First announced at E3 in 2015, the “Final Fantasy VII Remake” is a top-to-bottom reinterpretation of the original. As you’d expect, the visual difference between the two versions is vast. In place of the original’s low-polygon characters, the models in the remake appear similar to their CGI counterparts used in the game’s cutscenes. It’s clear from the jump that Square Enix has done all it can to ensure that the remake looks and sounds like the best thing that the company has ever produced.
The city of Midgar, where the game is set, is densely populated with NPCs and eye-catching locations. But while I have found it to be an enticing place to explore, I have not developed any non-superficial attachments to it or its residents. “Final Fantasy VII” is so high on bombast and low on subtlety that it’s impossible for me to value its story lines as anything other than the flimsy tissue that binds its spectacles together.
As millions of fans know, “Final Fantasy VII” follows the exploits of Cloud Strife, a dreamy-looking ex-soldier who peddles his services as a mercenary. At the start, Cloud falls in with Avalanche, a tight knit group of eco-warriors who are committed to undermining the Shinra Corporation, a company that props up a widespread system of economic inequality built on the unrestrained extraction of the planet’s resources. Shira is run by cookie-cutter villains such as the pretentiously-named Heidegger, who bears no resemblance to the German philosopher except in their relationship to a nefarious regime. (The real Heidegger was once a Nazi party member.) Maybe it’s just me, but in 2020 I find it strange to come across villains who laugh after voicing their plans as though the Joker provides the only template for a wicked temperament.
When it comes to asking an audience to suspend disbelief, “Final Fantasy VII” asks a lot. (One of Cloud’s teammates, Tifa, for example, wears a barely-there miniskirt into battle against mechs.) Consequently, I just let the story wash over me, preferring instead to focus on the lavish art direction and the skill with which scenes are framed. Actually, I found it easy to just go with it because the game mounts a formidable charm offensive. Need proof? Look online for a video of Cloud participating in a dance-off or sporting a dress in a ruse to get close to a crime lord.
Aside from the setting and the pageantry, I’ve found other parts of “Final Fantasy VII Remake” to be lackluster. In the thirty hours I’ve put into the game, I have yet to come across a memorable side quest — and I’ve done all that have been available. Running about town searching for missing cats and clearing away monsters from a gravesite for an ailing widower are activities that seem like they belong, and could have stayed, in an RPG from the 90s.
I wish I could say the combat made up for everything. And while it’s by no stretch bad, it’s not exceptional either — save for the nice animations that accompany the powerful entities you can summon into battle. When fighting the game’s upper-tier foes, it helps to cycle through the members in one’s party to make sure that each is making the best use of their special attacks. But this light tactical element is still underserved by boss fights which tend to drag out.
Some things just come to us in the wrong season of our lives. As a child, I remember hearing that the “Lord of the Rings” was one of the greatest things ever written, but when I read it as a 20-something, I was let down. I recalled that sentiment while playing “Final Fantasy VII.” It is a beautiful-looking game with a juvenile mind-set that’s fun to pass through but hard to be riveted by.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.