Monday, 3 January 2022

Final Fantasy VII Remake Intergrade

Mercenary Cloud Strife is hired by Avalanche, a band of freedom fighters, in their mission to bring down Shinra, a powerful corporation which it believes is irreparably harming the planet by building energy reactors tapping into the planet's very life force. As Avalanche knocks out the reactors powering the huge city of Midgar, a greater threat is discovered. The enigmatic war hero Sephiroth has returned, with his own agenda that conflicts with that of both Avalanche and Shinra. As the conflict rages, it becomes clear that something is trying to throw destiny off course, and destiny itself is fighting back...

Originally released in 1997, Final Fantasy VII remains the most iconic game in the venerable Japanese roleplaying series. Other games in the series individually have better graphics, more interesting characters, more advanced controls or a stronger story, but none have perhaps succeeded in hitting every criteria as well as the seventh entry. The steampunk-magitech world remains one of the most compelling in the series, the story of a band of rebels fighting the evil (corporate) empire may be overly familiar but it is executed extremely well, and the way the story evolves from a low-key ecological parable to a ferocious fight for the future of the world remains gripping. Final Fantasy VII's status as iconic has survived a quarter of a century of attempted revisionism and re-releases, mobile ports and spin-off media of wildly varying quality.

Final Fantasy VII Remake is, as the name subtly hints, a full-blown remake of the original game in a modern game engine, rather than a more modest remaster. This is an absurdly ambitious project, since it was possible to make games in 1997 in a fraction of the time of modern titles, even a cutting-edge (for the time) 2D/3D hybrid with many thousands of pieces of background artwork and advanced CG cutscenes. Translating that into a modern, real-time, fully-3D game running at 4K resolutions seemed impossibly expensive, but Square Enix have managed to achieve it by splitting the game into three parts and turning each part into a full game rivalling the original in total content and playtime. Part 1 focuses on the city of Midgar, where you spent around 5-7 hours in the original game, or maybe 15-20% of the total length of the game, now extended out to about 35 hours of new gameplay. This has resulted in some predictable complaints, but practically there was no other real way of doing this project at this level of ambition.

That doesn't mean it's an unqualified success, of course, and Final Fantasy VII Remake spends most of its time imparting conflict feelings in the player, especially veterans of the original game. On the one hand, walking around inside environments from the original game, now rendered in stunning full 3D, gives a nostalgia rush like no other video game remake before it. The fidelity to the original game and the attention to detail is at times absolutely mind-boggling. Key moments include going into the 7th Heaven Bar for the first time, or especially Aerith's church, where it feels like the designers have directly stepped back in time and translated the original, pixilated 2D location into a full environment you can walk around in and interact with. However, at other times it feels like that designers have struggled to maximise the use out of these (very expensive) assets in an organic way, resulting in significant chunks of the game being slowed down by filler and makework.

The game's story remains the same as the original game's opening section: we join the action with an Avalanche cell led by Barret Wallace attacking a Mako reactor in Midgar. Cloud Strife has joined the team to lend his considerable combat expertise. After taking out the reactor, the team prepare for a second attack, but this one goes considerably wrong. The crew are framed for Shinra's subsequent retaliatory strike, which causes a large number of civilian casualties, and one of their number is kidnapped. They launch an attack on Shinra Headquarters to rescue their comrade and discover a much bigger threat is at work. After escaping the building, they find their path leads them out of Midgar and into the wider world.

Avalanche side-members Jessie, Wedge and Biggs are the biggest beneficiaries of Remake, all gaining substantial amounts of backstory, characterisation and their own side-quests.

Remake fleshes out this story in several respects. It "zooms in" and provides much finer levels of detail of the characters and events. The first and most obvious beneficiaries of this approach are the secondary Avalanche members: Jessie, Wedge and Biggs. In the original game they got maybe a few lines of character development and were then shoved aside to focus on the main cast. In Remake they have a lot more detail attached to them. You can visit their homes and discover that Jessie used to be a professional dancer and has a father with a terminal disease, whilst Wedge looks after his neighbourhood's cats and Biggs helps out at an orphanage. They have their own storylines and quests attached to them, which fleshes them out as characters. Their quests also add texture to the worldbuilding, especially the somewhat under-developed relationship between Barret's Avalanche cell and the rest of the organisation at large. These are all examples of excellent ways in which Remake fleshes out the original game and adds finer detail which extends the game's length in a constructive, enjoyable way.

A more important change is that Aerith is given a lot more to do in Remake, including having more background story and larger parts of the game where she joins Cloud on his missions (in the original game you had more control over selecting who is in your party, which Remake has not truck with, at least in this first part). Aerith's personality is defined a lot more and the vague hints of a possible love triangle in the original game with Cloud and Tifa are here reset to be a much more equal friendship between the three of them. Whilst all the characters benefit from more scenes of characterisation and dialogue, Aerith is by far the most-improved. Cloud probably benefits the least, since his stoic demeanour, apparent motivation only by money and possible PTSD from his time in the SOLDIER organisation are all traits they had to carry over from the original game. Since you control Cloud for about 95% of the game (bar a couple of sequences where you control two parties simultaneously, switching over to Tifa, Aerith or Barret at key moments), this leaves the game's main protagonist as a bit of a blank cipher.

Though you can't ride or breed them (yet), chocobos are present and correct in Remake.

In terms of controls, the game is definitely improved over the original. Seeing everything in 3D instead of from overhead in blocky 2D allows you to plot your next move better, and you can now see enemies on the map before engaging in battle (the original game would have you ambushed out of nowhere on a fairly regular basis). Battles are now real-time/turn-based hybrids where you can engage in real-time combat, carrying out minor attacks and blocking, whilst a two-stage time-bar fills up. This can be sped up by attacking or slowed down by dodging. Once a time stage activates, you can carry out special attacks, use magic or use an item. All three characters in battle have their own bars and you can flip between them on the fly. This can be useful since if a wounded character is too slow in filling up their time bar to heal themselves, you can flip to another character and get them to use healing magic or a potion on the wounded character first. Some special attacks and abilities require you to fill up both bars before using them.

As in the original game, there are a wide variety of enemy types. Some might be flying, making them difficult to hit with melee characters, which is where ranged characters come into their own. At certain points you trigger "limit breaks" (having taken x amount of damage or after a certain amount of time has passed) and can unleashed a massive, high-damage attack. You can also generate different types of attacks depending on elemental modifiers (electric, fire, cold etc), which is handy when you work out what weaknesses an enemy has. Finally, you can carry out "Summons" attacks, where you summon an otherworldly creature to fight for you. It has to be said that Summons are rather disappointing: the summoned character stays on the battlefield and carries out low-level attacks on the enemy before eventually disappearing in a big attack that does decent damage, but rarely outstanding. In the meantime you can use your time bars to trigger special attacks by the summoned entity, but half the time these do less damage then your own personal ability. You are also limited to one summons per battle, which feels limiting compared to the original game (where you could go crazy and unleash multiple summons in a row if you wanted to.

The new battle system is quite good, despite looking like a brainless button-mashing exercise on first glimpse, with deeper tactics and more innovative approaches emerging through experimentation. The game is helped by retaining the materia system from the original, where you can add magical abilities via the use of special crystals which are implanted in your weapons, armour or equipment. Each materia orb levels up on its own through use, unlocking more powerful abilities as it improves. Brand new to Remake is a system of upgrading your weapons over time, meaning your starting weapons can be kept relevant against high-level enemies rather than having to constantly swap them in or out. However, this system is somewhat flawed: in almost every case, keeping your starting weapon and improving it is preferable to picking up a brand new weapon. However, if you max out a weapon's upgrades, some of the weapon's abilities will be permanently added your arsenal even if you're not physically using the weapon at the time. This requires you to constantly be upgrading all your weapons for all four of the main characters through the game, which by the end becomes quite time-consuming (not helped by the unnecessary and time-consuming mini-animations accompanying the upgrades). Since it's unlikely you'll 100% upgrade a weapon in one playthrough (you'll probably need the New Game+ mode), it's also something you can completely ignore in favour of only upgrading your favoured weapon.

Cats play a surprisingly major role in the game, and there are absolutely tons of them.

So the graphics, controls and battles are improved and many side-characters and stories are improved by the game focusing more on them. The flaws do become more obvious over time. The game has added a stream of side-quests in hub areas. These correspond to the towns from the original game: the Sector 7 Slums (where Avalanche is based), the Sector 5 Slums (where Aerith lives) and Wall Market, a seedy town overseen by the extremely pervy and murderous Don Corneo. I was fully expecting the side-quests from these areas to be substantial storylines involving new characters, locations and stories in their own right. Unfortunately, I think I'd been spoiled by the likes of The Witcher 3 and Cyberpunk 2077, where side-quests are fleshed out be engrossing, gripping stories of their own. The comparative optional side-quests in Final Fantasy VII Remake are extremely brief, usually only calling on you to run around the local town picking up collectibles or fighting some enemies in a nearby area before running back.

Where, instead, the game gets its length from is by massively complicating the big story missions. So now the attack on Mako Reactor 5, which takes maybe 15 minutes in the original game, is now an absolutely massive rigmarole involving spending ages travelling through tunnels to get near the reactor, then ascending the underside of the reactor, then making your way across a huge area with moving bridges, switching mini-reactors on and off before you finally reach the reactor itself, which then incurs a massive series of battles and more running through corridors before the point of the story is reached. This is where the game almost kills its pacing stone dead, with throwing filler after filler at the player to try to maximise the game's length (and thus justify its fairly exorbitant cost). I very nearly stopped playing during such an interminable sequence.

Unexpectedly, Remake plays down the love triangle elements between Tifa, Cloud and Aerith from the original game, instead focusing more of Tifa and Aerith's friendship and Cloud's struggles to find acceptance.

Things do improve towards the end. Surprisingly, the attack on Shinra Headquarters, although similarly padded out immensely, works a lot better. The original game rushed through this plot-critical sequence and left some story and character beats feeling underdeveloped or vague, which is a problem that doesn't exist here. The internal political infighting between different branches of Shinra is spelled out better, the more interesting antagonists are fleshed out and you get to spend a lot more time working with Red XIII in this sequence then you did in the original game.

The story does go rogue at the very end. Throughout the game you have occasional encounters with weird ghostly figures, which, it turns out, are "Arbiters of Fate," trying to keep the timeline intact. At the end of the game there's a rather jarring and abrupt pivot to dealing with these characters, who did not exist in the original, and you realise that Final Fantasy VII Remake is also something of a sequel, as well as a retelling, of the original game. Given that OG FFVII doesn't exactly have the simplest or more straightforwards of stories, adding a new meta-narrative to the story doesn't really help it very much. As long as the whole thing is just a way of warning the player that things are not going to 100% unfold as they did in the original and the stakes are still valid, this is fine. If the sequels continue to disappear up their own posteriors in a Kingdom Hearts level of narrative confusion, that will be less interesting.

Both Cloud and Yuffie can use a VR simulator to hone their combat skills and gain access to powerful new Summons materia.

This edition of the game (Final Fantasy VII Remake Intergrade, and yes, that's its actual title) is enhanced by the addition of a new episode focusing on Yuffie. Probably the least-developed character in the original game, Yuffie here gets a dedicated, six-hour solo adventure as she arrives in Midgar, joins forces with a second Avalanche cell and raids Shinra HQ's Advanced Weapons division in search of a secret new form of materia. Much breezier and less "heavy" than the main game, with much fewer cutscenes and a better sense of pace, this episode is enjoyable and fun, with its irreverent tone coming as a relief after 30+ hours of Cloud brooding.

I should also make special mention of the game's soundtrack. Nobuo Uematsu's original soundtrack was already rightly considered a masterpiece, but the new edition's soundtrack elevates it to an even higher level. Old themes are reworked (often in multiple different ways), new themes are added and the resulting experience is maybe one of the very best video game soundtracks of all time. It's a genuine work of art.

As with the original, the Battle for the Sector 7 Pillar is one of Remake's setpiece highlights.

Final Fantasy VII Remake Intergrade (****) looks great, has fantastic music, a great battle system and much-improved controls compared to the original. Many of the storytelling and gameplay changes are improvements, resulting in better characterisation and storytelling. However, pacing is uneven, with well-judged new episodes and stories being let down by large chunks of padded, filler content that do nothing other than slow the story down. There's also an added new "metaplot" which is low-key in this part of the game, but threatens to go really weird and bizarre in the sequels. It's an odd choice that makes this remake in many ways a better experience for veterans of the original game rather than total newcomers. Final Fantasy VII Remake Intergrade is available now on PlayStation 5 and PC (Epic Store only), whilst the standard Remake edition is also available on PlayStation 4. Final Fantasy VII Remake Part II is currently in development, but it's unclear when it will be released.

Technical Note: I played this game on PC via the Epic Store-exclusive edition of the game. As has been widely reported elsewhere, this a bare-bones port of the original, very surprisingly given Square's comprehensive PC remasters and ports of other games including Final Fantasy XV. There are limited graphics adjustment options and the mouse/keyboard controls are more functional than instinctive to use, with particularly poor keybindings for using the map. However, for movement and combat the controls are fine. Technical performance on my aging 2060 graphics card was outstanding even on maximum detail (though without any ray tracing options, and only running at 1080p), though the game did keep defaulting to the wrong monitor and I kept having to drag it over at the start of every session. However, the game is phenomenally quick to start, going from being on the desktop to in-gameplay in less than 15 seconds. A more comprehensive port would be nice, but this gets the job done.

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