'Final Fantasy VII' Remake: Game Review

Everything a remake should be, and a bit more.

The long-awaited reimagining of the classic 1997 role-playing game has finally arrived — and in grand style.

Video game remakes are all the rage at the moment, but what does a classic title being "remade" entail exactly? Does it simply refer to improved graphics and textures? Or does it mean a complete reimagining of the property from the ground up? 

Square Enix's Final Fantasy VII Remake is a shining example of what happens when a developer closely examines the boundaries of what the remake concept actually means, then twists and shapes them in ways simultaneously unexpected and familiar. The game is both new and old, while pushing one of the most iconic RPGs ever made (the original FFVII debuted on the Sony PlayStation in 1997) in new directions. It’s also one of the best games the PlayStation 4 will see before the end of this console generation, and it’s only the first installment of several planned “episodes."

But, even for everything that's changed from the first go-round, so much is still the same. The story follows mercenary Cloud Strife as he works alongside ecoterrorist organization Avalanche to bring down the Shinra Electric Power Company, an oppressive, ruthless megacorporation. Shinra's usage of the planet’s mako energy is stripping it of its life essence. It’s up to Cloud and a ragtag bunch of heroes (Tifa Lockhart, Barret Wallace and Aerith Gainsborough) to save the world from certain destruction.

The true narrative runs several layers deeper than that, of course. This initial installment takes the first few hours of the original game and expands it into a massive undertaking, allowing players to explore parts of the opening city, Midgar, and get to know its inhabitants intimately.

Midgar is open for you to explore at your leisure, more vibrant and bustling than ever before — particularly the recreational district of Wall Market, previously the biggest attraction in the game's early hours and home to one of the most iconic (and infamous) sections of the original FFVII: becoming the next "bride" for slumlord Don Corneo. What was already a fun and lighthearted set of errands in the original game has been pumped up to a point where it comically (and dramatically) exceeds expectations, and it's a blast to see it all play out. 

But even for all its charm and quirkiness, the original game didn't steer away from melancholy. But when certain close acquaintances were in danger in the 1997 title, those scenes felt far less impactful than the gorgeously rendered tableaus found throughout the 2020 remake. When someone you've spent even a modicum of time with in this run-through is in danger, you feel it — especially the lives of those in the slums beneath Midgar’s metal sky, upon which the affluent have built a shining metropolis. Dire circumstances hit home while even the smallest of victories brings much-needed hope.

There is no world map at present (you don't need one since this installment is all about Midgar), but there is a fast-travel option unlocked later in the game. It may not have seemed like it 23 years ago, but Midgar is a massive city, and the remake really sells the scope of just how expansive the slums beneath the enormous "metal pizza" really are. 

Aside from exploring, most of your time will be spent in combat. You'll face a variety of common Final Fantasy enemies as well as new versions of baddies re-envisioned for this installment. Yes, that includes some of the more outlandish monsters, such as a literal house that throws chairs at you (it's appropriately named Hell House, by the way) and beasts that look as though they were cobbled together out of discarded pipes. Luckily, battles have been revamped and refined into something much more engaging than simple turn-based affairs.

The game has adopted a system that feels as though it borrows more than a bit from MMORPG-styled encounters with a tank (fighters with high hit points meant to absorb damage) and healer characters. You control one party member at a time directly and can swap between them at will in a system that feels more like Square and Final Fantasy cousin Kingdom Hearts’ real-time combat than traditional FF. It's used to great effect, though. Cleaving through enemies with Cloud's massive Buster Sword feels satisfying and meaty, Tifa packs a mean punch and variety of melee attacks, and Aerith proves she's much more than just a healer this time around.

There's a distinct set of strategies that need to be employed for different monsters. Simply hacking away won't do you any good. You need to raise a "stagger" gauge to deal the major damage, and that requires some thinking on your part. The battle system decidedly more cerebral that the original's, which may not work for some players, but it makes boss fights into Herculean labors and even run-of-the-mill encounters feel like more urgent affairs. Plus, with a wide variety of weapons and skills to learn, there’s always something new to bring into battle.

The Materia system feels expansive in ways that weren't possible before, as well. You can still attach your favorite spells to weapons that offer slots, and there’s familiar magic like Haste, Fire, Thunder and even the newly renamed Manaward (similar to the M-Barrier Materia in the original, which allowed for magical barrier spells). But there are some new additions that push you to think critically about your setups and whether consuming MP (magic points) is really worth it for the sake of utilizing a character's special abilities. For instance, using the Pray Materia enables you to heal party members by simply using an AP (ability point) charge instead of MP, which the Healing Materia requires for the Cure magic set. If you're low on Ether or Elixir items, this can be a lifesaving combat move.

The powerful summons that made it easier to tear through enemies and boss encounters are still here as well, but the way you interact with them has changed. You’ll still use powerful allies like Ifrit and Shiva, but summon availability is a bit more obtuse. Where the original game treated summons as spells that consumed MP, they're now brought into battle by a gauge that appears seemingly at random. When you call on your ally of choice, a new gauge will slowly deplete, during which time you can use AP charges to have your summon attack, similar to approaches some Final Fantasy entries have taken in the past. When the timer runs out, a finale attack is unleashed for major damage. That’s it until the next time you fight alongside them.

For those for whom the nostalgia is strong, there are plenty of callbacks to the PlayStation classic to be appreciated. Though it doesn’t occur after completing battles, Barret will often hum the iconic Final Fantasy "Victory Fanfare" tune — perhaps he finds it a good morale booster. Though save points have been abolished and you can save anywhere, you can “rest” at a bench with save point symbols on them.

Final Fantasy's iconic soundtrack has been remixed in surprising, effervescent ways that allow familiar tracks to shine with bombastic additions and imbue some of the more difficult moments with added gravity. “Aerith’s Theme,” for example, hits harder than ever.

It’s all part of a veritable buffet of winks and nods that die-hard fans will hungrily lap up. In fact, the entirety of the game is positioned as such for players who have taken this journey before, in ways that even begin to seep into the fibers of the narrative. Newcomers will find plenty to enjoy here, but having played the original game adds so much to the experience that it almost feels like “required reading” homework. 

Despite the shift to a somewhat more linear structure, you'll still be looking at a minimum of 25 to 40 hours of gameplay, depending on how much time you put into completing optional side quests and objectives, including virtual reality combat training and a series of mini games and research missions that each come with rewards in the form of Materia, accessories and items.

Final Fantasy VII Remake isn’t a one-for-one retelling of the original game. It doesn’t have to be. But it isn’t a complete reimagining, either. Square finds a happy medium between the two concepts and presents something wholly new that the studio has never tried with its extensive catalogue of Final Fantasy entries. More important, it’s gorgeous, breathtaking and a loving tribute to the title that launched a thousand video game careers and lifetime loves for the medium.

Final Fantasy VII is the game you remember popping into your PlayStation growing up — and then some. Midgar has been “remade,” all right, along with the game’s core cast of characters, themes, enemies and even its soundtrack. It’s going to be fascinating to see where this speeding train gets off next, whenever it’s ready to make its next stop over.