Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
When Final Fantasy VII came out back in 1997, storytelling in video games was just barely shaking off the vestiges of its “princess in another castle” past. Nowhere was that evolution clearer than in the Final Fantasy franchise itself, which had developed across 10 years (and six mostly beloved games) from being about nameless wanderers hitting things with swords to featuring nuanced, complicated characters also hitting things with swords. Arriving on Sony’s PlayStation—and selling a whole hell of a lot of copies of it in the process—FF VII pushed those limits even harder, invoking cinematic camera angles and a sweeping soundtrack to create a game that hoped to mimic the grandeur of an epic 80-hour film.
In that goal, it failed. It didn’t really have a choice.
Despite what the designers at then-Square (now Square-Enix) might have hoped, there was just no way for a game as big and ambitious as Final Fantasy VII to achieve such lofty goals on the technology of the day. It didn’t help that the game was hampered with a few inherent flaws of its own—most notably a translation that sometimes made it difficult to get inside its characters’ heads, a must for a story exploring as much new psychological ground as this one. Despite best efforts, its characters talked more in sound bites than actual human dialogue, and its much-desired sweep was often susceptible to being lost in the details of driving a buggy across the countryside, or getting trapped in the clutches of a glitzy amusement park.
Its remake—literally, and inelegantly, just titled Final Fantasy VII Remake—has a new script, though. It has a new everything, really—fighting, takes on its characters, missions, soundtrack, etc. But most importantly, it has something that the original Final Fantasy VII sorely lacked: It has focus.
Much has been made about the decision to carve out the opening hours of FF VII—i.e., the sections taking place entirely within the cyberpunk dystopia of Midgar—and turn them into the basis for an entire game. Square-Enix has been accused of padding at best, and blatant cash-grabbing at worst, setting up a whole horde of nostalgia-powered zombie games hoping to raid its customers’ wallets. And yet, actually playing through the game reveals the retroactive truth: The opening of the original Final Fantasy VII created one of the most memorable settings gaming had ever seen—and then blew right past it, in a rush to get to the story it really wanted to tell. Remake isn’t an effort to artificially extend the play clock or pad a company’s coffers: It’s an attempt at correcting a fundamental mistake in a much-beloved classic.
Because let’s be clear: Midgar is a world worth living in—especially this Midgar, which feels alive and vibrant in a way precious few video game cities ever have. And Remake refuses to let you rush through it, filling each stretch of time between missions (arguably, the “meat” of the game) with long sequences of taciturn mercenary Cloud Strife performing side quests for the residents of the city’s various districts. These quests are rarely more transcendent than “Go there, hit that,” but they’re presented with charm. (Also, hitting things in this game is nigh-irresistibly fun.) More importantly, they force you to reckon with, and recognize, the people of the District 7 Slums (or District 5, or the gaudy, decadent Wall Market), the same way the game forces you to acknowledge the humanity of formerly minor characters like heroic eco-terrorists Biggs, Wedge, and (especially) Jessie. These characters were little more than afterthoughts in the original game, a group of poseurs for Cloud to seem effortlessly better than. But Remake wants you to care about them, and caring takes time. Is it padding? Maybe. But it’s padding for your comfort.
These indulgences don’t just serve the secondary cast, either. Despite initial misgivings about the quality of the voice acting and dialogue in the game’s first trailers, Remake does a lot of work to take characters who were often poorly translated abstractions in the original game, and transform them into actual people. Those long side quest sections (and the extended journeys you take to get to your various missions) are also opportunities for you to connect with and get to know characters who were often thinly sketched in the original game. (Quick: What does original-flavor Tifa actually think about helping her friends blow up power plants in their war on the Shinra Electric Power Company? No, we don’t really know, either.) Nowhere is this clearer than in the game’s treatment of Avalanche leader Barret Wallace, a character whose original incarnation often verged on being a stereotypical, foul-mouthed caricature, but here is a remarkably real-feeling portrait of a guy filled to the brim with contradictions.
As voiced by John Eric Bentley, Barret is many things: A suspicious hardass. A relentless motivator. A loving dad. An eco-terrorist who teeters back and forth on the brink of buying into his own bullshit. And also, often, a big dumb goofball. (Albeit, a goofball with a machine gun for an arm.) Those early trailers suggested that Remake might make a turn for the relentlessly cheesy every time a character opened their mouths, but time spent with it reveals that, no, that’s just Barret. Writing and acting in this genre are rarely subtle, but hearing Bentley infuse intentionally false confidence into his characters’ boasts about the screams of the planet, or crack nervous jokes while traversing some sci-fi scaffolding, is just one of several signs that the game’s writers are taking their characters’ inner lives more seriously this time. It’s one of the most invaluable refinements that Remake brings to this story, taking bland text boxes and “…”s and turning them into nuanced character work. And, as everywhere, it elevates by dialing in, focusing more closely on the story the original game was only often trying to tell. Final Fantasy VII Remake earns its extended playtime because it spends that time wisely, with even “filler” sections expanding our understanding of and affection for these characters. It’s not just a better story than the original, but one that’s significantly better told.
Which leads, then, to the real question: Can they keep this up? After all, Midgar works as an expanded setting for a Final Fantasy VII game because it’s a setting that was actually worth expanding on. The same can’t be said of most of the original game’s other areas, none of which have the same scope or impact as its opening hours. (Nobody needs a game-long version of wandering through that goddamn snow field on Disc 2.) We haven’t finished Remake yet, so (despite vague hints that there’s something going on with its narrative beyond being a pure retread) we really don’t know yet how the game is going to pay this all off. How will it set up its follow-up installments? More importantly: Will it make a compelling case that they even need to exist? It’s a bit of a paradox, but this first installment of Remake already feels complete; by turning the Midgar sections of FF VII into a full, compelling story, Square-Enix has raised plenty of questions about whether a sequel would even be necessary—no matter what sort of final cliffhangers they end up setting up.