Over the last week, I am quite sure that I’ve been playing Final Fantasy VII Remake. Then again, I have been quite sure of that for a while now. The marketing muscles at Square Enix have been flexing for years. Since the reveal trailer, in 2015, we’ve had a stream of screenshots, flirtatious teasers, and even a playable preview of the opening hour. But the dream has been brewing for far longer. Back in 2005, we were treated to a tech demo, on the PlayStation 3, in which the game’s city setting, Midgar, was remoulded to showcase the stubborn power of the Cell processor. It feels as if we’ve been living with the place, and the prospect of its continual reforging, ever since its inception. When, on the day of the remake’s release, a PR e-mail arrived bearing the subject line “WELCOME TO MIDGAR,” I felt like replying with: WE NEVER LEFT.
In any case, we are reintroduced by way of a gliding camera. First, the peanut-butter sweep of a desert; then, steel girders jutting through a sea of fog; and finally, a skyline in which even the scaffolding seems to have scaffolding. (It appears to thrive on the suggestion that metal left alone, like a well-tended garden, is prone to growing weeds.) We are shown dusty closeups of cracked flowers; meanwhile, citizens jostle in the gloom of vast, elephant-grey generators. The two images are linked—one hooked up to the other, so to speak, draining its juices. The town runs on a swirling substance called Mako: the luminous blue-green lifeblood of the planet. “Beneath this building, beneath every street there’s a desert.” Such are the words of the mayor, in Chinatown, reminding a chamber of city councilmen that the well-sprinkled greenery of Los Angeles is, after all, a strenuously imported lie. Doubly so with Midgar, if only because it is, in fact, a pair of cities—one atop the other like a two-tier chandelier. Naturally, it’s upper reaches creak with corruption, while the world beneath is poor, steeped in the low-level hum of disquiet.
Into this metropolis comes our hero. He is called Cloud, although, with a fair complexion and fiercely spiked blonde rays, he looks more like the sun. His disposition, however, is markedly dour—suggesting the permanent chance of rain. Cloud is an ex-soldier and mercenary-for-hire, in the employ of Avalanche, a clandestine militia of eco-terrorists, which has targeted a reactor for bombing.
I feel I should make a confession: I have never warmed to Final Fantasy. I’ve always found it difficult to treat a scene seriously when it’s staffed by characters with ceiling-high hair, swords as big as basking sharks, and shouted dialogue. How pleasant a surprise it was, then, to hear Cloud, throughout the course of Final Fantasy VII Remake, dampen the drama with pragmatism. “I’d worry less about the planet and more about the next five seconds,” he says to the group’s haranguing leader, Barret, “Save the screaming for later.” Quite so. In another scene, he sums up his general position with even greater eloquence: “I don’t have time for your shit.”
You may wonder what shit Cloud does have time for. The answer is that which comprises the majority of the game’s 40-plus hours: fighting. Since the days of old, in which clashes were carried out in turn-based fashion, lending them an air of gentlemanly artifice, Square Enix has sought to energise the formula. The Active Time Battle gauge—which allows attacks to be unleashed freely, once filled, and which was used in the original Final Fantasy VII—has wrung some of the starch from the series’ combat, but nowadays real time is de rigueur. Hence the hack and plentiful slash of the encounters in the remake, into which you wade with a party of up to two allies, of whom you can assume control or issue with orders on the fly. Each has their own niche—be it long-range weaponry, brawling, spell-casting, or swordplay—and the best victories are won en bloc, as you bend and mingle the styles at your disposal.
I’ve always felt cordoned off from the mechanics in Final Fantasy, not so much the intricacies themselves as the way that they are presented. Nothing daunts the enthusiasm, or dents the spell of a new world, quite like a wall of numbers. And I’ve often, unfairly, considered playing these games akin to cramming an encyclopedia into my head—all those dreaded sphere grids, and inventories bursting with the sort of inscrutable arcana that one imagines a middle-aged Harry Potter clearing out ahead of a loft conversion. Notions like fun and excitement, it turns out, weren’t so much scrapped, as I impatiently presumed, as delayed—put off in pursuit of a longer and more luxurious thrill: accomplishment. Final Fantasy VII Remake granted me the gratifying whirl and bite of a good blade, while allowing me to dip my toes incrementally deeper into the waters of strategy.
The problem here is padding. It feels as though, in attempting to beef up the adventure, side quests were squeezed in (none of which linger in the memory as they do, say, in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt) and extra battles were ordered in bulk. The ranks of your enemies teem with bosses—often what feels like one after another—and it strains the combat through a routine of repetition. The result of which meant that I would often fall back on the same small, reliable selection of tactics: slashing with Cloud’s Buster sword to build up the ATB gauge—which here is a version of V.A.T.S., from Fallout—while calling in occasional support from orbiting allies. It must be said, however, that it’s the mark of a game that caters generously to all camps, when I can come away feeling pleased with myself, only to be berated by a friend, with a better-stocked understanding of the series, on the importance of proper magic configuration.
So, why remake Final Fantasy VII, an immovable rock in the video game canon, which has gathered, since its release on the PlayStation, in 1997, the moss of near-myth? It seems a doomed task, one to which the director, Yoshinori Kitase, has not completely returned; he now serves as a producer, while Tetsuya Nomura, who worked as an artist on the original, has stepped up to the plate. One argument is that the graphics of old—dark and damply fuzzy—have come to resemble actual moss, and thus would benefit from a generous injection of fresh Mako. But technological advances alone, while seductive, hardly constitute a worthy cause. One imagines Orson Welles returning itchily to Citizen Kane, having glimpsed the digital de-aging tricks favoured by Disney. Or Fritz Lang taking a second, computer-aided swing at Metropolis, after sitting in awe of Avatar. Neither of which, you feel, would improve the end product. Final Fantasy VII Remake is closer to the Star Wars prequels, which seemed to mark the point at which George Lucas’s creative will was matched, rather than challenged, by the state of the art.
There is the smell of fidelity about the game: the unleashing of graphical power in loyalty to a vision that was always meant to look as it does now. For returning fans, the chance to see a landscape that took much of its shape in the imagination forested with detail and aerated with Unreal Engine 4 will doubtless cause rapture. But what about everyone else? Well, what the remake offers is simple: another world, rich and fully formed, rushing over the senses. Playing the thing is like breathing a thick fug of fantasia. It isn’t so much backed by a score as it is swimming in one; any traces of subtlety are choked by chanting choirs, and emotional moments struggle for air amid the strings and brass. I relished breaking for coffee just to get my bearings back. Still, the prospect of leaving planet Earth for a few hours comes at a premium in our present moment.
One gripe that I have with the game is with the lofty gaze of its writing, which was led by Kazushige Nojima. In the wake of its larger themes much goes astray. There are small moments of clumsiness; for instance, one of Cloud’s allies gives him the deliciously vague instruction to “meet me at the station after dark,” before adding, bafflingly, “Don’t be late!” Other scenes smack of missed opportunity. At one point, Cloud must disguise himself in a dress to infiltrate the mansion of a mafia-flavoured crime lord. Before doing so, he engages in a wondrously camp dance-off with a local nightclub owner. But the moment to probe his taciturn armour—Travolta style—passes, and, actually, Cloud is a great dancer (which must have been taught during his time in the military) and resumes his grumpy duties the minute the mission is over. When the game’s villains, the Shinra Electric Power Company, who are encastled in a brooding tower above Midgar, televise Avalanche’s reactor assault, the gang’s identities are broadcast for all to see. Only, it never comes to anything; nobody spots them on a street corner and calls the authorities. It’s all payoff and no fallout.
Not that Nojima is without nuance. It’s a relief to hear characters who, despite sounding at times like ideas in clothes (“But I work for Shinra. I’m the enemy.” “We’re the good guys, dammit”) are split to the core in their love of home. “People hate the steel sky, the slums… but I don’t. How could I?” says one of Cloud’s companions, and it left me with the distinct impression of being addressed directly. Indeed, these are beloved sights to the game’s veterans, and I wonder how they will feel with a sawn-off story such as this. It’s no secret that the slice of fantasy available here is far from final; it comprises only the first five or so hours of the original game, whose story was more swiftly sketched. As a result of magnifying such a comparably miniscule portion of play, the pacing in the remake lumbers. I started to tire before the end, after what felt like the fiftieth boss fight. “And there’s still more to come,” someone says, before Cloud replies, “Hope everybody’s warmed up.” I hope they’re not worn out.