The pantheon of heroic pop culture terrorists is a tiny one, comprised mostly of characters born into oppression by a truly repressive status quo—your Katniss Everdeens, your Luke Skywalkers, etc. In the world of video games—rife as it is with heroic soldiers, cops, and other defenders of whatever “normal” happens to be—they’re even rarer. As such, there’s a clear and obvious early standout when it comes to bomb-throwing good guys in games: Final Fantasy VII’s Barret Wallace, and his colleagues in the terrorist cell AVALANCHE. Accompanied by taciturn mercenary Cloud Strife, AVALANCHE spends the first several hours of the PlayStation classic blowing up power plants, issuing threats, and freestyling manifestos about the damage the Shinra Electric Power Company is wreaking on the planet. With graphics that were legitimately impressive back in 1997—even if they look kind of like walking Playmobil figures now—Barret was an arm-swinging, unapologetic enemy of the state, transforming the Final Fantasy series’ traditional “plucky resistance against the big bad empire” plots into something with an altogether more modern, and dangerous, feel.
The polygons are gone, but the sense of political relevance remains, in the long-awaited Remake of Square Enix’s legendary system-seller. Rather than backing away from AVALANCHE’s sanguine aims in a post-9/11 world, Final Fantasy VII Remake—which we played several hours of during a press event organized by Square Enix last month—embraces them, heightening the impact of Barret and co.’s decision to take up arms against the government of steampunk fantasy city Midgar, collateral damage be damned. It’s something that the game’s (almost distractingly) lavish production values sell with considerable power: Whereas the original game represented the destruction of the team’s first target, Mako Reactor No. 1, with some flickering flames and a few citizens running in the streets, Remake recasts it with the borrowed horror of a real-world bombing. Ordinary people hunt feverishly through the wreckage for wounded loved ones, as bomb-blasted scenery collapses all around you. Even though the game makes it clear that there’s more going on here than initially seems—this is the most Fox News-y Final Fantasy game ever, natch—the weight of setting the bomb that did all this still lands. Filled with dramatic camera angles and slightly creaky close-ups, Final Fantasy VII was the first game in the series to make the franchise’s cinematic ambitions clear; 23 years later, its Remake finally pays them off.
To both good, and ill effect: While the game’s spoken dialogue is less egregiously distracting than its first trailer made it sound—Barret’s endless action hero cliches manage to come off better in context than they do in isolation, thank Christ—it still pads out moments that were once breathtaking in their brevity. Final Fantasy VII’s opening is rightly heralded for the way it tosses players directly into the action, leaping off a train and directly into the fray. The Remake inexplicably slows that big entrance down, presumably to show off the extremely expensive new character models for the AVALANCHE team (all of whom have had their roles expanded here, presumably as part of the Remake’s hyper-focus on the Midgar portions of the original game) as they embark on their explosive work. Players unfamiliar with the original—and the question of how that incoming audience is going to receive this game, sans nostalgia, is an open and fascinating one—might not notice it, but for those with the associated memories, the whiff of the same dialogue bloat that’s sucked the life out of numerous modern Final Fantasy games is unmistakable.
Where the game doesn’t pull any punches, though, is in its action, which is fast-moving, slightly chaotic, and unabashedly fun. Openly cribbing notes from director Tetsuya Nomura’s Kingdom Hearts games—except with impractically large swords in place of impractically large key-swords, and a mini-skirted martial artist standing in for Donald Duck—Remake’s battle system will also be familiar to anyone who spent much time with Final Fantasy XV: You bounce around the battlefield, striking enemies with regular attacks, building up charge to expend on magic and other abilities. The biggest point of interest here is how aggressively differentiated each character ends up being; Cloud can switch between fleet sword swings and more crushing blows, Barret is all about managing distant enemies with his ever-ludicrous gatling gun arm, and plucky healer Aerith stands back, directing her comrades and managing party health. Plowing through mooks is satisfying enough, but the game shines in its boss battles, which bring in elements of spacing, evolving battlefields, and overwhelmiing enemy attacks to push your resources to their limits. Even if Final Fantasy VII’s story doesn’t land for you, the compulsive energy of its combat might make it worth the play.
So: Will that story land for you? It’s a tricky question, balancing as it does nostalgic interest, modern politics, and a story that is, frankly, just kind of old-hat at this point. The original Final Fantasy VII arrived right as subversive anime like Neon Genesis Evangelion were leaking into the wider consciousness, and a lot of that DNA splashed over the game’s more esoteric (and memorable) moments. In 1997, there was something daring about presenting a protagonist like Cloud, whose pretensions of badassitude are quickly revealed to be thin wallpaper over a teetering sense of barely-extant self. In 2020, those elements are a lot more rote—and if that’s because few role-playing games have been copied more aggressively than Final Fantasy VII, that doesn’t absolve its shiny new clone of trafficking in those same tropes. No wonder, then, that the Remake frontloads the more interesting conflict between AVALANCHE and Shinra, a battle with a lot more hookiness to it than the question of which long hair/big sword man will end up winning the day. (Not that the game doesn’t try to have its cake and eat it, too, making sure to give players plenty of early glimpses of iconic villain Sephiroth—who is, as ever, a great design in desperate need of a character to accompany it.)
Let’s be real here for a second: Final Fantasy VII Remake is going to be an event when it arrives in stores next month, no matter how it ends up turning out in terms of quality. It might be as close as modern gaming gets to a title that’s functionally too big to fail. Kudos, then, to its writing team for at least acknowledging that telling the exact same story to its players—all of whom have been steeped in the original game’s legacy, whether they were trading Aerith resurrection rumors in the lunchroom back in 1997, or just growing up living in a post-Yuffie world—is a creative non-starter. The Remake is not, blessedly, the Retread. It’s clunky; it’s also ambitious. It feels great in the hands, even when it clangs a bit in the head. Its original incarnation defined Final Fantasy for more than a decade of gaming. For better or worse, this version is destined to do the same.