Like many people, I started a new game of Final Fantasy 7 when it dropped on Nintendo Switch around this time last year. I did so out of love and nostalgia for the original, but I wasn't sure how long I would stick with it. Previous attempts to replay Final Fantasy 7 through the years had mostly been met with failure, as the old-school graphics would get to be too much and I would bounce.
This time was different though. Given the emotional distance afforded by time, the visuals felt charming and nostalgic rather than outdated; the art was expressive, the cast charming. I was especially impressed by the often haunting atmosphere, which was backed by Nobuo Uematsu's mournful soundtrack. It no longer felt archaic. It felt grand in scope, and surprisingly emotional.
From this point forward I will be referring to events that take place in the early hours of both Final Fantasy 7 and the remake. While I will try and avoid overt spoilers wherever possible, please take warning.
I remember being struck by Aerith's first appearance, which comes very early on. After an action-packed escape from the Mako Reactor—for my money one of the best opening sequences in gaming history—the music becomes melancholic, heightening Cloud's sense of isolation. The streets are mostly empty save for Aerith (referred to only as "Flower Girl"), who asks if you'd like to buy one of her flowers. The encounter ends in an instant, but it's an important moment that establishes the bond between Cloud and Aerith, laying the groundwork for their subsequent relationship.
When I arrived at that moment in Final Fantasy 7 Remake during my playthrough, I immediately noticed the differences. Instead of empty streets, the area around the Mako Reactor is filled with rescue workers, reporters, and sobbing children. You can see the reactor itself burning in the distance as you climb down from the rooftops. The Avalanche team wonders if they're indeed the baddies for wreaking so much havoc, and Barrett chastises them: "Y'all gotta look at the bigger picture here. Nothing worth fighting for was ever won without sacrifice."
The chaos is peppered with scattered flashbacks, as well as one very specific vision of Sephiroth—all of which are seemingly intended to establish one of the story's central mysteries. When you finally bump into Aerith, it's once again a very brief sequence; if you choose to buy a flower, she'll pin it on Cloud's chest. But then, for no reason that I can really discern, she's chased off by dark ghosts resembling the Dementors from Harry Potter, as briefly seen in one of the earlier trailers.
All of this leaves me with just one question: Did Final Fantasy 7 Remake accidentally ruin one of the most iconic scenes in gaming history?
The Remake's Dilemma
Moments like these hit at the problem faced by remakes. You may recall Gus Van Sant's empty remake of Psycho, which was famously a shot-by-shot recreation of Alfred Hitchcock's original. Critics ridiculed it as slow, stilted, and ultimately pointless. The ultimate goal of a remake is to take the themes of the original and expand upon them while addressing the previous work's weaknesses.
Square Enix seems keenly aware of this prerogative as it takes on the monumental task of remaking one of the most beloved RPGs ever. Many aspects are already very different from the original: the combat, the character designs, the boss battles. But it also seeks to retain the charm of the original. The characters have been updated, but they still have that 90s anime flair to them, and the writing is often unapologetically cheesy. On the face of it, it's exactly the update everyone wanted.
Most of the changes ultimately make sense. I mean, of course the neighborhood around the Midgar Reactor is in complete chaos. Why wouldn't it be? Amid the screams, there's a subtle but really great moment where the camera pans up on the bombed out reactor smokestack, reprising a shot from the original game, but in a new light. Moments like these really speak to the power of Final Fantasy 7 Remake to reinvent the classic vision of the original.
The original Final Fantasy 7 was very good at hitting the quieter moments. I think of the journey through Midgar's train graveyard, in which the bones of rusted out trains hinted at the way Shinra was aggressively discarding the past; or Aerith sliding through an abandoned playground while bonding with Cloud. These moments are apt to be in the remake, but will Square Enix let these sequences breathe? Or will they try and cram in unwanted additions like Aerith getting chased by dark spirits?
Aerith's messy, confusing first meeting with Cloud makes me worry there will be more of the latter than I'd like. My overarching impression of Final Fantasy 7 Remake is that it's chaotic. Everything from the combat, where you have to manage three characters in real-time, to the panic in the streets, feels breathless; the quieter moments that made the original so special aren't as evident.
I expect this has a lot to do with how storytelling has evolved in the two decades since Final Fantasy 7 was first released. These days, the pacing of movies like Alien, Godfather, and even the original Star Wars is considered glacial. Movies and games are longer than ever, but viewers expect them to get to the point. If you can weave your exposition into a big set piece, then so much the better. Just look at last year's Rise of Skywalker—a movie where practically every moment is filled with someone running, battling in space, or getting into a lightsaber duel.
Some of it is for the better. There are bits in the original Final Fantasy 7, like most of the Wall Market, that really do feel slow. Still, I think there's a difference between tightening up the pacing, and adding action just for the sake of adding action. Right now, Cloud's first encounter with Aerith leans more toward the latter than I'd like.
Maintaining Final Fantasy 7's Mastery of the Melancholy
That brings me back to the original Final Fantasy 7, and its mastery of the melancholy. In its sadness, Final Fantasy 7 made Midgar come alive as one of the most iconic locations in gaming history. It's remarkable how effectively the original game illustrates the depression of Midgar's post-war slums—how everything is grey, shabby, and dark. When one of the more recent trailers showed Midgar looking up on an open sky, some expressed surprise. The original was just that oppressive.
Later, when you're running across the world map, the music isn't hopeful or adventurous like in other RPGs—it's sad. That overwhelming sense of sadness serves to both heighten its happier moments, and its more haunting ones. When contrasted against the grey of Midgar, the splash of green in Aerith's church is overwhelming. When you see the trail of blood leading out of the lab in Shinra HQ, you can't help feeling a chill. The atmosphere is bolstered by Uematsu's minimalist soundtrack, which can soar with emotion or be subtle and spooky when the situation demands it. It's a game that knows how to maximize the emotion of its setting, which is perhaps one reason that it's still so well remembered.
One thing that I think is especially interesting about Migar is how it feels self-contained. It's not until the very end of the opening act that we get even a hint of who Sepiroth might be—and even then all we see is a bloody sword. It's not until later that we get the full story through a lengthy flashback, which in turn serves to raise the stakes. As I mentioned before though, Final Fantasy 7 Remake seems to be in a much greater hurry to establish the stakes and the central villain. Is this the right decision? I'm not so sure.
I guess my greatest hope for Final Fantasy 7 Remake is that it manages to maintain the suspense, the melancholy, and the deep sense of mystery that defined the original. I hope we get to see the scene where Aerith's adopted mother watches as returning soldiers go to their loved ones, but she is alone. I hope we get a feel for the rhythm of life in Midgar without being hit with flashbacks every few steps. I hope when Cloud and Aerith sit on the playground equipment and talk, they aren't suddenly assaulted by ghosts.
Expanding on the original material comes with the territory for remakes, though; and with Final Fantasy 7 Remake being episodic, the pressure will be on to provide "value" to those who opt to buy in. The best case scenario is that we get to explore Midgar in its entirety while digging deeper into the basic themes that define it. The worst case scenario is that it succumbs to the pressure to be a blockbuster and lard up the story with action set pieces.
We'll know soon enough, I suppose. And if the worst case scenario does indeed become a reality, well, there's always the original, right? In any case, Final Fantasy 7 Remake will be out on PS4 on April 10.