Final Fantasy 7 Remake* is a decent movie, telling a good story, awkwardly bolted onto an okay but frustrating game. It suffers from, in my opinion, two primary flaws that have similar impacts on the player, but was a pretty good time. I’ll start with the bad stuff.
Movies enjoy a certain degree of prestige in our culture, and video games don’t yet. They will, of course; but in the meantime, sometimes video games that want that prestige ahead of schedule seek to co-opt it by becoming, functionally, movies. FF7R is best understood as a movie, or perhaps a miniseries (it takes upwards of 40 hours!), with brief moments of interactivity, and approximately 3 sections where you are granted some agency.
The game is too railroaded. You have an objective highlighted on your map, and you walk towards it, and periodically there’s a mandatory encounter, and periodically you lose control of your camera. You cannot explore side paths. Side paths exist to let you know that you’ll be back in this area later and railroaded onto a different path. When you try to explore, the game flashes a “no” sign at you and makes your character turn around. Sometimes, when you walk into a room, you’re not allowed to leave it, while still having “control” of your character to go walk to another place and start a cutscene.
Most sections of the game are one long hallway. This is, of course, true in a topological sense of most RPGs, but here it really feels like it. The branches you can explore are short and marked on the map and have, mostly, a commodity item. Most of the time you see something that looks interesting and isn’t in the direction of the objective, you try to walk towards it and aren’t allowed, and then you sigh and go
watch a cutscene. Eventually you give up trying to play the game and just resign yourself to watching a movie punctuated by walking down a hallway and fighting a couple battles. The game resists being played at every turn.
It’s well known that people feel more pain when losing something than they feel happiness when gaining the same amount. Like, having someone give you $100 feels great, but having $100 stolen from you feels much worse. In FF7R, the player is granted more control over their character in combat than in traditional JRPGs. This is good. However, that control is frequently taken away. This is proportionally worse. I understand why there is some interruption – if you were just an unstoppable force the whole time, you’d have no skin in the game. It just happens way too much.
I suspect it’s because the game wants you to really engage with the combat system, but there’s no reason to – your party is generally overpowered, and you can get away with just wailing on enemies however you like in almost all circumstances. I’m sure some people find the combat system compelling and fun, but you can ignore it and still win all the battles pretty handily while periodically getting pissed off that you can’t do what you want.** Overall, my choices seem to be doing combat the way I like to in RPGs and being annoyed, or playing what feels like an incredibly bad fighting game. Neither choice is appealing.
Perhaps more accurately, the game wants the bosses to be MMO raids. But raids are fun because you’re doing them with your group of friends and you’re working together and you can laugh about it when someone steps in the bad and you reset. Doing raid mechanics alone is just miserable.
No Fun Allowed
In general, the game isn’t very fun. It’s pretty, and as I said the story is good, but it’s not fun. Every time you want to do something for fun, the game refuses and forces you to get back on the main track and watch more cutscenes. You can never explore, and when you try you are punished. You have to do combat exactly the way the game wants, or you are punished – and not punished by losing, punished by having your control intermittently stripped away, which is much worse. The frequent removal of camera control is shockingly annoying. It sounds like such a minor point, and maybe it’s just because of all the other ways your control is removed, but it’s so annoying. I want to look at the world the developers built, and they want to stop me from doing that?
Overall, I don’t think I’ve ever played another game that is so adamantly opposed to player agency at all points.
The game is quite pretty. It’s not as pretty as it should be – it’s less pretty than, say, Horizon: Zero Dawn – but it’s still very nice to look at. It might look better on a PS4 Pro, which I don’t have. The story, as I said, is good. The quality of life is fairly high, although load times are brutal if you’re retrying a fight or whatnot. The parts that are fun are pretty fun. I suspect that people who really like movies would enjoy it more than I did. Once in a while the fights happen to hit the line of mechanics-heavy enough to be challenging, but forgiving enough to be fun. It’s rare, but it happens, and those are good.
The best part of the game is Aerith, whose cheeky personality and profound empathy and goodness burn bright. She’s true to her original character, and her voice acting is really well done. The characters generally are well done. They kept the spirit of the original – there’s a lot of humour and a lot of cursing, for example; the amount of profanity is pretty surprising compared to modern fantasy settings – while ramping up the production values to 2020 levels.
Overall, I think you should probably play it if you liked the original Final Fantasy 7 so much that you want more of it.
*I believe the full title is, in fact, Final Fantasy 7 Remake, thus not calling it “The Final Fantasy 7 remake” or whatever. I’m wondering what they’ll call parts 2 and 3, given that they didn’t name it part 1. Redux? Reignited? Remix to Ignition?
**After writing this draft and before finishing it, I went and played the Airbuster fight in hard mode. This fight is a nonstop barrage of hard-to-predict attacks that stop your characters from moving for long periods, topped off with a phase where you mostly can’t hit the boss and, as far as I could figure out, can’t dodge its strongest attack. I ended up resetting half a dozen times because the mechanics were so demotivating. It felt actively hostile to the idea of fun.