1997's Final Fantasy VII is a stone-cold classic. One of the original PlayStation's definitive games, it managed the rare feat - for what is normally an ephemeral medium - of remaining lodged in the memories of pretty much everyone who played it.
Over the decades there has been a clamour of voices begging Square Enix to remake it using modern technology. The developer began working on FFVII Remake years before its 2020 release – with the imperative to do the original justice clearly uppermost in its mind. Indeed, its unhurried approach has borne spectacular fruit.
What's new in FFVII?
There will, of course, be those who quibble at various aspects of the remake but, for us, it achieves everything that could be hoped for, as it preserves the spirit and storyline of the original game, while expanding on it massively and endowing it with state-of-the-art visuals and production values.
You could even argue that Square Enix might have gone a tiny bit too far in its determination to not just recreate a classic but to elevate it to new heights: Final Fantasy VII Remake is just the first instalment, delivering the first half of the original story, and Square Enix has given no indication as to when the final part will arrive. Also, you could argue that some of the new, open-world additions, along with the stretching of sequences that were short in the original out into self-contained mini-quests, puts the whole exercise in danger of bloating.
But we feel such accusations would be churlish – when you're remaking near-perfection, why not give us as much of it as possible? Particularly at this sadly unique period in which we all have enough time on our hands to play the longest of games.
FFVII Remake kicks off exactly like the original did, with the game's main protagonist, taciturn ex-soldier turned mercenary, Cloud Strife, on a mission to blow up a mako reactor in the giant, stratified town of Midgar, as part of the eco-warrior group Avalanche.
Mako being the mysterious energy source which the unnamed planet on which the game takes place produces naturally, and which is being exploited by the unscrupulous Shinra Electric Power Company. Final Fantasy VII's eco-warrior theme seemed pretty futuristic for a 1997 game, and is even more relevant in 2020.
The first mako reactor raid proves to be the only chunk of the game which cleaves rigidly to the original. However, what happens afterwards is greatly expanded and fleshed out, with entirely new periods consisting of open-world side-missions added – in a familiar fashion for anyone who professes to be a fan of Japanese role-playing games (RPGs).
Revamped battle system
But from the start, you do notice one aspect of the game which has been thoroughly revamped: its battle system. Somehow, it manages to preserve the general vibe of the original, while moving in a much more action-based direction. It preserves the original's ATB (Active Time Battle) core, which means that each character must wait for their ATB gauge to fill after performing special-ability attacks, casting spells or using items. But you can still carry out normal attacks, and movement is paramount throughout, with dodges and parries to the fore.
As the game progresses, layers of complexity are added to the battling, including powerful finishing attacks called Limit Breaks and the ability to summon and control giant demons. Cloud's team members have helpfully diverse skill-sets, too: Barret, with a gun instead of a hand, is a ranged tank; Cloud's childhood friend Tifa is a hand-to-hand combat specialist; while flower-seller Aerith majors in magic.
You can switch between characters in battle – for example, it's vital to control a ranged character when facing agile enemies that can elude close-range attacks unless they have been staggered. But you can also instruct characters you aren't controlling to use their special abilities, spells and items, which often proves the clincher during the mini-boss and boss-battles – the latter will prove pretty familiar to anyone who played the original game, albeit with added layers of detail.
Square Enix's approach of taking what were originally short sequences and turning them into much more drawn-out quests has both good and bad consequences. It puts much more flesh on the storyline and characters, whose dialogue was originally very terse due to the technology at the time. But it also highlights a few characters who tend toward the annoying, and the newly extended dialogue occasionally descends into cheesiness.
The opening up of Midgar's slum areas into open-worlds in which Cloud can indulge his determination to make money as a mercenary by fulfilling side-missions hasn't been universally embraced, but we enjoyed those new sequences. Sure, the side-quests can be a bit silly at times, but they provide a great means of exploring areas that you were previously rushed through, and Midgar is such a beautifully realised fantasy city in its remodelled incarnation that you simply want to get to know it as well as possible.
And the story in general feels better structured and more logical – in the original game, developments were thrown at you in a rush, leaving you no time to digest them, whereas this time around, you get a full sense of the background to events, along with the characters' motivations. Cloud's grainy flashbacks are particularly strong: although largely dialogue-free, they prove very revealing. Story-wise, Final Fantasy VII Remake simply can't be faulted: it's right up there with the best games ever.
The Final Fantasy VII Remake is an absolute tour de force: it's satisfyingly long, tells an enthralling story, boasts sometimes challenging but always enjoyable gameplay, and looks utterly fantastic.
It's every bit as epic as you would hope a remake of one of the best-loved games ever would be. If you're a Final Fantasy fan, it's a no-brainer of a purchase, but that also applies to pretty much anyone who fancies losing themselves for a long period in an utterly beguiling, beautifully crafted fantasy world with a dark underbelly.
Square Enix's brave decision to take its sweet time remaking FFVII has been utterly vindicated. The remake of one of the best games ever is every bit as epic as we hoped.