In the world of videogames, the story and setting of Final Fantasy VII has been elevated to the realm of myth. First released in 1997 on the Sony PlayStation, it ushered in a new era of Japanese role-playing games, and in the process, its story—begrudging hero Cloud Strife and a ragtag band of idealists and hangers-on fight the captivatingly evil Sephiroth for the sake of the planet—became larger than life for a lot of players. Cloud, Sephiroth, the floating city of Midgar—these are signifiers in the world of games that reach far wider than the game they come from, and exist with power outside of their context.
What’s most striking, then, about Final Fantasy VII Remake is how particular it is. Amidst a number of strange adaptational choices, its greatest success is in making the setting and characters of this mythic story feel more specific and human than they ever have before.
Final Fantasy VII Remake begins, like its originator, with an action sequence. The mercenary Cloud Strife teams up with Barrett, Wedge, Biggs, and Jessie—members of the eco-terrorist group Avalanche—to destroy a reactor in the floating cyberpunk city of Midgar. The corporate overlords of Midgar, Shinra, have created an energy source using the lifestream, the magical life force of the planet, and Avalanche’s goal is to stop them any way they can. The first hour of both games is, thus, a lightning raid on one of Shinra’s reactors with an explosive finish. In both games it’s nearly the same, beat for beat: thrilling, violent.
Then, the two diverge. This is where Final Fantasy VII Remake slows down considerably, immediately hyper-focusing on details. Every moment in Remake feels dedicated to showing process—how the heroes get in, how they escape, what the flight from the Shinra authorities looks like. Every moment is expanded to show in the most literal detail how it happened. While a lot of games, especially games from the original PlayStation era, accepted breaks from reality—cities logically much smaller than they really would be, conflicts that are implied as much as they are shown—Remake resists that for a more literalist approach to its storytelling. As such, a game that could play like a cyberpunk thriller often feels like a slice-of-life story, a trip through the most complex and detailed world Square Enix could muster.
It’s tempting to think this detail-oriented storytelling—which adds new settings, new side quests, and expanded backstories for many characters—is an attempt at padding, filler. Final Fantasy VII Remake isn’t the entirety of the original FFVII; it covers only the early hours of the original game, the part spent entirely in Midgar. Yet the new additions extend a tight 15-hour game into a 30-hour one, and it seems that was the point—to slow the player’s progress enough that they feel they got their money’s worth, while also giving Square Enix time to work on the next installments.
But there’s more to it than that. This approach evinces a thoughtful, humanistic approach to conveying this world’s story, one of stratification—lower-class citizens literally live in the shadow of Midgar’s floating metal metropolis—and the costs and merits of violent direct action in a world beginning to teeter on the brink of ecological collapse. Final Fantasy VII is so beloved, so well-known, it would’ve been easy for Remake‘s developers to just coast on the fumes of the game’s already-established mythology. To make everyone a bit larger, a bit cooler, every moment a bit more thrilling. To tell the action movie version of the story, with ambiguity and humanity stripped away. But the methodical approach here ensures that this game does the opposite. As you wander its dauntingly large cityscape, interactions with normal people make the characters feel human, fallible, and small in a way that Final Fantasy VII‘s bizarre sequels, and Square Enix’s crossovers, never really did. Cloud is almost childlike, a boy playacting at being a warrior and not always nailing the part. And Aerith, one of the most beloved tragic heroines in games, is more than a love interest here—she’s an ethereal presence, a calm and cheery person who seems to exist half in this world and half in another, more spiritual, one. These are fallible, coherent characters, making mistakes and stumbling through a messed-up world. The game’s political questions hit more effectively in this way, too; once you know the people and settings of Midgar in more intimate detail, the violent actions you take as the heroes, bombing the city to save the world, feel significantly more fraught. The game is clearly on the side of our beloved ecoterrorists, but it’s not afraid of the moral ambiguity of that perspective.
This attention to intimate detail also extends to its new combat system, which pushes fights out of the turn-based mode of old and into frantic real-time action. It’s a system modeled after the original, with meters that fill up as you attack and move that can be used on strategic special abilities. But the move to real time lets the game focus on the physicality of these characters, with lushly detailed animations for every swing of Cloud’s giant sword, every punch Tifa throws, and every spell Aerith casts. One of the most significant realities of this combat system is the way it communicates presence and weight, how it further serves to develop the main cast. You get a sense of them, not just from how they interact but in how they fight, from Cloud’s preternatural soldier’s grace to Barrett’s wild machine-gun fire.
Final Fantasy VII Remake‘s laudable focus on the mundane is also its biggest problem. Some parts of it are simply boring. It runs the risk, particularly in its first half, of losing the thread of the main story completely, collapsing entirely into a series of moseying conversations and redundant side quests. For all the success the game has at fleshing out its world, it can’t seem to figure out how to do that without sacrificing the tension of the main plot. Set pieces from the original game are extended into lengthy dungeons, gauntlets of combat, and light puzzle-solving that are long enough to leave you wondering when the next plot development is going to happen. It feels, at times, like playing the first hours of a new story over and over again, as new characters are introduced, only to receive their own focus and a specific call to action to draw them into the larger adventure. When all the story bits are in place, Final Fantasy VII Remake is engrossing. But when it’s not, it’s really, really not.