Final Fantasy VII: Remake: Demo: Review

There is nothing to take away from here. This writing is a conversation more than anything else. It is senseless to draw conclusions from something designed to tease, to whet the appetite, and yet there will be days that end with this installment of the Final Fantasy VII Remake as the only existent tangible form of it, and so something should be said of those days. This is what I’ll say:

Square Enix has never done anything so important as the Final Fantasy VII Remake. This is true for a few reasons, namely that most video games aren’t important when they are conceived and produced. By the time Final Fantasy VII became important, Square was no longer doing it. It had been made, it was history. Things today are different. It is even difficult for video games to become important anymore, without mass online play and esport potential. If Final Fantasy VII Remake was actually an original and released today, no one would care. However, it is a remake of a game released in 1997 that millions of people wound up caring about. In 2005, eight years after the game was released, a demo was released that teased the idea of a remake with lifelike graphics that didn’t exist when it came out. Ten years after that, a trailer was released and it was announced they were actually going to buckle down and hammer out a remake. Five years after that, we are sitting a bit more than a month away from release. It has been a long journey. It has been teased, forgotten, promised, broken, and re-avowed, and we today got our first taste of what it would be like to control a modern Cloud, a fully imagined Barrett, and step foot in a Midgar exponentially bigger than the one we’ve been coming back to every few years for almost a quarter-century. The pressure to get this right could not be bigger.

Before one can assess whether the demo was “good,” one must create a rubric of sorts for what is reasonably expected (and selfishly desired). Remember, it’s more so that we’re assessing the fulfillment of a promise than the creation of a game. The rules are sort of different. What does the Final Fantasy VII Remake need to do to be “good”? There are several different lenses we can take to this question. We can think of it in its simplest terms: Is the game fun? We can think of the original like a script and the remake as a play that attempts to bring it to life. We can judge it from a canonical standpoint: Does it stay true? We can elect a set of principles by which the old game should be applied to the modern gaming climate, and assess its proficiency in representing those principles. This last option is my preference. I think it’s most encapsulating of the ideas all these methods represent and least limiting of the game’s actual potential. That leads us to decipher what exactly those principles are.

This part would be easier had I done it in advance. I mean, I know what I love about Final Fantasy VII, but I’ve never been forced to write it down. The idea of doing so is ill-conceived, like asking someone to write one love letter to their spouse. I love this game a thousand different ways on a thousand different days and, hey, that’s irrational, but I’m not alone, so fuck off. Let’s go element by element of what made the old game so great, and try to articulate the principles with which they should be re-rendered, and assess the demo’s efficacy in doing so. To save time, I’ll weave together justifications for inclusion with analysis from what I’ve played of the demo. I have a job, after all.

The musical score
I’m backing away from calling this as important as any facet in the game — the characters, setting and plot are, admittedly, slightly more essential — but it’s first here for a reason. If I come home to visit my mother, and she is normal in appearance, location, and personality, but greets me with an alien voice, I will jump back and call her “demon.” The memories tied to the sounds of the game are precious and worth protecting. The thing is, within the mechanics of the game, the musical score is tied to pacing in a way that’s hard to explain. If the music plods along while my characters whiz around at lightning speed, it feels off, or somehow empty. In other words, if they kept things the exact same, it would be difficult to love the music. It would feel inadequate, overwhelmed by the stimulation of all that evolved around it. Luckily, Square Enix seems to have taken the right approach, and created a compromise in which the old soundtrack is applied with integrity but each piece has been beautified by a full orchestra and colored in with nuance that never veers off course. Certain runs in certain tracks hit the exact same way, with enough undercurrent to elevate the melodies to the same level of intensity they hit in the simpler context of the original game. Moods change the same as the intense bombing mission music gives way to the ominous and cavernous inside-the-reactor chant. I hope the demo is indicative of the plan for the entire game. I hope they copy and paste the formula all the way through. It worked perfectly and felt obvious.

The characters
This is probably the most difficult part of remaking this game — of remaking anything, really. When you think of any book that was made into a movie, and fans of the book hate it, it’s almost always stemming from some grievous misrepresentation among the characters. When characters are not fully defined human people, and you do that imaginative work of defining them fully, it becomes really hard to kill off the character you’ve created in your mind in favor of the fuller version with which you are now presented. I’ve already given up with this series, through his representation in Advent Children, and then Kingdom Hearts, and ultimately this game, the contention I have that Cloud simply doesn’t talk like that. Sephiroth neither. Those are big things. I’m lost on both counts. And don’t ask me to do an impression of how they’re supposed to sound because I won’t do it right either. I worry for these characters, that I won’t be there to perfect every inflection in their words, to apply the correct tone to their dialogue, add the right amount of desperation in their voice in critical moments, et cetera. In order to get this right, Square Enix needed to employ the most ruthless voice acting direction in video game history. Through merely the demo section, with two main characters and three minor characters (who figure to have more major roles, however, if the game expands itself the way it purports to), this appears to be an area in which the game will get a passing grade that is not an A. There are some highlights, like Barrett and Cloud developing a dynamic that works well, and also lowlights, like Wedge feeling unpolished (he’s voiced by Matt Jones a.k.a. Badger from Breaking Bad, so I’m not giving up hope yet) and Jessie feeling overwrought. Furthermore, all I can say is I hope that Barrett, a character evoking an African-American dialect and persona, was written and conceptualized with black people in the room, in the conversation. I always viewed him as an authentic character; there are steps you have to take to do that now, and I hope they were taken.

Again, what are we looking for? What’s required for an A? There’s no need to alter what worked. The characters should feel the same, they should act the same, they should try to bring out what was evident in the pixelated world of 1997. Somehow, in those few hours of relevance before they were killed off, I knew that Wedge was unsure of himself and in need of validation, Biggs was content to spend the rest of his life doing whatever his friends wanted to do, and Jessie had an insatiable thirst for more than her life in the slums of Midgar had to offer. Really, it feels like Squaresoft lucked into these characters to some extent, or that I helped them by imagining the rest of their stories. In high-definition, with full voice-acting, there’s no help. They have to realize what they created and then get it exactly right. They won’t. It will be an area of frustration, but you can see why.

The setting
This is one of the lower-stakes areas but early returns aren’t very promising. The direction here is obvious: Make Midgar bigger, then presumably the rest of the world after that. One-house towns never seemed to be the fully-realized version of what Square was going for, and there’s a lot of potential in expansion. My worry, though, is that we’re going to see the wrong kind of enlargement, executed out of obligation and without purpose. Yes, the size of Midgar would feel more real, and bigger is what the original had in mind. But what fills those spaces is just as important. There’s a key difference between being large and being massive: substance. If Midgar is just large, colored in the lazy way — with one-dimensional sidequests, and the people who offer them — then it will add width and not depth to the game. This is where expansion has to be coupled with risktaking in order to make Midgar massive. Where is Marlene’s preschool? Who actually goes to the church Aerith gardens? What types of effort are they putting on to repair the building? Who are Elmyra’s neighbors? And no, none of these people want you to go talk to someone else or fight some menace to acquire something for them. Think of something else.

We haven’t had the chance to explore Midgar, the city, yet. We’ve just explored reactor 1. I have to say, there were a lot of redundant setpieces that seemed purposeless and not fleshed out. There don’t need to be smashable boxes. We can honestly get by without them. Midgar pulled off being massive without copy-pasting nonsense in 1997. The task is different now, yes; well, you’ve had 23 years to figure out what composes that depth. There had better be something there.

The plot
A detail I love: In the game’s opening moments, we see the same shots of Aerith looking into the leaky Mako pipe (is that what that is?) and thinking, presumably, about how she’s the last surviving ancient and the planet is dying and she’s going to have to pray for holy to restore the flow of the planet’s lifestream. In the original, she goes from this to walking into the streets of Midgar. In the remake, she does this because she hears something down the alley. Her paranoia, from living a life constantly on the run from the Turks who want to kidnap her for Shinra to interrogate and research, sets in and she moves quickly to the public square. This is brilliant. It fits with our characters, it adds subtle detail, it raises a question with a logical answer. This is the type of thoughtful addition that should be made to the plot. It must check two of these three boxes: jibes with what we already know; bridges a gap in logic; or allows to indulge more in what makes the game great.

So far, the plot mirrors the original with minor exceptions. Heidegger provides some exposition in a conversation with President Shinra; it is revealed that an attempt was made on Shinra’s life prior to the start of the game. I’m fine with this. The type of thing I would be against is deciding it wouldn’t be realistic to have Rufus fight Cloud on a rooftop upon helicoptering in and learning of his father’s death, and instead inventing a character that acts as Rufus’s bodyguard and surrogate for that fight. Do what you need to do to bring the systems into modernity, smooth over some of the major leaps that are made in the storytelling, and add details that resolution prevented us from seeing in the original, but don’t tinker with the story’s editorial core. So far, so good, with one minor exception: Jessie comes on really strong. Her infatuation with Cloud in the original was a passing one, the type that could have evolved over the course of the game had she not died in the first few hours. Seeds were planted, but never watered, and they never sprouted. Don’t amplify the feelings that were there in an effort to make that knife twist a little harder when she is killed. Moreover, don’t do that kind of thing.

The battle-system
I have little hope for the battle system, just to be blunt. While fighting the active-time battles of Final Fantasy VII, it was possible to view them as a slowed down version of “what would actually happen.” Random battles were a staple of the genre and allowable and logical. In a realistic presentation of that system, it will be hard to logically weave in so much damn fighting. It will be hard to make a battle system that feels as cool as we imagined the fights actually were when we played the original, without it seeming overwrought and really similar to the battle systems of Final Fantasies XIII and on. The stagger concept is, to me, really tiresome and tedious, albeit engaging in an obligatory way. In other words, it keeps your attention, but is it fun? Is it real? Is it pushing a meter up so that you can quickly push a meter down? And yes, there is strategy, but does that strategy appeal to the imagination or just to functionality? I loved the effort put in to incorporate every enemy you face in the opening reactor sequence of the game. They’re all there, even the gross eyeball floaties that cast fire. Even the jumpy, new Shinra guards that only appear after you kill the Guard Scorpion (who has been redubbed Scorpion Sentinel — the fuck?). They were incorporated well, I just doubt that type of thoughtful effort is sustainable over the course of the whole game. We’ll see. Still no verdict on that hot pink house. Also, the battles were harder, which is OK. But do they need to be longer as well? Fighting the guard scorpion took me about 13 minutes my first time. That’s a long ass time! You can make fights complex and challenging without lengthening them as a means of doing so. It’s OK for the game to be easy at parts and move quickly: That’s part of what made the original great. So long as there are some bosses who pose high-level challenges, I don’t think anyone will feel as though they didn’t get their money’s worth just because the game didn’t increase in difficulty. Where they will feel put off, though, is if the high-powered (if swift) boss fights feel tedious. Let me unleash a few limit breaks, exhaust my summons, search for an elemental weakness, and test my ability to handle a few heavy hits, and see who’s better prepared for the battle.

I’m not optimistic, because Square has become convinced that its battle systems must be high-octane in order for its games to be appealing, and the formula it uses to achieve rapid, strategic battle creates unnecessary complications. Combat is the most likely downfall of this game because games have evolved, particularly in this area, and the set of norms around it now doesn’t prioritize the game’s overall flow and fun, but rather that of each individual combat. Somehow actions need to be quick but feel strategic, and the complexity of battles needs to persist despite the lack of think-time required for such complexity. The current system is a clear attempt at a compromise, and it’s an admirable one. Only, it leaves you feeling like they took something that was slightly too simple and turned it into something that was slightly too complicated. There are, of course, many layers to the battle system that won’t be applied in a 40-minute demo. In the small sample, though, you can tell it’s just another iteration of combat that moves fast because it has to, stays busy because it has to, and looks cool because it gets to.

Because the battle system is so amplified, it’s likely that will see an amplification across most systems in the game. Though Cloud starts with over 1000 HP, his progression in the demo mirrors that of him in the original game: He moves from level 6 to level 8. If the plan is to keep it as consistent as possible for the whole game, I’m curious to see how that works out. I think of the increase of HP (as well as the number of moves that affect it) as a natural evolution: as the resolution gets better, the numbers become greater; it is as though we are seeing fights with more detail and thus higher resolution numbers as well. We didn’t see much of the game’s longer term growth systems in the demo, so I won’t waste too much time on it here. Just that what I did see represented a commitment to keeping things grounded, which is good. There was no access to materia systems, so we’ll see how that works in the actual release.

An addition to this section I want to make is customization. I’ll wait till I see it, but I’m against it. I don’t want to customize armors and weapons the way you can in X, XIII, or XV. There was none in the demo, and no component items that represent a turn in that direction, but we’ll see when the game comes out what happens. I would feel best about it if it was tied deeply to materia, and materia growth as a means of customizing weaponry. Again, the theory this goes against is our commitment not to needlessly complicate the game.

The part of Final Fantasy VII that is most forgotten in the spinoffs, prequels, movies, and pretty much all content created around the Final Fantasy VII universe, is the lightness and humor with which the original game carried itself. The demo seems headed back in that direction. Cloud is dismissive of Barrett’s impassioned plea to save the planet, Barrett uses foul language in humorous ways, and the banter between the characters while in combat represents the strongest representation of their original relationship. The dialogue can feel stiff at times, but overall there’s hope here that the remake has embraced the goofiness of the original and plans to at least weave the thread of levity more prominently into the game.

I find it amazing that 23 years after its initial release, this game is coming into a world facing a crisis for the planet’s very survival, and under the dominion of a business thug who uses fear to manipulate the masses into allowing complicity in the planet’s destruction. Eco-terrorists were practically novel in concept in 1997, and now it’s like, you know, where are the eco-terrorists? The game tried to deliver messages about humanity, about identity, about how our memories define who we are and natural forces of good balancing and conquering natural machinations of evil. It’s far too small a sample to judge the trajectory of the game, but a prominent hope I have is that the game remains committed to and dives deeper to big, human questions.

So is the demo good?
Yes. It’s always easy to say yes this early in the process. The last couple of Final Fantasies I played, I loved until I finished them and realized, actually, I hadn’t really loved them. The demo shows promise, however, and indicates that there will be important departures from certain norms and trends that champion the original game’s charm. This won’t be the case every time, and the game will have its disappointments. That’s honestly OK. I think I’m ready for this game, I’m ready to put the experience of it in the past, and move on from this existence of yearning and hoping that a game can steal my heart the way it did when I was nine. Hopefully it is a tribute to the original, delivers moments with catharsis without ever getting too bogged down in its own identity crisis. My hopes for this possibility are not dashed after playing a smidgen of the product, and that’s a good sign.

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