Final Fantasy VII was an eye-opening experience for me growing up. Back in 1997, it was a lightning bolt that merged the language of games and cinema. Playing the remake’s PS4 demo stirs up a strong nostalgia in my heart. It feels like the game I remember, even if the smallest changes feel like radical departures from the original.
Playing the Final Fantasy VII Remake demo today was a real trip. On the one hand, I was sucked back into a world I loved. When I first saw Final Fantasy VII years ago—watching my friend complete it over the course of multiple sleepovers—Midgar was astounding. The gross poverty of the undercity clashed with the enormous corporate skyscrapers above. I’m wary of remakes as a default and always wonder what we lose from moving games into a new format and mold. Final Fantasy VII Remake’s Midgar bypassed that worry. It was wildly different from the original in many respects. It’s a bit like an over-produced album by comparison. Underneath all of that, it still somehow felt like Midgar: daunting and gritty.
Final Fantasy VII Remake has always seemed like a curiosity to me. The original is right there, after all, and the remake has to cover so much stuff. In this regard, I agree with the concerns of my colleague Jason Schreier. Making a full game out of what is essentially the introductory portion of the original is concerning in some ways. Will this project ever be completed as the story’s scope grows larger and larger? This skepticism clashes with my gut feelings playing the demo. It’s Cloud! It’s Barrett! They’re back again, leading the revolutionary terrorist group Avalanche on a daring mission. I feel like a kid let loose in a theme park. I want to soak up every inch of this world.
Playing the game is an incredibly strange experience over 20 years since the original. I’m hyper aware of certain differences. The combat system works as a modern take on active-time battles, combining hack and slash combat with tactical options. Swapping characters is no different than passing a turn in a classic battle, and pausing the action to select key abilities is comfortable. Where Final Fantasy XV stumbled, Remake feels more confident. The former had real-time combat but much of it was automated. Hold a button to attack, hold to dodge. Swap sometimes. Remake is more active. You choose when to slash, cycle through menus to pick your skills. This is an improvement. It’s the extra layer of gloss that ultimately feels odd. Final Fantasy VII was rough around the edges than people might recall. The Remake adds a lot more polish and extras. The boss battle with the Guard Scorpion is now a multi-stage battle with blaring missile salvos, shifting weak points, and dodge rolls. It’s exciting but loses some of the dogged charm of the original.
Final Fantasy VII Remake is broad in a particular way. It takes characteristics players remember—Barrett’s revolutionary fervor, Jessie’s infatuation with Cloud, a tense escape sequence—and makes them even bigger. Final Fantasy VII was not a subtle game but Remake feels huge in everything it does.
In the demo, this mostly works. Remake isn’t a perfect recreation of what players know; it’s an evocation of our cultural memories. It’s a big budget nostalgia bomb with faster combat and more explosions. Battling enemies is more flash than challenge, but it feels like what we remember: Cloud and Barrett tearing a path through Shinra’s Mako reactor to strike a blow against a corporation destroying the world. Some choices are baffling. There’s a moment where President Shinra has robots further destroy the Mako reactor that robs the impact of Avalanche’s eco-terrorism. In these moments, I worry that Remake could dull some of the fangs that made Final Fantasy VII resonate so effectively to begin with.
And yet! Remake tugs at my heartstrings. Final Fantasy VII isn’t the RPG that’s stayed with me the most—that’s the optimistic Dreamcast classic Skies of Arcadia—but it is the first time I felt truly transported to a world. A small TV in my friend’s basement felt like a doorway to a city full of rogue heroes, deadly robots, talking cat dudes, and dastardly plots. It rushes back when I play the demo. For all of my quibbles and doubts, it’s damn nice to feel that sense of wonder again.