Sometimes, you stumble upon a piece of media that is exactly your thing. That’s not to say it’s a perfect piece of work or anything- it just hits every single button for you, checks off everything in your “what you want in a story” list. I’ve got a few of those, more than a few. And Final Fantasy VII Remake has now joined their number.
It was just so compulsively playable. It grabbed me as surely as Fire Emblem Three Houses did. And it did it during a time where I have a job instead of a time when all I had were job applications (global pandemic notwithstanding). I got so wrapped up in it that I stayed up until at least 11 every night last week, if not later. I just kept saying “one more scene, one more quest, one more battle” until it turned into two more, three more, ten more.
So, okay, I loved it. But why did I love it? What problems did I still have? How about that ending? Oh boy, let’s talk the wild ride of Final Fantasy VII Remake, bro.
Hey, Madelyn, go away, you haven’t played it yet. Or read on, I guess, I’m not the boss of you.
1. Jessie, Biggs, and Wedge (and all the rest)
Final Fantasy VII Remake would not be half so good as it is without its cast. Pretty much every major character is a delight, even more so when they’re playing off of each other. And I don’t think there’s a better example of this than the revamped Avalanche crew.
Jessie, Biggs, and Wedge didn’t have much of a role in the original. They were there to die, that’s about it. In this, however, they’re all fully-realized people with goals and dreams and personal hang-ups. Biggs is a chronic worrywart who thinks up at least five plans for every situation. Jessie is an actress through and through, disguising her own concerns with cheer and flirtatiousness. Wedge has three cats named Biggumus Rex, Reginaldo, and Mr. Smalls. They’re adorable. In their own unique ways, they wiggle their way through all the walls Cloud has up and straight into the heart of the player. Chapter 4, in which you accompany them topside to visit Jessie’s family and loot a warehouse, remained one of my favorite chapters the whole way through.
I mean, come on. You can’t tell me you didn’t grin fiercely through this whole cheesy parachuting scene.
Also definitely thought that was Cloud touching Wedge’s butt the first time I saw it. You did too, admit it.
The characters you’d expect to be great also generally come off better than great. Cloud, Tifa, Barret (with some caveats)…But I cannot express how much I love Aerith. She’s incredible. Simply walking across the rooftops with her, talking and teasing, is one of the most delightful moments in the game. And she only gets better from there.
Even Reno and Rude are charming, as unquestionably monstrous as their actions are. I’m always a sucker for villainous duos who clearly care a lot for each other; it’s absolutely a weakness of mine, I had no chance honestly. I’ll be interested to see how the game carries their stories forward in this version, where they clearly feel doubt for their duties and regret for what they’ve done- although doubt and regret certainly cannot make up for the actions they’ve already taken. Most of the other antagonists are just unrepentantly evil, which has its own entertainment factor too.
And I gotta throw a shout out to my boy Chadley. You go, you weird little dude. Use Shinra’s own power against them from the inside. Down with the corporate overlords, Chadley. You can do it.
2. ATB and the Battle System
When I played the demo for Final Fantasy VII Remake back at PAX, I really though I was going to be using the shortcut menu more than the Command menu. That’s what I was used to from Kingdom Hearts, so I figured it’d be somewhat similar here.
It was actually the opposite. I’m pretty sure I only used shortcuts in the first mission and then forgot about their existence. I’m entirely in on the Command menu, which I think is a testament to how well they’ve implemented this battle system on the whole. If I had to compare it to something, I think I’d call it “faster Transistor.” You move around, dodge, and attack in real time, but once you have enough ATB, you open the Command menu, slow down time, and think about your next move. It gives you a chance to breathe and reassess your strategy before diving back in to the action.
I absolutely love it. It feels like it brings the feeling of turn-based combat to the real-time base of most modern AAA games.
Of course, ATB is not all there is to it. Each of the four playable characters have their own strengths and weaknesses, their own play style, and their own special abilities. Each of them are extremely fun to play, and the game rewards you for knowing how to handle them all. Cloud has a stance that can counter melee attacks, which comes in handy against speedy bosses like Roche and Reno. Aerith learns an ability which can double magic casts per ATB bar which works super well against bosses with an elemental weakness, such as any mechanical enemy…or Rude, until he puts you to sleep and then hits you with a tactical Cloud, that is.
Rude, please, Rude, stop, I’ll go home and stay there, I promise.
Tifa is intensely fast. She almost always has at least one ATB bar and some of her later abilities work incredibly well for crowd control. Barret, meanwhile, dishes out damage from a distance, catching sneaky flying enemies or providing the melee fighters with a breather.
The AI isn’t great, unfortunately, but it generally keeps itself from getting killed, and I think the game wants you switching between characters pretty often anyway. So it didn’t bother me too much.
Finally, I love the weapon upgrade system and how it keeps all your weapons viable until the end game. It’s how I was able to have the buster sword equipped for the final boss and, hoo boy, did that add to the cinematic experience.
3. A World, Full of People
In Midgar, people are always talking. Cloud can’t walk anywhere without hearing a snatches of conversation from all the people around him. The city is truly bustling and crowded, almost to the point of being suffocating.
I could see how some players might find the NPC dialogue in the background overwhelming, but it made me feel like I was surrounded by people, real people. In particular, walking through the city after the first reactor bombing felt…surreal. Japan has its own national traumas, but I imagine any Western players who played the original in 1997 felt different playing through it now, years after 9/11. Of course, the scale and detail of it have been souped up since then too, which adds to that sense of authenticity.
The woman crying, “wake me up, wake me up from this,” really hit me somewhere inside. It’s a hell of a way to start your game off proper.
But, it’s not all gloomy and moody. The kid playing spy in the dumpster in Sector 7. The snatches of the Stamp song that workers hum to themselves, unable to remember all the words. Two girls dancing on the rooftop in Sector 5 as their mother begs them to come down before they hurt themselves. These dumb kids.
The NPC designs may leave something to be desired, but their writing helps to flesh out the world, both providing snatches of lore while also reminding you that…yeah, lots of people live in Midgar. Something I really appreciated was how different each of the slums felt. Sector 7 was barren. Sector 5 was blooming, probably thanks to Aerith’s influence. And Wall Market is bustling and bright (we’ll talk more about Wall Market). They were neighborhoods with their own communities and values. They were places where people lived, not just new levels to explore.
Speaking of Wall Market…
4. Wall Market. Just. Wall Market.
There are tons of people writing pieces about Wall Market that are far more qualified to make statements on its perfectly safe performance of queerness and how that’s fine, if nothing more. The Honeybee Inn is certainly very RuPaul’s Drag Race, which is, you know, better than portraying the inn as a straight-up brothel but not particularly daring either. But god, when it gets down to it, I had so much fun in Wall Market. And not only the Honeybee Inn part.
Aerith hits a guy with a chair. Price of the Remake was already worth it.
I liked the Hell House fight? I know people found it obtuse or frustrating, but I found it stressful and exhilarating in all the right ways, with the live running commentary in the background just a bonus. While I didn’t end up heading back to the coliseum, I liked its role in the story at the time.
Who is Johnny? Where is he going? Oh crap, he was leaving town at the end, we’re definitely going to meet up with him again in the next part. Anyway, Johnny has a delightful run and also rolled out the red carpet for Aerith, so he’s a cool dude in my book.
Jules is awesome. Jules is just at the gym, doing Jules things, making sure everybody gets their recommended amounts of protein and challenging Cloud and Tifa to squat and pull-up contests. No body negativity in the gym of Jules. Go Jules go.
Chocobo Sam owns chocobos. Chocobos are cute.
CLOUD DANCES. What does he dance to? ANYTHING.
When you talk to Chadley while Cloud is in his dress, he experiences an emotional response. I love Chadley. Take down Shinra from the inside, you absolutely delightful little dude.
The fact that Cloud wearing the dress is never the joke is also awesome, by the way. I know it’s a low bar to clear, but it’s still good that they do. He’s clearly a bit uncomfortable about the dress and the dancing, but it’s a “I’m bad at karaoke but my friends are making me sing” kind of uncomfortable, not a mean one. I could listen to Cody Christian deliver the line “Nailed it, I know. Thank you. Moving on,” at least a hundred times in a row and never find it less delightful.
Look, Wall Market was my happy place. That’s what I’m getting at here. Every second spent here, I had a huge smile on my face.
5. Absolute Jams
Can I just like…post links to my favorite tunes here? What? No, there’s no official versions on YouTube right now? Well, okay then….
All variations of the Turks’ Theme are stellar. I listened to the “Office” version looping for significant chunk of time while working this past week. It made me feel important and productive. But I think the best version has to be “Reno” which plays when you fight Reno (shocker) and also plays when you fight Rude (poor guy has to borrow his partner’s theme). The good violin…it’s good.
In terms of field themes, I’m really partial to the instrumental arrangement of Hollow that plays in the Sector 5 slums, entitled Hollow Skies. It really sets the mood for Aerith’s hometown. And, despite seeing a lot of people disliking it compared to the original, I enjoyed the theme of Wall Market too. I really like how it changes instruments based on your location within the district. But, really, I’ve got to give it to the theme that plays in the Collapsed Expressway. The battle version is great too, but the field version really chills me out for some reason.
A lot of the chapter closing boss fights are new arrangements of Those Who Fight Further, and it somehow manages to improve with every iteration. The Airbuster gets surprisingly intense with it, while the version for Rufus Shinra is almost…elegant, I guess, to sum it up in a word. Perfect for his observation-based, bullet-counting boss fight. But, in terms of boss music, I think I have to give it to J-E-N-O-V-A. One Winged Angel is as stellar as always, but there’s just something eerily unsettling about J-E-N-O-V-A that makes it stand out from the rest.
Man, I could go on for ages with this soundtrack. I know that I’m forgetting a ton. I mean, even the jukebox songs are great.
EVEN THE STAMP SONG IS GREAT. I KNOW IT’S PROPAGANDA BUT IT’S SO CATCHY. I GUESS THAT’S THE POINT.
Sorry, just had to include a reference to this one. It must be listened to.
6. Chapter 12
Chapter 12 made me feel things.
I don’t think I stopped crying from the minute I saw Biggs’s foot sticking out from behind the specters until we finally reached Aerith’s house again in Chapter 13. I don’t know how they did all of Midgar in eight? ten? hours in the original. How was the fall of Sector 7 not a huge climax in this story? The devastation of this chapter…it’s kind of indescribable.
I could list every single moment that made me burst out in a new flood of tears. My first draft did. But I can’t do it justice through words. If you’ve played it, you know how I felt. If you didn’t, you can’t possibly.
But I will take a second and point to Biggs. Everybody cries about Jessie (I goddamn sobbed about Jessie, believe me), but those last moments with Biggs really twisted me up inside something brutal. When he tells Cloud that he’s got so much in common with the orphans of the Leaf House, I had to catch my breath. Because wow, yeah, he’d really seen through it all. All of Cloud’s posturing and bravado, all his loneliness and confusion, Biggs could see through it, to the guy who’s scared and unsure but trying his hardest to do good and keep moving. And then he touched the side of Cloud’s head, told him good luck, and died. And I…I paused the game and went to make hot chocolate, just to give myself a moment to calm down.
That one scene alone. Jaw-dropping. The whole thing? I think it’s one of the most effective sequences to come out of a game ever. Not in the last ten years. Not since the original came out. Just one of the best ever period. Even with the dumb flying enemies that almost murdered me several times on the way up the pillar.
I totally understand why they wanted to flesh out Midgar in this version. Because there’s so much here. There’s no way the original mined as much pathos. I don’t think it would be possible without the fleshed-out members of Avalanche, the bustling world, the music- well, the original’s music was damn good, so I’m sure that worked fine. Whether you agree with the choice to split the game up like this or not, I think it’s clear to see why they wanted to look at the events of Midgar more closely.
And yeah, it’s pretty much a video game version of a YA novel when you boil it down. But, sue me, that’s what I like. I’ve felt a lot more feelings about silly stupid things for kids than I have for mature smart things for adults over the years. They both have their merits. If you’re someone who says “it’s like a YA novel” in a negative way, I don’t think you’ve read enough good YA novels.
7. A Couple Issues, I Won’t Lie
Now, just because I loved it, that doesn’t mean it was perfect. Of course not.
A lot of people don’t understand that distinction…
There were a lot of hallways. I couldn’t care less about that, but I’m sure it’d bother some people. There’s some sort of texture loading glitch, particularly on doors. Really only noticed that in a few places but I know it happened throughout. Aerial enemies can be frustrating, especially when you don’t have Barret. Would be nice if enemies targeted the non-active characters more instead of always switching to the controlled character. Uh, doing the jungle gym segments felt bad, they were hard to control. The NPC designs are lackluster. Also I didn’t really care about Leslie. Like, at all. Didn’t really need his backstory. It wasn’t like…bad, just…not good either. Those are all the small things I can think of.
A bigger problem is that there are certainly a few places where the game feels padded out. I kind of understand the rationale here. Imagine if this had come out at a tight 25 hours, up to 30 if you really looked around. People would have rioted in the streets, I think. At 30-40, people were already claiming it was too short. So, I can see them feeling the need to increase the runtime where they could. That being said, I was only bothered by it in the moment on the route to Reactor 5 and in the sewers/graveyard after Wall Market.
The Reactor 5 area is difficult to navigate, which makes it drag. I think a better level design could have helped keep the sun lamp section a little snappier. The sewers and graveyard would be fine if we weren’t, y’know, rushing to stop Shinra from dropping the plate on Sector 7. Cut most of the sewers, cut one of the graveyard bosses- no problem. Easy to solve problems (relatively speaking), but I understand why they were left in. There was a bit of drag in other places too, but I was having too much fun to care.
Oh, and you could cut the Leslie subplot too. Only part of the game I felt pretty much nothing about.
I might have also considered dropping a few more hints about Zack before the ending sequence. Maybe have Cloud see a vision of him when he blocks out Aerith saying his name, or make that trippy sequence after the fall into the church be Zack talking to Cloud instead of…Cloud talking to Cloud. It could make the ending a little easier to follow for new players (of which there are a lot, I’m sure). I cried when they adapted that Crisis Core scene in HD (because that’s my son) but I’m sure new players would be baffled.
Another larger problem: Barret teeters drastically between being written awesomely and being written awfully. Again, I know there are people far more qualified to speak to this than me (I unfortunately don’t have any links this time though). The main issue that I could identify was that the writers always need someone to deliver a punchline, and Barret is the easiest target most of the time, which sort of undercuts his more serious moments.
The other issue is they clearly wanted to keep some of his Western characterization from the original which is…a little dated and stereotypical to say the least. He’s the worst at the beginning, I’d say, and then goes generally uphill- albeit with a few major peaks and valleys along the way. He has both the best lines in the game (“Hold on to this. This anger.”), and the worst (the scene in the elevator during the bombing mission which makes him out as slightly unhinged instead of inspirational).
I love the line in the video above, for example. Sure, there are ordinary people working for Shinra. Decent people even. But when you close your eyes to the truth of what you’re working for, you become complicit to a degree. It’s possible to recognize that you have no choice but to do this, in order to support yourself and your family, while also knowing that you’re working under a “great evil” and acknowledging and reckoning with that. Those aren’t mutually exclusive.
That’s Barret at his most eloquent and powerful right there. I just wish you could see that from the beginning. Generously, i could say that it’s meant to show how Cloud starts to actually take Barret seriously as the game continues. But I think that’s giving the game a touch too much credit.
(By the way, the above line does not mean “so all Shinra employees deserve to die!” despite the way I’ve seen some people take it. Being complicit and being worthy of death are two different things, people. The Avalanche discourse is exhausting on Twitter, it’s actually inspiring me to focus on cutting back my time spent on that hell site.)
Yeah, yeah, “play past disc one in the original.” Only if you learn some reading comprehension first, thanks.
R. Freedom. Like a Great, Never-ending Sky
So, let’s talk about the Sephiroth in the room.
I liked the ending. I totally understand why people didn’t. As someone with no real emotional attachment to FF7, I’m aware my opinion does not carry the same weight of nostalgia. I’m also absolutely someone who generally likes endings that piss lots of fans off. Not because they piss of fans, but because I like when developers take risks instead of playing it safe. If that makes sense.
But let’s break it down. Here’s what the ending is doing, functionally:
1. It’s not bringing Zack or Biggs or Jessie back into the story, not necessarily. Cloud seems unchanged at the end, and god knows that Zack not dying would have caused a huge shift in his personality. It’s showing a lot of things that could be, might be, may be, somewhere. Not necessarily in this story, but another, equally valid one. In some world, those things changed. In this world, maybe other things could change. Square Enix says “write us more fix-it fic, we like it,” basically
2. It makes Sephiroth an enigma again. A lot of the concept behind the original was tied to making Sephiroth elusive and mysterious. But, at this point, I don’t think there’s a lot of people who play games who don’t know something about Sephiroth, even if only his absolutely canon hair care routine (per Crisis Core). But now…what does Sephiroth want? What is he planning? That’s something mysterious again, in keeping with his original portrayal.
3. It makes the plot unpredictable too. In Midgar, despite the expansions and additions, you knew what was coming. You knew the plate would fall. You knew the Avalanche crew would die. All of these things, you already knew. Now, you don’t. Will many familiar things still happen? Yeah, probably. Will Aerith still die? Maybe. Maybe not in the same way. My inclination would be to make it so she escapes her original fate, only to die soon afterwards. Love that fun emotional whiplash.
That’s what the ending does. That’s all it does. It’s not some topsy-turvy crazy thing. Sure, it’s got some Kingdom Hearts vibes, but it’s not sending Final Fantasy VII Remake toppling into Mickey Mouse land. Basically, it’s just giving the developers room to change more in future installments. And I think that’s so much more exciting than simply giving a twenty-year-old story a fresh coat of paint.
I do understand that it’s scary though. I think the game does too, judging by its ending moments. Aerith is the one who closes us out, on the edges of Midgar, as the rain pours down and Hollow plays in the background.
“I miss it,” she says. “The steel sky.”
That confined place, where everything, good and bad, was certain. It was comforting, in its triumphs and tragedies, its joy and sadness. But we’ve left that behind for what lies beyond. We’re all faced with a boundless, terrifying sky. It’s scary, I know it is. That’s the price for freedom. We can decide on our own whether or not we think it’s worth it.
Final Fantasy VII Remake‘s unknown journey will continue either way.
PS. Can the detractors lay off the personal Tetsuya Nomura attacks though? We can talk about this ending without dismissing it as “Nomura ruins something yet again.” It’s silly to think the guy deserves either all the blame or all the credit for this game- there’s a whole team on this. Final Fantasy VII is one of Square’s premiere games. They would not let this team do this if they weren’t confident in their approach. Nomura is not holding them at gunpoint. That’s Yoko Taro’s shtick.
And, anyway, I don’t think you can make a true call on this ending on either side until we see the follow-up. So here’s to Final Fantasy VII Re…union? Rebirth? Rebuild? That one might be too on the nose. Take your bets and hope that this virus doesn’t delay production too much and that the developers stay safe.
What did you think of the game? If you had to pick a favorite moment, what would it be? What do you think the subtitle of the next game will be? I hope it’s not just R-2 or something, that’s boring.
I’ll be here, (im)patiently waiting for the next installment, Maybe even grabbing the original on Switch…. now that’s an idea…