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Review Final Fantasy VII Remake [PS4]

Discussion in 'Video Games' started by Dawn, May 17, 2020.

  1. Dawn

    Dawn La vie est drôle

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    Introduction

    Final Fantasy VII Remake is a difficult game to review, and in some sense it is pointless to review: it's one of those games where if you want it, you've probably already bought it, and by the strength of nostalgia and brand-name recognition, nothing I say will sway you. FFVII is a genre-defining experience, whether you love it or hate it, and the remake will carry itself (HAS carried itself, even) by the strength of that alone: this is not a game that was ever going to be anything other than critically acclaimed. The quality of it is immaterial: it's Final Fantasy VII.

    Playing this, I found myself in a rather unique and interesting position: I have no particularly strong feelings for Final Fantasy VII. I do think it is far outclassed by other FF titles, and I do not like the minigames that constantly interrupt the gameplay flow, but to say that I hate it would be a bit strong. I never had an “FFVII experience” because by the time I actually got to sit down and really play it, I was in my late teens. I did the opening when it was first released, when I was too young to know what I was doing and panicking because of the timer, and that was it. By then, it had been far surpassed from a visual and gameplay standpoint at the very least.

    I knew what I was getting into when I bought this, but I still felt a need to give it a try. I'd like to say I went into it with an open mind, but I will freely admit here and now that I am inherently biased against Square Enix when it comes to Final Fantasy, and against Nomura in particular, who is outclassed only by Toriyama in his absolute inability to write anything even remotely resembling a cohesive, compelling, or even just a GOOD narrative.

    So, this is my experience and analysis, for those who are interested. Be aware that it contains some spoilers, but nothing of any significance.


    Narrative

    Many who are reading this will be familiar with the story of Final Fantasy VII, and as you would expect, the basic premise for this game is the same: Cloud, an Ex-SOLDIER turned mercenary, hooks up with a branch of the terrorist organisation Avalanche through his old friend Tifa, helping them blow up the Mako Reactors that are damaging the planet whilst simultaneously powering the city of Midgar. Along the way he encounters Aerith (who is now finally, definitely, Aerith, and not Aeris as she was in the original game) who indirectly turns the game from a fairly grounded story about a terrorist organisation trying to stop an evil corporation to your more typical ragtag band of misfits trying to save the world from a megalomaniac...and his mother.

    The story of FFVIIR loosely covers the events of the first disc of the original game, meaning it is set entirely within the bounds of Midgar; more specifically, Sectors 5 through to 7, with a short trip to Shinra HQ later in the game. As you might expect, Square Enix have expanded upon this narrative significantly, so that a five hour experience has become a twenty-five hour experience...and therein lies the problem with the narrative of this game. There is a very big difference between fleshing something out and padding it out, and FFVIIR definitely falls into the latter category, unnecessarily dragging out things between the major events of the first disc of the original game – to absolutely no benefit of the overall narrative – to the detriment of the game overall, at least when viewed as a standalone title...which, at the time of writing, is necessary, because there is no sequel, and honestly I don't personally believe a game can be retroactively made better by a sequel: bad writing now remains bad writing later.

    FFVIIR is split into 18 chapters, and this makes events feel disjointed and very loosely connected at times, especially in later stages, where the game suddenly decides to open up to a grander stage without any preparation or buildup whatsoever, resulting in a final act that can only be called messy. Nomura, in typical Nomura fashion, has muddied the waters further by adding in mysterious cloaked beings called “Whispers” that show up at plot-significant moments to confuse the issue and make you feel like you're playing a Kingdom Hearts game, only without the constant references to darkness and a lot of convenient headaches from Cloud as plot dictates that he's not allowed to remember his past quite yet...or for the entire game.

    Excessive filler, uneven chapter length, and downright confusing plot points at the end make FFVIIR a difficult game to enjoy from a narrative perspective. However, fans of the compilation of FFVII will (if they can get past their distaste for the way this game departs from the original at the end) find more than enough material here to enjoy, as several references to the original FFVII, and even Advent Children, heavily imply that this game is not intended to be a strict re-telling of the original. The differences here are either a very clever misdirection or a clear indication of a departure from the original narrative: either way, love them or hate them, they're very well done and will offer a new experience for everyone, irrespective of whether they played the original game or not. Unfortunately, none of it is particularly well-written.



    Characters

    Credit where credit is due: excluding Sephiroth (who is elevated from mysterious shadowy threat to major antagonist within the space of five minutes near the end with zero explanation as to why) FFVIIR does NOT rely upon an existing familiarity with the cast in order to give them personality. All too often in larger series and remakes, video games rely upon the player to “fill in the gaps” as it were, by letting players use their imagination to come up with personality and motivation. Despite its small cast – and excluding Cloud, who still has absolutely no personality whatsoever – FFVIIR does an admirable job of making each party member relatable individuals, both in cutscenes and during party banter on the road.

    A small cast definitely works in this game's favour, as characters are both memorable and likeable, and different enough from their original incarnations to delight and amuse. Even side characters, like Biggs and Wedge – and most notably Jessie, who has become a notable personality in her own right – are given adequate time on screen for the player to become acquainted with their personality, motivations, and form some sort of opinion over them.

    Party members bond on the road, discuss trivialities (for example, Aerith and Tifa discuss shopping, and having Cloud carry their bags...with Cloud in earshot) and express their concerns: their reactions are believable and empathic, helped along by the (mostly) strong voice acting and facial expressions. It's difficult not to like them, even if you can't identify with them on a personal level.

    Whilst this game lets itself down significantly with the antagonists and the overall narrative, the interaction between the main party members, their personalities, and how those personalities develop (or do not develop, which is not necessarily a bad thing...excluding Cloud, anyway) make this a more personal tale that some may enjoy if they're not particularly bothered by the circumstances in which it comes about.


    Gameplay

    FFVIIR is, at its core, a linear experience, although the developers have gone to great lengths in an attempt to disguise this. The majority of maps you'll be wandering through are little better than straight lines with occasional branching pathways leading to treasure boxes. There is a greater degree in freedom of movement than the oft-maligned FFXIII – you can go back and revisit areas if you're of a mind – but for the better part of this 25 hour experience, you're going to be funnelled down narrow pathways, forced to watch as Cloud constantly slows down to duck under this bit of rubble, or squeeze through that narrow gap, or stop to allow party members to catch up (party members who, I hasten to add, will walk straight through him) or move on ahead, or admire the scenery. Your job as the player is to push the control stick and watch, and that is all there is to it. Whilst this is undeniably more realistic and makes the experience more immersive, it is immersive in the way of an interactive movie, and after you've watched the occasionally awkward animation slow your pace to a crawl for the twentieth or thirtieth time, the novelty begins to wear thin.

    In some instances level design can only be called bad, as you are forced to navigate tight corridors that all look very similar and are very easy to get turned around in as level design goes from impossibly tight to repetitively sprawling, solve very simple puzzles that pose absolutely no challenge whatsoever and serve more as a break in the gameplay flow than any meaningful contribution. The only real difference between these levels and the linear pathways that make up the majority of the game is that they'll take you slightly longer to get through: there is no incentive to explore, no hidden surprises to uncover, and no reason at all to revisit them in the future.

    FFVIIR's combat is at once a high point and a low point, being the best real-time combat Square Enix has offered in a Final Fantasy title to date...but significantly below anything offered by Namco Bandai's Tales series. Battles fall into a predictable pattern: mashing the Square button until a segment of your ATB gauge is full, hitting an enemy with an element it's weak to in order to stagger or “pressure” it, then going back to hitting Square until either the stagger gauge runs down or it dies. Rinse and repeat. This process applies to both boss battles and regular enemies, meaning there is little to differentiate the two asides from health bars and the occasional cinematic, making every battle a potentially long, drawn-out affair that will require ALL of your attention as your party AI does little more than mindlessly attack the enemy.

    You can freely switch between characters in battle at the tap of a button, and slow down the action to the point that it's practically paused to order characters to use spells or abilities when they're able (which is not very often unless you cast Haste on them) but fundamentally there isn't a huge difference between characters outside of their special abilities: Cloud has a Punisher mode that does additional damage and can counter if you're guarding, Barret can fire a volley of stronger bullets, Tifa does an uppercut, and Aerith can store and release magical energy. It gives a little variety to break up the constant mashing of Square, but isn't a game changer much of the time.

    Unfortunately, the combat in this game does not have much of a balance to it – you're restricted to 2 ATB segments unless you use a particular Limit Break to gain a third, you don't gain access to Time materia until much later in the game (meaning there is no way to speed the process up) and enemies have excessively bloated health pools even when you're several levels higher than them. A small blessing is that the game does not rely upon your levels to determine your ability to kill things (I finished the game at level 32, and I never once had to stop to grind) but it does require that you treat each battle as a serious encounter, and given the repetitive nature of the combat, the overall effect is that combat feels extremely stale and unnecessarily drawn-out a lot of the time.

    To FFVIIR's credit, it DOES attempt to mix up the gameplay at some points – at two instances you're required to ride a motorbike, and these sections are both tense and fairly enjoyable, as you're mostly required only to dodge and attack. There are also numerous minigames, ranging from relatively painless (squats and smashing boxes) to downright awful (pumping to release air, timing button presses, and anything that involves climbing or jumping over environmental hazards) to outright bizarre (a rhythm-based minigame that can only be an homage to Vocaloid...yes, really) and these times serve as an often welcome break from the repetitive mediocrity of the rest of it. Although there are times when they can only be described as frustrating diversions.

    FFVIIR features a weapon upgrade system reminiscent of FFX's Sphere Grid and FFXIII's Crystarium – earning AP upon levelling up will allow you to increase your weapon's stats or learn a passive ability, such as an increase in critical damage, or even unlock a new Materia slot. Weapons are specialised (some will have greater attack or magic, etc) and thankfully all weapons gain AP at an equal rate (those you acquire later in the game will come with a lot of AP they would have earned had you had them before then) so you have some degree of control over your playstyle, although as magic is tied to your ATB gauge, a magic-based playstyle will see you doing a lot of attacking and waiting before you can unleash your spells.

    Materia serves as the game's magic and stat system – slotting Materia into your weapons and armour will grant you the ability to use a spell or ability in combat, or a passive skill...in the case of elemental materia, both if you slot it into your armour. These level up after gaining AP at the end of each battle. There is a reasonable degree of variety to Materia, but for the most part your characters will all have more or less the same Materia equipped. You can unlock additional Materia by completing Intel Reports for an in-game NPC, which are easy to complete naturally as you play the game (for example, by staggering different enemy types) and give you another task to do whilst you play.

    FFVIIR has a number of side quests to complete, and these are helpfully marked on the map, and you will be prompted to do them whilst they're available, although you're free to ignore them if you choose. There isn't a great deal of variety to them, unfortunately: you're tasked with either finding someone or something, defeating an enemy, or doing a minigame. There is a little narrative involved with each of them however, and people will react to Cloud's passing if he does more side quests, and these are nice touches that make the effort feel a little more rewarding.


    Sound

    Like it or hate it, FFVII has some of the most iconic and recognisable tracks in video gaming. There are some truly awful tracks in this game, however: the junkyard is one of the worst pieces I have ever heard in a video game, being an awful repetitive techno beat that sounds like nothing so much as someone scraping a nail across a record whilst it plays...or the New LA theme from Xenoblade Chronicles X.

    The problem with FFVIIR's music lies mainly in the boss battles, though: they often start as a chaotic mess with no identifiable melody or rhythm, and the end result is one that is extremely anti-climactic and, frankly, downright AWFUL in the early stages. It's background noise, plain and simple. Of particular note is one of FFVII's most iconic and memorable pieces, One Winged Angel, which sounds absolutely NOTHING like One Winged Angel until the third act of the fight. Listening to it as a standalone piece, it takes six minutes before it assembles itself into an identifiable melody.

    But there are times when this eventually works in the game's favour: for example, in the Airbuster boss battle, as the music turns from a chaotic, disorganised mess to a full-blown metal rendition of Those Who Fight Further, punctuated by vocals as the fight enters its next stage and becomes serious. Similarly, you know Sephiroth is done toying with you when the familiar drums strike up and his attacks suddenly become significantly faster and more threatening whilst “SEPHIROTH! SEPHIROTH!” finally blasts your eardrums. It's the part you want to hear, and the game makes you work for that. The buildup is terrible. The reward is spectacular.

    As a composed piece its awful, but as a tool used to set the mood, it's masterful. This is not a soundtrack you will necessarily want to listen to outside of the game, but it will convey to you very well when the game is about to get serious.

    There is also a great deal of variety on offer here, with straight-up remixes of classic tracks being available to play on a literal in-game jukebox for fans of the original, and fully orchestral pieces that sound like something from a Distant Worlds concert for the rest of the game. Outside of battle, these are all beautifully done, and complement the current mood wonderfully. If you can stomach the moments when it becomes a disorganised mess, FFVIIR's soundtrack is by far its strongest, most defining feature.


    Graphics

    For the last decade, Square Enix have been all about graphics and little else, and as you would expect, FFVIIR does not disappoint in the visuals department, with the transition from in-game graphics to CG cutscenes being barely noticeable when it does happen, and the majority of cutscenes being done with in-game graphics, to no detriment. Whilst the characters occasionally cross into uncanny valley territory (NPCs especially) and have incredibly awkward animation – Cloud still looks like he's running on ice at times – the environments are beautiful, with clear love and care being put into every area.

    However, this is definitely something best experienced on a larger television – the smaller your TV gets, the more difficult it becomes to see, as the game is so overwhelmingly detailed it quickly degenerates into messy in some areas in the slums: paths are difficult to see and navigate, and you can be fooled into believing that you can traverse areas that are actually off-limits. Whilst interaction prompts are clearly displayed, the game does not always give them and on anything smaller than a 32” TV screen, things can become obscured.

    For those interested in a better analysis of its technical specifications, I advise watching Digital Foundry's analysis. Be advised that it may contain spoilers.


    Recommended? No.

    As a standalone title, Final Fantasy VII Remake is moderately entertaining at best and downright tedious at worst, and it often gravitates towards the latter rather than the former. The narrative is excessively padded with pointless banalities that ultimately do not pay off despite the excellent characterisation, and the combat is a disorganised mess that never quite gains the cohesion that it should. The constant stop-start nature of exploration exacerbates the linearity of the game and makes progression a painful chore at times, and the minigames are equally entertaining and frustrating. Whilst it's very pretty to look at, it really is all style and no substance.

    This is a difficult game to recommend to anyone but fans of the original...and even then, I would advise bringing plenty of patience, because this is not the FFVII you will remember, and this may upset you. If you came from a straight-up remake of the original FFVII, you will be disappointed, as this is a remake of the narrative as well, and as a standalone title, this is a definite detriment to its quality.

    Overall this is a stark reminder that Square Enix hasn't changed in over a decade, and a painful illustration of the power that brand-name recognition has: this is little more than FFXIII with the cast and narrative of FFVII characters, with all the drawbacks that implies. Proceed with caution and without expectation and you may get some enjoyment out of it, but if you're looking for a strong narrative experience with enjoyable real-time combat on the PS4, do yourself a favour and pick up NieR Automata or Tales of Berseria.
     
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    #1 May 17, 2020
    Last edited: May 17, 2020
    Wizard likes this.
  2. Wizard

    Wizard Do you feel it? The moon's power!

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    Thanks for the in-depth analysis of FFVII Remake. While I'm not a huge Final Fantasy fan, I am appreciate of the beautiful tracks that the series often puts out. The battle theme in Remake is particularly fantastic and truly carries the spirit of the original. Chances are this is a game I will consider in the $10-20 price range.
     
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