Fire and rubble are devouring the industrial city of Midgar, and you’re to blame. Or at least, you think you are. It wasn’t supposed to go down this way, and as you fight your way out of dodge before you’re caught, you hear scared and hurt citizens in mass panic and hysteria. You’re abandoning them in the mess you made. And you’re supposed to be the good guy.
The first three hours of any video game are the most important. If you’re not hooked by that point, chances are you want your money back. But too often are we stuck settling for games that just drag us along until the end. The Final Fantasy 7 remake had me contemplating for the first time ever for the franchise whether I was actually the good guy. Within the first three hours, I was already engulfed in the repercussions of my actions and their socio-political aftereffects. I was questioning everyone’s motive, and feeling for countless filler non-player characters. And I have played the original Final Fantasy 7 eight times over since I was a kid. I’m now 50 hours into this new game and still feeling the ramifications of those first three hours, a rarity in gaming.
Final Fantasy 7, the remake of which comes out Friday, April 10 on PS4, takes place in an industrial fantasy world where a corporation named Shinra is both ruining the planet and doing some really shitty stuff to its citizens. The game follows one specific cell of the rebel group Avalanche, and you primarily play as Cloud Strife, the dude with the big ass sword. (If you don’t know anything about this game, you’ve seen that sword; it’s an icon, like a Mario question block or one of Sonic’s rings.) Cloud is joined by Barret, a giant dude with a gun for an arm who’s one of my favorite characters in gaming (and who needs to be added into Mortal Kombat), along with Tifa, Aerith, Jessie, Biggs, Wedge, and others.
The chapter while escaping Midgar Sector 1 after the explosion, in those first three hours, is one of the most well-crafted, stunning levels I’ve played to date, in any video game. Cloud’s first job with Barret’s cell is to blow up the Sector 1 reactor, which saw our party attempting to escape from the cobblestoned cityscape of Midgar. That explosion was not intended to cause such damage or take lives, but due to some intervention (I’ll keep this as spoiler-free as possible), it is tenfold what it was meant to be. There’s panic, fires, an unknown number of casualties. The team is clearly shaken up.
Later in this chapter, Cloud confronts a shadow of Sephiroth, a big video game baddie and the mysterious war “hero” of old, along with meeting the wonderfully cheery Aerith. Both these crucial plot points happen while you walk by citizens of Midgar Sector 1, who all talk about the explosion: Some are scared for their family members who live in the blast zone, some have lost family members, some are concerned about the industrial ramifications, and everyone is terrified of the so-called “terrorists” who did it. Besides being visually gorgeous and introducing a battle skill to fend off larger hordes, the scene does an incredible job at setting up the ethically ambiguous path you’re headed down.
The thing that’s always made Final Fantasy, and specifically Final Fantasy 7, a gem of gaming is its use of complex storytelling about imperfect characters. Final Fantasy 7 is a fairytale land with real world problems; there’s industry, technology, swears, guns, but also that sense of wonder and magic. The elements blended mean we can relate to at least one of the characters and the problems they’re going through. Like them, we have good intentions but we don’t always make the right moves. At least the game gives us more power to sort out the conflicted boundaries. Instead of causing me anxiety as I realized I’ve changed since my rose-colored days playing as a kid, doing so gave me comfort.
Of course, if the characters and acting weren’t so damn charismatic, and the gameplay wasn’t so damn enthralling, there would be no way I’d feel as deeply for this Final Fantasy world. JRPGS and RPGS get a bad rap for subpar voice acting and writing, but here I didn’t find myself once sinking into my chair cringing, not even through the mid-battle dialogue. From the copious usage of the word “shit,” a personal favorite of mine, to Barret singing the classic Final Fantasy “Victory” tune after certain fights—it is all charming. Speaking of acting, Mark Hamill even shows up, and it’s glorious.
For its part, the gameplay in Final Fantasy 7 sets a new standard for how party-based RPGs should work (I’ve been playing at the normal, or hardest, difficulty). Players switch between any character in their party at any point, with a hit of a button. Beyond this, while fighting and dodging, you can manage other characters’ abilities if you don’t want to switch. Ultimately, you’re responsible for everyone. It’s a lot to keep track of, but few things have made me feel more badass than when I can line up insanely well-coordinated attacks. (The game slows to a near stop to allow players time, though not unlimited, to get their ducks in order.) Every attack is embellished and polished, and don’t even get me started on the graphic piece of art that is the summons. From Ifrit to Cactuars, every summon has beautiful moves that transform the entire battlefield.
There was a lot of worry about the Final Fantasy 7 remake, considering it only covered the Midgar section of the original game. Square Enix’s reboot of the series is episodic, and Midgar isn’t even half of the original title, and yet, playing it has taken me longer to date than my most asinine playthroughs of the original, and I’ve had a much better time with it. I’m happy they are drawing one saga out over many games, because I’ll take as much time with these characters as they’ll give me. After all, if Square Enix didn’t draw it out, those moments following the Sector 1 explosion would have been more rushed, and we would have lost a vital connection with the characters. The pain my party felt, now feels real. The pain and fear the citizens felt, now sounds real.
The Final Fantasy series is one that’s always been important to me, and few games in the last decade have given me that same sense of buying a game and booting it up for a junk food-filled night—you know, that excitement to see what was in store, before the days of imminent and immense spoilers. The Final Fantasy 7 remake somehow manages to feel like the same world, still Final Fantasy 7, while undergoing a complete and total overhaul. Any art of any kind that’s able to spark the potency of those emotions we had as kids, while still connecting with us now on complex issues, despite our hypercritical adult minds, is doing more than its job. The Final Fantasy 7 remake is the rare and wonderful case where a classic title evolved with us, both proving how far all us good guys have come, and just how good the source material was to begin with.