If you want a picture of where this console generation is going and where it's been, look no further than Final Fantasy 7 Remake for the PlayStation 4. The graphics for this long-awaited RPG are guaranteed to make you gasp "Whoa!" like '80s Keanu Reeves most of the time. On the flipside, there are undeniably occasions where you mutter "Whoa" like someone who nearly stepped on a pile of puke lying on the sidewalk.
Final Fantasy 7 Remake is a tale of two visual extremes. One minute you're looking at the most stunning game ever built, and the next you're looking at a coffee cup built with five polygons or a plain brown wall that looks like it got a Vaseline rub-down.
As expected, Digital Foundry has an excellent technical breakdown of Final Fantasy 7 Remake. Digital Foundry's video goes deep into the tricks Square Enix uses to make the game look so good, and heaps praise on its clever use of motion blur. That said, Digital Foundry doesn't hold back while examining Final Fantasy 7 Remake's problems with pop-in and poorly defined textures. These issues are especially notable when Cloud runs through an area like the slums, and the structures' textures only load a couple of seconds after he stops. Digital Foundry admits it doesn't know if the texture problems are related to a bug, or another problem. (The comments are filled with people pointing out that Unreal Engine 4, which Final Fantasy 7 Remake is built on, is notorious for texture issues.)
The inconsistencies in Final Fantasy 7 Remake's graphics are sometimes strong enough to pull you out of the experience. When you're in a visually busy place like the heart of Midgar, you're less likely to notice issues like Cloud's weird, low-res apartment door. (I honestly didn't notice until Digital Foundry pointed it out.) But when you're off fighting enemies in a closed-in area where textures repeat again and again, it becomes easier to notice blurry walls and unimpressive renderings of pipes, wires, or other objects that exist to fill in dead space.
There aren't many opportunities to interact with the background, either. Cloud can slash at boxes marked with the Shinra logo to collect power-ups, but otherwise his environment is quite static. When I enter an area with open locker doors, for example, I'm disappointed when I hit the doors and they fail to swing on their hinges.
Mind, I'm not at all disappointed in Final Fantasy 7 Remake's graphics; its triumphs far outweigh its disappointments. The first time I entered the Sector 7 slums and saw Midgar's infamous plate lit up above Cloud like an urban starscape, a small thrill went down my spine. Sector 7 by itself is a perfectly built rendition of what I always imagined the slums to be like. People weave through narrow corridors while traveling to ramshackle homes and shops constructed from sheet metal, woods, and scraps. There are no roads, no sidewalks; just trash-strewn paths that get you from point A to point B.
I've long said that Midgar's unique layout helped show off the technological leap from 16-bit RPGs that gave us towns made from copy-and-pasted templates. Final Fantasy 7 Remake is another leap over the original game's static pre-rendered settings. Not only does Midgar look wonderful, it genuinely feels alive. Yes, there is pop-in and muddiness, and yes, it sometimes stops me in my tracks and makes me say "Yikes," but it's never enough to dull my sense of wonder. I can move and fight without getting stuck for three seconds at a time. That's what matters most to me.
Besides, whatever else I have to say about Final Fantasy 7 Remake's graphics, I have no complaints about hitching or slowdown. Everything runs at a near-perfect 30 FPS, even when I'm surrounded by a dozen enemies or up against a hulking boss. If Square Enix is indeed compromising texture definition for a smooth battle experience, I'm down. Let's admit it, the PlayStation 4 is an old man. Its once-remarkable processing power is looking a little wheezy next to the spec reveals for the new console generation. It's hard to believe, but Final Fantasy 7 Remake might be giving us a glimpse of the truth.
In that sense, I don't believe these low-res interludes are a sign that Square Enix has gotten "lazy." I don't understand programming on any level—the only language I learned was Hypercard in 1995, and that's long since faded from my memory—but I feel like Final Fantasy 7 Remake is giving us a necessary compromise. It rarely drops a frame, even on the original PlayStation 4. After struggling with the poor frame rate in the beautiful Ori and the Will of the Wisps, I'll endure a little visual jank for a consistent frame count.
In any case, there's a decent chance Square Enix will fix Final Fantasy 7 Remake's texture problems in a patch as it optimizes the game for the PlayStation 4's aging hardware. There's an even better chance Square Enix will string together all Final Fantasy 7 Remake's parts to make a mega-collection for the PlayStation 5 that includes some spiffed-up graphics. For now, gaze at Final Fantasy 7 Remake's visual misfortunes, but don't forget to spend equal time admiring its wonders; it does its best for what it has to work with.