A LOOK AT FINAL FANTASY VII REMAKE INTEGRADE
Genres: Action RPG
Platforms: PC, PS4, PS5
Developer: Square Enix Business Division 1
Publisher: Square Enix
Final Fantasy VII Remake Intergrade is an updated version of the 2020 remake of the ground-breaking 1997 PS1 RPG, Final Fantasy VII. Actually, it's a reimagining of the first five hours of that thirty hour game (alternatively it's around 1/4th of the game's script, so it does make good ground when it comes to story). Remaking the entirety of Final Fantasy VII would be quite a task and the section of the game they've chosen to focus on here would make for a first in a trilogy or 'quadrilogy' of games, perhaps.
There's so much to discuss with this remake, which has been on people's tongues since 2005 when a tech demo showed the iconic intro of the PS1 original rendered on the then groundbreaking PS3. Now 15 years later we have a game that comfortably looks far better than that tech demo, how far we've come!
Why the Original Final Fantasy VII Holds a Special Place in My Heart
When I was a kid in the early '00s I had a PS1, and a bunch of magazines that would rate Final Fantasy VII as one of the best that the console had to offer. I only played titles like Crash Bandicoot, Spyro the Dragon or racing titles, so upon finding Final Fantasy VII in a random second-hand shop while accompanying my parents on a weekend out, I asked for them to get it for me. I think I was probably 8 years old when I first played it and was a bit confused but utterly engaged by the game. The concept of a 'turn based RPG' was in my mind already because I'd played Pokémon on the Game Boy, but applying that style of gameplay to a gritty, cyberpunk-fantasy hybrid where the opening mission is, as a mercenary hired by a gang of eco-terrorists, you're assisting them as they bomb a 'reactor' which is powering the city, at the cost of the planet's lifeforce.
It was one of the first pieces of media I consumed that wasn't aimed at children primarily. Characters would swear and the plot had some heavy themes and quite a lot of death. As a kid I never got much further than the first five hours that this shiny new "Remake" covers, which is useful for this instalment because it's the part of the game I have the strongest nostalgic attachment to and have played through multiple times. I returned and completed the full game as a teenager and found that, despite it feeling a bit dated graphically and having some dodgy translations, it was a pretty great game! Definitely one that has to be lauded in how large its scope is.
The original Final Fantasy VII has had calls for a remake for years and years. Its limitations became dated very quickly and while the game is definitely still playable and fun, there are reasons why a remake would be a cool idea. Two major things are that the character models are undeniably dated:
Though the backgrounds still look great and the music is classic stuff. The turned based RPG battle system is fine, but it's also a bit slow and will likely try a newcomer's patience. Also the translation from Japanese left quite a lot to be desired (with some infamous mistakes) leaving certain character moments and story reveals feeling a bit clumsily delivered through the blue text boxes. It's a great story, it's a great setting and it has great characters that could expanded upon for a remake.
But Final Fantasy VII Became More than Just One Game...
Final Fantasy VII exploded the franchise to new heights, however the nature of the Final Fantasy series at this point was that each numbered entry was a new world and characters. Each game had shared mechanics and motifs, but you could pick any main numbered game in the series as a starting point. This meant that Final Fantasy VIII had a new world and characters, as did Final Fantasy IX and so on.
But in the 2000's Square decided to expand on certain titles. Their flagship PS2 title Final Fantasy X was the first mainline Final Fantasy title to receive a direct sequel, slightly awkwardly titled Final Fantasy X-2. Also around this time the world of Final Fantasy VII was set to be revived with prequels and sequels. It's worth noting that while prequels had plenty of options to explore, one of the most exciting parts of Final Fantasy VII was that its ending was captivatingly ambiguous, questions left at the end of the game are for its benefit, not really ones that need to be answered.
The existence of a sequel would throwaway the ambiguous nature of the ending. BUT in 2004 they started rolling out an expanded 'Compilation of Final Fantasy VII'. Starting with a Japan only prequel titled Before Crisis, a full-fledged CGI movie sequel titled Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children which takes place after the game had finished and mostly offered nothing new story-wise and instead offered fan-servicey fight scenes.
2006 gave a oddly distinct sequel/spin-off titled Dirge of Cerberus which was a third person shooter / RPG that starred the optional character Vincent Valentine and expanded upon certain aspects of the original game in ways that were clearly meant to gain more mileage out of its setting. An anime movie titled Last Order simply shows the events of a key flashback sequence from the original game in greater detail.
Then the last big game we got before this remake was 2007's Crisis Core which was a prequel that also heaped on a lot of goofy lore and ret-cons to certain characters and events. At least that game was fun and had some decent character moments to expand on the original game in worthwhile ways.
All this is to say that by the time the Remake was officially in development, Final Fantasy VII was not just a single PS1 game anymore. There were sequels, prequels, ret-cons, new characters etc. It became obvious from trailers that the remake wasn't going to be a 1:1 retelling of the original game, but to what extent it would stray from the path and what pieces of expanded media it would choose to include in its new canon remained to be seen.
This is somewhat worrying as the ret-cons made in games like Crisis Core and the mere existence of sequels meant that the story of Final Fantasy VII was on track to be a lot more lame and convoluted than necessary.
How is THE REMAKE?
Released in 2020 for the PS4 and then re-released as FINAL FANTASY VII REMAKE INTERGRADE for PS5 and PC in late 2021 and early 2022 retrospectively, it controversially only actually remakes the first 5 hours of the original game, while stretching it out to about 30 hours. Sounds slightly insane, but it begins to make some sense when you realise what the project actually is going for.
Booting up the game and starting for the first time, it's impossible to deny the magic that over twenty years of progress can have on making the original's opening feel so much more alive:
Here we have a game that looks better than the CGI movie from 2006, the setting of Midgar is immediately brought to life by showing a glimpse of a typical day in the industrial city. The pan up to the title card was once considered monumental in 1997 updated for 2020 feels similarly monumental in the detail in which this cyberpunk landscape is displayed.
VISUALS! WORLD BUILDING! MUSIC!
So from a great intro to the end of the game, this is eye candy. There's times it feels like a movie, the transitions from cutscenes to gameplay is almost entirely seamless and the amount of detail put into character models, animations and the environments is sensational. One aspect that does hold up of the original PS1 Final Fantasy VII is the atmosphere it creates, the city of Midgar feels dystopian, yet has lots of off-kilter character and charm. The slums might be dingy, but the people living there are trying to make it work regardless. Combined with a fantastic score from composer Nobuo Uematsu adds a huge amount of character.
Remake features reworked versions of the score, some dramatic orchestral versions as well as fun electronic remixes depending on the situation. They nailed the soundtrack, there was never a point where I felt like they ruined a song from the original at all.
Each location from the original game is present and lovingly recreated and expanded on. The areas such as the slums invoke the same feeling that the briefer times spent there in the original. They're a joy to spend extra time in for the most part and the technological advancements allow for more involved exploration. It's a plus to spend more time in the slums as to empathise with the plight of the characters and get an even greater idea of the unfair systems in which the city of Midgar operates under, with a disparate class system for those who live under or above the plate.
One thing that the remake really makes use of in its free flowing camera is that you can now look up at the plate which covers the undercity of Midgar. The scope, intimidating size and unique structure of Midgar is really played up well because of this, as well as it just looking incredible:
Generally the sense of scale is hugely impressive, areas are expanded on mostly in ways in which feel natural and exciting. Blanks in the original game are filled in to make for a more complete feeling section of the undercity, which you can freely explore at a certain point in the game. It's an RPG world that feels very alive. Similarly you now spend far more time above the plate and this highlights the disparity between the two parts of the city well. The upper city feeling more liveable, but still with an heavy industrial edge.
Areas like Aerith's house are so lovingly recreated that it's hard not to be impressed. They really went all out. It's a lot of work for an area you don't actually spend too much time in, but visually in the original it was a key area in building up the character of Aerith and offering some visual relief after all the slums and industrial reactors you had been trekking through.
However, the crown jewel of Final Fantasy VII Remake is Wall Market. The sleazy, neon lit "entertainment quarter" of the undercity. This portion of the original game was hugely memorable for a number of reasons and the expansion it's received for the Remake is amazing. The atmosphere here is perfect and a location that's filled to the brim with character. I spent a good amount of time here just soaking in the vibes, it's one of the best RPG towns ever, the attention to detail - both in lovingly recreating the original's area and expanding on it, just feels perfect. Even better, the silliness that this area had, with the over the top 'Honey Bee Inn' and crossdressing plotline is not only kept intact, but lovingly saluted. The atmosphere in this area is unmatched!
Some other visual highlights has to be a new addition of the climb to the upper city, the setting is changed to a pink sunset, mirroring the character's journey into the final challenges. You can look across at the undercity and the recent destruction caused by the nefarious Shinra Corporation, it's a great build-up to when you finally get to the main Shinra Building to finish things off.
The Shinra Building itself was always a fun location in the original game too. The company might be evil, but the place was still filled with regular office workers going about their day. Thankfully despite the ominously sterile reception area, the building has a ton of charm. There's even the addition of a tacky little exhibit showing the various projects and history of the Shinra corporation that you're ushered through before getting to the main building.
My only real issue with the visuals was that the lighting felt a bit bugged sometimes. Entering and exiting buildings would sometimes leave you blinded for a second or so as the game adjusts. Not a huge issue though, the game otherwise looks and sounds excellent!
But how does it play? Well the slower turn based combat is streamlined into a faster action based RPG system, similar to Square's previous mainline Final Fantasy title Final Fantasy XV. However there's more tactical strategy involved this time as you can enter a menu to slow things down in order to select different attacks or magic. You can also switch between whichever set of up[ to three character's are in your party at a button press which is very fun, you can set up a character to launch a flurry of attacks then switch to a different one to heal or cast magic, it feels great, one of the best Final Fantasy battle systems we've had thus far.
It's a lot of fun and the seamless transitions between exploring an area and battles make this a breeze to play. Comparatively the random battles of the original with an intro, extended attack animations and a victory screen are dated pace breakers. The remake nails the seamless nature of battles, it's exactly how you'd want it all these years later. Particularly big boss battles feel cinematic, but still strategic and challenging. There's a great flow from stage to stage of a boss fight where a cutscene feels as if it's part of the battle.
One very notable missing aspect of this game however is the lack of a playable Red XIII. Red is introduced at the tail end of the game, however there is still hours of battles left at this point and the character does seem to be programmed to take part in battles, so it's a surprise that even in the upgraded 'INTERGRADE' edition of the game he remains a non-playable passenger. It's not a deal breaker by any means, but it feels odd that the INTERGRADE version allows us to play as Yuffie before we get a go at Red XIII.
In terms of this remake the biggest complaint for me would be the addition of filler sections. Of course you may be inclined to think that stretching out 5 hours of the original game to 30 hours means that there's 25 hours of filler. But it's not like that. Most of the areas are expanded and there's a lot more time spent soaking in the atmosphere and making the most of an excellent setting. That being said there's a few parts of the game where you re-tread old ground, namely a second visit to the sewers that really should've been left optional. There's also a strange visit to an underground lab which exists to excite the fans(?) of the expanded FFVII universe which implies the existence of all sorts of the retcons and weird additions to the universe that the 'Compilation of Final Fantasy VII' added. It's a segment that feels woefully misplaced, especially due to its proximity to the sewer re-tread.
Side-quests are also a mixed bag. They're often better than the dull fetch quests of Final Fantasy XV but a lot of mindless wandering is involved. But it's nice to keep these optional for completionists or those who really want to see everything the game has to offer.
As you might expect, stretching a poorly translated 5 hours into 30 hours of millions upon millions of dollar production value means the plot has been expanded upon, maybe to lengths wherein you start to question if this "series" of games will actually end up a "remake" of the original FFVII or end up something new. By the end of the game it's actually pretty clear that they intend to stray pretty far from the original's storyline, which invokes both fear and curiosity into my heart.
For about 80% of this game though it does follow the story of FFVII, with some new parts added to flesh out characters and the setting. The biggest upgrade that this game has is in the little character interactions. Now that the characters will make idle chatter as they go about battles. This also helps character growth feel more natural as you progress and by the finish, you've got a team that has great chemistry. Seeing the characters bond in real time is a welcome addition for sure. They nail Cloud's reluctance to open up, which transitions into a more selfless hero by the close of this chapter.
I like that the ethics and ambiguity of the conflict between the terrorist cell AVALANCHE, which the lead characters are part of and the Shinra corporation is brought a bit closer to frame. This time after bombing the reactor in the opening, you're left to see the impact it has on the upper city residents. You see a lot of Shinra workers are just doing their best to help the people. It's an interesting position for the protagonists to take and inspires thought in the player. It's also really cool to hear how the various residents of the upper and undercity react to the acts that you take part in. It's cool to have differing views come across.
One new addition for the remake is an increased presence from the big baddie Sephiroph. Who didn't really appear in the first 5 hours of the original game. Here he plagues Cloud with visions, sometimes feeling a little too much, too early. Though by the close of the game it does point towards a greater part in a new story that the sequel will fully embark into.
Another slightly puzzling addition is the character of Roche, who makes an early, seemingly knowingly over the top appearance. His character is absolutely too much, he's comically over the top and seems larger than life, in an already far larger than life universe. Him spinning around on a motorcycle and demanding to duel Cloud just feels insane. It's funny, but we're left unsure of his role given he's a new character. Assumedly he's going to be a reoccurring character in the sequels. At the very least, he's a memorable addition.
One of the best additions though is the expanded role of side-characters Biggs, Wedge and Jessie. The other members of Barrett's AVALANCHE troupe are fleshed out each in nice ways and the aforementioned appearance of Roche is paired with a welcome detour mission which spends time with the three, making their role in the game feels bigger and for us as the audience to get more engaged with them.
Voice acting is pretty good across the board, though sometimes the direction lets the game down. If you're familiar with Japanese games you'll be used to the dramatic pauses and abundance of "huh..." and anime grunts. It's never too much, but it does sometimes feels strange to be playing such a high-budget game that has such weirdly paced dialogue scenes, accompanied by incredible visual direction at the same time. It's sometimes a strange disparity.
As a fan of the original one thing that powered a large part of the story is lessened if not completely removed here as well. In the original game, there's a real sense of urgency. Things are happening fast and there's no time for extended side-quests. When Aerith is kidnapped and Shinra destroy AVALANCHE's home base, there's a immediacy to their quest for revenge. Here it's absent as you detour into an underground lab, then revisit the sewers and optionally do hours of side quests. I always like the urgency of the original game and it's a shame some of that wasn't carried over here.
This newer 'INTERGRADE' version of the game features a new side-story, using the character of Yuffie, who doesn't appear in the original game until after where this remake finishes up. It's an enjoyable 5-8 hour addition that lets you play as a new character and includes some fun new additions.
Most notably, Yuffie's characterisation feels just right. The story here isn't entirely needed but as an optional aside to tide us over until the next game, it's fun enough. The secondary character of Sonon is a bit of an uninspired cliché, but Yuffie carries the plot with her relentless optimism, that is somewhat bruised by the finish.
The new gameplay features involve being able to synchronise with your battle partner Sonon, for team-up attacks. Would be cool to see this implmented in the sequel for the main gang. Yuffie's mix of range and close-quarters combat feels fresh compared to all the other playable characters and is a lot of fun. There's also a new, pretty fleshed out minigame introduced based on Fort Condor from the original game. Similar to the original it's a tower defence game that's fairly simple but has room for depth and a charming and easy to understand interface.
The end of this little side story seemingly confirms that this 'series' is not going ot remake the original FFVII but instead tell a new story and expand upon the existing media. It's an interesting choice. Also this portion canonizes Dirge of Cerberus in an undeniable fashion whic hpoints towards things going absolutely off the rails in the next part. But we'll have to see!
It's really good! Though I wish that the game was more of a 20-25 hour experience, as some filler segments that push it upwards to 30 hours feel unnecessary in the compulsory form. It makes me less inclined to revisit anytime soon, built the achievement in lovingly updating Midgar, the characters and the battle into current tech is a massive one.
It will be interesting to see where they go next. The next entry in this supposed series will seemingly be the make or break point for whether the direction in which they're taking this new story is worthwhile or not. For now though, we've got a loving tribute to the original FFVII which eyes towards becoming something even bigger.