I have completed Final Fantasy 7 Remake, and I can still barely process what I just saw. I will now attempt to explain the plot of the entire ending of the remake, but it will probably break me. Still, I will do my best. Read on for an explanation of what exactly happened at the end of Final Fantasy 7 Remake.
Spoiler Warning: There are full spoilers for the ending of Final Fantasy 7 Remake ahead, you've been warned!
Well, where to start. In the final two chapters of Final Fantasy 7 Remake, Cloud, Barret, and Tifa infiltrate the Shinra HQ building in Midgar to rescue Aerith. They climb the building all the way to the labs of the semi-deranged Shinra scientist Hojo, who wants to force Aerith, a descendant of the gods (called "Ancients") that used to live on Gaia, to reproduce with an ideal candidate.
Shinra's entire goal in the remake is to make it to the "promised land," a place that they believe the Ancients ascended to after abandoning Gaia. They believe Aerith can finally lead them to this fabled land, as they plan to abandon Midgar altogether. Cloud and company reach Hojo's labs and rescue Aerith, along with Red XIII, a dog-like creature of enigmatic origin who can speak in the human tongue.
Cloud, Barret, Tifa, Aerith, and the newly-recruited Red XIII push up the monolithic Shinra HQ to a lab containing the body of Jenova, an extraterrestrial being who Cloud identifies as "mother." Sephiroth appears and splits the group up, leaving them to fight through Hojo's sadistic trials and eventually regroup at Jenova's cell, to find the being gone and a trail of ectoplasm leading out and up the building to the President's office.
Arriving at the Shinra President's office, Barret rescues the President from falling to his death (Sephiroth's doing, no doubt), but is then held at gunpoint by the President. Sephiroth appears and impales the President, Barret tries to shoot Sephiroth but is halted by the reappearance of the Whispers, new-to-the-series spectral hooded figures who have doggedly pursued Cloud and company throughout the entire game. Seemingly killing Barret, Sephiroth transports the group to an extravagant boss arena, where they fight and defeat the reincarnated form of Jenova.
Defeating Jenova, Barret regains consciousness, somehow being saved by the Whispers. Cloud pursues Sephiroth out onto the roof of Shinra HQ, but is prevented from fighting him by the Whispers. Sephiroth escapes with the body of Jenova, then Rufus Shinra, the vengeful son of the former President, arrives via helicopter. Forcing Barret, Tifa, Aerith, and Red XIII to descend the building and escape, Cloud fights and overcomes Rufus, who flees via chopper.
Our heroes regroup at the ground floor of Shinra HQ, where Cloud appears with an incredibly flashy Hardy-Daytona motorbike, and the rest of the group bundle into a cutesy three-wheeler truck. Gunning it down the highway away from Shinra HQ, which has become completely shrouded by a horde of the Whispers, our group flees Shinra troops on motorbikes. (Leaving me to wonder: Does Shinra have a dedicated motorbike division?) Back at Shinra HQ, Rufus ascends to the Presidency, while realizing he's the only one out of his lackeys that can see the Whispers.
Change Your Fate
Here's where things get really complicated. At the end of the unfinished highway, Sephiroth appears and challenges the group to follow him through a portal, leading god knows where. Entering another dimension through the portal, the group fight the very source of the Whispers, one gigantic being that controls fate itself.
It turns out the Whispers are the literal hands of fate, reaching out throughout the game to prevent people doing things they were never fated to do. So when they saved Barret from Sephiroth, it's because he was never meant to die then and there, and when they prevented Cloud and Barret from stopping Rude separating the Sector 7 Plate earlier in the game, it's because the plate was fated to fall and kill thousands.
The fate that the Whispers are desperately trying to enforce is the story of the original Final Fantasy 7. Sephiroth has somehow seen this fate play out in its entirety, knowing that if the events of the original Final Fantasy 7 unfold as fate wishes it, he will be defeated by Cloud just as he was in the original game. Therefore Sephiroth baits the party into the alternate dimension through the portal on the highway, and gets them to slay the source of the Whispers.
Defeating the Whispers once and for all, every character is unshackled from their fate in the original game. At the conclusion of Final Fantasy 7 Remake (part one), it's made clear that the events of the original game are in fact an alternate timeline, one which Sephiroth is acutely aware of. Now freed from the grasp of fate, both the characters and us as the audience have no idea where the next part of the remake will go, because this has become an alternate timeline where the events of the original game presumably never happen.
Does the Big Meta Twist Work?
It's very meta, and I still can't decide if I like it or not. It's actually clever from a storytelling standpoint, in how it uses the original game and player's expectations as a springboard to tell its own story. Cloud and company are basically struggling against the ghosts of the past game, which are represented by… well… actual ghosts. Instead of feeling like it's bound to tell the same story with the same events as the original as everyone expects the studio to, it wants to usher the familiar characters in a different direction. It's unique, I'll give it that, but also very heavy handed stuff.
Oh, I almost forgot about Zack. At the very (very) end of the game, a mysterious young man with jet black hair and Cloud's Buster Sword appears a short way outside of Midgar, which has been completely enveloped by the Whispers. Fighting off an entire battalion of Shinra troops, the mysterious character makes it out alive, staggering toward Midgar with a comatose Cloud by his side. The pair pass by Cloud, Tifa, Barret, and Red XIII, signifying that Zack and Cloud's story unfolded in the past.
This newbie is Zack Fair, protagonist of Crisis Core: Final Fantasy 7, a PSP prequel to the original Final Fantasy 7. In Crisis Core, Zack was originally overcome by his injuries, bequeathing his Buster Sword to the barely-conscious Cloud as he died on the outskirts of Midgar. The breaking of fate in Final Fantasy 7 Remake makes it clear that Zack is very much still alive and well, and one can assume we'll be seeing him in future entries of the Final Fantasy 7 Remake.
One last thing: In a twist of fate, Biggs is still alive, though Jessie stays dead, and Wedge's fate remains unclear. Apparently having somehow survived having an entire sector of a city dropped on him, Biggs awakens in the Sector 5 orphanage near Aerith's house. I have absolutely zero idea how Biggs survived, since he died during the events of the plate drop in the original Final Fantasy 7, and the chains of fate were still intact when he was meant to die in the remake. Perhaps looking for logic here is a fool's errand, but this is still a little plot hole any way you look at it.
And that's it! It took about 30 hours to complete, but we got there eventually. Where things go from here in the next installment of Final Fantasy 7 Remake really is anyone's guess. It's very clear that the next part of the remake will not be retelling the events of the original game: Cloud and co. are now far and away in another plane of existence. It's an exciting storytelling opportunity, I suppose, but there's absolutely no denying that this ending was handled with all grace and elegance of Kingdom Hearts' hard-to-follow plot (as Kat noted in her review). I'm looking at you, Tetsuya Nomura.