I've rarely had as much trouble with a review as I've had with Final Fantasy 7 Remake. This is the third time I've re-written this intro now, and I'm still not quite sure how to process what I just played. Do I love it? Am I Krusty the Clown with the cigarette going, "What the hell was that?" My feelings on this game are kind of all over the place right now.
Square Enix's long-awaited return to the world of Midgar is both beautiful and oddly dated, an exhilarating blockbuster that can also be a dull slog. It has a lot of highs, but there are points where it really labors to stretch what feels like a 15 to 20 hour story into 30. It'll hit you with a truly excellent setpiece or story sequence, only to allow the excitement to evaporate in the course of another interminable series of blank corridors and switch-pulling. It reminds me a little bit of The Hobbit, which is to say that it feels like a self-contained story, but also kind of has a case of trilogy creep.
I'll say this much for it: it sure doesn't play it safe, and I honestly can't hate Square Enix for being bold and experimental in an era of boilerplate blockbusters. Indeed, Final Fantasy 7 has always wanted to push boundaries in one way or another. The original messed with expectations from the very start, especially in its depiction of the badass hero archetype. In fact, that desire to break free from genre conventions was everywhere in the original Final Fantasy 7. Playing it again last year, I couldn't help noticing all the times that it tried to insert action setpieces or minigames to break up its turn-based combat. One moment you'd be fighting the Turks in Aerith's Church; the next you'd be in a snowboarding minigame. It was as if Square had always wanted to make a blockbuster action game, but couldn't quite work up the courage to abandon the formula that had made it so successful.
Final Fantasy 7 Remake fully breaks out of the restraints binding the original, with results that are at times reminiscent of a prestige action-adventure game like 2018's God of War. Gone are the time-consuming transitions of the past. When Cloud leaps off the train for the first time in Midgar, he sweeps effortlessly through a pair of guards waiting on the platform, and I have to admit that it feels pretty great. Brushing aside Shinra soldiers with Cloud's massive buster sword feels powerful and satisfying in a way that the series has rarely managed in the past.
The ensuing battle through the Shinra Mako Reactor is pretty much a beat-for-beat update of the original. Alongside Barret, the Mr. T-like leader of an eco-terrorist group known as Avalanche, you fight your way through soldiers and robots to set a bomb and escape. The group's motivations are laid out in one of Barret's protracted elevator rants: Shinra is draining away the life force of the planet to power a massive city, and Avalanche is there to stop them. Cloud, a mysterious mercenary hired for the mission, feigns cool disinterest.
I'm on record as saying that this sequence is one of the greatest RPG intros ever, and Final Fantasy 7 Remake clearly doesn't want to mess with what works, at least not at first. It firmly establishes the heroes, the villains, the stakes. It retains the classic shot in which Cloud tilts his head to stare at the smokestack looming above, fully driving home the enormity of the task ahead of him. It culminates in an exciting multi-part battle with a giant robot scorpion in which you have to put the individual skills of both Cloud and Barret to good use—the perfect tutorial fight.
It was at this point that I was thinking to myself, "Okay, yes. Final Fantasy 7 Remake gets it. It's on point. This is exactly what I wanted." I was especially surprised to find myself enjoying the battle system, which is messy but never too messy, and seems keen to avoid the dull repetition typical of hack-and-slash combat. Attacking enemies builds up an Active Time Battle (ATB) gauge, which can be spent on powerful character-specific skills. Cloud and Barret, and later Tifa and Aerith, all have their own strengths and weaknesses, and it's easy to smoothly switch between them as necessary.
The combat evolves apace as you acquire new weapons, magical orbs called Materia that grant access to magic spells, and powerful summon attacks. It smartly allows you to automate functions like healing with new Materia, which might otherwise feel cumbersome in an action-based system, but here offers a surprising degree of customization. Actually, I'm surprised by the complexity of Final Fantasy 7 Remake's systems in general. You can upgrade individual weapons with stat boosts, equip Materia that gives your ATB bar an early push, and acquire unique summons through special VR missions.
It feels like it offers the right compromise between old and new—satisfying old-school fans while upgrading the combat in a meaningful way. Battles require a decent amount of finesse and planning, as even basic enemies frequently have specific weaknesses that need to be exploited, but also move at a breathless pace. I was pretty worried going in that Final Fantasy 7 Remake's combat would be a mess, but Square Enix has done a really good job of crafting a system that provides a lot of interesting options while remaining accessible.
Once exiting the Mako Reactor, Final Fantasy 7 Remake takes the pace down and starts to reveal some of its central mysteries. Who is the man with long silver hair who keeps appearing in Cloud's visions? Why is Cloud flashing back to a town in flames? What's the deal with the weird Dementor-like ghosts that keep popping up in Midgar? Its story progression is linear and straightforward, gently guiding you from one story setpiece to the next, only occasionally turning you loose in small hub areas to take on a series of minimal side quests.
This is where it starts to fall apart a bit for me. In confining the first part of the remake to the original game's opening section—did I mention it's only the first part? Because it sure isn't clear from the marketing—Final Fantasy 7 Remake should theoretically be a radical expansion of the original game. While I can definitely say that it's longer, about 30 hours all told, its side quests are mostly of the old "collect the item, kill the enemy" variety.
Admittedly, Final Fantasy 7 Remake isn't alone in its frankly archaic approach to side quest design. Lots of JRPGs, from Xenoblade Chronicles to Dragon Quest 11, persist in using the old "do a job to help a person" conceit. Mostly, they're boring timewasters designed to artificially pad the total amount of content. In an ideal world, Square Enix would have crafted more elaborate multi-part side quests in a bid to tell new stories within the world of Midgar. Instead, you clear rats out of a factory. While I enjoy the coliseum and the multitude of extra boss fights that round out the optional content, it feels like a missed opportunity to engage in some more of the worldbuilding that Square Enix has been promising.
This approach unfortunately feeds into the nagging feeling that Final Fantasy 7 Remake is one five hour quest that's been bloated into 30 hours, which it obviously is. Imagine if The Witcher 3's White Orchard area were expected to support a full game. Square Enix adds whole new areas, vastly expands its dungeons, and introduces new characters, but it still feels limited in some ways by its source material. Better side quests would have helped in that regard.
Still, Final Fantasy 7 Remake does have its moments. One of my favorite new sections gives you a glimpse of "topside"—the affluent neighborhoods of Midgar occupied by Shinra employees. It's a marked contrast to the slums, shanty towns, and industrial areas that dominate the rest of the city, dramatically highlighting the massive class disparity that is a core theme in Final Fantasy 7. It's part of one of the very best quests in the game, doubling as an opportunity to learn more about Avalanche members Biggs, Wedge, and Jessie, who barely rate more than a few lines of dialogue in the original game.
The core cast, it should be said, is great. After an extended stint as a dour, one-dimensional badass in Kingdom Hearts, Cloud is back to being a dork who is desperately trying to play himself off as cool. Barret's deep affection for his daughter, Marlene, comes through in several sweet little moments. Tifa and Aerith strike up a quick friendship, and their rapport is wonderful. Moments like Tifa and Aerith cheerfully high-fiving while Cloud skulks awkwardly in the background are exactly what I always wanted from Final Fantasy 7 Remake.
Other additions are excellent as well. Wall Market, a den of vice home to Midgar's criminal underbelly, channels the crazed energy of the Yakuza series. Sector 5 and Sector 7 feel like more fully fleshed out neighborhoods thanks to a handful of recognizable residents who pop up throughout the story. Before you embark on your final quest, Final Fantasy 7 Remake lets you roam through these neighborhoods at will, with Chocobos available for fast-travel.
It's in areas like these that Final Fantasy 7 Remake delivers on its potential. They build on the established lore, deepening the world in ways that feel thoughtful and organic. It's bolstered by often beautiful graphics powered by Unreal Engine 4—though again, there's a catch. Final Fantasy 7 Remake's environments are rigid and not particularly interactive, and its low-quality NPCs feel jarringly dissonant when placed next to the beautifully detailed core cast. Still, that doesn't detract from the level of detail found in areas like the Wall Market, Aerith's Church, and the flower garden. When the narrow industrial corridors and sewers that dominate much of the game give way to the open air, the results are astounding.
Alas, you spend a lot of time navigating those sewers and corridors, which is where Final Fantasy 7 Remake's padding is most apparent. Mako Reactor 5, which comprises maybe 20 to 30 minutes of the original game, took me close to four hours to complete. That's a whole afternoon spent pulling switches, climbing ladders, and navigating endless catwalks. They feel like God of War's tiresome traversal puzzles on steroids, and they're perhaps the greatest symptom of Final Fantasy 7 Remake's tendency toward content for the sake of content.
That pretty much sums up Final Fantasy 7 Remake's comparative strengths and weaknesses in my mind. In broad strokes, it's really good, with entertaining combat, a largely self-contained and interesting story, and a beautiful world. Oh, and its soundtrack? So good. So good.
Nevertheless, without going too deeply into spoilers, Final Fantasy 7 Remake leaves me feeling deeply conflicted. When Mike and Senior Editor Caty McCarthy asked me what I thought my score would be, my first reaction was to say, "I'm between a Four and a Negative Four Billion." One of the key additions—you didn't think this would be a straight remake, did you?—is carefully set up throughout the story, but the specific conceit doesn't really fit the themes of Final Fantasy 7. Actually, it feels more in keeping with Director Tetsuya Nomura's other series, Kingdom Hearts, which has long made needless complexity an artform.
It's made it genuinely hard for me to put a score to this review, on top of everything else. Truthfully, it's not really the approach I wanted or expected, but like I said, I can't really begrudge Final Fantasy 7 Remake being bold in an era of incredibly safe blockbusters. I just wish the execution were better.
I suppose I'll end on a positive note. Final Fantasy 7 Remake is the most coherent and enjoyable Final Fantasy game in years. It adapts and improves upon the original in ways that I genuinely really like, and it at least leaves me interested to see where it all goes next. If we're very lucky, Square Enix may even be able to stick the landing.
And if they don't, I guess I'll always have the original.
Final Fantasy 7 Remake sets out to fully re-imagine a classic RPG with improved combat and an expanded story. Unfortunately, it's hurt by weak side quests and a surplus of padding, and its biggest change is bound to be controversial. It's one of the most coherent and enjoyable Final Fantasy releases in years, but it's also likely to be one of the most divisive.