I didn't say it! Miyazaki did! Don't shoot the messenger.
It is ironic sometimes how life experience can end up drastically altering your perspective. Growing up, FF7 was a special game to me. It was full of memorable moments and characters that will stick with me for the rest of my life. When I first got wind of a possible FF7 remake with the reveal of the Playstation 3 tech demo, I was pretty ecstatic at the prospect of how epic it could be. Being able to go back and experience that world once more in glorious HD and take in every moment again with exquisite detail seems like it would be a dream come true. At least, it seems that way as I envisioned it in my head.
Time marched on however, and Square quickly quashed any rumors of an impending remake. The industry grew and changed; big AAA companies consolidated and homogenized. Taking risks in reviving old dead genres or trailblazing new ones were increasingly unattractive prospects to companies like Square. Trends need to be chased. Gameplay has to be market-tested with focus groups. We apparently even have to have an "ethics department" oversee things to make sure nobody is too offended by the material. What was once an industry I thought was driven purely by passion and fun as a kid had transformed into something else. And so, when it seemed as if all hope was lost and the long-rumored FF7 Remake had reached mythical Half-Life 3 status, suddenly at E3 2015 we were given the big announcement.
And once again, I was clamoring to my computer screen; frantically punching the letters into the YouTube search bar to find the trailer. It was like I was a kid all over again. And for a brief moment, I was excited again. The FF7 Remake is back in business, and now with even more advances in technology since then, they can go even further! The trailers certainly looked nice. Midgar never looked sharper. So why the ominous blog title?
Mostly for click-bait Well, it turns out I really do have some major conflicting feelings about this remake, so if you came to watch an old weeaboomer self-destruct over a video game, you won't be disappointed. Or maybe you will be and that's exactly why you clicked. Because you secretly enjoy watching the train crash, don't you? Sicko.
My first red flag went up as soon as I heard the characters actually speak. It only occurred to me after this that I never really thought out all the details that would be involved in producing a remake. See, as many may know, the original FF7 was an entirely text-based story. This caused many aspects to be left up to the imagination, and you could fill in your own blanks about what characters were supposed to sound like or how they should deliver a certain line of dialogue. Barret's dialogue in particular had its own special charm to it due to the fact that his more "colorful" language was hilariously censored with randomized symbols. In some ways it fundamentally creates a different atmosphere from voiced dialogue; it makes the game feel more like an interactive book rather than an interactive movie, which has its own unique appeals.
This realization unfortunately cascaded into many other uncomfortable thoughts for me. There was so much room for error in how Square could screw things up. Unnecessary changes to character designs, personalities, plot points, and so on that completely miss or undermine certain aspects of the original game. There is a lot that could go wrong.
Still, I've never been a big purist when it comes to source material, but even I have my sacred cows, and when it comes to messing with a masterpiece, you better come with good reasons any time you're going to make big changes to it. Nonetheless, switching to voiced dialogue is something I could manage to stomach; provided that it was done well. The problem was of course that it didn't sound right, which is why it immediately stuck out to me and flooded my mind with this rapid-fire chain of negative thoughts. These casting choices felt stiff and generic; serviceable for an average video game perhaps, but FF7 isn't your average game.
As I see it, there are three key ingredients to FF7, which are crucial in order to capture the essence of the original. Paramount among them is its soundtrack, which creates such a distinctive mood and atmosphere throughout the game that permeates every emotion you feel along the way. Second is its story, which is not merely about your generic band of quirky anime heroes, but characters that actually carry deep scars with relatable themes at a much more personal level. It has some dramatic, hard-hitting emotional moments, but also boasts a surprising amount of humor along the way, despite the often dire stakes involved. And lastly is its flashy customizable combat system, which shows off impressive spectacles with its summons and limit break attacks. Based on these initial trailers, it seemed like Square was only getting bits and pieces of these three elements kind of right, and even that came with big caveats.
So given that this isn't just your typical throwaway video game story that only exists to set up arbitrary goals in the gameplay, getting quality voice acting is important if you want those dramatic moments to land. After seeing these early trailers though, I was not reassured. Luckily, now that there has been more material released in the months leading up to launch, I've felt more relieved. I'm not sure if it's just something about the way the trailers were cut together and edited, but seeing the dialogue in full context with proper timing in the actual demo of the game, the characters sounded a lot better, and in fact I'm happy to report that Barret sounds almost exactly as I would have imagined him to.
But that's only a glimpse at the beginning of the game, and there are still more problems of concern. The fully re-orchestrated soundtrack faithfully recreates many of the game's iconic themes to a degree, but I feel it comes at a high cost. On one level, it can often sound more cinematic and feel more like there is an epic scope to the story, but FF7 was a game that juggled both big and small moments, and the constantly sweeping orchestra can kind of miss out on capturing that range. Not only that, but the reuse of the same orchestral instruments for every track has resulted in a more homogenized, less diverse soundtrack, and the use of strings and horns to cover the bulk of melodies makes many of the tracks sound too soft or clean compared to the original; lacking the grit and impact. Consequently, this causes them to feel a little flat and less memorable, despite otherwise being serviceable in their own right.
Just take this comparison of the "Mako Reactor" theme for example.
Here is the original:
And here is the remake:
There's just so much more of a sense of grunge and dirtiness to the original; you can feel the industrial vibes of navigating a mako reactor. The remake on the other hand may faithfully recapture the sense of ominousness, but misses out on these other characteristics that make each track feel distinct. These might sound like nitpicks to someone who's never played the original, but FF7's soundtrack is such an incredibly iconic and important element; the atmosphere that it creates adds so much to the impact of every scene in the game. On some level, it may be impossible to fully do it justice simply by its nature and how the synthesized timbres are a product of their time. Still, I think the re-orchestration could have gone a long way to bridge that gap by making more of an effort to rely on at least some synthesized sounds rather than almost exclusively working with a live orchestra. As a result, newcomers playing this version of Final Fantasy VII really are missing out on some unforgettable tunes, even if the melodies are often the same in certain respects.
And then there's the character redesigns. Now look, I'm not going to #BoobGate over Tifa or anything. Frankly, her bust size was always in flux anyway, as the cutscenes featured ginormous watermelons while her battle tits were more believably big and her chibi knockers were just average, so her canon coconut capacity was always up for interpretation. And now that I've run out of synonyms for boobies, my main objection is that the new additions just feel over-designed, so they end up taking away from the simplicity and iconicness of her original look. I don't think it is an unreasonable ask to simply not fix what isn't broken about a classic character design. And given that a much more faithful modernization of Tifa was already done for Dissidia NT in the same year that FF7R was announced, I don't understand why they couldn't just stick with that. Same deal with Barret's sunglasses. It's dark and smoggy in Midgar; what are you shielding your eyes from? These are silly, unnecessary additions.
Aeris too would have an unrecognizable face if it weren't for the fact that her outfit was at least mercifully left alone. Her original concept art and in-game models actually had more of a mature look to them, which created an interesting juxtaposition with her playful personality. It helped add to the sense that she was actually wise beyond her years and could look after herself. She had been evading the Turks on her own for quite some time before Cloud came along after all, and she is canonically supposed to be older than Tifa by a couple years, yet she looks younger now. But who cares. We gotta dial up the waifu for the new kids.
Well I care. Imagine if for 20 years you've known Mario to look a certain way and all of the sudden some smug dude approaches you and says, "Nuh-uh, this is the new canon," and he proceeds to show a picture of Mario in his classic plumber outfit, but now there's some extra belts and straps strung here and there, his big white gloves have been shrunk, he's wearing a pair of sunglasses for no reason, and fuck it, he shaved his mustache and decided to grow a beard too. Sure he's still got the red and blue color scheme with the classic Mario cap, but now it's a cluttered clusterfuck and it's just not the Mario I know and love. And oh by the way, his name was a mistranslation; it was actually "Marioth" all along. You will now address him as such.
Mmmk. Fine. It's just a video game anyway. I guess. It is what it--NO. NOOOOOOO!
We've made too many compromises already; too many retreats. They invade our space, and we fall back; assimilate entire worlds, and fall back. Not again. The line must be drawn HERE.
OK, I'm just taking a Star Trek quote out of context now. Anyway, point is, these are the problems you run into when you decide to dig up a beloved 20-year-old game and tinker with it like you're George Lucas.
But alright, I can even learn to deal with the unnecessary tinkering of the character designs. Honestly, they're not as drastically overdone as our friend Marioth, even if still a downgrade. So long as all the important story beats are still intact, that's what really counts, right?
[WARNING: Minor spoilers for the beginning of FF7 and its remake ahead.]
But unfortunately the tinkering couldn't stop there. It's just minutes after the opening bombing mission when Nomura already couldn't resist splooging Sephiroth fanservice all over the screen. And it couldn't just be once or twice, or even isolated to brand new sequences that don't interrupt the original story beats.
In one of the worst offenses, Nomura takes what should have been a short, simple, and cute moment shared between Cloud and Aeris as they meet for the first time, and instead dials up the animu to 11 with Sephiroth hallucinations sending Cloud into a mental breakdown while some random Harry Potter dementors are swirling around Aeris all at the same time. Like, what the fuck is even happening? This is just supposed to be a cute little scene where Cloud is some passerby that bumps into Aeris and she hands him a flower for 1 gil. It was a nice moment precisely because of how mundane the exchange was. It was sort of a chance meeting between two people that had no idea later on they would meet again and become entwined in a much grander journey together. Sure, FF7 was always a crazy fantasy story full of animu bullshit, but I also think part of what made it stand out and keep the characters relatable was because it could have these smaller grounded moments too. By cluttering this scene up with so much incomprehensible bloat, it's actually taking away from it.
And then there's other scenes that have been oddly truncated, like when Cloud escapes Shinra by jumping on top of a train that also happens to be the same train the rest of Avalanche escaped on. In the remake, the conversation that Barret has with the rest of the team is very brief and uneventful before Cloud comes bursting in to let them know that he made it out alive, but in the original this was actually a longer sequence where everyone was really worried that Cloud might not have escaped. Barret was trying his hardest to act like he didn't care, but you could tell he was really getting torn up inside because he was constantly slamming the box next to him and having a very short temper with everyone that he normally only reserves for Cloud. It was a funny passive-aggressive way of showing that Barret really did care for Cloud despite all the animosity between them, but this whole sequence is lost in the remake, and for no discernible reason.
They even cut the part where Cloud and Jessie were the last to hop off the railcar and she wipes the smudge off of Cloud's face. I thought this remake was supposed to be all about selling Jessie hard as the new waifu on the block; I don't get it.
And this is only the tip of the iceberg concerning the story. There are numerous other changes that are problematic for different reasons, like how Reno's introduction just comes off as another generic cackling bad guy to defeat, whereas the Turks originally were more professional and subdued, yet goofy with a deadpan sense of humor. The comedic delivery of Reno stepping over the flowers in the church is totally lost on the remake.
Finally, we get to the combat. As I've said before, I'm not a purist. I don't expect this to be an exact 1:1 remake. Although I do view the original game in very high regard, there was still plenty of room for improvement and expansion. I like the idea of adding more individual abilities that are unique to each character, as classic FF7 almost entirely relied on materia customization to let you choose how to differentiate them. This is a welcome addition in the remake. But is it too much to ask that we not change entire genres from turn-based to action RPG? You want to jack it up with more fancy spectacle and effects; add new abilities; retool the materia system a bit? I'm down for all that. I just ask that you only preserve the spirit and feel of the original game, because now it's becoming something entirely different, and it's completely unnecessary. With Pokémon Sword and Shield now having sold upwards of 16 million copies since launch, their appeal certainly hasn't suffered from sticking to a traditional turn-based combat system. Why is it so hard for Final Fantasy to do the same?
This drastic change in combat system also has the effect of removing one of the most iconic jingles from the game: the victory fanfare music. Since it's all done in real-time now, there aren't separate transitions between the overworld and combat sequences to allow for this. Now again, I get it, on the one hand it's a small thing. But it's still nonetheless an integral part of FF7. You hear it throughout the entire game. Imagine once more that Nintendo was doing a Super Mario 64 remake, but they removed the fanfare and Mario shouting "Here we goooo!" every time he acquires a star. Yeah, it's a small thing, but it's god damn sacrilege to do that!
I do believe most of these issues were avoidable. Barring how difficult it is to re-orchestrate FF7's legendary soundtrack, we could have otherwise had a remake that ticks all boxes for everyone. It could have offered something new while still preserving the old. Storylines could have been expanded upon, new combat abilities and upgrades could have been added while still retaining a turn-based system, and everything could have been wrapped up nicely in a glossy new package afforded by the Playstation 4's hardware; all the while keeping the original story beats intact. I still believe the idea of fleshing out Midgar further than the original game is a worthy goal to take on; it is such an interesting place full of possibilities and potential, and in many cases the remake succeeds at this. It just didn't need to take all these other needless risks that would inevitably be polarizing. In the end, I can't help but feel like it was a missed opportunity in that regard.
Hopefully by now I've illustrated that my criticisms are not just about how the remake doesn't follow its source material as faithfully as it could, but also that many of the things it changes don't actually enhance the game; they take away from it. I don't care if you want to add more stuff to Final Fantasy VII. Just make sure that when you do, it isn't for the worse.
Now at this point you might be asking, but Rotty, the original game still exists! Why not just stick to that then? Well that's the big elephant in the room, isn't it? But it's not that simple. See, the original FF7 is now over 20 years old. It's never been given a proper remaster to update it for modern audiences before, which means for many newcomers to this game, the remake will likely be their first and only experience with Final Fantasy VII because the original just looks too dated for their standards. In other words, it feels like this game is to some degree rewriting an important piece of gaming history. It is erasing a classic from existence, as more people are drawn to the remake while ignoring the original. News, discussions, merchandise, and fan art are now all about these new revisionist history takes on the characters; not the ones that I remember. I can't just ignore it.
To reiterate myself on another post I did regarding this years ago, I guess what irks me so much about this remake is that now the game will be introduced to a new generation of players, and much like 3DS updates to games like Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask before it, this remake could have served as an opportunity to preserve and update a classic, which in turn could motivate modern players to perhaps explore some more classics that they might have missed out on. But now that there are such dramatic changes, new audiences aren't really getting a taste of gaming history. My greatest concern ironically is that this new game might actually turn out great, but not a masterpiece. Because then the majority of players will flock to it and sacrifice quality gameplay and story in favor of a shiny facelift because it's merely "good enough", while the original iconic game is left in the dust, and newer generations will wonder why FF7 is viewed as such a classic.
Yet even I must admit that some of the original visuals are hard to put up with nowadays. While I do happen to think the game still holds up in most regards, it was nonetheless the first Final Fantasy game to be designed for a 3D platform, and it shows. I can certainly understand why it would be such a hard ask to just tell some people to go download one of the many available ports and play it as-is. Thankfully, we have one saving grace in all this. The PC version has been around for a long time, and not only can it probably run on any old potato computer produced in the last 10 years, but thanks to extensive work done by the modding community, it's more or less received its own unofficial remaster by means of fan updates. And with even just some modest cleanups to the game's pre-rendered backgrounds and character models, its stylized presentation can still be highly charming after all these years.
Modded FF7 with new field models and upscaled backgrounds.
Unfortunately once again, to achieve these kinds of results is prohibitively challenging, as FF7's modding tools are notoriously unwieldy to work with. In the coming months I hope to put out a guide to help streamline the installation process for those interested, as this is in my view the ideal way to experience the game, but in the meantime, this is frustratingly the current disposition of the franchise, and it's rather disappointing to me that Square couldn't put out their own official remaster before attempting something like this, as I would be much more receptive to changes knowing that new audiences still have other accessible options to turn to for the original experience.
Redesigned combat models styled after the original concept art.
To be clear, none of what I'm saying means that I think FF7 Remake is a bad game. From everything that I've seen of it so far, there has been a lot to like. I dig just about everything they've done to expand on Jessie and the Avalanche crew. The game unquestionably looks gorgeous. The combat system does look fun even in spite of it not being what I wanted. I will more than likely be picking it up for myself when it becomes available on PC or if I manage to snag a PS5, and I'll be doing my best to tolerate all of Nomura's revisionist animu nonsense so I can just enjoy all the other stuff that is actually pretty cool about it.
The main point that I want to hammer home if anything is that this is not a proper recreation or substitute for the original game, and absolutely should NOT be treated as such. If you at all end up enjoying this remake, you owe it to yourself to go back and experience the classic. Don't prove Miyazaki's prophecy true. The original game's legacy deserves to be preserved.