Final Fantasy VII Remake: Profoundly Unsatisfying

I didn’t hate it. That’s not the problem. I mostly enjoyed it. I really enjoyed parts of it. I might give it another run in a year or two, and I think I’m, er, looking forward to the sequel, or the “next episode”, or whatever it is we’re calling this series (sub-series?). It’s just… man. It’s such a weird sensation to mostly have a good time playing a game, but then leave it feeling so negative about the experience. I guess I’ll put Final Fantasy VII Remake on the same little grungy end-table where I keep The Witness and Breath of the Wild.

It kinda does.

There is a major gameplay reason for this negativity, and a major story reason, and I’d like to talk about both. First, though, I think it’s only fair we go through the good stuff. There aren’t any spoilers in this first part.

The Good Stuff

There’s this cheesy, kind of self-indulgent splash screen whenever you boot up Final Fantasy XV which declares the game to be “a Final Fantasy for fans and first-timers”. In 2016 I was like, yeah, that’s one way to categorize the entire population of planet Earth into two mututally-exclusive groups, I suppose! But I kept thinking about that screen this week. Remake sold like absolute gangbusters, and I know some number of people will see that splash screen for the first time, having bought FFXV after having enjoyed Remake, and feeling like they’re getting into something special. There’s a 30-year history a lot of new players are going to tumble down into purely because of this game. I think that’s a tremendous credit. In the coming years more people are going to meet Noct and his bros, and roll their eyes at Ashe’s ridiculous hot pants, and hear the word “disasteriffic”, and sign up for the Four Job Fiesta. That makes me happy.

Before 1997, RPGs were nerdy fantasy stories for basement-dwellers and grognards. Final Fantasy VII made them COOL. There really was a glorious era of exceptional video games swimming in its wake. Eventually the genre changed and shifted and mutated, and nowadays it seems to be largely populated by hyper-candy anime girls and unfocused, impenetrable gameplay systems. They’re games for basement-dwellers of another stripe, is what I mean. And Remake isn’t that. I think it does us all a lot of good if, for the next ten years, developers lean towards Remake and away from Tales of Mediocrity IV-Z: Hyper Legend of Browsing the JRPG Tag on Steam (Waifu Edition).

Remake is the first Final Fantasy game I’ve played in… golly, two decades where none of the game systems felt confusing or vestigial. I understood immediately how equipment and materia worked, and how to upgrade them. The controls all made sense, there were no extraneous meters or counters, I didn’t have to keep looking up what combination of trigger buttons activated each of my six combat modes. Enemy data was clearly presented. I wanted to use all the characters. I actually cared about the treasures I found because they were useful consumables or pieces of equipment, and not vendor trash or digipoop cards or whatever.

(It might actually be that the last Final Fantasy game whose gameplay was this tightly designed was the original Final Fantasy VII. FFVIII had that pointless GF compatibility system no player ever noticed or cared about, and FFIX had limit breaks that only triggered when there was a single wounded goblin left alive, and never in tricky boss fights.)

Square-Enix has been noodling with this idea that you can blend action and menu-based RPG mechanics together since long before there was a Square-Enix. They’ve had… varying levels of success. The primary disconnect in these systems is positioning. In an action game you push the sword button, and your guy swings his sword, and if there’s a dude standing there the dude takes damage. In an RPG you have a sword command on your menu, and you select it, and the game rolls some invisible dice, and if the dice are good, the dude takes damage even if he’s on the other side of the screen. Both conventions work in proper context, but the push-and-pull introduced by trying to blend them makes for frustrating situations. Remember missing monsters in Secret of Mana even though you watched the pixels of your weapon touch the pixels on the monster? Or getting blasted by an AOE super attack in Final Fantasy XIII because your idiots refused to spread out?

Remake largely avoids these problems. There is the occasional positioning or camera snafu inherent to all 3D games. Sometimes you’ll push the gun button and Barret will take a step leftward for no reason and fire a full clip into a wall. But for the most part what we have is a well-grounded action combat system with good gamefeel and clear feedback. Running behind cover really does block the enemy’s laser, even if they roll a crit. Holding the block button really does reduce the damage you take. Picking a melee attack off the menu will cause you to spend resources to punch the air unless there’s actually an enemy nearby. It really feels like you and the bosses are playing by the same set of rules, at least as far as connecting attacks goes.

There are four player characters, and some thought went into making their playstyles unique without having to re-learn how the combat system works. In fact, the difference between characters boils down to “what does the triangle button do?” Cloud uses it to switch between two useful and easily-understood attack modes, Barret uses it to fire a super shot that recharges automatically over time, Tifa unleashes karate combos she can power up manually using meter, and Aerith gets a Mega Buster. Outside of these commands, and the standard attack/block/dodgeroll gameplay that’s so familiar nowadays, everything is selected manually. Your meter fills up as you hit enemies or block damage, and you spend it on casting spells, using items, or doing special weapon attacks.

You control one character and the AI controls the other two. Your AI partners play considerably more slowly than you probably are, so it can feel like their meter isn’t filling as fast. It also feels like enemies will prioritize attacking your controlled character, if possible. This is how the game gently nudges you into changing characters a lot, keeping track of who has meter and who doesn’t, threading commands for one character into the attack animations of another. It feels a bit like how they probably wanted Lightning Returns to play, back in the day.

Stagger is back. Stagger is a mechanic whereby you have to put the enemy into a vulnerable state before you can actually damage it appreciably. This is another system Square-Enix has fiddled with for a while now, and it finally feels like they landed in the sweet spot. Scanning an enemy tells you if an enemy can be staggered and, if so, how to do it. You get a clear visual indicator near the enemy’s health bar telling you when they can be staggered quickly — and here’s the key bit — the stagger bar actually does fill up quickly. A marked improvement over the fiddly mechanics of the FFXIII series, where it could often feel like you were nickle-and-dime-ing enemies to death because they were impossible to knock over properly.

The combat system felt great while I was succeeding, and when I was failing, it provided clear feedback as to why. High marks.

Aesthetically, the game is a dream. Its environments are gorgeous, the UI is clean and efficiently laid out, animations are snappy and fluid. The voice acting sounds very conversational; they took a light touch with the awkward pauses and anime grunts. Many (if not most) of the individual story sequences are quite enjoyable. This game has a lot of cutscenes and I was rarely bored watching them. I loved watching the characters interact, socially and visually.

I loved seeing the materia actually slotted into each character’s weapon during cutscenes.

Remake‘s soundtrack is my favorite OST in years. Modern Final Fantasy soundtracks tend to get a little operatic for my tastes, too much wailing chorus and not enough electric guitar. More than that, though, I appreciated how the music was used. It’s not just a 1:1 remaster of each individual song; rather, the tracks are remixed and blended together as the scene demands. You get lots of played-straight versions of Anxious Heart and Under the Rotting Pizza, sure, but you also get sublime mash-ups like Turks Theme/Let the Battles Begin! as boss music. Plus we get some new earworms, like Hollow Skies, which I’d honestly love to hear a 1997 PlayStation version of.

I had a lot more nice things to say about Remake than I did about the last game I hateliked this much. Let’s slide on down into the dregs.

Just Thought I’d Mention

This game has a lot of cutscenes. I think I said that already. But you may not realize that by “a lot of cutscenes” I meant both “this game has a large number of individual cutscenes” and “a large amount of this game’s runtime is cutscene, by volume”. In a 34 hour game I probably spent a good seven or eight hours just holding the controller and watching the screen.

This usually didn’t bother me. The long story sequences were often very good, and I’m an old hat at Metal Gear Solid, so I have the fortitude for this kind of thing. But judging by the flak MGS gets for that, a lot of players don’t. If you’re familiar with the original FFVII, imagine going through something the length of the unplayable parts of the Kalm flashback sequence maybe ten or twelve times over the course of the game.

What did start to annoy me were the sheer quantity of, let’s call them “banter scenes” which infested every gameplay area. See, Remake doesn’t trust you to explore the map, or even to follow the bright “GO HERE” icon. Instead, every time you flip a switch or enter a new room in a dungeon or encounter area, your characters have to stop and talk about it. Sometimes at great length. You know you have to flip a switch. The game wrangles the controller out of your hand, close-up on Tifa, she says “Hey Cloud, I think I see a switch over there!” Slow pan across the map to the switch. Back to Tifa. “Hmm, looks like we can get there by using that bridge.” Slow pan over to the bridge. Brief rumination about how it looks dangerous/hmm how do we get there/we have no other choice. Slow pan back to the camera-behind-Cloud “ok you can move now” position.

Over and over. Six or seven times per area. For the entire game.

This kind of banter scene is crucial for character development. One of the things everyone remembers fondly about FFXV is how the bros are constantly joking or bickering or exchanging quips. But the game doesn’t stop and force you to listen. Prompto can be whining about how he saw a bug or whatever while Noctis is climbing a ladder or exploring the corners of a dingy room. It’s annoying to see them get this so wrong after they’d already gotten it so right.

All the Gameplay is Ruined, Though

They made two lousy choices when finalizing this combat system that kind of ruin the whole experience.

At any time during combat, you can pause the game and rewind time to just before you triggered the combat. This sounds like a nice quality-of-life feature — it means you can never get a solid, demoralizing Game Over. The other side of that coin, though, is that it gives rise to degenerate strategies. See, you can’t change equipment or materia during combat, and for much of the game you don’t have enough slots to equip all of your possible attack magic. (You can do that, if you want to commit to an almost purely magic build, but I didn’t want to and I imagine most players won’t.)

Each of these three mechanics is fine in isolation, but when you combine them, you get to make a really dumb decision any time you face a reasonably tough monster whose stagger mechanic involves hitting them with a particular element. To wit: you scan the monster and see what it’s weak to. If it likes materia you’re not wearing, it’s almost always faster to just retry the battle, swap out your magic, then re-engage. You even get a rung up on the action economy if you do this, since you don’t need to waste meter on a scan, now.

Decision points are what create depth in games like this, but decisions between two bad options should probably be avoided. I spent a lot of time near the beginning of each area hitting Retry for exactly this reason, and it felt like a dumb exploit every time I did it. But the alternative was slowly chipping away a monster I couldn’t stagger, because I had Wind and not Lightning magic, or whatever. A more elegant solution may have been allowing the player to spend meter to swap one piece of materia. They have to do this anyway, from the main menu, either after they chip the target down or after they select Retry, so we might as well move that menuing into the combat. If I could have stayed in the fight and spent a renewable resource to course-correct I’d have done that instead, and my scan log would not now have so many holes in it.

The other big dumb thing they did, like almost every action game in recent years, is completely flub their difficulty settings. This is particularly frustrating to me because they almost got it very right.

So we have this hybrid combat system. The action elements test your awareness and reflexes; you have to know where you’re standing, where the enemy’s standing, when you should block or dodge, and when it’s safe to run in and strike. I am bad at these kinds of games, and my preference is to scale this sort of difficulty back, if I can. (If it’s a really well-designed game, sometimes I’m motivated to practice the lower difficulties and eventually move up to higher ones.) The RPG elements test your game knowledge and resource management skills; you have this many bobbins, each thing costs some number of bobbins, you want to end the fight with more bobbins than you entered it. I’m pretty good at these kinds of games, and I’m fine with having this sort of difficulty ramped up from the start.

Remake has three difficulty settings available from power on. “Normal” is the hardest one, and is the intended play experience. “Easy” is like Normal except the monsters do less damage (and I believe act less frequently). In fact, Easy is so easy that it essentially trivializes the resource management challenge of the game. If you pick it, you will probably never have to heal during combat, and will end up with a million of every kind of potion. Obviously I don’t want that.

But then there’s “Classic”, which causes your active character to move, block, and dodge on their own. It essentially applies the same AI to your guy as it does to your partners. This tones down (but doesn’t actually trivialize) the reflex challenges of the game, since the AI is pretty smart about blocking small attacks and rolling out of the way of big ones. And they were smart enough to still let you keep control of your hero in Classic mode; you can override the AI at any time by just playing the game normally.

However, Classic forces the enemy difficulty down to Easy levels. Which makes the whole game boring.

I went back and forth between Classic and Normal a lot as I played. I really preferred Classic, and I learned a lot about how the game expects me to engage with monsters by watching how the AI does it, and also because I’m just bad at dodge rolling in general. But I really did want the other half of the combat to have some teeth. That they recognized there were two elements to the system is to their credit, but for some reason they don’t allow me to tweak the difficulty of each element individually. In the areas where I played on Normal I constantly got punished by attacks I didn’t see coming until a fraction of a second too late, and in the areas I played on Classic I just bulldozed everything.

I cannot fathom why they didn’t have Classic/Modern and Easy/Normal toggles I could set independently. The end result is, as good as this combat was, I never felt completely at home in it. The areas I played on Classic were still fun, but it was a very passive kind of fun, similar to zoned-out level grinding in oldschool JRPGs.

This would be such an easy thing to fix in a patch. I hope they do.

What Is This Even

Final Fantasy remakes have run the full scale of quality, but generally they trend toward “excellent”. Dawn of Souls is my preferred way to play Final Fantasy I. The Advance versions of FFV and FFVI are both terrific, and the latter even has some great extra content that feels like it could have been there all along. (We, ah, won’t talk about the Steam versions of those games.) The DS versions of FFIII and FFIV are so good and so different that I consider them to be completely new games. And then of course there’s FFXII: The Zodiac Age, which just may be the crown standard of how to remake an old game you don’t want to re-invent from the ground up.

(I’m really looking forward to seeing how they remaster FFXIII on the PS5, when the time comes. Maybe for my birthday next year, Square-Enix?)

We knew for years that the FFVII remake was going to be different. This is the company’s flagship title, one of the most popular video games of all time, the most singular defining point of this series and of its genre as a whole. It’s understandable they wanted the remake to be the highest possible fidelity, and to feel like something truly unique. Every game in this series has been remade at some point, but FFVII Remake is the first one that was positioned in the market as a mainline entry.

But, uh oh, it’s not actually possible to make a cutting edge super HD game that encompasses the entire scope of a globetrotting adventure, and hasn’t been since the PS2 era. FFXII and FFXV use a lot of shortcuts to try and evoke that same feeling, but don’t actually come close to succeeding, and Remake wasn’t going to, either. So they dropped the bombshell: Remake wasn’t going to be a remake of the whole of FFVII, just the game’s first act: Avalanche’s struggles in Midgar.

We’re going to get all spoiler-y now. Like, really super spoil-y, both for Final Fantasy VII Remake and the original Final Fantasy VII. Don’t scroll past this picture of Aerith riding a giant robot hand if you don’t want to know what happens in these two games.

Hold △: Make a Fist

FFVII‘s first act involves a terrorist group and an authoritarian government going to war with each other. We play as the terrorists, and blow up a bunch of their stuff. Eventually the government concocts a plan to cut us off at the knees, and they succeed, and end up kidnapping one of our own. We break into their HQ to rescue them, and while inside discover some insidious secrets that put our actions so far into a broader context. Everything culminates in a thrilling chase down one of Midgar’s highways, a giant robot explodes, and our heroes regroup just outside the walls. They have here a chance to breathe, to re-assess, and to plan for the future.

This is an excellent place to end Act I of a five act story. It is a godawful place to end a 34-hour video game I payed $60 for.

I was highly critical of this decision long, long before we even knew how Remake was going to play out. Just the announcement was enough to convince me it was a terrible idea. Before the game’s release I was mostly told to “wait and see”, and given vague assurances about how it would probably be fine as long as I shifted my expectations. In the months since its release, most of my criticisms have been brushed aside by folks who have played the game, again, by telling me to adjust my expectations.

My issue, before playing the game, was that no matter how I set my expectations, it seemed like a “Midgar only” game was a bad idea. If I criticized it for not actually being a remake of FFVII, I was told Remake is trying to be its own stand-alone game. If I criticized it as a stand-alone game, I was assured that later episodes would tie it all together. If I criticized it as being a single episode in a larger game, I was told to not really think of them as episodes but rather individual entries in a larger series, as is more common in video games.

I eventually stopped criticizing it because, you know, I hadn’t played the game. It was possible they knew what they were talking about and I didn’t.

But now I’ve played it, and my opinion hasn’t changed. I mean, it changed a little. I enjoyed my time playing, at least. Still, Remake is at best a competent implementation of a really, really garbo idea.

Here’s a hot take: Midgar is not the best part of FFVII. It’s a great start to the story, but the story and gameplay both get much more interesting after you leave. There’s this breathtaking moment outside of Midgar’s walls, some six hours into the game, where you’re placed on the world map for the first time. Midgar is this big black splotch next to you, but it’s only a speck compared to the three enormous continents you now see on the full map. Of course no other area of the game is as large as Midgar was, but that’s not really the point. That six hours was just the first step of your enormous adventure, which is going to span cities and caves and a theme park and a huge icy wasteland and an Escher maze and outer space before it’s all over.

If you really want to take one-sixth of FFVII and get the most bang for your buck, I think the most interesting section is the Huge Materia hunt from disc two. Open in Junon, where Tifa and Barret are held captive, and Sephiroth has just summoned Meteor. Cloud is missing. The world is about to end and two bitter enemies — the Avalanche remnants and the Shinra company — each have their own mutually-exclusive ideas on how to attack the problem. During this slice of the game you get to visit a lot of different locations (one of which, I must emphasize, is outer frikkin’ space), fight the massive WEAPON monsters, score some real victories over Shinra, and solve the mysteries of Cloud’s tragic backstory.

There are reasons to not do this, of course. There’s too much connective tissue hanging off either side of the story if you pull a chunk right out of the middle. Who is Cloud and why do we care why he’s missing? Shinra’s evil, but they seem to have a good idea on how to destroy this catastrophic meteor, so why are we fighting against them? Wait, we’re hinging all our bets on some lady I don’t care about who died in a flashback?

These aren’t insurmountable problems, but they are much harder to write around than just pulling out the first one-sixth instead. And doing so would only barely appease me, and piss off pretty much everyone else. And it still wouldn’t be an actual remake of actual FFVII.

But, okay, they didn’t do that and were never going to. Remake is just the most boring part of FFVII, stretched out to 34 hours and sold to me at full price. Fine. But what actually is it? If my enjoyment of it hinges so much on calibrating my expectations going in, what do those expectations need to be?

FFVII Remake is the first episode in what will be a much larger game.

This was the most popular consensus for most of the time Remake was in development. The first episode of the game was going to take you to the edge of Midgar, and each later episode would have some portion of the game, and the full game would be all the episodes together. The kind of thing Telltale Games used to do before they imploded.

I think this sort of structure would pose a lot of pacing challenges, both in terms of gameplay and in story, but nothing a bit of smart work couldn’t solve. You’d probably have to reduce the game down into a series of stand-alone areas. Maybe episode 2 is the gang figuring out how to infiltrate Junon. Episode 3 could be a contained open world experience, sort of like FFXV, encompassing the important areas of the big continent and ending at the Temple of the Ancients. Carrying on in this way you might finish the game in five or six episodes, assuming you can keep the playerbase interested that long. (And, ah, you can’t. That’s part of the reason Telltale Games imploded.)

I think it’s clear Square-Enix didn’t do this. It might have been reasonable to think this was their intent, while the game was in development, but Remake‘s release day killed the notion entirely. For one, you can’t have a 34-hour “episode”. If we’re thinking six episodes, at 34 hours a piece, and I haven’t mishandled calc.exe recently, that’s like 63 thousand hours. Some poor slob is going to buy the Collector’s Edition Platinum Box at the end of that and nobody will ever see him again.

For another, a multi-episode work implies a strong connection between each entry. Telltale didn’t have to think much about this because, mechanically, your character at the end of one episode is the same as that same character at the start of the next. They just have to import a few booleans to know what sorts of key decisions you made, and that’s good enough.

But in Remake, I ended the game with a nearly full set of maxed materia, a closet full of armaments, 90 mega potions and more than 6000 hit points. If they balanced subsequent episodes around importing characters from the older ones, the numbers would have to be ramped up to absurd levels to keep pace. And if they aren’t, then anyone who imports anything just steamrolls the rest of the content. Old Ultima and Bard’s Tale games did these sorts of imports but it’s folly to think a modern RPG series could.

No, Remake is not just the first chunk of a larger game. You will not start Remake 2 with 6000 hit points.

FFVII Remake is the first game in a much larger series.

The first, much stupider reason this fails is, we already have an FFVII series. It’s already a game which spawned a greater universe of spin-offs and side content. Living in a world where we have an entry in a larger series that is itself two separate series makes my brain hurt.

But, it’s not an unreasonable way to present a video game. In this scenario, we’re to look at Remake as something more along the lines of a modern Tomb Raider or Assassin’s Creed game: it’s the first game in a series of games which, when taken together, complete the overarching narrative of a particular character or setting. In this case, the story of Cloud and Sephiroth and a big-ass meteor and some green glowing rivers.

In a longer series like this, it’s reasonable to expect that my hero will begin each new entry at a beginner power level. I’m not going to play Horizon: Forbidden West and be all butthurt that Aloy is starting over with just a bow and her magic iPod. There are certain contrivances we accept as part of the necessary reality of sequels. I’m not excited for Forbidden West because I want to wtfpwn all the new robot dinosaurs with stuff I earned in Zero Dawn.

No, the reason I’m excited for Forbidden West is because Zero Dawn staged an intriguing setting, introduced a likable character, and told one of my favorite sci-fi stories in a long time. Aloy experiences a full character arc, and so does the world where she lives. The story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It is complete. The story is about the things Aloy accomplishes, and the ending implies there is much still left to accomplish — but doesn’t say what. Not yet. Because that’s a story for another time, and another game. There’s a post-credits sequel hook, sure. But the story I played was done and it was satisfying.

I can’t say any of the same things about Remake. If you really squint you might get away with claiming that Barret starts his character arc, but certainly nobody else has one. And Avalanche accomplishes nothing — absolutely nothing — during the game. It’s established early on that the things they think are victories are just traps set by their enemies, and then their enemies win, and then their enemies dick them around, and then their enemies kill 50,000 people, and then their enemies get away.

And then some new enemy shows up out of nowhere, with no proper introduction, and you have no idea who he is or what he wants besides some vague unexplained connection to the hero. He shows up from so far out of left field that Knowledgable Magic Girl has to literally step forward and insist he’s the real threat you should be fighting, and there’s no time to explain why that’s the case, just take her word for it. So you fight him and you don’t win, and he says some forboding stuff, and then he vanishes. The heroes regroup in their take-a-breath scene, roll credits.

I liked Remake‘s gameplay, but not really enough to justify playing future games in this series, based on what I played in this first entry. And while the story is made up of some really great individual scenes, the whole of it profoundly sucks. I feel like these heroes didn’t resolve anything, didn’t change or learn or grow at all, and don’t really deserve a chance to expound on all the little story teasers strewn throughout the game. If I didn’t already know where this story was going, and who these characters are, I would have zero interest in continuing on their journey with them.

A game needs to have its own identity, and its own message, even if it’s being positioned as the first step in a much larger story. The only identity this game has is, “Be sure to buy the sequel, coming soon!” And from there we spiral down into a discussion about exploitative practices game companies use to vaccuum dollars out of cunsomers and I end up very depressed.

There are two moments in particular I think really betray future titles in the Remake series, if that’s what we’re calling it. The first happens early on when Cloud starts seeing Sephiroth. First of all, blowing the Sephiroth wad so early is a mistake from a pure storytelling standpoint. Part of why the Midgar section of FFVII is so effective is because you can really take it as a story about terrorists vs. government, before the other shoe drops and the stakes get raised. But okay, Sephiroth is perhaps the number one bankable character in this entire franchise, and we’re not going to save him for later. Fine.

But they don’t just sprinkle Sephiroth into the story way too early. They show him ominously turning and walking through a wall of fire. This is one of the most iconic visuals in any video game ever released, but it’s also a key moment in this actual story. The fire is Nibelheim, Cloud and Tifa’s hometown, which Sephiroth has set ablaze. It’s the moment that galvanizes Cloud’s hatred for Sephiroth. Showing it in Midgar, one hour into the game, robs all the emotional impact of its eventual reveal in context much later. It doesn’t serve the story at all, it serves someone on Square-Enix’s board of directors, who probably played FFVII in college, who sent up a memo saying “hey you gotta show sephie walking thru flames cuz that’s cool”.

The other moment happens when Shinra drops the Sector 7 plate in an attempt to squash Avalanche. I was actually very impressed with how Remake handled this scene. Part of the FFVII experience is having a brutally violent event right in the middle which changes the stakes. They’re obviously not going to have Sephiroth kill Aerith in the Shinra Building, though, so the writers tweaked some things so the plate drop would have a similar impact. The build-up is much larger now, for one. Cloud and his gal pals can see the plate engulfed in gunfire and explosions the entire time they’re working their way through the train graveyard. Their cause is urgent and they’re stuck and you can feel their desperation as you play.

Then, the entire sequence is expanded tremendously. In FFVII you just climbed the pillar and fought some Turks, and established that your Avalanche buddies died along the way. In Remake you fight your way up the pillar, then play an interlude as Aerith moving through the scrambling, terrified populace to save Barret’s daughter. The scenes with the Avalanche kids are more drawn-out, and pack more of a punch because of their expanded roles in the game’s plot. (There’s a whole away mission where they drag you off to meet Jessie’s mom and get into a motorcycle chase and fight some Metal Gears that wasn’t in the original.) There’s an interjection into the Turks’ helicopter where they have a brief crisis of conscience about murdering thousands.

Then the dumb thing I hate happens.

After the dumb thing I hate, Cloud and his friends decide to go back into Sector 7 to see if anyone survived, and you experience the aftermath of the plate drop first hand. It’s a really effective scene that segues into a new dungeon area which, in turn, reinforces all the reasons you already have to want to take down Shinra. The plate drop really is the fulcrum of the plot, with a lot of unpacking to do on either side of it.

The dumb thing I hate is a maybe ten second cutaway shot, just after the plate falls and causes obscene destruction. Standing above the city, watching the devastation below, hammering his fists against the ground in rage and grief is… a stuffed cartoon cat.

Who we never see again.

Players familiar with FFVII will know this cat is Cait Sith, a robot operated by Reeve, the only member of Shinra’s upper management with a conscience. In both versions of the story we see Reeve begging the president not to go forward with mass-murder. For these players, this is a cheeky winky-nudge moment. “Oh cool! Cait Sith’s here!” A moment which is tonally inappropriate given the scenes we just saw and are about to see.

For those unfamiliar, it’s a confusing trip to the wiki or one of the subreddits to find out if anyone knows wtf is up with the weird cat.

In FFVII, Cait Sith sort of hops into your party at random upon arrival at the Gold Saucer theme park. He introduces himself as a fortunetelling machine and then insists on barging into the story when the fortune he gives Cloud turns out to be too intriguing to pass up. He’s a goofy character who attacks with dice and megaphones, and unlike every other character you’ve met up to this point, there’s no “Cait Sith required” setpiece in Gold Saucer where you learn more about him.

The twist comes later, when Cait Sith steals an item from the party and delivers it to Shinra, and then reveals he’s been a Shinra spy all along. He also reveals the party can’t dispose of him. If they don’t agree to let the robot spy continue traveling with them, the robot’s operator will be forced to retaliate against Barret’s daughter, who is within their reach.

This is an effective moment of storytelling. The reason it’s such a gut-punch is, after leaving Midgar, it’s easy for the player to start feeling like they’re always a step ahead of Shinra. You infiltrate their parade, stow away on their boat, swipe some materia from one of their defunct reactors, and fly off in a seaplane they wanted to commandeer. Most of the second act of the game is introducing and reinforcing individual character stories, and this “oh crap, Shinra had my number all along” moment is the abrupt end to that. It’s the point in the story where the lollygagging is over and the heroes have to get back on task and actually start handling some heavy stuff.

Of course, the twist only works if you don’t know Cait Sith is from Midgar, and now every player does. The second, smaller twist, when you learn it’s Reeve at the controls, is also spoiled, because there’s only one guy at Shinra who spoke out against the plate drop, and we’ve seen his robot cat crying about it.

Remake is full of little moments like this, where it robs later series entries of their story beats to fluff up the first installment. It’s the over-eager author who has a big basket of worldbuilding notes and he just can’t wait to breadcrumb it all out for you. As the introduction to a series, it’s lousy because it lacks its own identity and tries to make up the difference by touching its nose and giggling, “but just you wait!”

FFVII Remake is a standalone title.

The game already doesn’t work as a standalone title, for reasons I’ve gone into re: the character’s don’t achieve anything. But I think it’s interesting to consider the game from this angle, because if you really wanted to condense the full story of FFVII down into just Midgar, you very easily could. All of the aspects of the original which made it a globetrotting adventure can be boiled down into Midgar if you really wanted to.

You wouldn’t even have to cut any of the characters. In this hypothetical game you’d rescue Red XIII from a research facility much earlier in the plot. Yuffie and her dad are running a materia-thieving operation out of the Sector 3 slums and sending the proceeds back to Wutai, and Yuffie joins your party because she wants to stop the “Wutai is behind the terrorists” propaganda. (Also she wants to steal all your materia lol.) Rocket Town and Gold Saucer can be moved into Midgar’s borders without incident, so Cid and Cait Sith’s storylines are in tact. Shinra activates Vincent as a secret Turks operative after you beat up Reno and Rude too many times, but he switches sides because he’d rather pursue his personal vendetta against Hojo.

The major plot points we need to keep the plot coherent are: Cloud explains the Nibelheim incident; Cloud receives the black materia at the Temple of the Ancients; Sephiroth kills Aerith to stop her from activating Holy; Reunion occurs, causing Cloud to hand the black materia over to Sephiroth; Tifa finds Cloud and helps put him back together; Cloud and co. discover Aerith was successful in activating Holy after all; Cloud and co. topple Shinra and Sephiroth and save the Planet.

This is all stuff that can happen in or around Midgar. The Temple of the Ancients is actually a ruin in a sectioned-off area of Sector 2, and its conduit directly to the Lifestream is why this geographical point was chosen by Shinra to build Midgar upon. A second site accessible from somewhere near the Sector 5 church contains the ruined city of the Ancients, which is why Aerith always felt drawn to the place, and ends up being where she dies. Instead of raiding Shinra sites around the world looking for Huge Materia, we can raid some of the other six reactors instead. Northern Crater is significant to Reunion because it’s where Sephiroth’s body washed up after being thrown into the Lifestream. Instead, let’s have the suction of the eight mako reactors draw him to a point deep beneath the Shinra building, which Shinra accidentally makes accessible when the Sector 7 plate shears a hole into the abandoned cave system there (complete with icicles and whirlwind maze!).

It’s very possible to tell the complete story, in a satisfying way, with all nine characters, and only have to leave Midgar once for the Nibelheim flashback. And I think you could do it inside of 40 hours. (The original did, after all!) A remake along these lines would make The Zodiac Age look like a slapdash effort.

Alas, for what might have been.

FFVII Remake is a companion piece to the original FFVII.

Now we come to it, the only actual reasonable way to consider Remake‘s story at all: it exists alongside the original and soft-requires you to have already played it. As it happens, it’s impossible to actually discuss what happens in Remake without referencing the original FFVII or speculating what future events from FFVII they will or won’t have to change.

The first clue is the biggest one: nobody actually knows what the hell happens at the end of this game. Long before I played it, I read the spoilers and watched the video essays, and clicked the black boxes in my own Discord that people thought I wouldn’t click. There are lots of theories and potential explanations for the last hour or so, but nobody actually knows what happened, and cannot know until more games come out.

Remake pretty faithfully follows all the story beats from FFVII‘s first act. Indeed, I referenced this earlier as a major problem, because the characters don’t actually accomplish anything during the first act. There’s another reason Square-Enix chose to do this, though: they wanted to write in the whispers.

The whispers (colloquially known as “time ghosts” across the Internet) are supernatural beings whose job is to ensure that everything happens the way it’s destined to. Their primary concern seems to be making sure people don’t die before they’re supposed to, or live after they’re supposed to have died. Remake sticks to the established plot so closely in order to make it really stand out when the whispers show up to alter reality if it looks like something out-of-place might happen.

Of course the only way you can know what’s out-of-place is if you’d played FFVII before. Otherwise they’re just random time ghosts.

Whispers show up to make sure Aerith and Cloud don’t get shot by Turks in the church. They show up again to miraculously heal Barret from a fatal stab wound. (Ask me how I know it’s fatal.) They show up again to prevent Wedge from escaping the Shinra Building, after he was supposed to die in the plate catastrophe hours earlier. They’re neither good guys nor bad guys, they’re enforcers.

The final area of the game, which explodes out of Sephiroth’s butt with a gooey metaphysical splat, reveals to us that he wants to destroy the whispers in order to defy destiny. The inferrence is that he wants to do this because he knows his master plan re: summon Meteor is destined to get foiled by Spikehead and Gun-arm and their dumb robot cat. And we do see that the whispers are destroyed; the Remake epilogue shows Biggs waking up in bed, having survived injuries at the plate support tower that were supposed to have killed him.

This does seem to be the only interpretation of Remake that makes any sense, and it only makes sense with the context of already knowing what’s supposed to happen in FFVII. I really shouldn’t have to explain why this is an absolutely awful way to approach a remake.

The speculation from here stretches out in every direction, as fanboys grapple for any explanation their fevered fanfic-writing minds can concoct, but I find them all underwhelming. Did FFVII already happen in a different timeline, and Sephiroth somehow traveled from that world to this one via the Lifestream, and that’s why he knows the future (and maybe also Aerith kinda does too)? I don’t care, because that story is terrible. I don’t want to play the multiverse clones of the guys who already did the adventure. I don’t care about fighting Sephiroth now that I know he can sidestep timelines or whatever. I don’t care if Meteor destroys this reality if there are already other realities out there where that was averted.

The writers would have to be geniuses to resolve this story, and its unmistakable connections to its ancient forebear, in a way that will satisfy me. And I just don’t think they are. I think each successive Remake sequel is going to get more and more confused as they try to detangle themselves even as they run out of clever foreshadow nuggets to drop in.

I won’t even get into this.

Remake is going to inspire a lot of players to go back and experience the original FFVII. I’ve already stated I think that is fantastic. FFVII is one of the all-time greats, and I love thinking of a new generation of people who are going to stamp their feet when Yuffie strands them with no materia, desperately watch the seconds fall off the Emerald WEAPON timer as Knights of Round drags on forever, or play Aerith’s Theme at their wedding.

Some of those people, though, are going to re-visit Remake after their inauguration, and see the Cait Sith scene, and go, “Oh, that’s why the cat king was there. It’s Cait Sith. Huh, kind of dumb that he’s there, actually.” And they’ll be in about the place I am now. And they’ll still have two or three of these games to, er, look forward to.

Thanks for reading the longest thing ever!

3 comments to Final Fantasy VII Remake: Profoundly Unsatisfying

  • Kjartan Skarphéðinsson

    I’m loving those write-ups! I haven’t tried out FF-7 Remake myself, but I will say, that I do find it exciting that SE is trying out something completely new with this game, and I am very curious about how it will Square up to the original once it is over (sometimes in the next century). Will the franchise rise like the (pho)Enix? While I suppose it will most likely end up being disappointing, I prefer disappointing and refreshing to disappointing and bland.

  • Anonymous

    I actually had completely different fears for this game that also turned out to be completely true. Mainly that the characters would be entirely different and that a lot of the slow somber scenes would be gone.

    The two most stand out examples of character changes are Barret and Jessie.

    Barret in FFVII was certainly a scary person but mainly due to the fact that he would tower over everyone else and he had a gun for an arm. He didn’t always fit in with the crowd but he never tries to intentionally be scary or mean. He was someone who was passionate about his cause and he always wore his heart on his sleeve. It was very easy to see why Avalanche followed him, they all cared about the same thing but none of them were as bold as Barret was. In Remake however, they gave him this sinister tone and he constantly tries to belittle Cloud at every opportunity and frequently terrorizes the citizens of Midgar. This change is so jarring, I actually struggled to believe he could be Marlene’s father and that she would be shy around Cloud. I’m sure the voice actor tried but it is not the least bit convincing that he is an overbearing father that dotes on his daughter in Remake. In the original he’s guided by a combination of vengeance against Shinra and his honest belief that the planet will die if he doesn’t stop them tapping into the lifestream. In Remake, he seems to actively want people to live in fear more than he wants to save the planet or even take down Shinra.

    Now Jessie played a minor role in FFVII but a very important one. It was obvious even in the polygon days that she had a crush on Cloud, she tried to make a few attempts at flirting with him but ultimately she was quite shy and clumsy. In Remake, she might be the most thirsty female character in Final Fantasy since Leblanc. She is constantly trying to tease Cloud and shows none of the shyness she had and once again it takes away from her focus of wanting to save the planet. The shorter time in Midgar in FFVII actually helps build this sense of urgency, especially for Jessie since she thinks she is deserving of death for killing all those people from the reactors blowing up. One of the problems with taking away her shyness, is that she is now a bit too competent with her role. It’s actually hard to believe that Biggs and Jessie would be following Barret around in Remake especially since other groups of Avalanche are still around.

    Now the non-character fear I had, the thing about them getting the scenes wrong. The moment I saw president Shinra being behind the the mako reactor blowing up and undermining what Avalance had done, I had no doubts that they would play down a lot things. I was just waiting for the next thirty minutes of gameplay to see how they would handle Cloud boarding the train and having the crew make it back to Sector 7. The original FFVII had the crew hop off the train and everyone running away while Cloud was left behind with this very slow instrumental, you could feel the tensions between the polygons as some NPCs hugged their loved ones as they got off the train while others continued to wait. We would see the train station again multiple times through flashbacks, so if you didn’t pick it up the first time you will upon replays of the game, these guys have just taken away the loved ones of other people. This becomes the main conflict that Reeve has with Barret. You succeeded in your first mission but the game doesn’t exactly make you feel good when you arrive at that train station. In the Remake however, not only can the player blame Shinra for everything but our crew don’t even feel that bad about what’s happened. In fact the whole station feels like a section out of Lightning Returns, you know when you’re in one of those areas where the game is playing chirpy music, the NPCs are voiced in the background doing casual talk about the horrible fate they are in and someone is shouting at your character on where to go next.

    I know the stuff I’m talking about is just nitpicking compared to what you have but FFVII was more than just gameplay or a cool JRPG plot. The way it told the story with what limitations it had and the emotions it could convey in a limited setting made it so much more. I still feel sad talking to Aeris in the Ferris Wheel, it still annoys me that I couldn’t stop her death. Even at the end of disc 2 when you go back to the Forgotten City and watch the little FMV from the water, it still felt nice knowing that Aeris had a plan to stop Meteor and it makes you want to beat Sephiroth even more. This game was just amazing with making you care about the characters, it was actually sad in FFVII when Biggs dies and in his final moments he’s glad that Cloud cares about his cause. This game made me care more about these three minor NPCs more than I cared about Josef, Aria, Tellah, Galuf and even Leo dying. But I don’t feel anything from the Remake, the game just feels so tone death.

    Sorry for the rant.

  • Drathnoxis

    Great, in depth write up! This is the reason I’ve always kept regularly checking this blog, even through months of inactivity. Thanks for all the effort!

    I lost interest in a FF7 remake a long time ago as I became the bitter and cynical person I am today, but there was a time that I desperately craved one. I’m glad I moved on because it seems like they really Square Enixed it up in the most spectacularly idiotic way possible. Really, I’m amazed at just how not a FF7 remake they actually made this remake. I’m really interested in seeing the next installment just to see how this trainwreck is going to end up. Not that I’ll probably ever actually play it, though.

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