15 hours in

I didn’t get to play FF7 growing up, so I don’t have the same nostalgic attachment as many players. I have played the original up to partway through the first disc, but I can’t talk in detail about what they’ve changed! Pretty sure there are many articles on the internet which do that though.

It’s naturally received the AAA prestige treatment: everything is very smooth and accessible and you get a lot of closeups where you can see how well they render pores. I’m actually really enjoying the combat system, which is a kind of blend of action game and ATB elements; it feels very fluid and, though it took a bit to break from my Soulsborne instincts and not try to dodge every attack with rolls, I’m quite enjoying hopping between different party members to bounce back from a messy tactical situation.

Of the additions to the story, some are pretty neat. One thing I really enjoy doing in MMOs which support a player housing system is creating a kind of diorama of characters going about their lives, and the FFVII developers evidently went all out creating a living Sector 7 slums full of NPC conversations which update as the game progresses. I don’t think I’ve played any game with quite so much voice acting. There is a bit of a limitation for people who want to harvest all the content like me, insofar as you can’t prompt NPCs to drop one of their two conversations. Instead, often you must awkwardly stand about waiting for them to speak, or walk over to another group and then come back… it’s a bit fiddly and I’m surprised they didn’t anticipate this mode of engagement and make an affordance for it, given how much they’ve obviously spent on background dialogue.

There’s a surprising focus on ‘realism’ of a sort, given it’s such an exaggerated cyberpunk setting where the corporate overlords are kind of cartoon supervillains. The NPCs will have conversations about the economic impacts of your acts of ecoterrorism - how they’ve lost their jobs, how pissed they are that the trains are down - to a degree I’ve never really seen outside of something like Disco Elysium or perhaps an Obsidian game. Different areas have clearly different economic characters: here’s the snobby rich district, the arty district… It still feels a bit videogamey insofar as each snippet of conversation has a clear structure and purpose (ah, you’re foreshadowing Wallmarket, or blatantly implying that Shinra is up to evil experiments), but a lot of it feels surprisingly naturalistic. And it rewards wandering around by giving certain groups of NPCs small developing stories.

This game and FFXV both seem determined to ground their wacky fantasy in real life industrial design, in terms of the set dressing and level assets especially. FF7R offers a bit of a blend, with some very cool dieselpunk/steampunk designs along with a lot of assets that are evidently photoreferenced. You can visit a Mako reactor and see the monolithic nuclear power station, but you can also visit an abandoned factory that’s so low-key it could be a real life urbex photo (if not for the monster encounters).

By and large, all of this is really impressive, especially when portrayed with some absolutely gorgeous lighting: it’s really cool seeing the same area in different lighting conditions, the sun rising in the gap between the Plate and the ground and so on. A whole lot of love has been put into giving this a real sense of place as you move between the plate and the ground and visit different sectors. This kind of makes the more videogamey moments - a giant hologram of the villain appearing to taunt you, a door that requires a timed series of simultaneous lever pulls to open, a boss that has a series of rooms where you can interrupt its construction and configure its abilities - a little jarring.

Of course, the game ultimately leans on its characters, and by and large they are very well acted and extremely sweet. Characters who were originally quite minor, like Biggs, Jessie and Wedge, have been fleshed out considerably into a likeable bunch of people, which is going to make it all the more gutting when they all die horribly later. I’ve just met Aerith, and I love how they’ve portrayed her. My friend tells me that they seem to be deliberately pushing back on a flanderised version of the character as pure feminine sweetness that developed in the fandom; whatever the reasoning, she plays off Cloud’s ‘I’m the stoic protagonist’ act brilliantly and I can’t wait to get her in a party with Tifa and see how the three girls interact.

(look, Cloud is trans. You’ve read this far now you have to put up with my headcanons, not sorry [though tbh I suspect every tw who’s into this game has this headcanon]. I saw the dress scene over my friend’s shoulder, and I’m really looking forward to getting there myself, because somehow it’s not a transmisogynist gag at all but actually a really enthusiastic setpiece performance that’s pretty much just like, gender nonconformity is fucking great actually)

I also really enjoyed the addition of the gay biker SOLDIER boss in the Jessie chapter. I love the idea that all the SOLDIERs are gay and ridiculously extra (hell, maybe you’ve read VECTOR and are very unsurprised at this sentiment). The Turks are great as well; I’m so glad they decided to lean into this.

Someone on the staff of this game really really likes trains, going by all the conversations about trains. Later on there’s a sex worker NPC who complains about a client who’s ignorant of trains, which is amazing because like, ‘sex worker and train nerd’ describes a lot of friends and very few videogame characters.

For such a polished, expensive AAA prestige game, in short, it’s surprisingly… fun! It’s not Ubisoft-game busywork, but (for the most part) a series of satisfying setpieces which flow into each other, kind of like a Valve game. It feels a little like they took the approach of FFXIII (the only main series single-player FF game I’ve actually completed) but cut out most of the more tedious enemy corridors and applied a much bigger budget, and it works. It’s kind of weird to have a plot from a major company’s game which seemingly fully endorses violent direct action, though tbh I imagine that’s just me projecting.

(So that’s all very positive… the main thing that’s making me go ‘hmm’ is the addition of the weird dementor-like entities (or if you prefer, flying wrinkly dicks) which appear at certain points in the plot, seemingly visible only to protagonists. Whereas the rest of the game feels very integrated - the stakes are, at least at this point, pretty clear, it’s a story about cyberpunk inequality and ecological destruction which boldly puts you in the shoes of ecoterrorists who blow up nuclear reactors/oil wells - the dementor things feel a little bolted on and I’m not sure of its thematic significance. Still, I’m going to try and give it a chance and see where they’re going with this…)

After finishing

Phew that was a ride! There’s surely a lot to say about this game so these notes will be brief.

Wallmarket was one of my favourite areas, probably the most intricate of the game’s NPC dioramas portraying a Japanese-style entertainment district. The Honeybee Inn force-femme scene was everything I hoped, even throwing in a rhythm game segment in which Cloud turns out to be really fucking great at dancing.

They go very hard on selling Shinra’s collapse of the Sector 7 plate as a human catastrophe, adding a number of scenes of desperate attempts at evacuation (led by characters they’ve built up a lot more, like Wedge) and dealing with the aftermath and survivors. The bit where you climb up the collapsed plate has some incredible skyboxes.

Indeed, the rest of the game continues to have some gorgeous environments pretty much throughout. I adored the environment design in the Shinra Tower sections; it’s like something out of Akira (quite deliberately I’m sure, the original essentially being the game that introduced these kinds of cyberpunk influences into the JPRG space). The extended chapter in Hojo’s lab, while kinda silly narratively, at least let me see the giant evil science room where Jenova is stored a bit more. And the following boss fights and motorbike chase were all very satisfying and thrilling.

We’re in a period where a lot of ‘classic’ games are seeing remakes and reboots (perhaps more so than sequels even), but we’re still fairly early in that phase, and I think studios are still feeling out how best to approach the subject, and balancing out how to appeal to potential returning fans without alienating people. This isn’t new to games necessarily, but it definitely seems on an upswing, for better or worse.

A lot of the discussion of remakes tends to revolve around whether the game loses something in the transition from a style that fit technical limitations of the time, like the bleakness of Shadow of the Colossus, to the present normative style (roughly, big focus on a certain ideal of ‘realism’, engines that use physically-based shaders and adaptive, high dynamic range tone mapping, a lot of careful colour grading that favours a particular set of palettes, big emphasis on closeups to show off the quality of skin rendering - the kind of style encouraged by mainstream industry workflows and the tech in popular engines like Unreal and recent versions of Unity).

FF7 constitutes probably one of the biggest of these remakes, since the original game is so famous and this is surely one of the most lavish, expensive single-player games ever made. (Maybe some of the Resident Evil remakes can come close.) So how do they approach it?

Unlike e.g. the Shadow of the Colossus remake, which closely followed the story and mechanics of the original game, this game plays around a lot, functioning as a kind of conversation with fans of the original. It’s certainly not a reboot, but it’s also not a direct 1:1 story adaptation. I was extremely lucky to have my friend Elaine, who is an enormous fan of Final Fantasy at large and very knowledgeable about FF7 in particular, on hand. She could point out what plot points have changed, and what’s a sly nod to a line or event in the original. (For example, a few minor characters who originally appeared in novels and side stories now feature in this game.)

By and large the story still follows the events of the original quite closely, with minor variations and elaborations, and a few extra chapters inserted to flesh out certain characters or places.

The big exception is the flying robed things (eventually named as “Whispers”). These turn out to be part of an extra plot unfolding on top of the original game, which seems to involve some kind of parallel-timeline, history-rewriting shenanigans. Their role is to intervene when the story started to break away from the tracks of the original: making sure characters go to the right places and die only at the appropriate time. You see them intervene to save characters from untimely deaths, but also to ensure characters who are supposed to die at a certain point do so.

The director of this remake is Tetsuya Nomura, the director of the (in)famously convoluted Kingdom Hearts series (the first game of which I liveblogged here), and there’s definite parallels in some of these plot devices.

Without the context of the original, I imagine the Whispers would come across as a bit of a weird non-sequitur: characters start rambling about ‘destiny’ starting in the middle of the Shinra Tower sequence. As it is, even with someone to fill me in, it felt a bit self-indulgent. Basically, as I understand it, the villain of the first game Sephiroth has figured out some way to time travel or see the future or something, and now he’s attempting to intervene in the plot so that he might have a chance to win after all. However, he is prevented from doing so by the efforts of these Whispers.

The final chapter of this remake has Sephiroth show up and arrange for you to essentially intervene and destroy the Whispers, which makes substantial timeline alterations possible. We get a brief glimpse of one major change, although it seems to be taking place in yet another alternate timeline. So Cloud and the gang fight Sephiroth in a scene (I am told) somewhat resembling the original’s ending sequence, complete with his famous One Winged Angel track.

I can understand the rationale on some level. By raising the possibility of major story changes, they can kick the speculation engine into gear; and given this remake only portrays the first part of the original, they want to bring the game’s most famous elements forwards for the sake of throwing a bone to people who wanted to fight that Sephiroth guy already instead of having any sort of resolution deferred to an unknown release schedule, and having the game end in a flashier final boss than ‘some robot on a highway’.

Apparently there has been a fair degree of argument about these changes; many fans inevitably would rather a direct ‘faithful’ remake focusing only on visual, audio and mechanic updates, or are wary of this becoming as much a mess as Kingdom Hearts. For my part, I’m at least reasonably curious what they’re going to do with all this, and have no attachment to the sanctity of the original, but the attempt to tell these two stories at once felt a little disjointed and honestly the story became very hard to follow in the last act!

Still, Final Fantasy 7 was not short of twists, of which Aerith dying halfway through the game is only the start. A character called Zack appears in a flashback near the end of the game; Elaine explained there’s this whole subplot where Cloud is like, traumatically imagining himself as being Zack because he can’t process his death, and the many points where Cloud blanks out on scenes are when he encounters information that contradicts this. In fact Cloud isn’t a SOLDIER at all but just some really mako-poisoned guy who the real soldier Zack was caring for. And that was the original!

Similarly, she explained that the Sephiroth you chase for most of the game is actually an alien called Jenova (yes ‘Jenova’ not Jehova—there are a lot of meaningless references to kabbalah and christianity, but this doesn’t seem to be one of them). Jenova is using its mind powers to pretend to be Sephiroth, and the real Sephiroth only shows up near the end! The remake moved one of the several Jenova fights forward to the Shinra Tower sequence (where originally you arrive after it’s already killed the Shinra president in a fairly low-key scene), but also puts the real Sephiroth in the area, because of the above time shenanigans. I certainly can’t say it’s all that much more convoluted, and I’m kind of enjoying the escalation.

Speaking of our villains… the Shinra Electric Power Company turns out to be run almost exclusively by sadistic supervillains who wouldn’t be remotely out of place in a Bond film. Apparently there was a whole sub-fandom around the (originally quite minor) evil scientist Hojo, who is simultaneously given a great deal more screen time and also made a lot less readable as a bishie, so I kind of wonder how that was received.

There’s this one Shinra executive (in charge of trains and infrastructure) who is like, “maybe we shouldn’t do a genocide, here’s my reconstruction plan, I’m actually taking my job seriously” - and I was rather wondering how he managed to end up on a boardroom otherwise composed of cultists, alongside a dominatrix, a security officer who’s deliberately modelled on Stalin, and so on… they were fun though. Rufus Shinra, apparently a pushover in the original, is turned into a kind of Monty Oum-style character who he uses his shotgun’s recoil to fling himself around.

As for Sephiroth himself, he made surprisingly little impression, perhaps because he’s got one affect which is to calmly smile and say something vague and enigmatic with mild homoerotic overtones. It’s also hard to say how many times he actually appears and how many are just Cloud having hallucinations, or Jenova fucking with your mind, or whathaveyou. By the end of the game I had precious little idea of what his motivation was, or what that final scene between him and Cloud in some sort of lifestream dimension was supposed to have entailed.

Your own party, by contrast, make a deep impression, as well as the three other Avalanche members who join you at various points. By the end of the game I’d definitely fallen in love with this bunch, and a great deal of that is on the strength of the voice acting. Cloud does need to stop protesting and transition though.

Barret deserves some mention: the original game was made in the 90s and drew on the portrayal of hypermasculine Black men in American action movies, filtered through a Japanese developer’s lens. Barret keeps that character design, with muscles on his muscles on his muscles, but here (and apparently to a fair degree in the original too) is characterised much more as like, a loving dad and by far the most passionate and explicit about the political motivations of the ecoterrorist cell; he’s a dork who sings the Final Fantasy victory jingle after fights, and has some very sweet scenes with his daughter Marlene. There’s also some good scenes where he makes Shinra execs uncomfortable.

Probably one of the biggest strengths of the RPG genre is the notion of a party of characters who travel together and you become intimately familiar with over the course of the game. Bioware games do this - there’s a reason why the Citadel DLC for Mass Effect 3 is so popular - and FF7R ended up hitting a lot of the same notes. I loved seeing them hang out in different groups - getting Aerith and Tifa to meet for example. If there’s anything I’ll remember coming out of this game, it’s this…

There’s definitely a tendency towards an ‘expanded universe’ media franchise in recent decades, cultivating a kind of fan engagement focused on collection and plot speculation. FF7 was perhaps one of the earliest Square games to get a really big fandom as such, and definitely the one to receive the most sequels and spinoffs. I do have a soft spot for this kind of sprawling multi-part story; there’s something satisfying about fitting it all together, regardless of whether each individual instalment or spin-off doesn’t necessarily add a lot to ordinary critical notions of like, emotional depth or thematic coherence or what-have you.

But I’m also wary of like, how this kind of model can eclipse other stories and become this cultural juggernaut that you just have to have an opinion on, and even when it’s not that big, how conveniently it plays in to the cycle of capital valorisation. This wariness must apply as much to things I’m very fond of, like NieR, as to things I dislike, like Marvel movies. Though it is apparently the best selling game on the PS4 ever, there’s no real danger of FF7 becoming the next Star Wars (JRPGs will always be at least a little niche), but it’s definitely oriented towards a similar sort of fan-engagement. There are plenty of things that a release this big could never say, even if it plays around with themes like ecological devastation and capitalist domination.

That’s ok, I’ll take what I can get and this game delivers its sweet characters and dramatic twists and satisfying battles in spades. But some part of me insists I put this footnote lmao. Long-suffering friends have probably heard a dozen variants of it by now…