I hate the Midgar section of the original Final Fantasy VII. When I think back on my time with the original game, I think of hours spent grinding on open plains, endlessly repeated Chocobo races, gambling at the Golden Saucer. I think about Cait Sith, and Emerald Weapon, and maxing out Knights of the Round. Midgar is just the boring-ass steampunk intro that I’m forced to struggle through to get to the good stuff. For me, the greatest moment in Final Fantasy VII is leaving Midgar, when the promise of exploring the world suddenly blossoms in front of me.
I have never been that interested in the struggle between eco-terrorist group Avalanche (and don’t get it twisted, they ARE terrorists) and the evil, mustache-twirling power company Shinra. This story line feels like place-setting to me, a first chapter intended to get the ball rolling in an otherwise epic game.
So, when I heard that the Final Fantasy VII Remake was going to focus on this first part of the game, taking place entirely in Midgar, my reaction was a nauseating mixture of deep excitement and eye-rolling disappointment. I was thrilled to see what Square-Enix could do by running this property through the filters of modern graphics and mechanics, but I was unexcited to spend forty hours slogging through Midgar’s interminable rusty corridors, slums, and ruins.
For the record, I’ve mostly been unhappy with recent Final Fantasy efforts. FFXIII was an unmitigated disaster in my book, XIV is carefully kept completely off my radar for my own sanity, and the combat in FF XV was so sloppy that I bounced off of it almost immediately. But this was Final Fantasy VII, and if Square-Enix was going to buckle down and get something right, it would be this.
Square-Enix’ efforts have been moderately successful. Yes, Square-Enix has found a way to pump some life into this nearly 30-year-old story, but Midgar still sucks balls. There are moments in Final Fantasy VII Remake that are absolutely sublime. But for every one of those glittering spectacles, there is a four-hour segment where you spend too much time flipping switches and slogging around in sewers (and Cloud walks waaaay too slow, pausing every minute or so for a cut scene or animation). But, to be fair, when the remake hits, it hits hard.
For the first several hours, I was convinced that I was playing a new genre classic. The opening raid on the Shinra reactor is a masterpiece of pacing, with the players easily learning the ropes of the game while bathed in a pool of glistening sweet nostalgia. Everything in this sequence works, from the introduction of deeper, more-fleshed out versions of Biggs, Wedge, and Jesse to the final boss fight that tells players, “No, you won’t just walk through this game, you’re gonna have to work for it.”
In fact, the character work and the battle system are the two strongest features in the game. It is absolutely marvelous to see fully rendered versions of these classic characters. Cloud feels more like a real person than ever before, and seeing his gradual evolution from stiff, unbending merc to something that borders on human is probably the highlight of the game. But other characters also have time to shine.
I’m a Tifa guy, and she kicks all sorts of ass throughout the Remake. Able to be both tough and sensitive at the same time, I was riveted every time she was on the screen. She is the unsung hero of the game, flying to the rescue and struggling to do the right thing when the world around her stops making sense. She is my favorite part of this game.
Aerith fares just as well, being likable and relatable from the moment she shows up on screen (though you will be deep into the game before she becomes a playable character). And Barret, while problematically boisterous and bordering on stereotype early on, did eventually begin to grow on me through a series of strange comments and off-the-wall jokes. Barret eventually loosens up, and you begin to see why the folks in Avalanche are willing to follow him into battle. Even Jesse, the most fleshed out from the “Jesse, Biggs, and Wedge” trio, feels like a living, breathing, (flirting), human being – with a back story, motivations, and agency of her own.
This humanity extends to some of the lesser bad guys. While the big bads are still somewhat one-dimensional, some of the incidental villains – known as “Turks” – are given some depth, with interesting personality quirks that are brought out through some stellar performances. These bad guys are clearly conflicted about the orders they are being forced to carry out, which makes fighting them all the more interesting.
These battles are extremely well done, usually fought in stages – broken up by extraordinary seamless cut-scenes, complete with incredible visual effects and swirling cameras. Many of these brief interludes tucked into the midst of boss battles contain some of the game’s best moments, with Cloud firing off some truly memorable (and meme-worthy) blasé one-liners that elicit cheers from the twelve-year-old that still lives inside of me.
The battle system itself is a remarkable concession to modern sensibilities, while retaining many of the wild options that made Final Fantasy VII such a pleasure. Each character controls differently in battle. Cloud is a swirling dervish of flips and sword strikes. Barrett is a ranged brute, able to store up power and unleash it in a barrage of heavy fire. Aerith is also ranged, and surprisingly, becomes perhaps the most powerful damage-dealer of the group. But Tifa is once again my favorite. Controlling more like a character from a fighting game, Tifa is an all-out brawler, preferring to strike baddies in the throat or flip around them delivering a series of punishing punches and kicks. She is Final Fantasy VII Remake’s kung-fu master, and I adore her.
Characters can bash endlessly on foes with basic attacks, but this is relatively ineffective. At any time however you can tap the “x” button and bring up your menu, cycling through abilities, magic, and items until you find something you want to use. This is the true power in the battle system, as many of these attacks and buffs can swiftly turn the tide of battle – especially if you know and exploit an enemy’s weaknesses.
Use of abilities, spells and items is tied to an “ATB” gauge/timer system, but these timers are generally forgiving enough that you can fire off spells at will once you know how the timing works. And if your character isn’t quite ready to perform some amazing feat, you can switch to another instantly with the tap of a button. It all works like a charm, and is amazingly intuitive and fun.
However, it is worth noting that the breathless pace of this battle system does cause things like buffs and status effects to be somewhat lost in the shuffle. I didn’t pay much attention to things like antidotes or barriers, as the relevant effects flew by so quickly that I barely noticed them. There is also an Easy difficulty mode that can be switched to in times of need – if a particular battle is causing you to grit your teeth too much. But I would strongly recommend switching back to normal difficulty immediately after winning your battle, as Easy mode is so easy that it essentially breaks the game.
Each character has a number of different ways to learn new powers. Abilities can be learned from unique weapons. Available upon equipping a new weapon, abilities will eventually be mastered – if used often enough – and can be retained once that weapon is switched out for an upgrade. Speaking of weapon upgrades, there is an entire system devoted to upgrading a weapon’s stats, allowing you to focus on offense, defense, buffs, or even extra materia slots. This system allows you to take a seemingly innocuous find and convert it into an absolute nuke.
The materia system is much as it was in the original Final Fantasy VII – and here is where some of my problems start to come into play. Players find materia – orbs of magic that allow players to use magic when slotted to armor or weapons – scattered occasionally around the world. Materia is still rare enough that it feels like a big deal when you stumble across it (despite Final Fantasy VII Remake’s propensity to show it shining in the background in an area that you clearly cannot access – which is just frustrating).
When slotted to a weapon, materia starts earning its own form of XP. The longer you play with a piece of materia slotted, the stronger that materia becomes – eventually unlocking powerful versions of its particular brand of magic. But – and this is a huge issue to me – Final Fantasy VII Remake never takes the training wheels off the player long enough for them to truly take advantage of this system. Most of the materia you get in the late game only serves to frustrate, as you don’t have nearly enough slots to hold it all, and there is no functional way to level it up. I hate to say it, but Final Fantasy VII Remake is in desperate need of places to grind. Sure, when the game is over, you can dip back into various chapters and clean up, but I wanted to power up during the actual game.
In the original Final Fantasy VII, the player is eventually freed up to wander the world, fighting as many monsters as they like. Final Fantasy VII Remake never gets that far, only opening its world up for exploration in Chapter 14, after you have seen pretty much everything. This gives players the option to run around and collect materia you might have missed, under the guise of performing some of the game’s less-than-inspiring optional side quests. But as soon as that blessed sweet wind of freedom is over, Chapter 15 locks you right back down again in a straight line to the ending.
Which begs the question: Why, in this extreme modernization of a thirty-year-old game, didn’t Square-Enix go all the way and allow the player to actually play a game? Final Fantasy VII Remake is so slavishly linear, it ends up feeling like a 30-40 hour cut scene, with pauses for the player to kill a few monsters or maneuver to the next scripted moment.
To be sure, these might be the finest cut scenes ever constructed, but after a while, even the most glorious action sequence begins to chafe when you aren’t actually in control of it. At one point, the game freed me from a cut scene to walk exactly three steps to the next cut scene. Indeed, every ladder climb, every time Cloud shimmies through a tight spot, the player must stand on a predetermined spot to trigger the animation. Isn’t this the same company that made Tomb Raider? Why can’t Cloud run and jump like Lara Croft? Why do players have so little agency in this game? Lack of choice is tied right into the DNA of Final Fantasy VII Remake, but when even the characters are bitching about the dumb stuff they have to do, there might be a problem.
In the end, Final Fantasy VII Remake feels very much like the Midgar portions of the original, with players controlling polygonal characters crawling over pre-rendered backgrounds. The character designs and performance are excellent, the graphics are top notch, the music is stellar, and the story is intriguing and remarkably well-written. But Final Fantasy Remake feels more like Square-Enix wanted to make a movie (or even a TV series) rather than a game.
There are pluses and minuses to extending a four- or five-hour segment of a game into its own thing. Much like Hollywood’s recent propensity to look at a book and say “Yeah, there’s enough there for two or three movies”, Square-Enix might have been better off finding ways to make this story move, as opposed to seeking ways to slow it down.
In the end, Final Fantasy VII Remake is a trip well worth taking, as it strikes moments of actual wonder and amazement. But I’m hoping beyond hope that in the next edition, Square-Enix takes the bumpers off and allows players to experience some of the incredible freedom that this series is capable of. If this initial game turns out to just be the on-rails Midgar section to an adventure with the scope and range of the original, this is all going to turn out just fine. But if Square-Enix is going to continue down the road they are currently traveling and keep the game locked onto a track for the duration, I might just stop right here.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
Howdy. My name is Eric Hauter, and I am a dad with a ton of kids. During my non-existent spare time, I like to play a wide variety of games, including JRPGs, strategy and action games (with the occasional trip into the black hole of MMOs). I am intrigued by the prospect of cloud gaming, and am often found poking around the cloud various platforms looking for fun and interesting stories. I was an early adopter of PSVR (I had one delivered on release day), and I’ve enjoyed trying out the variety of games that have released since day one. I've since added an Oculus Quest 2 to my headset collection. I’m intrigued by the possibilities presented by VR multi-player, and I try almost every multi-player game that gets released.
My first system was a Commodore 64, and I’ve owned countless systems since then. I was a manager at a toy store for the release of PS1, PS2, N64 and Dreamcast, so my nostalgia that era of gaming runs pretty deep. Currently, I play on Xbox Series X, PS5, PS4, PSVR, Quest 2, Switch, Luna, GeForce Now, (RIP Stadia) and a super sweet gaming PC built by John Yan. While I lean towards Sony products, I don’t have any brand loyalty, and am perfectly willing to play game on other systems.
When I’m not playing games or wrangling my gaggle of children, I enjoy watching horror movies and doing all the other geeky activities one might expect. I also co-host Spielberg Chronologically, where we review every Spielberg film in order, which you can find wherever you get your podcasts.
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