seamless and cinematic, ensuring a consistent level of immersion.

Nearly every chapter in Final Fantasy VII Remake ends in a boss battle, which creates this exciting structure where every hour or two is its own contained story with a killer crescendo. No spoilers here, but the boss design is eclectic. Where you fight is important, and you’ll be pushed and pulled through different areas as you share blazing quips with your opponent. Battles carry on through phases and sometimes are staggered across a chapter, pivoting midway through to make sure that you can’t just keep repeating your safe and reliable tactic. All told, it strikes an important balance in difficulty, where Normal feels like a rewarding challenge, but it doesn’t punish you for dropping it down to Easy if the going gets tough.

final fantasy vii remake review
Credit: Square Enix

Yet it’s the way that Final Fantasy VII Remake manages to cut away from its combat to offer different styles of play that makes it so easy to lose tens of hours to. It is paced to perfection – you’ll spend hours between battle exploring towns and solving puzzles, looking for collectibles and completing mini-games across the 30- to 40-hour runtime. It knows when to take a moment to breathe and let you feel the impact of a side story or a character revelation. This ‘downtime’ lets you get closer to the game’s stellar cast than you were able to in the original, which makes it even more fulfilling later on when loose threads in established arcs start unravelling moments of raw emotion.

For example, near the start of the game, during an adrenaline comedown after a timed boss battle, you’ll be pulled away from the chaos and forced to come to terms with the tragic consequences of your actions. As you roam through a destroyed slum, you’ll hear people wailing in anguish and begging for peace, worrying about their livelihoods after a series of civilian casualties. The melancholic soundtrack that supplements this tragic set-piece is enough to bring tears to your eyes.

final fantasy vii remake review
Credit: Square Enix

In Final Fantasy VII Remake, the world is on such a knife’s edge that the tactics of its good faction pose a tricky moral quandary to the player, and this blurring of the lines between good and bad distances the game from the more conventional storytelling style you may be used to in other, more chipper JRPGS.

Yet it’s not just an exercise in making you feel bad. Final Fantasy VII Remake is aloof to its very core, and somehow manages to juggle its critical lens on society with plenty of humour and uplifting spirit. By exposing the two-faced nature of its villains and the honest charm of its protagonists, you’ll spend a lot of the game laughing along with its characters, who often find moments of silliness and hopeful clarity amidst the chaos. In this way, it’s more truthful and reflective of the breadth of emotions experienced by humans in a time of crisis. This is why characters like Tifa Lockhart and Cloud Strife feel so alive – the specific soundtracks assigned to each major character reveal a different side to them and make their most important scenes more impactful.

Even excellent side characters like the plucky Wedge (played by Breaking Bad’s Badger) may appear to be pure comic relief until the game decides it wants to pull hard on your heartstrings. This isn’t a by-the-books adaptation of the original, and while all the major plot points are here, the tangents you’ll embark on will tease out untapped parts of this world that even the most zealous of fans won’t be expecting. It’s chock-full of surprises and twists but it never stoops to disrespect the source material – a remarkable achievement.

final fantasy vii remake review
Credit: Square Enix

Of course, it does have a few moments where the game feels overstretched. There are points where Final Fantasy VII Remake will make you backtrack or enjoy an hour of filler which could have been resolved in a simple conversation. These are few and far between, but there were some areas of the game which could have easily been cut to keep the narrative feeling a little punchier. At one point it commits the cardinal sin of dropping you into a boring level just as you feel you’re about to start a killer boss battle, which summoned a devastating groan from yours truly.

The game works well as a contained narrative but unfortunately starts to expect some foreknowledge from its player in the dying chapters, particular pieces from the extended Final Fantasy VII universe that might lead newcomers to confusion. Yet if you’re accustomed to the kind of eclectic JRPG stories seen in other Tetsuya Nomura-directed games like Kingdom Hearts, you should be fine. Otherwise, it’s going to feel like a fever dream, and you might have to conduct some google-fu afterwards to figure out what the hell just happened. Don’t get me wrong, it’s exciting, but you’ve been warned!

The way that Square Enix has realised this universe some 20 years later is absolutely mind-boggling, and there are moments when I put my controller down and simply gawped at the skyboxes and environments that feel so effortlessly lush and alive.

final fantasy vii remake review
Credit: Square Enix

Final Fantasy VII Remake treats you to some incredible vistas, perhaps the best I’ve ever seen on the console. You’ll fight on burning plates overlooking the neon green dystopia of Midgar and then get up-close and personal with the city’s street signs and critical infrastructure. There’s a masterful level of art direction on display here that is so finicky and detailed that it somehow captures the Y2K stylings of the original Final Fantasy VII, reinterpreting late-90s typography, architecture and fashion sense for a modern audience.

The sheer breadth of locations here would suggest that some are treated worse than others, but that is never the case. The only unfortunate holdover that remains from previous games like Final Fantasy XV is the poor treatment of the game’s quest-giving NPCs, who look and emote in an uncanny fashion, their mouths moving out of sync. You can clearly see which characters were given focus to make them feel believable. The same applies to some of the textures, with those that may not draw the player’s eye being decidedly lower-resolution than others. In a game of such scale, this is expected, but it’s still immersion-breaking when you catch it in a cutscene.

When you wrap up the story, there’s still plenty to do and a useful system that allows you to hop back into any chapter and keep building your characters, with some extra secrets to find and challenges to complete. I’m the kind of person who will complete a 30-hour game and then never come back to it again, but Final Fantasy VII Remake’s combat system is too much fun to put down, so I’ve been grinding through my favourite set pieces and trying to unlock secret challenges ever since the credits rolled.

Final Fantasy VII Remake is out on PlayStation 4 on April 10.

Our Verdict

Final Fantasy VII Remake lets a new generation of players experience one of the most influential RPGs of all time, but it doesn’t settle for a simple adaptation. With a beautifully realised world and a tremendous combat system, this reimagining will delight the dedicated fans and wow the newcomers looking to see what all the fuss is about.

Pros

  • A heart-wrenching, hopeful story worth the wait for series veterans and essential for newcomers
  • It’s brave enough to enter bold new narrative territory
  • The combat system is an addicting mix of tactics and action
  • Unforgettable characters receive even more emotional depth
  • Impeccable art direction

Cons

  • Some NPCs and textures stick out when compared to the attention given to the main cast
  • A few stretched chapters end up feeling like filler
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