Final Fantasy VII is a very important game both for gamers individually and for video game culture in general. It’s a cultural touchstone that defined the story dense era of PlayStation 1 JRPGs, solidified Square’s commitment to being at the forefront of graphics technology, and arguably sold the PlayStation to gamers everywhere, helping Sony establish a foothold in the video game industry.

So it’s hard to play a remake of a game so important and not compare it to the original, and Square knows this. They want you to compare Final Fantasy VII Remake to the original. They specifically developed the remake such that its greatest strengths come about explicitly when you compare the two. Does this alienate newer gamers? Yeah, a little. Does it make FF7R any less of an incredible game? No.

Story

FF7R is simultaneously everything you think it is and nothing you’d expect. For the most part, FF7R is a beat for beat remake of the Midgar section of FF7. When I say beat for beat, I mean it. The most important parts are remade right down the poses that certain characters make, and it’s wonderful to see it in brilliant HD with phenomenal voice acting.

Of course, the original Midgar section of FF7 was only five hours long and this is a 40-hour game, so how did they pull that off?

Well it’s a lot like the cinematic version of The Hobbit which is to say FF7R zooms in on important events in the original FF7 and explores them in greater detail. Events that occurred off screen in the original are now fully playable. One off lines of dialogue are now expanded into full scenes and in some cases full dungeons!

This means that you get to know everyone better, and I mean EVERYONE! Your party members, the three NPCs from Avalanche, the NPCs around the slums, Cloud’s weird mako poisoned neighbor, everyone in Sector 5, everyone in Wall Market, every villain of the game… heck, the game even characterizes the Shinra grunts you wantonly murder.

Very few plot details are changed, but what is changed is done with intention. There’s a certain pacing to it, with small changes showing up early on and major changes showing up later. That’s because the very act of changing the FF7 plot is a major plot point in FF7R. Once again, I’m not going to get into spoilers here, but I will say that this is more than just a beat for beat remake. This is a new game in its own right and it wants you to know that. If all you are looking for is a faithful retelling of the events of FF7 then you will be disappointed, but if you have an open mind that mind will be blown when you hit the final chapters and see what the designers are actually doing with this series.

Simply put, the strength of the original plot along with the compelling details of the new additions and the intriguing mystery of the changes you encounter keep you playing. Heck, it was compelling enough for me to finish a 45-hour playthrough in three days.

Gameplay

Converting the traditional FF7 gameplay into something more modern was always going to be Square’s biggest challenge. There was always going to be a certain section of the market who felt like FF7 couldn’t be done with anything other than a turn-based battle system where every single menu choice matters. There was also always going to be a section of the market that feels like turn based systems are antiquated and have no place in modern gaming.

And somehow Square ended up satisfying them both!

Here’s how it works. You control a party of three characters and directly control one point character. You get to move this character around, attack, dodge, defend, and more, just like any modern-day action RPG. Doing so fills your ATB bar, which can then be spent on spells, special abilities, using items, anything you might do in the original.

In a sense, you are playing two games at once. Between turns you are dodging and attacking, but during turns you are calming down and thinking strategically. It’s like chess-boxing, the RPG.

For the most part, you cannot succeed without interacting with both halves of this battle system. To fill your ATB bar, or the opponent’s defense lowering stagger gauge, you need to play the action game. To do any sort of respectable damage, you need to use your abilities from the menu wisely. It’s such a fun system with an incredible rhythm that really gets you into a flow state. Add to this a variety of enemies and bosses that have puzzle-like “solutions” to fighting them, much as they had in the original FF7, and you have a recipe for a truly spectacular battle system.

That being said, Square even acknowledged that good portions of the fanbase wouldn’t want to interact with this new battle system, and so they give you options. There are three difficulty levels to play, Normal, Easy, and Classic (along with a Hard mode introduced when you beat the game). Easy and Classic aren’t particularly well named. Easy essentially lets you play the whole game as just an action game, without having to go into the menu much at all. Classic puts the action elements on auto pilot allowing you to focus just on the menuing, like classic FF7.

Outside of battle, FF7R captures the spirit of the original with a ton of mini-games to play in your downtime. You have motorbike sections, dart throwing, pull up and squat competitions (we know you love those) and even an absolutely fabulous dancing mini-game. None of these games take up much of your time and for the most part they can be ignored, but they are there if you want them.

Finally, let’s talk about the map. There have been a lot of critics decrying FF7R for having mostly linear maps instead of an open world. To them I have to say, “what did you expect?” FF7’s Midgar was a fairly linear sequence and so FF7R’s midgar is fairly linear. That doesn’t mean you won’t do any backtracking. In fact, you’ll frequently find Metroidvania-esque shortcuts that take you through areas you’ve already been to. Not to mention there are plenty of side-quests that will take you out of your way to explore as of yet unknown sections of the city. But the main game is, for the most part, a guided tour of Midgar. If that's not what you want, well one has to wonder why you are coming to Final Fantasy in the first place?

Actually, let's talk about the side-quests for a second. If there is any weakness in FF7R’s gameplay, it’s these. There are only three varieties to speak of: go to a place and kill a big thing, go to a place and kill a bunch of little things, or search aimlessly around a place for X number of objects without the use of your mini-map. While the aftermath of these quests provides some compelling story details, completing them isn’t compelling at all. In particular the “hide and seek” quests were incredibly annoying since they usually amounted to one of the “kill stuff” quests in disguise, but with your mini-map disabled, which I would not call compelling gameplay.

But hey, you can ignore side-quests without really missing anything, and trust me, everything else is golden. This is a game that I completed and then IMMEDIATELY started again. That’s how great the experience was.

Presentation

FF7R is pushing the poor PS4 to its limits. While it looks and sounds amazing, it must use every trick in the book to pull it off. You are constantly slowed down to a crawl as you traverse the map as the PS4 struggles to load in the next area. It’s better than having load screens, but it’s an obvious stall for time.

Textures are super detailed, but they pop in constantly. You’ll be looking at a fuzzy sign going “what’s that say” until it pops in, in brilliant HD a second later. The same goes for the textures of the character's hair and clothes, sometimes appearing fuzzy in the first few seconds of cutscenes.

The framerate is not constant at all, slowing down both in the map and in battle depending on how much is going on. Animations can sometimes be janky too, clipping through models and generally not interacting with other models in the right way.

And despite all this, I have to say that Square did a bang-up job on the presentation of FF7R. While I can certainly notice tearing along the edges where the PS4 can’t keep up (and boy does this make me excited for the PS5’s built in SSD) Square does a decent enough job of hiding them, and in return we get one of the best looking games on the platform.

All the characters are lovingly rendered with incredible attention given to every tiny detail. It’s as if the concept art from the original leaped off the page and came to life. Battle effects are fantastic, with even simple limit breaks being turned into giant anime spectacles. Speaking of anime spectacles, some of the cutscenes really go overboard, especially in the end game, and I ate up every second of it.

The voice acting is top notch too. The cast does such a great job of representing every character the way I heard them in my head back in 1997. From Barret’s over-the-top Mr. T impression, to Cloud’s soft spoken try-hard merc with a heart of gold persona, to Aerith’s plucky and kind demeanor in a world of despair, every voice actor gives it their all and it shows.

Heck, even the menu design is great. From the returning familiar blue of the menu’s backdrop, to the way the U.I shows up during cinematic battle cutscenes to keep you in the action, it’s clear that a ton of thought was put into every single detail of the game’s presentation. If not for the fact that this is clearly more than the PS4 can handle, I’d have given it a perfect score.

The Nostalgia Factor

Look. It’s impossible to treat this as if it were just a new game. As I said before, FF7 is one of the most important games in RPG history, frequently cited as one of the best games of all time. If I really removed myself from the original and tried to look at this as being a completely new game, then all I can say is, you’ll probably enjoy it. Some things will feel random, mostly because they are throwback references to stuff that happened in the original 1997 release, but for the most part, this is still one of Square Enix’s best productions in this generation.

But for the returners, this is something even greater. It’s a product that Square could have only made, right now, in this moment, in this culture, with this technology. It’s not just a retelling of events, it’s a statement about remake culture in general. It’s a grand project involving the original FF7 staff, retelling events the way they saw them back then, and how they want to see them now. It’s a magnum opus for Square, a swan song for the PS4, and so much more.

Yes, some people will be upset with the liberties the team took with the story but remember this isn’t some new team messing with a classic. These are the original storytellers pushing us to view their original work of art in new ways.

Look, I’m not going to spoil anything, but I will say that the ending shook me in all the right ways. I know that a lot of fans are going to whine about it, but I hope that Square does not back down from their bold stance just because of fan out cry. I want to see where this goes, and right now it’s as important to me now as the original was back then.

And that’s a good way to describe FF7R. It’s not the same game we played. It’s not the original in any way. However, it is as important as the original. It’s retelling a story and telling a new one at the same time. It’s a revival of classic mechanics while modernizing them. It’s the most beautiful game on the PS4 while being one of the most graphically flawed. It’s a living contradiction, everything we wanted, and nothing we ever expected.

Games like that are rare, so treasure this one, at the very least until the next chapter comes out.