Here we are: 23 years after our first trip into Midgar with AVALANCHE, it's time to re-equip the Buster Sword.
First developed by Cyberconnect 2, then re-internalized at Square Enix three years ago, Final Fantasy VII Remake is a very ambitious project spread over several releases. Square Enix knows it can't necessarily make mistakes here: the expectations surrounding this new take on the game that brought JRPGs to the masses have been sky-high since it was first announced.
- Review content: This article is based on 64 hours of gameplay. This gave us time to complete Final Fantasy VII Remake once, then to continue with a second playthrough in a more difficult mode. Finally, this review contains absolutely no spoilers.
- Genre: Action RPG
- Release date: April 10th 2020
- Platform: PS4
- Developer: Square Enix
- Publisher: Square Enix
- Price: $69.99
- Tested on: PS4 Pro
A Look into the Past
There's no need to talk about the synopsis and the first moments of the game — with the demo, the introduction and everything that Square Enix has released so far, you should now be aware of what happens during the attack on the Sector 1 Reactor.
Still, this first chapter remains a good example of what this Remake does best in terms of narration and writing — namely to deepen and reinvent scenes that nostalgic fans know by heart, thanks to a multitude of dynamic dialogues and small, never-before-seen sketches.
The direct continuation with Chapter 2 and the stroll through Midgar's disaster-stricken streets is also frankly excellent, and is very persuasive. It makes you think that if the whole game stays on this path, you'll be amazed.
However, Final Fantasy VII Remake calms down very quickly after the Bombing Mission. The pace is dialled down to let you discover the extra content and new scenario arcs, some of which will clearly have repercussions on the both the following episodes and the overall plot of Final Fantasy VII.
The integration of these new elements is quite strange, not to mention chaotic. You'll be be surprised to see Roche just once in the main adventure, while the Ghosts still have a rather blurred impact on the plot.
This remake is the first episode of a grander title, containing only the Midgar arc of the original game. Back then, it was a handful of hours' worth of play — today, this section is spread out over 18 chapters, for around 35 hours all-in.
The question then arises — does it make sense? Well, the answer to that is yes and no. The additions to the script leave something to be desired (with a few exceptions), but this is all counterbalanced by all the moments in which Final Fantasy VII Remake delves into fan-service.
All the essential set-pieces of the Midgar section of the original are very well managed — we're thinking here of the transfigured and delirious Wall Market, or the final part of the adventure set in the monstrous Shinra building.
In any case, one thing is certain — we really want to see what happens next, despite these few mistakes.
When it comes to the cast, the conclusion is the same as for the game's overall writing — not all of the new characters make a good impression, while our group of five heroes burst onto the screen. A special care seems to have been given to each of them, and this gives a particularly tasty result.
The rare group moments — when the gang is finally 'complete' — are quite touching. They all interact naturally with each other, and you feel like they've known each other for years. It's a real success, and one that only predicts good things for future instalments.
The cast also succeeds on the villains' side — from the lecherous Don Corneo to the Shinra leadership, and encompassing the terrifying Sephiroth, it's perfectly well done. However, Leslie, Chocobo Sam, and the rest of the supporting cast can be annoying, and never manage to reach the level of the central protagonists.
The result is that matters linked to them come across as 'filler'. especially since some arcs don't hesitate to have this little world pass through places already visited. We would also have appreciated more time in the company of Biggs, Wedge, and Jessie, even if the latter does benefit from a dedicated chapter very early in the game.
All in, the members of AVALANCHE are under-used, despite a greater involvement and screen presence compared to their handful of lines in the original.
AVALANCHE is Back!
With the hardware system, summons, and a new action-oriented ATB gauge, you could have feared a bad mix of gameplay in Final Fantasy VII Remake. In the end though, Square Enix have won this gamble, and the result raises the genre to a whole new level with a flawless set of mechanics.
Far from simply button mashing, the game requires you to manage the skills and magic of three heroes, whom you can control on the fly at the press of a button. The use of any command consumes at least one charge of the ATB gauge, a bar that gradually fills up over time and which can be accelerated with basic physical attacks.
The whole philosophy behind the combat system is based on the analysis and exploitation of the enemy's weak point(s), while keeping an eye on the health and magic points of the party.
Taken straight from Final Fantasy XIII, the stun gauge rewards good timing or the right type of attack used on an enemy until that enemy goes into shock — which then multiplies damage by 160% (base) for a short period of time.
On paper this is a rather simple mechanic, but in practice it's infinitely more complex. You can uggle enemies intelligently using the different party members, optimize the stun gauge and increase its percentage with Tifa, and observe changes in the monsters' behavior all the while.
We already mentioned this in our preview, but we have to confirm it again here — battles are amazing. Even summons and their restricted use in boss fights are, in the end, very well integrated. Once the creature is on the field of battle, each party member is able to spend ATB charges to select one of its two attacks. That is, until the hourglass runs out and the summon departs with the gift of a spectacular final attack.
Almost the entirety of the endgame is centered around battles, as it consists of a more difficult 'New Game Plus' mode that will remove the MP boost and the use of consumables, while adding new boss attacks.
We would have preferred new quests or even new zones in Midgar, but this additional challenge is still very appealing, since it requires you to optimize your equipment and Materia.
Hard mode aside, the normal difficulty level is already very well balanced, so expect a few tense boss fights. Built in phases (often three) mean these long-lasting battles ensure they show and regularly feature unique mechanics.
We're not going to reveal too many of them here, but some duels might just give you some great moments of happiness.
You just don't change a recipe that works, and Square Enix had the right idea to keep the Materia system that made the original game a success. Each of these spheres is associated with a magic or a skill to be incorporated in the weapons and armor of our heroes. With the right Materia in hand, it's possible to create combinations for ever more varied uses in the field.
Combine area of effect with Restore, and all your characters will recover health points; mix elemental affinity with Fire to protect you more effectively from flame-based attacks or augment your weapon. As you fight, Materia will also accumulate experience points, evolving to unlock more advanced spells — that will cost more MP and take longer to charge.
This system, which was already powerful in the original, has lost none of its beauty today. Remake does not hesitate to push the delirium a little further, with a skill tree for each weapon in the game and dedicated skills to master in order to be able to use them indefinitely.
You don't need to spend three hours in the menus, and the sober interface is not overloaded with information. We'll put a slight dampener on the weapon cores — they're not necessarily pleasant to browse, but it is possible to automate the expenditure of these points according to three presets.
Finally, the level cap is reached very quickly, since it's locked at 50 for this first episode. This is quite logical from a plot point of view, but terribly frustrating from a gameplay perspective — if you want to reach 9999 HP, then you'll need to use stat-boosting Materia like HP Up and MP Up.
This is by far the biggest black mark against the game. With a densely populated city such as Midgar, you wouldn't necessarily expect to have an open-world and wide open spaces to explore, but still the level design of some areas is a bit scary.
Imagine the corridors of Final Fantasy XIII, but with large circular areas on the map indicating the arenas where the next battles will take place. It's not subtle, and it even harms the fun of exploring the game by revealing in advance the location of future encounters.
The most convincing example of this is the alley leading to Aerith's house, with a large arena full of earth and a green setting that is very closely matched to the rest of the arena.
This gives the impression that the developers first thought about the game's battles and everything that will probably go on between each episode, leaving the construction of certain areas and the overall structure of the game in the background.
The same goes for the few motorbike phases, which are without any real depth and that you can just skip in New Game Plus. We expected more here, and finally it's the squat duel that turns out to be the most fun minigame.
Square Enix recently claimed that each zone has 'unique' gameplay — unfortunately, this isn't the case for two thirds of your adventure. Lowering the water level in sewers, or lowering footbridges in a warehouse — it's hard to make that exciting, and yet everything is more or less at this level.
Luckily, the last few hours catch up a bit, when having more fun with party compositions. Although this doesn't solve everything, the bulk is assured, with good surprises and many rewards for the most curious. These include new cutscenes for the mercenaries, who display heart in helping the residents of the slums.
The 26 side quests are scattered throughout the game, and if you leave them out, you'll have to wait until you've finished the game before you can gain access to a chapter select and the opportunity to play them again. A strange choice, this.
Production and Soundtrack
It has already written that Final Fantasy VII Remake is the new technical benchmark for the JRPG genre, but in the end the title just barely made it to the top. This is thanks to a rather hallucinating number of drooling, unloaded and/or low-definition textures.
To tell the truth, even the reflections in the mirrors seem to be too greedy for the console's resources, and in the end display only blurry shapes. The same observation goes for the surface of water, which can even harm the readability of some enemy attacks in some cases.
The game screams its need for the PS5's SSD to properly load textures and display backgrounds, without having the impression of looking at PNGs at a resolution too low to be believed.
Still on the technical side, Square Enix appear to have decided to limit loading screens, by hiding them within those famous 'narrow passage' phases. Cloud advances incredibly slowly, while the next zone is loading — there are too many of them, it breaks the rhythm, and can even lessen the desire to explore an area thoroughly.
If you're patient, we can't advise you to wait until the end of PS4 exclusivity, and then play on a PC or next-gen console for what we hope will be optimal comfort. The game remains visually very appealing thanks to the artistic direction, and the modeling of the main characters is impeccable. Also, the pyrotechnical effects and more generally the lighting of the game are splendid, which makes the technical flaws mentioned all the more frustrating.
Perhaps the editors had to make a choice, sacrificing resolution in favor of framerate — which is flawless. The 30 frames per second are held all the way through on a PS4 Pro, even when the screen is saturated with special effects.
And then, there is the soundtrack. Expansive, varied, sometimes incredibly daring, but which always ends up hitting the right note.
It's clear that some players will not adhere to some of the OST's biases, but for our part, we found that the delirium of Masashi Hamauzu and Mitsuto Suzuki fit very well with the city of Midgar.
It's crazy — even though we're playing a game that was created 23 years ago, we still want to forgive it for its youthful mistakes.
With its excellent next-gen combat and all the iconic sequences of the original Midgar arc, enhanced and improved, Final Fantasy VII Remake is a very good game, but is one that unfortunately trips itself up trying to do too much.
Its structure, which transports us ten years back in time, its stammering technique which interrupts the immersion, and some dubious additions to the plot, all manage to dissipate the blissful smile we would have liked to have kept throughout this first episode in the remade series.