In the opening of Final Fantasy VII, Cloud Strife, a mercenary and former member of an elite private military group called SOLDIER, takes on a job with an eco-terrorist cell named Avalanche. Their mission is to blow up a reactor that siphons Mako, the lifeblood of the planet, and uses it to power the sprawling industrial metropolis Midgar. The group infiltrates, braves resistance from Shinra Electric Company's forces, and sets off an explosion that renders the reactor inoperable.
In the 1997 original, what followed was a hop, skip, and jump through a few sections of the city back to Sector 7, and the safety of Avalanche's hideout. In Final Fantasy VII Remake, having carried out the mission, you're asked to walk the streets in the aftermath and witness the harrowing consequences of your actions. The sector lies in ruin, fires rage, buildings are crumbling, and the heartbreaking human cost is laid bare.
A somber violin plays as you walk Midgar's streets, with each pull of the bow across strings tugging at your conscience and stirring the heart, asking you to question whether you're doing the right thing. The cries of confused children echo, people fall to their knees attempting to grapple with the magnitude of what has happened, and citizens decry this so-called group of freedom fighters you've joined just to make a quick buck.
As far as statements of intent go, Final Fantasy VII Remake's opening Bombing Mission is a clear and powerful one. This game may be just the first chapter in the reimagining of a much bigger story, but it seeks to uncover depth that was hitherto left to the imagination. It is rich in details that were previously unexplored, realizes new storytelling ambitions with confidence, and presents fresh perspectives that feel both meaningful and essential. It achieves these goals so successfully that it's hard to think that this story existed in any other way.
It's important to note that, yes, I have a history with and nostalgia for Final Fantasy VII, and the remake undoubtedly leverages that. However, that isn't to say that what it does will only land for people that know and love the source material. To say that would diminish the smart and careful reconstruction of Final Fantasy VII that the remake is. The majority of the game is new material, lovingly introduced to further detail a picture that had been painted in broad strokes. This isn't a game that panders to fans, as newcomers can also enjoy the majesty of Midgar and learn to love characters for the first time, all while playing a mechanically dense and rewarding role-playing game. Even if it's just a piece of the original Final Fantasy VII, this remake takes one of the most beloved games of all time and elevates it higher.
Final Fantasy VII Remake's narrative and characterization achievements are facilitated by gameplay that feels modern but is crystallized around the classic's role-playing fundamentals. In many ways, its gameplay model feels like the culmination of the franchise's evolutions, with ideas from throughout the series brought together in a composite that is fresh but familiar. This is the first time that the action-focused style of modern-era Final Fantasy games doesn't feel like it comes at the expense of the methodical nature of the series' roots. The hybrid style lets you glide between characters at the touch of a button and assume direct control. At the same time, commands can be issued to characters that are otherwise acting independently, conjuring the spirit of that deliberate stand-in-place-and-fight format of old.
Also harkening back to the original, the remake uses an Active Time Bar. While it previously dictated when a character could make any move, it now governs whether you take specific actions. The bar split into segments, and special abilities, spells, and item uses have an associated cost. To encourage juggling of party members, the ATB bars fill slowly when they're left to their own devices, but much more rapidly when you take control and attack the enemy directly. Characters tend not to initiate the more advanced skills of their own volition, so it's doubly important that you step in and put their resources to good use.
Each playable character has a unique skill that comes at no cost and has a great deal of strategic value. Cloud's Punisher mode, for example, unleashes a barrage of quick and powerful sword swings, and reacts to enemy strikes with a counter-attack, but at the expense of his mobility. Barret has a powerful blast, and this can be manually recharged to shorten its cooldown. Tifa's special martial art technique can be leveled up by spending an ATB bar to activate Unbridled Strength, and Aerith's Tempest fires a crystal that does damage on impact, then charges briefly before exploding to hit enemies around it. Each character is also able to use various offensive and defensive magical spells, provided they have the Materia that bestows this ability to them.
Materia was and is core to Final Fantasy VII's gameplay. It is solidified Mako energy imbued with arcane knowledge from the essence of the planet and life itself. It manifests as colored spheres that can be slotted into weapons and armor, thus giving the ability to invoke magic to its user or even summon god-like beings to fight alongside you. The beauty of the Materia system was that it allowed you to create loadouts in a very freeform way and build characters to fit your preferred style or strategy for any situation. The Materia system offers the same kind of freedom in the remake. Although each playable character has a general archetype, the Materia system presents a great deal of fluidity within this. I chose to outfit Barret with magical Materia and make him a long-range magician for a while, and during that period he generated AP experience that leveled up the Materia and opened up new, more powerful variations on the skills they housed. I then chose to take all that and give it to Tifa, lending her fists of fury an extra elemental sting. In a particularly challenging battle, I took Cloud's time manipulation Materia and slotted it into Aerith's items so she could hang back and cast haste on the front-line fighters to speed them up, while staying relatively safe.
The demands of moment-to-moment combat are high, especially since enemies can be vicious. They seem to work with the goal of creating the same kind of synergy between themselves as you do between your party members. If you're not careful, they will poison and paralyze to create openings for each other, make areas of the battlefield deadly to limit your movement, and pounce on a character to trap them, forcing you to switch characters to free your ensnared party member. Most enemies have some sort of elemental weakness that can be identified using the Assess materia ability and then exploited. Doing so applies pressure to them and, if it keeps building, will stagger them, rendering them completely defenseless. Enemies can also interrupt your actions or move out of the way entirely to evade you, so precise timing is also crucial, otherwise you could expend precious resources fruitlessly. The same discerning approach is needed for your movements. Having an evasive dodge may seem like it would trivialize combat, but many enemy attacks have wide areas of effect or track you, so choosing to guard and take less damage instead of trying to escape it entirely is another key consideration. Thankfully, when issuing commands, the action slows to a crawl to give you time to plan. This breathing room is welcome, but it won't save you from an ill-considered approach.
Suffice it to say that the combat asks a lot of you, but it is incredibly gratifying at the same time. Considering the unique ways each character functions, and the behaviour and weaknesses of enemies that require quick thinking and deliberate strategy, feels like playing high-speed chess, and when it comes together you'll find yourself slicing and dicing, freezing and igniting with exhilarating momentum. On occasion, particularly in tighter spaces, the camera can struggle to keep the action in frame, but it's not often enough to be a serious problem. As a whole, the combat has the fluidity, as well as the cinematic and visually stunning flair, of the post-Final Fantasy X games, but also the satisfaction of the "plan your work and work your plan" approach of games like Final Fantasy XII and Final Fantasy XIV. Add on the upgrading mechanics, which allow you to spend points on each weapon to bolster its attributes, and you've got a robust, interconnected suite of RPG mechanics. I can confidently say that Final Fantasy has never felt this good to play.
Final Fantasy VII Remake is rich in details that were previously unexplored, realizes new storytelling ambitions with confidence, and presents fresh perspectives that feel both meaningful and essential. It achieves these goals so successfully that it's hard to think that this story existed in any other way
For as strong as Final Fantasy VII Remake's gameplay is, it's the narrative and characters that truly stand out as its crowning achievement. For the vast majority of the game, Final Fantasy VII Remake isn't the story of a ragtag group of eco-terrorists fighting for the fate of the planet that the original was. Instead, it's a more focused, deeply personal story. Even though Avalanche's ultimate goal is to free the planet from the vampiric jaws of Shinra, the events that transpire narrow that battle to a struggle for the here and now, instead of the future. Unlike the original, there's also a much greater emphasis on the moral grey areas of the battle. Avalanche essentially pokes the sleeping dragon, and when Shinra retaliates, it's the already-downtrodden people of the slums that suffer.
They live a meager existence, albeit one they're comfortable with. As citizens of the undercity, living in the squalor of homes built from rusted metal sheets, propped up and forced together, is all they've known, and all they've known has been provided by Shinra. Just like the ramshackle buildings they live and work in, all they can do is use what they have to hold each other up. Because of that, many don't see Avalanche's fight against Shinra as a clear-cut battle between good and evil, right and wrong, in the same way that Barret and other members of Avalanche do. Walking through the various sectors of Midgar, you'll often hear people condemning Avalanche. The validity of the group's actions are frequently called into question, sometimes by members of the group itself. Tifa, for example, is less caught-up in the cause, even though she takes part in it. When the blowback hits her community, she shows signs of self-doubt, questioning the cause and seeking reassurance from others.
In multiple chapters, Remake slows the pace down so that you can spend time in the slums, meet the people there, understand their daily plights, and get involved with the community. In these sections, the game feels closer to something like the Yakuza series, where you're developing an intimate understanding and relationship with a place and the people. This is done through optional side-quests that are seemingly uninteresting busywork. However, barring a handful that are introduced in the late game and can potentially disrupt the momentum, they are worth pursuing. Each one provides some sort of valuable world-building or an opportunity to understand another person a little more. That person could be a young child looking for her lost friends, a concerned citizen looking to rid an area of a monster menace, a reporter investigating a Robin Hood-like thief. Mechanically, side missions are usually "go here, kill the enemies, talk to a person, or get an item, then return," but there's always a little story told within them that pulls you deeper into their world, and each one also humanizes Cloud just a little. As an ex-SOLDIER-turned-merc, he begins taking on odd jobs to make money. His demeanor is cold from the outset and his investment in the struggle is only as much as the coin that pays for it. But as he completes these quests, word of him spreads. The people come to know him, rely on him, and treat him like one of them--he becomes their champion, whether he likes it or not. This not only chips away at Cloud's hard edges, but makes you as the player invest in the world around you and the people within it. Final Fantasy VII Remake is the story of Cloud Strife learning to fight for others, instead of for just himself.
Characters that were formerly relegated to bit-parts are given more depth, so you learn more about Avalanche members like Biggs, Wedge, and Jessie, among many others. Though supporting characters, each has their own motivations for taking up arms against Shinra. There are poignant and personal moments with them that are delivered through heartfelt lines of dialogue instead of lengthy exposition. It all feels natural, believable, and relatable. Without spoiling anything, Remake also pulls in characters from the extended fiction of Final Fantasy, some of it incredibly obscure like The Kids Are Alright, a spin-off novel. And these new additions fit in naturally. It feels like Square Enix isn't just remaking Final Fantasy VII--it's rebuilding the larger Final Fantasy VII universe.
There's so much texture in these characters, which makes it easy to connect with them. Barret is a loud showboater, with every line he utters having the same kind of energy as a wrestler cutting a promo in a WWE pay-per-view. But beneath that, his intentions are pure; past experiences have solidified his resolve, and just when you're starting to doubt him, you'll see a touching fatherly moment with his heart-meltingly cute daughter Marlene and understand completely why he fights so hard. Jessie is flirtatious, throwing herself at Cloud and hitting him with the hot and cold treatment. She's energetic and vivacious, and you get to learn that there's more to this persona than initially meets the eye. As the crew's weapons expert, she struggles with what her creations are doing to the world around her. Wedge is a soft soul, trying to harden to show that the team can rely on him the same way they would Cloud or Tifa--but maybe a soft soul is exactly what they need. Biggs is cool, calm, and collected--the kind attitude that is honed through a life of conflict, but his history is altogether more touching, and mentioned in a fleeting moment that comes in an optional side-quest.
Some odd jobs will have you working alongside key characters such as Tifa and Aerith. For the former, the game elegantly establishes her history with Cloud, with frightening glimpses at their traumatic pasts appearing as intrusive flashes that are the result of some damaged part of Cloud's psyche. This mechanism is also used to weave in the presence of a certain silver-haired villain in a way that didn't appear in the original. The rapport between Cloud and Tifa is depicted so well: They are friends who support each other, but there's also a blossoming romance that builds as Cloud recalls their history and what she means to him.
Aerith, the flower girl whose story unexpectedly intersects with Cloud's, is beyond an uplifting presence. The banter between her and Cloud is sweet and funny from the moment you meet her and are unceremoniously drafted into being her bodyguard. She figures Cloud as the silent brooding type with a heart of gold immediately, and sets about poking at his ego and tearing down the walls. She's playful and confident and effortlessly endearing. She always looks for the good in things and, as result, sees the slums for what they mean to people--living under metal plates that block out the sun and amongst cold city steel hasn't dampened her outlook on life. These feel like real people--they have hopes and dreams, fears and faults, they're funny and charismatic, and so well-written and acted that you'll fall for every one. When playing the original, these were all thoughts and feelings I had about the characters that I colored in myself using the outlines the game presented. This time, they're not allusions; it's all painstakingly realized, and as much as I loved the characters and stories back then, I'm able to appreciate them in a much more profound way because of how complete it all feels now.
There's so much to marvel at; standing on a plate suspended above Midgar and staring out across the city; hearing each piano note of Tifa's theme played so softly that you can almost picture the fingers gently moving across the keys; walking across the church rooftops with Aerith as an odd calm falls over the city--it's all brought to life with such respect and attention to detail that it's hard not to be overwhelmed and give in to the nostalgia. Then there's the whole Don Corneo plan being hatched and paying off in a way that doesn't feel exclusionary or mocking, but inclusive, fun, and wholly unexpected. The remake doesn't shy away from embracing the goofier elements of the original, instead using it to bring levity to what is otherwise heavy subject matter. Even as the game reaches its conclusion and embraces the more outlandish and fantastical parts of the narrative, it does so in a way that feels earned. Again, this might be just a small chunk of the original release, but as a standalone game Final Fantasy VII Remake is complete. Although a greater villain lingers in the periphery of the story, and cryptic references to something more in Cloud's past--as well as other unexplained elements--are introduced in the concluding chapters, this doesn't diminish the story that is told. Final Fantasy VII Remake can be enjoyed on the merits of what it presents, and for those in the know, it also lays the foundation for future revelations in an intriguing way.
Regardless of your history with the original game, Final Fantasy VII Remake is an astounding achievement. The wait for its release was a long one, but in gameplay, story, characters, and music, it delivers--the wait was worth it. For first-time players, it's an opportunity to understand why Final Fantasy VII is held in such high regard. It's the chance to experience a multifaceted story that grapples with complex subject matter, be in the company of memorable characters, and be moved by their plight. For returning fans, this isn't the Final Fantasy VII your mind remembers, it's the one your heart always knew it to be.