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Final Fantasy VII Remake: Aetherial Review

In a pleasant surprise that briefly mitigated all of the anxiety caused by society collapsing, I was lucky enough to receive Final Fantasy VII Remake a full seven days ahead of its intended international release. This was thanks to retailers deciding to pull the trigger on an early shipping date to avoid possible delays caused by the ongoing plague. Receiving the game early really was a delightful distraction from the all-consuming terror of global affairs, especially because FF7R (that's the trendy way of shortening the title) has been one of my most anticipated titles since even before its announcement. For that reason, I didn't want to rush it for the sake of making content like this, so this review is arriving much later than most . I've had plenty of discussions with people about my 60 hour experience with the game, as well as lots of discussions with myself. Even now, my thoughts on the Remake have gone through several tough re-writes in my head.

Like many other video-gamists, I have a personal connection to the seventh entry in the Final Fantasy series. I won't pretend that I'm unique in that regard or that my experience with the original game gives me some kind of special perspective on this title. It doesn't. For necessary context, I'll simply state that I enjoy the original Final Fantasy VII rather a lot, and that Square's Final Fantasy series is among my favourite game franchises. The Final Fantasy signature blend of classic JRPG mechanics and a narrative focused experience is one that has always really appealed to me, and when I indulge in other roleplaying games, I tend to judge them against the high standard that my favourite era of Final Fantasy had set. FF7R's status as a 'remake' of one of my favourite games puts it in a difficult position from the outset in terms of assessing its overall quality in the form of a traditional review. This difficulty stems from an inability to place how FF7R should be understood in relation to the original title. Clearly, FF7R cannot simply replace the original game (nor does it show any clear intention to) yet it also cannot be understood as a fully separate experience, given that much of what it does relies on the players understanding of events that take place in the original game. FF7R is both a new version of Final Fantasy VII and simultaneously a dramatically expansive companion piece. This whole thought bubble of where to place FF7R becomes even more muddled by the boundaries of this new title, which adapts merely one chunk of the original game, and also throws in some interesting questions about the idea of 'canon' in some startling sequences that challenge the preconceived notions of the returning fan.

All of this ephemera makes FF7R a game that's pretty fun to just think about and discuss, which is a nice bonus when the game itself is already such a delight to play and experience. If you were ever in doubt about Square Enix's ability to deliver on what people wanted from a Final Fantasy VII Remake, you can now relax. In the opening few hours alone, FF7R makes sure to dispel any major concerns by delivering a gameplay experience that is every bit as dramatic, exciting and engaging as the original title, elevated by a simple but rewarding new combat system and the re-invigoration of classic characters with new dialogue, scenes and details. Playing the start of FF7R feels like coming home. It's a warm radiation of nostalgia that recalls old memories whilst creating brand new ones. FF7R delivers on a satisfyingly punchy start, and whilst things slow down a bit from that point on, there's no denying that the new additions feel welcome too, relieving the tension of the dramatic opening with downtime that lets you roam around the newly realised slums of Midgar whilst revelling in the game's exciting new combat style.

The combat of FF7R is an impressive feat of design. It breathes new life into Final Fantasy VII's many enemy encounters, and gives you a frenetic new way to engage with the game's many foes. If you've played Final Fantasy VII more than once then you'll have surely found yourself growing weary of the turn-based grind, but the Remake has a combat system that seems focused almost entirely on keeping you on your toes. Whilst it's not exactly difficult on the gam's normal difficulty, the new combat system forces speedy engagement combined with strategic thinking in order to succeed. Each party member has a unique set of skills and weaknesses, and what appeared as minor encounters in the original game have been transformed into dramatic events on a much larger scale. Some boss fight can go on for quite a while. This is something I really liked about the game – the boss fights felt like very intense and visceral challenges.

The combat system is something very special indeed, but it does have its share of issues. Most of these are small gripes that highlighted rough edges on an otherwise elegant system. This included the feeling of dissatisfaction when MP and ATB are robbed from you after a magic attack is used but interrupted, getting trapped in an unforgiving stun lock or the general uselessness of the dodge button which gives you know. Some of these issues could be understood as features of the hybrid RPG/Action design, which still wants you to treat the battles like a turn based affair. This loosely explains the lack of efficacy in dodging and certain attacks having no real countermeasures. Although these aspects of the system were distracting, there's a lot more to say in its favour, especially once I learned the intricacies of its systems and understood exactly what it was demanding from me. Another remarkable achievement of the Final Fantasy VII Remake is the sheer amount of detail that has gone into recreating the world. The environments are impressively modelled and did a fairly good job of recreating the 2D backgrounds and transforming them into a 3D space. It was really amazing to tilt the camera upwards and see the 'steel sky' of the plates above the slums, something that was impossible in the original, which had almost zero camera controls. Final Fantasy VII Remake feels like it was made for moments like these. With that being said, there were a number of texture pop-in issues that haven't been fixed post-launch that hinder the experience visually in some areas. I thought it was quite sad when certain emotional scenes near Aerith's house had me distracted when I noticed the texture of the flowers. There were a few other technical issues, including slow load times and the occasional audio stutter. Technical issues and minor gameplay struggles aside, all of the aforementioned positives go a long way in the art of remixing sequences into familiar but greatly expanded versions of classic red-hot set pieces. One of my favourite moments included an encounter in Chapter 8 – a vastly expanded boss fight with adversary Reno that focuses on dodging, countering and precise timing. Reno flies around the church that the battle takes place in, quipping and punishing any errors in your attacks with reckless abandon. It's a vibrant and funny encounter that elevated a fairly static scene in the original to an incredible gameplay sequence that I'll never forget.

Moments like this kept coming. Cutscenes have been added and expanded to give a broader sense of each character's motivations, hopes and fears. Another favourite moment of mine was cemented in a cutscene that played after the destruction of Sector 7, where Barret laments the loss of his friends in his group AVALANCHE, as well as the potential loss of his daughter Marlene. This scene was incredibly well performed and remembering it from the original game really highlighted how much had been added by the updated visuals, music, script, and the new performances. FF7R really goes to lengths to hit the high notes of the original game, as well as creating new one in the margins of what were originally conceived as smaller moments. The struggle of Cloud and AVALANCHE against the mega-corporation Shinra has never felt more relevant to the modern day, and it hits harder when it's presented in a suitably modern context.

My concern going into Final Fantasy VII Remake was that the incredibly focused vision of the original would be weakened by the expanded material. To an extent, I can see the argument that it does alter the pacing in an undesirable way. An early section between the first reactor bombing mission and the next is luxuriously padded with a host of side-quests and an extended interlude where you just hang out with the gang. The effect this has on the characters is nice by virtue of seeing more of them, but the content of this segment itself does feel slightly divorced from the rest of the opening chapters in terms of keeping things moving in an exciting way. That is to say, it's refreshing to experience something new, but the original game really had a certain strength to its pacing that is slightly undone by the addition of certain new scenes. After the second bombing mission in Sector 5 the quality and variety of new content mostly seems to increase from there. It mingles nicely with content that is merely 'remixed' and the faithful recreations of key scenes. Even later parts of the game that didn't resonate with me as much still made me feel something: the Train graveyard's ghost sub-story didn't particularly click with me, but I really enjoyed the boss encounter in that zone. Almost every sequence of the game contained something for me to love.

The more controversial new additions to story, however, don't feel like they always mesh perfectly with the original game's material. I do like the meta commentary – which sees spectres attempting to correct the remake to stay on course with original game's key moments – but it could have been more thoughtfully inserted. The physical presence of the plot ghosts might be to the game's detriment and could have been employed in a fashion that was more mysterious and less invasive to the game's pacing. Stopping to fight the ghosts was mostly a tedious affair and mostly a war of attrition where you defeat ghosts in order to stagger and weaken the main ghost before moving on. These encounters appeared at several key points in the game and ultimately frustrated me. There was a beautiful tension before arriving at the Sector 7 tower to prevent the plate from falling, a tension that was killed entirely by the ghost encounter beforehand. I failed to see the need for these encounters beyond the first time other than to hammer home the idea of 'fighting fate' that ties together these encounters in the final moments.

On a textual level, I don't feel as though the reason to 'fight fate' resonated strongly enough with any of the characters that this game had spent such a long time fleshing out. This theme culminates in the penultimate boss fight, which felt equal parts grand and self-indulgent. At first I thought it was really cool to be fighting these named whispers, who had real moves and patterns and interesting lore when you scanned their abilities. It was like the opposite of the previous whisper fights. It increases its scope exponentially, giving you a quick Bahamut fight as as a side dish and a decently challenging battle overall. It's a shame that the checkpointing system of the game is weak, because failing this sequence at any part really hinders the experience of it, deflating all the hype as you have to start this very long encounter all over again with no ability to skip the embedded cutscenes. But once I was able to come to terms with the length and stakes of this final boss, I really enjoyed it. And then after that, there's even more! One last encounter with Sephiroth with high levels of escalation. Although I was initially skeptical about the necessity of this extra boss, it certainly made for a hell of an encounter. For as long as it took I set aside my skepticism and had a fantastic time fighting Sephiroth.

What happens after the fighting is done will spur a variety of reactions, and I'm pleased to say that I find it really exciting. This is where the concept of 'fate' as a theme started to click for me. I'm overall in favour of the concepts the ending of the game utilises, although I do think its implementation could have been improved. In addition, how effective the decision to alter key events is may be determined by future entries in this series.

The suggestion of parallel universes or altered timelines is an interesting one, which is presented in the form of a glimpse at a world where legacy character Zack Fair may still be alive. But will we get to see anything in this world that expands upon the original game in a meaningful way? At the moment, it's difficult to say, even if it is fun to speculate. The ending simultaneously canonises various parts of past spin offs whilst also parrying the idea of the importance of canon itself by distancing remake from the original game's structure. There is a variety of ways this ending could be interpreted, but my personal read is that as well as being a meta statement of the intention to politely ignore the gospel of the original game and its fans, FF7R also declares that this first instalment is going to lead by example, with subsequent games in the series seeking to 'remix' FF7 much as this game has, gleefully working its way around the classic game's high notes whilst also attempting to add some of its own.

Even in spite of itself, there were so many amazing moments in FF7R. But I think what is truly special about it has a lot less to do with the moments themselves, and more to do with the feelings they conjure. FF7R does a better job of capturing the experience of FF7 than a 'true' or '1:1' remake might have. The uncertainty about where it might lead us next and questions about Sephiroth and who he is. These questions all began to form in the same way as they did when the Midgar chapter of the original game came to a close. It's fitting that this chapter ends with such an ambiguous pause and asks us to reflect on the future and what it might bring. Much like the protagonists at this moment, we also stand at the end of a road, contemplating where the unending journey may take us next, and I've never been more excited for the next chapter.

An extended version of this review is also available in video form!


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