You know me – I’m typically of the opinion that we have it pretty good with the modern games industry. There’s only a couple of business practices that I’ll really rail against. The first, of course, is crowdfunding, which is often a way for unscrupulous developers to rake in funds before disappearing into the night. The second is episodic gaming, which…tends to be a way for unscrupulous developers to rake in funds before disappearing into the night. There’s lots of disappearing into the night going on here.
Even industry icons like Valve couldn’t resist the urge to make a few more bucks on Half-Life episodes before leaving the series high and dry. You can understand my concern, then, when the long-awaited Final Fantasy VII Remake was revealed to be the first episode of a series…but was there merit behind that concern?
In the dystopian city of Midgar, the populace toils under the seemingly-benevolent power company Shinra. The city is built on the power provided by Mako reactors, which draw power directly from the Lifestream of the Planet on which the city is built. The ecoterrorist group Avalanche believes that the use of Mako power is killing the planet and have resolved to stop Shinra from continuing to do so. In particular, one extremeist branch of Avalanche has hired on a mercenary to help with more dangerous and impactful raids against Shinra facilities. They’ve hired a spiky-haired mercenary, Cloud Strife, to help do their dirty work…but ex-Shinra operative Cloud has some skeletons in his closet that are just waiting to come out.
Remake’s closest relative would probably be the Kingdom Hearts series, though if you wanted to stay within the Final Fantasy 7 canon you’d be talking about Crisis Core. That means this is an action-RPG with an emphasis on the action. A “Classic” mode that’s pseudo-turn-based is available, but this drastically reduces the difficulty of the game and doesn’t feel like a recommended way of experiencing Remake.
In practice, Remake ends up feeling like a whole lot of style with….somewhat less substance. This is a game that’s all about presentation and that extends to the gameplay experience. Mash away on the attack button and watch as your chosen character beats the bejeezus out of whatever you’re targeting in as stylish a manner as possible! A personal favorite is Cloud’s tendency to knock an enemy up with the penultimate hit of his regular attack combo before launching a perfectly accurate midair slice. It’s lovely.
That said, you aren’t really doing a lot to make any of that lovely stuff happen. That midair slice? It’s perfectly accurate because you’re not the one controlling it. Likewise, there’s all kinds of impressive-looking special skills, magic and combos you can use that just kind of happen when they’re ordered rather than involving a significant amount of player input. That goes for enemy attacks as well; you’ve got a dodge roll, but it’s slow, it’s unwieldy and it’s unlikely you’ll ever dodge much with it.
Things aren’t all bad, of course. Each playable character controls differently and feels unique to play, with Barrett being a personal favorite thanks to his tanky nature and the heavy impact of his special attacks. However, there’s just not a great degree of immersion when it comes to combat past the first few hours’ “wow” factor.
Along with this, Remake would really like you to do what Remake wants you to do. Outside of specified hub areas and dungeons, you’re locked onto a specific path, with characters chiding you if you dare to stray. You often won’t even have the chance to stray, as many areas are simply corridors with few side paths. If you think about it on a practical level, this is understandable; the degree of polish that define Remake would simply be impossible to maintain throughout a full-sized RPG. It’s still disappointing whenever you see a potentially interesting path and aren’t allowed to go that way.
Even that level of polish, though, suffers somewhat in the end. Remake probably should have been a launch title for the PlayStation 5. There, I said it. It’s got problems with long load times and bizarrely unfinished textures, like doors that look like they could have belonged on the original PlayStation. I realize this is a game that’s all about nostalgia, but polygonal mud might be a little too nostalgic for me.
It might seem like I’m making Remake out to be a bad game. It’s not. It’s a solidly average game. As an interactive movie, though, Remake excels. Loading times aside, weird graphical glitches aside…it turns out that cinematography and production values can go a long way. The environment, enemy and character designs are exemplary. Characters like the AVALANCHE members who existed mostly to get killed off in the original have more of a presence here, new scenes and characters are added to expand the plot and new, exciting things happen every fifteen minutes or so to keep your interest. This is probably what I would have liked Advent Children to have been back in the day.
All that said, Final Fantasy VII Remake is a 30-hour or so experience that covers most of the Midgar portion from the original game. All my complaints aside, it’s a must-experience adventure for fans of the original if they’re able to keep their expectations in check regarding gameplay and precisely how far into the plot things go. Come into this ready for an anime that you’ll sometimes interact with and you should come away pleased. Episodic gaming remains a blight on the industry, but at least Final Fantasy VII Remake has given us something to look forward to for the next…oh, six years or so?