My first Final Fantasy game was X. I didn’t have a PS2 and my first game system was an N64 so I had never played a full RPG before then. I used to go over to my friends house to play every day after middle school. I was enamored with the game; the story and it’s subversions to the traditional hero narrative blew my prepubescent mind. Yuna’s suicidal pilgrimage to defeat Sin had me hooked from start to finish. The world was also fantastic, a mixture of technology and fantasy that was so original to me. My friend and I followed this by subsequently playing Final Fantasy VII, which became another instant classic for me. The interrogation of identity wrapped up into a larger story following eco-terrorists left a lasting impact. These two games turned me into a lifelong Final Fantasy fan and deepened my appreciation for video games. They showed me what stories in games could do and had me beating the drum in the “games are art” argument back when that was a thing. I replayed old Final Fantasy games and eagerly awaited each new mainline release. Unfortunately, I’ve been chasing the high of those two games ever since.
Square has been completely uninterested in creating traditional JRPGs since X, which has been a real shame. Their single player games focus instead seems to be on battle systems, iterating more towards action RPGs than turn based battles. This has come at an expense towards story or cohesive world building. Modern Final Fantasy games have been inconsistent; they haven’t been able to hit the highs since their original PS2 watermark. The games haven’t been train wrecks, but the new games have failed to have the same level of cohesiveness expected from this long lasting, AAA series. The new Final Fantasy VII Remake seems to be an outlier on that trajectory, a game that matches its engaging combat with a consistent and engaging story. I’ve been struggling to articulate why this game has resonated with me so strongly, where the other games haven’t. There was something at work alongside my nostalgia for the familiar world and characters. I believe it lies in where the developers current strengths are; by adapting a classic story (or at least a part of it) it removed the burden of universe crafting. The tighter geographical focus keeps the plot from being disconnected and much more engaging. They’re also working off a stellar template; the original Final Fantasy VII’s story is beloved for a reason. There’s no need for them to create a whole universe to coincide with their updated engine. The combat also just fucking rips.
Great Combat, Lackluster Worlds
Before Remake’s release, I had been replaying XII (more on that in a future post). I had played it back when I first bought my PS3 (that first SKU had that sweet PS2 backwards compatibility) and felt extremely mixed. It’s strange that I ended up having similar feelings from back when I first played it. It is extremely fun; the gambit system where you literally program your party’s actions is so satisfying and the MMO style combat makes it breeze by. The story by comparison, feels inconsequential at best. What starts out as intriguing political fantasy soon goes nowhere for hours on end. The characters have no interiority and feel only vaguely defined. Everyone seems to operate purely on plot momentum as they chase around random macguffins. I have the same opinion of the story that I had ten years ago; supremely surface level. There was no great subversion or even great character work at play like in X or VII.
I followed up my original play-through of XII purchasing both XIII and XV on their respective release days. I had been eagerly awaiting both; they were the reason I bought a PS3 (back when XV was known as Versus XIII). They both left me with similarly disappointing feelings, but for different reasons. XIII brought back turn based battles with an added twist. Enemies have weaknesses and if you hit them with specific attacks, it would result in them being staggered (a system currently being used in VII Remake). Again, this game was very fun to play but a long on-ramp process left it feeling stagnant. I didn’t mind the linear corridors that have come to define it, but the game withheld so much of the combat tool-set under hours of game time that made it feel way too repetitive. XIII’s story meanwhile had similar angst as PlayStation-era FF games (tragic love, impending doom, fighting against larger godly forces) but without the more detailed character work (I’m told this comes in later sequels).
XV on the other hand was a bit of a mess (I had such a good time at the beginning of the game). It is much more of an action RPG and is a bit closer in style to FFVII Remake. You control Noctus, hitting buttons to attack, guard and dodge in real time. You also have a party that you can issue commands to and team up to perform attacks. It all felt a little janky and didn’t have that deeper strategic layer. Regardless it was still fun to play traversing the open world with your buddies on a fantasy road trip. Unfortunately, the game’s story and later level design literally removes the RPG elements from portions of the game. At launch, XV had plot portions locked up in outside movies and some that were literally missing altogether (DLC would fill this in). The games transition from open world setting to more confined levels literally removed the RPG portion of the combat and made me feel like I had completely wasted my time leveling. Even before the dreaded survival horror chapter, I was way checked out. This game left me completely cold.
Adapting an Existing World Allows the Combat to Shine
So why after nearly a decade of disappointment am I finding Final Fantasy VII Remake so engaging? First, the combat is just so fun. VII Remake feels like the combat that XV was searching for. You’re controlling characters in real time (hitting square to attack, R1 to block, etc) while filling up a meter (ATB) that allows you to issue commands for abilities and spells. Best of all, you can switch between all of your current party members. Each character has a unique ability set and unique movement; for example Aerith has long range attacks and is slightly slower and stiffer, while Tifa is all about moving and punching fast. Switching between characters and activating abilities is crucial to winning fights. Much like XIII, enemies have a stagger meter that you slowly fill by attacking or using elements they are weak to against them. This game is also vastly more difficult than the preceding games; exploiting enemies weaknesses is key to winning and keeping your party alive. The end result is a tight balancing act as you juggle all the different plates to guide your party to victory. It feels like the culmination of their previous combat ideas and the ultimate ideal of what they’ve been trying to achieve. Square has finally cracked how to craft action RPG combat.
The story and world also proves to be similarly engaging. The template established by the original game gives them plenty of runway to expand and tweak plot elements. Since the game only takes place in the city of Midgar, the developers are free to embellish on parts the original skimmed over. This focus on one location proves to be a huge positive; this is the most cohesive level design they’ve done in ages. It’s especially interesting to see how they’ve expanded characters. Tifa particularly feels like a much more well defined character than in the original. Aerith’s expanded role allows her time to tap into her playful energy and is so much fun every time she’s on screen. The AVALANCHE members also have great extended characterizations, especially Jessie. Her side plot towards the beginning of the game adds a lot of pathos to a character that formerly barely existed. Barret meanwhile is the only letdown; he seems to swing hard between racist caricature and enigmatic leader.
The plot enhancements prove to be simultaneously engaging and beguiling. Remake is not interested in keeping things strictly 1:1. People who have played the original will notice new antagonistic beings (dementors) that pop up in scenes and physically drive characters toward VII’s plot points. There also added hints at major characters that never appeared in the original’s Midgar section. Remake seems to be aware that people know those original story beats and wants to play with your expectations. It’s fascinating to see them commenting on the original story from within the game. It makes the game feel more singular; it takes the original parts and lifts it into a stand alone experience.
I’m excited and mystified to see where things go from here, which is a strange idea for a video game remake. We’ve come to know remakes as being more of a fresh coat of paint on the original game, but this game wants to take things in a more decidedly original direction. I’ve seen lots of comparisons to the Neon Genesis Evangelion Rebuild movies; what started off as a straightforward retelling diverges significantly from the source material. What’s most surprising is that I’m excited again for new Final Fantasy’s. The joke here is that I’m not necessarily excited for “new” Final Fantasy, but if Square can keep things feeling as fresh as they do in Part 1 it will be worth it.