You read that right: Final Fantasy VII Remake is the best thing on your TV right now. Fight me.
OK, some caveats. First, don’t fight me. Second, please, don’t fight me. Third, Final Fantasy VII Remake may not yet be on your TV, but once it is, it will be the best thing on your TV. And fourth — before all the other unnumbered points to follow — it could have been worse: We could be living in a world where the headline reads “Final Fantasy VII Remake is the best show on TV right now,” if not for the better judgment of more sensible people. Good on them: it’s obviously wildly wrong to describe a video game as the best show on television. (See: the equally triggering take that Twin Peaks: The Return was the best film of 2017, rather than being a spectacular showcase for David Lynch’s talents in television form.) But while Final Fantasy VII Remake is certainly the video game of the moment, it is my hope to reach television viewers looking to scratch a certain Game of Thrones itch, and it is my hope those same viewers will ultimately forgive some hyperbole if it leads to them meeting Cloud Strife, Tifa Lockhart, Barret Wallace and the other denizens of mythical megalopolis Midgar — an eclectic cast caught up in a culturally relevant political thriller, with massive swords and magic spells thrown in for good measure.
A less sensational way of framing the argument, though still admittedly sensational: the world has awaited an all-encompassing, emotionally engrossing pop culture juggernaut the size and scope of Thrones ever since the HBO fantasy series ended in 2019 — and Final Fantasy VII Remake is the first experience to come close to filling that void.
Just as David Benioff and Dan Weiss’ Game of Thrones was based on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novel series, so too does Final Fantasy VII Remake come from beloved source material. No surprise there: the word “Remake” is right in the title. It’s a new take on one of the most iconic video games of all time: 1997’s Final Fantasy VII, itself one of many entries in Square-Enix’s greater Final Fantasy franchise, the Coca Cola of the Japanese role-playing game genre. Each game in the series takes place in a different world and follows different sets of characters, albeit with some holdover thematic elements and character names tracking across the titles: bird-horses called chocobos and magic bears called moogles come to mind, not to mention engineers named Cid boasting a wide variety of temperaments. Final Fantasy VII was the series’ first “next-gen” entry, a massive moneymaker that redefined the genre, let alone the franchise, spawning playable spinoffs like 2006 fighting game Dirge of Cerberus and 2007’s action RPG Crisis Core, not to mention Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, a 2005 film sequel to the original game.
Already, clearly, Final Fantasy VII comes with enough fire and fandom to support multiple takes on the story — and that’s largely because the story, and specifically the characters, are so rich, even if it’s the rich they’re up against.
Which brings us to the story: Final Fantasy VII centers on mercenary Cloud Strife, the spiky-haired blonde with a massive sword on his back and an even bigger chip on his shoulder. A veteran of the elite warrior unit known as SOLDIER, Cloud once worked for the Shinra Electric Power Company, unfathomably influential, wealthy and selfish, engineering false conflicts with foreign nations as cash grabs. Their biggest moneymaker: mako, an energy source derived by drilling into the center of the earth and mining a precious glowing green resource known as “the life-stream,” the literal blood coursing through the planet’s veins. Cloud and Shinra parted ways some years before the start of Final Fantasy VII because of, well, let’s go with reasons, and when the game picks up, he’s working with a resistance group known as Avalanche, dedicated to stopping Shinra by any and all means necessary. Among those means: blowing up mako reactors, cast by Shinra as terrorist attacks on the city of Midgar.
Ah, Midgar. The setting of Final Fantasy VII Remake, a sprawling Tokyo-inspired city with a brutally clear class divide. How clear? The wealthy live high in the clouds on a network of eight plates, all constructed above the slums below, where sector dwellers can’t even see the sun, just the artificial lights affixed to the underbelly of the plates. The members of Avalanche live in these slums, and the ones with whom Cloud works live in Sector Seven. Among the players in this group: Biggs and Wedge, a pair of pals with names ripped right out of the Star Wars franchise (fun fact: there’s a Biggs and Wedge in virtually every single Final Fantasy entry), with the latter of the two voiced by Breaking Bad favorite Matt Jones; Jessie Raspberry, once an aspiring actress who abandoned her big-stage dreams to take on Shinra for personal reasons; and Barret Wallace, the large and in charge Avalanche leader with a machine gun for a hand, and a hardened exterior that hides his softer side — a side he typically reserves for his young daughter Marlene.
There’s another player in the Avalanche mix: bartender and martial arts enthusiast Tifa Lockhart, one of Cloud’s childhood friends, and the only person still around who knows him from way back when. From the very start of the story, Cloud exhibits strange behavior: migraines that lead to flashes of memory — some of them maybe even glimpses into the future — with Tifa serving as a grounding presence of sorts, someone who Cloud can look upon and feel a semblance of normalcy. In time, circumstances lead Cloud to a new grounding presence: Sector Five’s very own Aerith Gainsborough, a flower peddler living with a secret so powerful that it pulls her straight into Shinra’s deadly vortex — and a personality so magnetic that even the cold-hearted Cloud can’t help but follow Aerith deeper into the plot, all his mercenary instincts notwithstanding.
While Tifa serves as a source of old comfort and Aerith as a new one, there’s someone else from Cloud’s past who has returned to present new anxiety: Sephiroth, a long dead war hero who might not be as dead or heroic as the rest of the world believes. What he wants — and what he specifically wants from Cloud — form the backbone of the greater Final Fantasy VII story, which unfolds over the course of dozens of hours of monster-fighting, globe-trotting, and blood-letting on both sides of the battlefield as Cloud and his allies fight to save the planet from metaphoric and literal extinction.
But that’s Final Fantasy VII — not Final Fantasy VII Remake. For the purposes of Square Enix’s new venture, Cloud and his allies are certainly fighting monsters and there’s certainly blood-letting (a whole lot of it, in fact, tragically so), but there’s not much in the way of globe-trotting. The entire remake takes place in the city of Midgar, which only serves as the setting for the first five or so hours of the original. For the remake, those five hours are greatly expanded, into roughly 40 or so hours of gameplay and elaborated story. It’s enough to leave original Final Fantasy fans worried that Square Enix’s remake project, much like Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, may never see full completion — but should the game continue beyond, then Final Fantasy VII Remake is best viewed as the first season of a sprawling television series, with such a deep story and bench of characters as to keep fans of the franchise engaged for years and years to come, Game of Thrones style.
All of that’s well and good. A relevant story in a far-off world, populated by memorable characters wrestling with their own complicated histories and agendas? Sounds like it’s more than capable of scratching that Game of Thrones itch, and the folks who have played the original game will certainly attest to the sheer number of twists and turns future installments can turn into iconic pop culture moments. But what about the people who are curious about Final Fantasy and have never (1) played the original, (2) played a single game in the series, (3) haven’t played a video game since the early aughts or (4) have never played a video game, period? For the final category, you’re maybe out of luck, but hey! If you’re compelled, give it a shot.
For the others: Final Fantasy VII Remake boasts a story that requires no previous introduction (though those who have played the original will enjoy a deeper experience, just as A Song of Ice and Fire fans could watch Game of Thrones with the Red Weddings of the world firmly on the radar), and what’s more, it boasts two difficulty settings that defy the word “difficult.”
In particular, “Classic Mode” is designed to let players calmly navigate battle options without the stress of full-on modern melée, a soothing balm for someone like, well, me, who hasn’t kept up with recent video game trends. Recently, Kotaku ran an article about how Final Fantasy VII Remake‘s easy setting is far too easy — and while that may be a genuine thorn in the side of some gamers, it’s heavenly music to the ears of someone who simply wants to fall deep into one of the greatest casts of characters and elaborate stories around, who wants to wander the streets of Midgar with modified versions of original composer Nobuo Uematsu’s score humming beneath it all.
That last point, of course, brings us back to sensational headlines. It’s easy enough to read one that seemingly lambasts Final Fantasy VII Remake for being way too easy without reading the article for its greater substance. Same situation here, I suppose. Describing a video game as the best thing on TV right now is an invitation for Twitter drive-bys, so swift and far off that not even Barret’s rapid-fire long-range attacks can take them down. Whatever hornet’s nest it kicks up, I invite the bees (including the ones in Sector Six), if it means one, two or even three human beings are tempted into giving one of my all-time favorite stories a look. The original Final Fantasy VII might not hold up as well for someone who discovers it today without any prior experience. Final Fantasy VII Remake is not only a brilliantly modernized adaptation, it’s one that’s easy to play (and challenging enough should you select the higher degree difficulty setting), it’s the first silo in what could be a decade-spanning saga and it’s arriving at the exact right moment: exactly when folks hurting for the next big television epic are left wanting (for a long list of reasons, obviously), and exactly when the world itself is as fragile as it’s ever been, in a way deeply mirrored by the happenings in Midgar.
Just as Cloud finds himself drawn into Avalanche’s mission and Aerith’s mystery, those who choose to check in with the spiky-haired mercenary are signing up for one heck of a show — and maybe, just maybe, they will come to agree: Final Fantasy VII Remake really is the best thing on TV right now.