Final Fantasy VII Remake

I entered a Best Buy store with my father and sibling one evening in 1997, hoping to pick up a new game for my Sony PlayStation. It was there that I discovered what I can only describe as a cardboard shrine that had been constructed in honor of the hottest new game, Final Fantasy VII.

I’d maybe heard of the Final Fantasy franchise at that point, but I certainly hadn’t paid much attention to it. But when I first spotted that shrine in the middle of a fluorescent-lit Best Buy store, I could tell right away that there was something special about Final Fantasy VII. Maybe it was the minimalist-yet-confident cover art — a white background and a dude with a giant sword who is staring up at an ominous sci-fi-looking building. Or maybe it was just the fact that so much space had been dedicated to a single game, with perhaps a hundred copies stacked in a tower on a table. The launch of Final Fantasy VII, which I didn’t even know about before entering the store, suddenly felt like an important cultural landmark.

I remember being absolutely astonished at the fact that this game’s content took up not one, not two, but three whole discs. This game must be enormous, I thought. (I wasn’t wrong to assume that; my first playthrough clocked in at around 80 hours.)

So that was the game I spent my money on that evening. And, oh man, I can’t even begin to explain the impact that Final Fantasy VII had on me in the weeks that followed. This game forced me to completely deconstruct my preconceived idea of what video games were capable of doing as a storytelling medium.

Final Fantasy VII Remake

If I were to make a list of the best 20 video games of all time, I wouldn’t even consider excluding Final Fantasy VII from it. So I’m going to be super biased in my opinion of Final Fantasy VII Remake. There’s just no way to be objective about something that meant this much to me back when I was young.

But Final Fantasy VII Remake is, in my opinion, one of the best games of 2020.

I know the current version of Remake isn’t even the whole game; it’s just the opening bit that takes place in Midgar (perhaps the first five or six hours of the original game, though extended here into a 40-plus-hour game experience). Yet the city feels so alive. Characters we barely got the chance to know in the original (like Wedge, Biggs, and Jessie) have fully fleshed-out story arcs, complete with backstories and believable motivations. Jessie in particular has a lot of screen time in the early parts of the game, as Wedge does later on.

But getting to spend more time with Aerith Gainsborough is probably the highlight of the game for me. Part of this is because she’s designed to be the game’s ultimate crush (whether you’re crushing on her yourself or shipping her with Cloud). And they’ve done a really, really good job of making her the sort of person who draws you in. She’s super cute, yet with this aura of mystery and perhaps a deep sadness beneath her stylish 1990s aesthetic (yeah, the pink skirt with Doc Martin boots is undeniably late-90s). She seems a bit childlike at first, but once you get to know her better, you realize that this bubbly exterior belies the fact that she’s carrying the weight of an ancient secret on her shoulders.

Final Fantasy VII Remake

Not only is she brilliantly animated and incredibly well-written, but the voice acting is absolutely perfect. When I learned that they’d hired someone (Briana White) who was mostly known as a streamer before landing this role, I was shocked. Listening to how well Briana White becomes Aerith is simply astonishing. I assume White has a really long and prosperous career ahead of her, because she has ridiculous amounts of talent.

Of course, there’s a part of me that wonders if several playthroughs of the original game have conditioned me to cherish every moment I get to spend with Aerith, because those will be fleeting. (They might not be in this version, though, as Final Fantasy VII Remake‘s ending implies that we’re going to be breaking free from the events of the original game in subsequent chapters.) It’s possible that I’ve been paying closer attention to her story sequences because of the complex relationship FF7 veterans have with her character. I don’t know for sure.

What I do know is that Final Fantasy VII Remake, as a whole, is a masterpiece of video-game storytelling, but in a different way than the original was. Remake doesn’t reinvent the wheel so much as it refines it.

Final Fantasy VII Remake

It’s not a perfect game. I won’t pretend that it is. Many of the side quests feel tedious and poorly implemented, taking you out of the game world rather than immersing you in it more deeply. While the ones with longer quest chains do add something minor to the story (the Angel of the Slums, and Johnny’s story, primarily), most of them feel like they’re only there to stretch the game experience rather than add anything meaningful to it.

And holy sweet Chocobo, the Hell House fight.

Okay, so I should maybe point out here that I beat the Hell House three times, and two of those times were on Hard Mode (which is required if you want to get the Platinum Trophy). Yes, it’s doable; it’s just difficult. This fight requires you to be fully equipped with a vast range of spells and to pay really close attention to visual cues. The Hard Mode version also spawns in Tonberries, which are maybe the Final Fantasy franchise’s most obnoxious enemy type.

But the difficulty isn’t even the biggest problem with the Hell House fight. It comes in the middle of a really, really long story chapter, when I actually feel like it should maybe have gotten its own chapter — or, the battle arena in general should have been one chapter, with the Hell House as the climax of that chapter. I do think that Chapter 9 could have been three full chapters, which would have made subsequent attempts at beating the Hell House more manageable. (Preparation is one of the keys to beating this fight, especially since you’re not allowed to use items or restore your MP at benches in Hard Mode). The way it’s currently implemented, it wrecks the pacing of Chapter 9 completely.

Final Fantasy VII Remake

But enough about the Hell House. There’s too much that’s great about this game to focus so heavily on the parts that are flawed (even if those flaws are substantial). All things considered, this was one of the most memorable games of the year for me.

I invested almost 200 hours into Final Fantasy VII Remake in 2020, enough time to earn the Platinum Trophy. Even then, I’m sad that it ended as soon as it did. I hope that future episodes of this game will continue to build on what the first one attempted to do without getting too far away from the spirit of the original PSOne game.

But no matter what happens in the future, I’m happy to see that Final Fantasy VII continues to be relevant 23 years after its initial release. In retrospect, Best Buy was right to treat the original 1997 launch as a landmark cultural event, as the game’s legacy is still alive in 2020. And if you ask me, Final Fantasy VII Remake is a worthy celebration of that legacy.

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