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Final Fantasy VII Remake spoiler-free review: Our kind of Cloud gaming

Enlarge / We're going back to Midgar.Square Enix

Game Details

Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: PlayStation 4
Release Date: Apr. 10, 2020
Price: $60
ESRB Rating: T for Teen
Links: Amazon | Target | PSN | Official website

This week's Final Fantasy VII Remake, in spite of its flaws and oddities, does the unimaginable: it delivers to just about any audience who might be interested in this specific RPG series and this specific game. That's good news for anyone who has awaited this popular game's return for 23 years. But big as that niche may be, it's still a niche.

Are you a series veteran who has followed the Warriors of Light since the NES era? Maybe you're a JRPG diehard who knows your way around every inscrutable Final Fantasy spinoff (VII or otherwise)? Or, what if you're a lapsed player who got swept up in 1997's FFVII fever hoping this new game will be a cool, modernized reason to return to your PlayStation 1 heyday?

If so, you count among the millions who will likely enjoy what FFVIIR has to offer. The production values, at their best, are exhilarating. The updated combat system sees Square Enix get its closest yet to nailing battles in a JRPG, with a system that runs at a bombastic-yet-smooth clip. And it's nice to get to know some familiar faces in a stretched-out return to the iconic fantasy city of Midgar. Even better, you can rest assured that Square Enix has avoided two of its usual sins this time around. FFVIIR doesn't "take 10 hours to get good," and its plot doesn't devolve into a Kingdom Hearts-like mess of indecipherable gibberish.

If the idea of a refreshed-yet-faithful JRPG leaves you cold, on the other hand, FFVIIR's 35+ hours of combat, plot, and polished set pieces probably won't move the dial on your personal Active Time Battle meter. The dialogue is far from perfect—and, at least in English, it misses the mark too often. The old game's transition to a 3D, control-your-own-camera universe can get unwieldy. Its reliance on the original game's archetypes won't seem endearing for newcomers. And while this isn't nearly as padded a game as a '90s JRPG, in terms of making players grind through hours of random combat, FFVIIR suffers from a few obvious "let's stretch this section out for no reason" seams.

My bias is that of a lapsed JRPG fan, someone who kicked Final Fantasy games to the curb in the early '00s and rarely looked back. And at its worst, FFVIIR had me either shouting "what the heck" at the story or "go #${& yourself" while throwing a controller at a frustrating boss battle. It's not a perfect return to Midgar by any stretch.

But the ambition, the scope, and the highlights kept me gripped. FFVIIR feels like it left its development studios kicking and screaming until the very end—and the fact that this hotly anticipated, highly scrutinized game turned out well might be the craziest part of all.

What is a remake, really?

  • A gallery of characters and scenarios taken mostly from the game's first chapter. We start with an opening towering shot of Midgar.
  • Then a tight zoom onto Cloud and co.'s assault on a reactor core.
  • Cloud and Barret butt heads along the way.
  • Someone set us up the bomb.
  • Wedge gets more screen time in this version as a likable, bumbling accomplice.
  • We also see Jessie assert herself more, and the results are cute.
  • Sometimes, there's a battle.
  • Sometimes, there's a traversal challenge.
  • And sometimes, there's a massive, multi-stage boss battle.

The first huge thing to get out of the way is the game's title, because it could leave you with the wrong impression of what to expect. The word "remake" implies a few things in English: a start-from-scratch recreation, like Disney's recent Lion King CGI film or a reboot of familiar characters and history into a new plot universe, like Spider-man films every six years or so.

Square Enix's take on the word lands somewhere between those definitions. To make my point, I'll refer to its free demo, which you can download right now to any PlayStation 4 console—and while this description qualifies as a spoiler, it's quite mild, and you'll see what I mean.

(Before I continue: FFVIIR does not include the entire plot of FFVII. Square Enix has already announced that FFVIIR's story comes to a halt at the moment the game's heroes escape the game's first massive city of Midgar. The developers have hinted at future games, but nothing has been formally announced. Got it? Okay.)

The game's hour-long demo contains most of what you'll find in the retail game's first chapter, and in some ways, it's a note-for-note retelling of the 1997 game's opening sequence. A camera follows a flower girl through a city, zooms out to marvel at the mechanized city of Midgar, then zooms in to another part of town, where a train pulls into a power reactor's station. At this point, players take control of familiar heroes Cloud Strife and Barret Wallace. Leap off the train, fight some guards, and descend to the reactor's core, where players must then place a bomb, fight a boss, and get out before it blows.

In FFVIIR, that basic description plays out, but everything surrounding it is different. The most obvious change comes from remastered 3D graphics, all running in real-time and looking far superior to the original game's "full-motion video" sequences. (If you want to see what 23 years of 3D-rendering progress looks like, here you go.) There's also the refreshed combat, which I'll get to.

But the biggest difference, in terms of this game's "Remake" status, is how the story flows, expands, and outright changes. In this mission's case, three helpers from the original game (Biggs, Wedge, Jessie) tag along once again, only this time, they have a lot more to say. Most of the time, they join fully voiced dialogue sequences, where we see this team, the eco-terrorist group "Avalanche," sort out its mission. Occasionally, they yammer within earshot, their dialogue appearing as a neat column of text on the side of the screen for you to peruse or ignore as you march forward. This chapter sees the game's voice actors and scriptwriters put their best foot forward for all its characters, in terms of delivering "polished anime" levels of likable cheese.

Then there's the mission's conclusion, which includes a brand-new dose of dramatic irony. Avalanche's biggest foe, the mega-corporation Shinra, appears in FFVIIR's version of events as a watchful eye. In the original game, Shinra was caught unaware. This time, its leaders watch Cloud and Barret set the bomb on their precious reactor's core. Then they add to the bomb. The explosion is noticeably bigger than Avalanche had expected.

It's that kind of remake—and mostly good

This is where the demo ends, but the retail version picks up with Avalanche asking questions about that very explosion and following those threads. Think of Shinra's meddling with the bombing as a trampled butterfly beneath a time traveler's otherwise careful steps. It's the first crack in the timeline (but not the last) on which everything moves.

  • This gallery contains mild spoilers, as it shows a few familiar and unfamiliar locations you can expect in FFVIIR. First up: Seventh Heaven, the bar that Tifa runs in Sector 7. Midgar is broken up into disparate sections, which Cloud and friends must go back and forth between.
  • You get to see more of Section 7 this time around.
  • The Sector 7 train stop.
  • A detour through Section 8.
  • A motorcycle ride to a new location (and, yes, you get to control Cloud's bike).
  • Series fans will remember this flashback.
  • They'll also remember this church.
  • This flower garden, too.

Thus, the rest of the Remake follows the first chapter's archetype: following slight schisms in the original game's events to entirely new sequences and diving more deeply into the existing game's cast to expand on their relationships and lead players through new, connected quests. If an event, location, character, or enemy appeared in the original FFVII, it's probably here—but in hugely expanded form. Maybe a place you quickly ran through in the PlayStation original has become a bustling town, complete with errands and side quests. Maybe one simple problem in the original game has been turned into a laundry list of tasks. Or maybe an entirely new problem creates new quests for Avalanche (and introduces new, weird allies and adversaries along the way).

Hence, if you laugh at the idea of a "spoiler-free" review of a 23-year-old game's remake, I insist that you hold your chuckles back. I will say the spoilable stuff plays out in a few ways. Sometimes, you'll discover completely new elements, which stretch on for 1- or 1.5-hour stretches of content; these stretches are usually pretty cheesy, in line with what you'd expect from an average JRPG's side quests. Other times, a familiar scene from the original game will emerge at a different time than in the original—usually with the added bonus of additional emotional resonance, if not a smarter logical connection to the characters in question. I like how these two extremes of "new" content play out alongside each other in the course of the campaign, especially since neither requires that players have the original game memorized to appreciate them.

Opinions are obviously going to be mixed when it comes to Square Enix shuffling the series's events and characters of old, but I'd rank the shuffling's execution as one of the game's successes. With each expanded sequence, the game's designers figure out how to add the right kinds of rises or falls in excitement, whether by injecting entirely new action sequences, putting intriguing new characters into the spotlight, or slowing the stakes down with wholly optional errand quests between higher-stakes moments. In the latter cases, players are asked to run through towns and find nearby, dungeon-like paths, which usually contain hidden trinkets and varied monster battles. If you're a JRPG purist, you'll appreciate these excuses to flex your combat muscles; these missions feel like condensed takes on the "run around and grind through random combat" exercises of old, and they very rarely spam the same enemy types too much.

Was the translator a spoony bard?

But that's not an entirely ringing endorsement of the overall plot. While the remixing and reshuffling of the original game's story works quite well on a macro scale, it comes with failures on a smaller scale.

If you've come to expect Square Enix to botch its games' translations from Japanese to English, you'll feel right at home with FFVIIR's most glaring flaw. Most of the game's brand-new conversations include at least one failure to naturally translate something, whether it's a colloquialism or some other turn of phrase. In one example, Aerith (the aforementioned flower girl, who eventually emerges as a fellow combatant) devotes most of her interstitial banter in a mission to questions about Cloud's past. After maybe five of these exchanges (which Cloud turns down unilaterally), Aerith abruptly declares, in her most cheerful tone, "Best not to dwell on the past!"

These tone-deaf moments, which are hard to cite out of context but plague the game on a constant basis, had me puzzled at first. Then, around the 10-hour mark, I recalled a '90s game translator's essay about the trickiness of the craft. He alleged that English translators do better when they're given room to interpret a Japanese script's tone and meaning before finding culturally appropriate ways to rephrase and reframe. Sentence-by-sentence, phrase-by-phrase translations can lead to ridiculous jumps in meaning, especially when those are handed to English voice actors for their own odd interpretations. And that appears to be the issue here: too many attempts at literal translations plague this new game's script.

FFVIIR's results aren't as awful as "you spoony bard," to be clear. And when the translators get things right, the results are adorable, endearing, and laugh-out-loud funny. (In particular, the original game's minor character, Jessie, is born anew as a giddy adventuring companion, and her schoolgirl crush on Cloud is explored in ways that make both characters more well-rounded in the end.) But those results are the exceptions, not the rule. FFVIIR's script is largely a mess, so much so that this entire article's length could have been consumed by examples. If you come into this game without an appreciation for the original characters and their established archetypes, you'll be particularly confused by what the love for this old game is all about.

At its worst, the script reaches Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within levels.

Which is a shame, because the whole point of FFVIIR's updated scope—and its expansion of the original game's Midgar segment—seems to be to get us to care about its iconic characters that much more. The best example for me was a dungeon full of banter between Cloud and Aerith, in which Aerith keeps trying to get Cloud to high-five. Each attempt comes with an awkwardly staged mix of banter and motion capture, which feels less like a B-movie production and more like a botched translation. Ultimately, in the end, the sequence enjoys a punchline payoff so good that I recall the entire dungeon sequence in a really positive light, in spite of the weirdness along the way. So, again: the script is good on the macro level, bummer on the micro.

And I should be wholly clear: The plot is based off a 1997 JRPG foundation, so be ready for a few squirm-inducing, heart-on-sleeve speeches along the way, bad translation or no. I really cannot stress this enough: at its worst, the script reaches Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within levels. A runtime exceeding 35 hours stretches this out in tolerable fashion, but the lows are low.

Graphics at their best, and at their worst

The game's updated visual presentation comes off a lot better, albeit with its own caveats.

  • We're curious how many of the cut scenes are pre-rendered, but they all include models that match the in-game action.
  • Aerith, seen here in a dazzling moment later in the game.
  • And here's Aerith in a less dramatically lit moment, surrounded by low-poly flowers. So, the results are all over the map.
  • I have to hand it to Square Enix: They made Cloud's ridiculous haircut look pretty phenomenal on a PlayStation 4.
  • Real-time Cloud, hanging out in Sector 7. Notice both the handsome lighting effects and a few surprisingly blurry textures. You'll see a lot of texture blur in FFVIIR, endemic to its use of Unreal Engine 4.
  • This moment was caught immediately before a battle in the same location, and it's indicative of the general visual quality of the real-time graphics.
  • Cut scene Tifa, seen with more exact animation and lighting cues.
  • Real-time Tifa, seen talking to Cloud in ways that you can tap a button to skip. So, yeah, it's all quite comparable.

To start, there's no getting around how breathtaking it is to see the series' most classic characters look so detailed and alive throughout the game. In spite of their cartoony '90s designs, they've all been translated impeccably to this game's "alive-yet-fictional" universe. Barret's arms are almost as ridiculous as Tifa's, ahem, proportions, yet the attention applied to the cast's skin, clothes, and general animation suite makes it all work. The incredible hair rendering helps, as well, as you can practically smell the Aqua Net in Cloud's spiky 'do.

The character models used in the game's cinematic cut scenes are pretty much identical to those in traversal and combat, as well. Villains, monsters, and massive buildings get the same spit-shine treatment, and the whole affair benefits from a wonderfully optimized use of Unreal Engine 4. Tricks like material-based lighting, subsurface scattering applied to skin tone, and handsome shadow effects aren't held back in favor of the game's ridiculous polygon budget, and the resulting visual smorgasbord locks to a crisp 30-frames-per-second refresh. No matter how bonkers a particular fight got, I never noticed a frame rate stutter.

I'll be curious to see in future data-mining how much of the game's 81GB install size on PlayStation consoles is dedicated to full-motion video. It's likely that some major sequences are staged as pre-recorded videos, especially since they dramatically switch back and forth to different locations, but only a few of the game's cut scenes implement any noticeable "cheats" (like insane view distances for explosions). Most of the cut scenes look like the actual game, and occasionally blurred textures within these dramatic scenes drive the point home: yes, that's your PS4 doing the rendering work.

Outside of the controlled confines of cinema sequences, FFVIIR has a limited animation budget once you take control, and this is most noticeable when looking at major characters' repeating and sometimes stilted animations. The game's two leading women, Tifa and Aerith, have an awkward lean-forward-and-smile move, along with a weird giggle-and-point-upward move, and you'll see both a lot when the camera zooms in on them during mid-mission dialogue passages. These brief examples point to the game's "uncanny valley" issue: thanks to the game ramping up a given character's average fidelity, each awkward exception—an animation that repeats a bunch, or is interrupted abruptly—stands out that much more.

Imagine this one-off character's face remaining mostly rigid while his head and arms gesticulate wildly during a conversation. What looks ho-hum in screenshot form looks worse in action.
Enlarge / Imagine this one-off character's face remaining mostly rigid while his head and arms gesticulate wildly during a conversation. What looks ho-hum in screenshot form looks worse in action.Square Enix

In worse news, roughly one-fourth of the game's world is made up of repetitive, low-polygon, simple-texture material. Piles of trash, craggy mountains, and sets of industrial factory parts fill out most sections with "mileage"—meaning, the ones where players must run a significant distance (usually anything that resembles older games' "dungeon" sequences). It's unclear whether this issue is because the larger running sections have a limited processing budget or because Square Enix rushed these parts to get the game finished or a combination of the two.

Worse, almost every non-player character (NPC) comes with a pretty pathetic budget of body and facial animations—not as bad as Shenmue III, but close. Running through any of the game's towns means passing dozens of herpy-derpy civilians, and the game will zoom in on their ridiculous appearances when they chat as part of a quest's progression. If you've played the incredible Assassin's Creed Odyssey, then you know how much better this element could have turned out. In FFVIIR's case, these characters also suffer from the aforementioned issues with awkward English translations. I fully expect mash-up YouTube videos mocking Square Enix's NPCs to light up YouTube in the weeks to come.

Combat: You down with ATB?

Back to the positives: Gosh, do I like FFVIIR's combat. Though I did have to run into a brick wall of challenge at the 15-hour mark to finally get it.

Like other modern Square Enix RPGs, FFVIIR dumps players into a mix of active and menu-driven combat. You'll use a joystick to control one party member's movement and a few buttons to trigger real-time attacks (sword swipes, gun shots), quick-dodge rolls, and a "hold-to-shield" buff. (That describes pretty much every major 3D action game of the past 20 years.) Meanwhile, each member of your party gets its own "Active Time Battle" meter (ATB), which recharges based on equipped items, number of basic attacks, and so on. Most of the biggest maneuvers hinge on the ATB: spell casts, complex maneuvers, healing potions, items, and more. Most actions cost one ATB point; some cost two. (The meter maxes out at two points, with some exceptions.)

  • Sometimes, you need a comically large sword to make a point.
  • Bad dog! Bad dog!
  • When controlling Aerith, you get unlimited ammo on a "basic" magic attack. Read More – Source