"Final Fantasy 7 Remake is more than the sum of its parts," I recently told some friends in the games industry. We were in the midst of one of many long conversations about Square Enix's revival, which has pretty much dominated April's gaming discussion, and I was thinking about my review. Later, I told the rest of the USgamer team, "Final Fantasy 7 Remake might be the only 3.5 / 5 game that also makes my Game of the Year list."
It's pretty obvious that Square Enix has hit on something remarkable with Final Fantasy 7 Remake. Fans and critics alike have been extremely positive, praising its strengths while largely overlooking its weaknesses. It reminds me a little of the discourse around... gulp... Dark Souls (sorry), in which critics complaining about poor frame rate and wonky production values were shouted down by fans who unabashedly loved it. It's now regarded as one of the best games of the decade.
You may recall that I was one of Final Fantasy 7 Remake's more vocal critics when the review embargo dropped (even if I heaped plenty of praised on it as well). I expressed frustration with the pacing, the side quests, and the execution of the ending, bold as it was. I stand by those criticisms, too.
Funny thing, though: The further I get from my time reviewing Final Fantasy 7 Remake, the more I like it. Its weaknesses are falling to the back of my mind, and its strengths are coming to the fore. Sometimes I have an immediate, kneejerk opinion about a game, and it sticks. With Final Fantasy 7 Remake though, it's been almost a month, and I'm still reassessing my feelings.
Spoiler warning: The following section includes some spoilers for the latter portion of the story, though it doesn't explicitly spoil the ending.
Final Fantasy 7 Remake's first really special moment comes not in the Mako Reactor, or the immediate aftermath, but in Seventh Heaven—a Sector 7 bar that serves as Avalanche's home base. It's here that Tifa makes her first appearance, and we also get to see another side of Barret, who drops his big damn hero act once his daughter Marlene appears. A little later, Avalanche toasts a successful mission, but Cloud is not part of the festivities. He winds up drinking alone.
I've seen plenty of praise for this scene on social media. It solidifies Cloud's aloof nature, driving home his isolation in a way that over-the-top dialogue simply can't. It makes it all the more meaningful when Cloud eventually is invited along on the next mission, even if it's only because Jessie is injured.
If I were to praise one single element of Final Fantasy 7 Remake, it would be this. Square Enix deserves a huge amount of credit for the way that it manages to capture the essence of Cloud, Barret, Tifa, Aerith, and Red XIII; beloved characters whose primary depiction had previously come through rough polygons. Sure, we'd had spin-offs like Advent Children and Crisis Core, but reimagining the original story was a unique challenge, as evidenced by all the pre-release speculation about whether Square Enix would actually go through with the Wall Market scenes.
Final Fantasy 7 Remake answers this challenge by largely sticking to the established foundation of what makes the cast so appealing. Cloud is even more of a dork than before; his attempts to be cool betrayed by awkward body language and his gruff but frequently hilarious, "Whatever." Barret is a political firebrand and also a very large ham, which makes the moments when he becomes quiet all the more impactful. Tifa and Aerith immediately become best friends, and their charming rapport goes a long way toward making the sewer level bearable. (Look, I really didn't like the sewer level, okay?)
Somewhat later, Red XIII comes on the scene, bringing with him a tired kind of wisdom. I enjoyed the weary energy that voice actor Max Mittelman brought to the role, but I was even more entranced by the grace and fluidity with which Red XIII moved as he went to tear Hojo's throat out (incidentally, Square Enix totally nailed the creepy, lank-haired mad scientist vibe with Hojo). Oddly, Sephiroth might have been the least compelling of the bunch, if only because Square Enix stuck so closely to his depiction from the original game. He was there to smolder and speak in riddles, and not much else.
Final Fantasy 7 Remake's cast wind up elevating the whole game in much the same way that a great actor can rescue a middling script. Cloud, Aerith, Barret, and Tifa are all so fun that it's easy to forget that the dungeons last just a little bit too long; the environments are actually pretty repetitive, and the side quests are almost uniformly terrible. That's what I mean when I say that Final Fantasy 7 Remake is "more than the sum of its parts."
Nowhere is that more evident than in the spectacular Wall Market section, which contains what is bound to be gaming's best dance number of 2020. This is where rushing through a review can haunt you: I didn't even stop to consider that Cloud could probably have a much better dress. I should have figured, but I was suffering from tunnel vision, and it never crossed my mind.
Much later, I saw shots of Aerith wearing her spectacular red dress online, and all I could think was, "Wow, Square Enix really did an incredible job with the characters in this game." It almost made me want to boot up the Wall Market section and try to get the best possible outfit for myself, which is thankfully rather easy owing to the ability to select whichever chapter you want once the credits roll.
The Wall Market ultimately stands out in my memory because it's where the spotlight is firmly on the cast. There are a few other areas where this is the case as well—the journey topside with Jessie, Biggs, and Wedge; the moments following the collapse of the Plate—but the Wall Market is the best of them. It's worth mentioning that this section could have been an utter disaster—a series of tacky gay panic jokes and little more—but as many have pointed out, it handles Cloud's brush with femininity with grace and gentle humor. And lord is Cloud ever cute in that dress.
Moments like these are so wonderful that it feels churlish not to acknowledge them when talking about the very best games of the year. It's what makes evaluating Final Fantasy 7 Remake so difficult—it can be so great, but it can also be so tedious. For every high-five between Tifa and Aerith; for every Hell House fight, there's an equal amount of time slogging through some nondescript industrial zone. When I wrote my review, the hell of "The Drum" was still fresh in my mind—just hours and hours of pulling switches in the drabbest environment you can imagine.
It's true, I was not happy about Final Fantasy 7 Remake's ending. Actually, I was annoyed enough that I sat down with Nadia and delivered a rambling, semi-coherent rant about the ending on Axe of the Blood God in which I declared myself "no longer interested in Part 2."
That's the danger of reviewing a game you have an emotional attachment to, I guess. I have very particular opinions about what makes Final Fantasy 7 great—its atmosphere, its world, its deconstruction of the archetypal hero—and I'm pretty resistant to any attempts to mess with those elements. When I discovered the extent to which Square Enix crumpled up Final Fantasy 7's plot and tossed it in the garbage, I was... not happy.
Given time to calm down and reflect over that weekend, though, I ultimately decided to sit down and record a more measured segment with Senior Guides Writer Jake Green. I still complained about the ending, particularly its Kingdom Hearts-like execution, but I was more willing to weigh its relative merits.
A month on, I've pretty much made my peace with Square Enix's decision to blow it all up, even coming to rationalize it in some ways. I mean, there will be so much more hype now that no one has any idea what's coming next, right? In the long run, a straight remake probably would have resulted in a series of diminishing returns.
As it stands, the buzz following Final Fantasy 7 Remake Part 1 reminds me a little of the excitement in the wake of Fellowship of the Ring. As with Peter Jackson's epic adaptation, Square Enix was able to make the first part of its (trilogy? tetralogy?) feel distinct and complete while also driving the story ahead. When the crew assemble outside of Midgar, I can almost imagine Red XIII putting a paw on Cloud's shoulder and saying, "Not if we hold true to each other. We will not abandon the lifestream to torment and death. Not while we have strength left." Or something like that.
In another universe, fans are looking ahead to Part 2 and asking, "Can Square Enix fix the ungodly mess that was Part 1?" Instead, the excitement is bigger than ever; proof that Square Enix has pulled off the impossible... at least with this entry. I'm not sure I ever expected Final Fantasy 7 Remake to be good, much less great, but here we are. It's fun to play—1600 words and I haven't even mentioned the excellent combat—it nails the feel of the source material, and it features writing that's more sophisticated than it has any right to be. The table is now set rather nicely for Final Fantasy 7's version of The Two Towers. Where I was previously pretty upset about the ending, now all I can do is clap and say, "Well done, Square Enix."
And yes, whenever the next part of Final Fantasy 7 Remake arrives, I'll be playing it. How could I not? Like everyone else, I need to know what happens next.