Final Fantasy VII was one of the defining games of my childhood, one which left an enduring impact. Could the long-awaited remake live up to the image in my head?
Throughout my childhood, I was a staunch Nintendo man. When the other kids at school talked about their Mega Drives and Sonic the Hedgehog, it was Mario and Super Metroid that I countered with, and I truly believed nothing would ever displace Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past as my favourite game. That Zelda game on the SNES was the pinnacle to the young me, a game with the richest story and most vibrant world I had ever experienced. As the years went on, my horizons broadened, and my mother bought me and my brother a Sony PlayStation while the long wait to the Nintendo 64 dragged on. I liked my PlayStation, but I didn't love it, not the way I did my Nintendo consoles. Other companies just couldn't create video games that connected with me in the same way.
When the kids at school started talking about Final Fantasy VII, the three-disc monolith that was touted as the greatest game of all time, it irritated me. Whenever something receives a lot of hype, I get turned off from it. My natural instinct when told something is one thing is to question it, and when it is impressed upon me so hard that something is the greatest, my initial reaction is to rebel against that proclamation. As the months passed, as the hype died down and as people moved on to newer, shinier games, Final Fantasy VII reduced in price, and the time was right for me to give it a go. With only my pocket money to buy games with, I looked for the ones I would get the most value from, and a three-disc, two hundred-hour game in my preferred genre of the role-playing game fit the bill. With nobody still telling me I would love it more than any other game, my argumentative desire to push back at the consensus had abated, and it was time to see what this game was all about. Just how good could a game that involved taking turns to hit each other really be?
The answer, as it turned out, was that a turn-based game really could be phenomenal. The initial part of the game, involving the downtrodden rebels fighting against the corporation that stole vital resources from the planet to make their own life more comfortable at the expense of the slum-dwelling poor, served not only to get my young rebel heart immediately on-side, but also shaped the political beliefs I hold to this day. It was an awakening into the reality of the world that I wasn't prepared for, and one that made a seismic impact upon me. As the world opened out and became this vast, sprawling landscape, full of identity, stories, wild characters and gut-wrenching tragedy, it slowly dawned on me that A Link To The Past had become my second-favourite game. School had always been a chore, and now my days were spent frustrated with reality, my distracted thoughts occupied with getting home and returning to the fantasy world this game created.
I think a large part of that was due to the death of my father drowning me in emotions I didn't know how to handle. Death was never final in video games. You always had one more life, you always had a power-up that would save you. Final Fantasy VII went a step further, with magic spells able to resurrect any of your party who fell on the field. In this game, you could save anyone's life by an incantation or a potion, and even if you didn't, they'd be restored post-battle. Then, it happened. There was a death that offered no resurrection, an ending that gave no hope of salvation. The character's life was over. They weren't coming back. And yet, the game went on. It showed how the characters dealt with the aftermath, how they processed their emotions, and how it fuelled their motivations. I remember little of the original game beyond that point, I only remember that it went on, much as my life had to without my father in the world. During one of the most difficult periods of my life, Final Fantasy VII offered not just a temporary escape from my reality, but hope that, one day, I would be able to deal with the pain and confusion that plagued it.
I only played Final Fantasy VII once, and I can't remember if I ever finished it. To me, it doesn't matter. That game, what it meant to me and the way it shaped me, left such a lasting impression that, over time, I didn't want to revisit it. Perhaps it was the memories associated with my life at the time of playing it, perhaps it was fear of the esteem I held it in being diminished by a second playthrough, I don't know. It just felt like more than a game. It was an experience, it was a moment in time, one to be cherished and treasured for what it was, what it meant and what it represented to me and my life. It was a masterpiece.
As the years went by and the rumours grew of a remake, one enhanced by the remarkable advances in technology and what video games could be, I was filled with excited trepidation. I knew I had to play it, if it ever came to fruition, but the fears of those memories being tarnished grew with every great game that I played. How well would the story hold up? How invested in the characters would I get? How would the adult me, with all my years of experience, development, maturation, heartbreak and joy, react when returning to the world. The biggest question of all was the simplest: Could the remake possibly live up to the idealised image that had formed in my memories?
When the game was released, I held off from buying it, wary of falling into the same hype-trap that deterred me for so long so many years ago. Somewhat fittingly, I received it as a Christmas present from my mother seven months ago. It sat on my shelf until the end of May; untouched, unopened, just there, waiting for me. I had to wait. I had to make sure I had finished my university studies for the year, because I knew I would get lost in this game. Maybe, subconsciously, I wasn't ready. As I submitted my final assignment, I loaded the game onto my PS4, and let it install before going to bed. I needed to sleep before pressing 'play.' I needed to be prepared before my return to Midgar. I needed to be ready to relive my childhood.
The next day, I got up early, my sleep not as restful as I hoped. I had too much nervous energy; whether it was from finishing my assignment or for what was to come, I cannot say. I made myself a coffee, then turned on the computer and loaded the game up. As the beautiful title music filtered through the speakers, the emotions started rising, and I sat there, just listening, while I drank my brew. I wanted to take it all in, because this was over twenty years in the making. I replenished my mug, and then, with a deep breath, I pressed 'X' to begin the game.
As the game began, the graphics blew me away. What were once misshapen sprites with circles for hands were now realistic humans. Midgar was showcased in a way that once could only have been visualised in my head. Barrett burst onto the scene looking like a cross between Blade and Dave Batista, a monster of a man with a huge gun for a hand. Then came Cloud, his piercing eyes sending shivers down my spine. This is what Final Fantasy VII was destined to look like, and it looked incredible. As the opening sequence ended, the game was on.
One big change was to the action style. No longer the turn-based affair I had once derided before actually playing the original, now it's a live-action fight, like the Zelda games I grew up loving. The swoosh of Cloud's sword feels so weighty in my hands, defence feels so natural right from the start, while the way special abilities are utilised feels so intuitive. For a game with so much emotion involved, it feeling so powerful is both reassuring and crucial. I was desperate to take charge of Barret, my favourite character to control in the original, but I'm forced to wait as the anticipation builds. There's a flashback to Tifa, which brings with it another wave of nostalgia, taking me back to being a teenager again and being re-acquainted with old friends. I'm blown away by the opening phase of the game, and I take a breather while watching the video sequence. The reverie is broken by Barret finally firing his gun, taking out a robotised machine gun and threatening Cloud, then he joins the party. Here we go.
The gun feels good to fire, but it's his special move, 'the Overdrive,' that brings the boom! As we take on the Sweeper, the first challenging opponent so far, the switching of control between Cloud and Barret feels so natural, so easy, while the use of different abilities and magic enhances the gameplay. We approach the reactor we are to explode, and my heart starts pounding. If I remember correctly, this is where we meet the first boss character. Under Barret's demand, I place the bomb and set the timer for twenty minutes. I could've gone with thirty minutes, but it feels right to go twenty...
Oh Christ, it's a giant robot scorpion. I wish I'd gone with thirty.
What a fight it is! The Scorpion Sentinel is a great opening boss, cycling through different stages and demanding you use the full range of abilities and skills available in order to defeat it. At times you feel like you should be overwhelmed by the intensity of the action, the switching between characters at key points and the impact of the sounds, graphics and explosions going on, but you always seem to figure out just in time how to do what needs to be done. It really is a fantastic tutorial boss, one that ensures you are fully ready for the adventure ahead. Now the timer has begun. Twenty minutes to evacuate.
As we flee back through the reactor, I am flooded with nostalgic feelings of the ending of another of my childhood favourite games, Super Metroid. This game has its hooks in me, and the real world has faded from my memory. All that matters is Midgar. As some clearly-evil moustachioed corporate wanker presses a button and sets off the self-destruct system of the Mako Generator, the need to escape intensifies amid explosions and falling debris. We come across another sweeper, but this time, with the sharpened skills from the scorpion fight, it is despatched within seconds. We escape the reactor well shy of the twenty minutes, and as Mako rains over the city, the introduction chapter is complete. This experience is amazing. I've been playing for an hour, and I'm already devastated this game will end far too soon, and the wait for the second part will begin. As the team realises the consequences of the explosion that was caused by the moustachioed man but for which they believe they are to blame, Barret shows his leadership with a mighty speech while epic music plays.
Making your way through a city falling apart gilled with terrified people, it's impossible not to feel guilt at your part in blowing up the reactor. Those thoughts are interrupted as Cloud is struck by a vision. It’s Sephiroth! And now he's right here in front of me! Is it him? Is it just a hallucination? Staggering through the wreckage of a world ablaze in pursuit of Sephiroth, you can feel Cloud grow weaker, unable to keep pace until the villain, revealed as previously slain by Cloud, gives us a speech and urges us to run. ‘Run, Cloud. Run away. You have to live.’ As we swing our sword at him, the apparition evaporates with one final instruction: ‘Hold on to your hatred.’
As we return to reality, we are greeted by Aerith! She's just known as the Flower Seller at this point, but it's Aerith! Sephiroth appears at her shoulder, taunting us that we are ‘Too weak to save anyone ... Even yourself.’ Cloud collapses, but Aerith helps him up and offers a beautiful flower as her epic theme begins playing in the background. This game is so special. All these moments, all these reunions with these characters that once meant so much to me, they affect me in a way that is rare in video games. Our next reunion is when we get to the Seventh Heaven bar, and are greeted by Tifa sitting on the steps with Barret's daughter. It takes about 30 seconds before Barret is threatening Cloud again. The friction between the two is magnificent. Tifa asks Cloud to talk outside, and the tension between the two is palpable as she leads me to the apartment she has sorted for me, then follows me in. You can tell there's a rich history between Cloud and Tifa, a deep story that is only hinted at. Cloud is struck by another vision of Sephiroth, hallucinating another person as his nemesis and only being stopped from killing the innocent person by Tifa.
After a good night's sleep, Tifa takes you on a tour of the area which serves as an introduction to other aspects of the game: shops, rest spots and weapon modification, before officially joining the party. The gang is reuniting, and it feels so good. After slaying a few low-level beasts and developing a reputation, side-quests become unlocked, and new weapons become available. One side-quest that involves saving a lad with a big mouth reveals aspects of both of their personalities, with Cloud ready to kill him to keep him quiet and Tifa urging, and securing, compassion for him. Tifa then gets sad about the changes in Cloud, hinting that the coldness of his personality developed after becoming a soldier. Cloud puts it down to the Mako, then off we go back on the side quests, and, when I’m ready, the story proper.
In many ways, this remake is like a cross between the original Final Fantasy VII and Yakuza; a constrained world with flexibility within those constraints, a live-action high-octane fighting style, and all the traditional RPG level-up elements. This game, though, is another level to the Yakuza games. This game is another level to pretty much every game in existence. It’s like Final Fantasy VII was the storyboard, and this remake is the final Hollywood blockbuster, with the technology now available to bring an incredible original vision to life, which it does in spectacular fashion. When we are able to use the Summon attacks for the first time, it is a complete overload of senses as the screen explodes with some unbelievable attacks. When we fight a haunted house, it is an epic battle that most games wouldn’t even conceive as possible, never mind actualise it in such a stunning fashion. The explosions are immense, reverberating through you in a way the original game didn’t have the power to provide. The atmosphere of the game is enthralling throughout, from the brash vibrancy of the Wall Market to the haunting etherealness of the Train Graveyard, with a beautiful orchestral soundtrack keeping your emotions on a string throughout.
Yet, all these technical advances, atmospheres and aural achievements would mean nothing without the thing that made the original so special, and gave it the ability to rise above the limitations of the time and wedge its place in our hearts forever. The key to this game has always been the relationships between the characters, and how they develop as the story progresses. From Barret and Cloud’s competitive dismissal of each other’s merits giving way to mutual respect, to the hints of jealousy between Aerith and Tifa that transform into a beautiful friendship; from the way Cloud’s barriers are broken down by the people he only originally agreed to help for money, no more so than by Aerith, who breaches his defences with simple things like flower picking, playfulness, introducing him to the children’s gang and just talking to him, to the way your own relationships with the characters puts you through the ringer in the final stages; the whole game is a masterclass of emotion rarely seen in a video game, one that demonstrates just why memories of the original have endured for so long, why so many people took the game to their hearts and why the remake was campaigned for and anticipated for two decades.
It took me just under forty-five hours to complete this game. I finished it reluctantly, not wanting it to be over, but unable to stop myself playing the outstanding closing sequence. From the epic boss fight in the Shinra headquarters to the driving section that takes you to the two-phase final fight, the closing chapters are tinged with heartbreak that the story was coming to an end, but a resolve to complete it to enact justice for those who deserved it. As the game draws to a close and you revisit the slums of Midgar, the slum world is being rebuilt underneath the now-exposed sky, and the residents feel the rain on their faces for the first time as the mako returns itself to the earth, you release theirs aren’t the only cheeks with water running down them. It’s such a wonderful, emotional, beautiful ending, and yet, with the second chapter in development, we know it’s only the beginning. However long it takes for that second chapter to emerge, it will be worth the wait. This game is everything I hoped it would be, and so much more. The Final Fantasy VII Remake is a masterpiece. I hope you play it, and I hope it brings you the same joy it has me.
‘One Winged Angel Theme (live orchestral version)’
‘Nothing worth fighting for was ever won without sacrifice.’
‘Those who look with clouded eyes see nothing but shadows.’
‘When we were kids everybody wanted to be a SOLDIER. By the time I made it in, they didn't need heroes anymore.’
‘This pump's sole purpose is to drain the planet dry. While you sleep, while you eat, while you shit — it's here, sucking up mako. It doesn't rest and it doesn't care! You do realize what mako is, don't you? Mako is the lifeblood of our world. The planet bleeds green like you and me bleed red. The hell you think's gonna happen when it's all gone, huh?! Answer me! You gonna stand there and pretend you can't hear the planet crying out in pain? I know you can!’
‘We need to make the most of the time we have — to live our lives the way we wanna live. Every minute... every moment, matters.’
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