The FF7 remake will disappoint you – at least collectively

So they finally did it. Here we go.

Some 10 years after Sony used a re-mastered version of Final Fantasy 7’s opening as a tech demo to tease the power of the Playstation 3 (and, at the time, absolutely nothing else), Square Enix finally followed up on the expectations the demo left with everyone. They’re re-making the game on the PS4, to the delight of the nostalgia-tinted fanboys who still call the classic title the greatest RPG of all time, and to the curiosity of potential first-time players who wonder why people keep saying that (but weren’t brave enough to dive into the polygonal world of the PS1).

What you probably won’t hear very much of, at least while the hype train is rolling full speed ahead, is how deeply flawed this game is, and how difficult it will be to please people with an update.

Pause here for dramatic effect. Or not. Maybe you already know this.

I’m not talking about the graphics or the presentation. I mean yeah, those things haven’t aged gracefully, but they blew minds in 1997. They did good work with what they had, I mean, show me the PS1 game that has aged gracefully.

Okay, you can put down your Symphony of the Night screenshots, thank you. I like how you neglected to mention the voice acting there.

Besides, the graphics and technical issues are the things that are getting the biggest overhaul here. There’s no point in criticizing the aspects of the game that will get the biggest change from PS1 to PS4. The desire to upgrade those aspects is the reason this game is getting made, and there should be no doubt that the game will look absolutely phenomenal.

No, what needs to be revisited here are the things that might not change: The core game mechanics and *gasp* the story.

We’ll start with the mechanics, since it’s an observation less likely to get me speared to death.

FF7 is old, people. Ancient by video game standards, and primitive by RPG standards. Did you even remember it uses an ATB (active time battle) system? There’s nothing inherently wrong with that; ATB is used effectively by a pair of other Squaresoft titles from around the same time frame, including its own predecessor:

But ATB is an old way of doing things. It was built to instill a sense of action and urgency in what would have otherwise been a simple turn-based system, in an era when the idea of free movement in a Final Fantasy battle was a laughable concept. But the idea of “what is a JRPG” has grown over the years. It’s no longer strange to see free movement in battle, or even to attack directly (rather than through a menu command, which you then see executed). Final Fantasy 12 and 13 (and Xenoblade Chronicles, for that matter), have you roaming around freely during battles, with most attacks happening automatically, free from any user input whatsoever.

Incidentally, I like both turn-based and ATB systems, in their element. But I like classic-style RPGs, and a slow pace doesn’t bother me. That’s not exactly the case with all players. And this is the core of what the remake’s issue is going to be – different expectations from different types of players.

See, Final Fantasy has… shall we say… changed over the years.

There are people who think Final Fantasy battles should look like this (at least conceptually)…

…and then there are people who think Final Fantasy battles should look like this:

At the heart of this is a question: What exactly does Square Enix mean by “Remake?” How much of this game is going to be overhauled? The graphics and music (and apparently voice acting) are obviously the main features, but what kinds of updates will we see to the battle system, the navigation, the HUD, the menus? Is this just a really big HD remake, with all the previous game logic and progression just cut-and-pasted? Or are we getting a “re-imagining” type of thing with significant gameplay improvements (or changes, depending on your point of view), a la Resident Evil’s REmake?

Square execs have touched on this somewhat, saying that this is to be a full-blown remake of the game – not just a remastering of the existing game. But we still don’t know exactly what that means, we only have hints.

According to director Tetsuya Nomura, at least the battle system is due for an upgrade. In an interview with Engadget, he said, ” we can’t have these upgraded, beautiful 3D models of Cloud and Barrett, still lining up in a row, jumping forward to attack an enemy, then jumping back to wait for their next turn. That would be bizarre. Of course there will likely be changes there.”

Okay, so if you were looking for a return to a classic battle system, or even the highly-regarded turn-based Final Fantasy X system, maybe you’d be better served buying an HD rerelease of the original. Really, the fact that the battle system is being changed at all has likely already turned off the millions of Final Fantasy fans who bought Bravely Default.

This sounds like a shift to the styles of Final Fantasy 12-15, or less likely, perhaps even Kingdom Hearts (the series Nomura is arguably best known for directing). But then that requires an entirely new vision in terms of enemy placement, navigation, pacing, and so on. Are random battles still going to be a thing? Classic experience points? How does Materia work now?

More to the point, what do people want to see? The original, unadulterated work with a new sound system and shiny coat of paint? Or do they want a real, under-the-hood remake, with fixes to some of the issues with the game – like the battle system regressing to just 30 minutes of watching Knights of the Round on repeat for the game’s final 20%?

Answering these questions is probably a big reason why Square waited almost 20 years to take this project on, and they’ve only gotten more difficult to answer as the game has slipped deeper into ancient video game lore and the Final Fantasy series has moved further from its roots. Final Fantasy VII is not a small game. There is a LOT to remake, and a lot to think about. It’s not going to be possible for them to hit everything right for every taste, and that’s going to leave a lot of people wondering what happened to the game they grew up enshrining as the gold standard of video game storytelling.

As long as we’re there, let’s talk about the story of Final Fantasy 7. Let me start with this: localization hiccups aside, it’s good. Flawed, but good. The characters are mostly likable, the plot arcs are interesting, and the climactic moments are etched in gaming history. It isn’t the best-written RPG ever made, and it’s easily debatable whether it’s the best-written Final Fantasy.

But the pacing, though. The pacing. For every climactic battle or FMV, there’s 10 hours of slogging through caves I can’t even remember the names of, or talking to everyone in Kalm. Remember all the good times you had in Kalm? Yeah, you know. The… uh…

See, FF7’s story is remembered for its high points. And in fairness, those high points are pretty high. They’re memorable. They are emotional, powerful moments that tug our heartstrings in ways the typical “hero and friends save the world” RPG storyline usually can’t accomplish (even though most of this game is exactly that).

But the rest of it? It certainly isn’t garbage, but the pacing is all over the place. It is often a grind, in more ways than one, to get from one of those climactic high points to another. I mean, unless you really found Heidegger interesting. In which case, hey, don’t let me stem your tide of appreciation for one-note butt monkey characters.

Speaking of one-note characters, let’s talk about Cloud, the game’s famed protagonist. Now, there isn’t anything particularly wrong with Cloud as a main character. Actually, Cloud was such a successful character that it led to his own destruction.

Cloud popularized  the concept of the dark, brooding, reluctant hero, and then everyone else did it to death (Square included, I’m looking at YOU, Squall Leonhart), so that two decades later, it’s a tired, overdone trope. So now, despite being one of the progenitors of the trope, Cloud now stands one of the least interesting versions of it. That’s not his fault, or Square’s, but it’s how it is.

How does Nomura (incidentally, Cloud’s original designer) portray him now? If FFXIII’s Lightning is any indication, nobody at Square has figured out how to use the tortured, introspective psuedo-anti-hero trope in anything but its purest, undistilled form, because Lightning herself is effectively gender-swapped Cloud with a smaller weapon. That may be all well and good, but I’m not so sure how the whole tortured soul thing will play when he’s fully voice acted.

I’m not even going to go deep into the issue of voice acting for the whole game, but just know that the voice actors for those characters will not sound like the voice you gave them in your head when you were reading the dialogue. But then, you probably saw Advent Children, so you know what I’m talking about.

Ultimately, if I asked you to tell me one thing that happened in Final Fantasy 7, a majority of people who have so much as heard of the game would likely be able to tell me one, and I have a feeling that around 90% would list the exact same spoileriffic moment. But if I asked for a detailed plot synopsis, how many of you would reminisce about Great Glacier? Wutai? Gaea’s Cliff? The majority of your activities at the Golden Saucer? Barret’s best friend Dyne? Reno and Rude?

Let’s not even get started on all the spinoff content the game has gotten since its release. Are they going to shoehorn in events from Advent Children? Dirge of Cerberus? Crisis Core? How do they manage that without making the base game notably worse (apologies to all the hardcore Dirge of Cerberus fans out there, I guess)?

These aren’t all poor aspects of the game (series?) by any means, but they’re not all that memorable, at least not to stand head-and-shoulders above every other JRPG (or even Final Fantasy) made before or since. Yet that’s how this game is remembered by most of the people who blew out their vocal chords when they saw this:

No worries, though, because to hear Nomura talk about it, some of those aspects probably won’t make it into the game anyway. Nomura told WIRED, “My goal with the remake is to make it apply to the current era, the current generation of players that are going to be coming into contact with or playing FFVII for the first time through this remake.”

Is that good or bad? Does that mean we’re about to get Final Fantasy 13-4: Cloud Returns? Because I’m not sure that would actually please anyone at all, be they returning fans or new ones.

More importantly, let’s go back to the whole theme of this post: the fact that this is going to be a disappointment. Even if it’s good – even if it’s GREAT – it will still be a disappointment. See, there are a LOT of people who have loved Final Fantasy 7 for the 2 decades since its release. Many of those people are still around, looking to buy new JRPGs, and they are voting with their wallets on the direction the Final Fantasy series has taken. I happen to be one of them, as I haven’t played a Final Fantasy since FFXII.

Maybe that makes me biased. I gravitate now toward series like Shin Megami Tensei and Fire Emblem, despite having played (and enjoyed) every numbered Final Fantasy game from 1-12. I was once a hardcore fan, and maybe I’m jaded now. Maybe I grew out of my love for the series with age and found some closer matches for my tastes.

Or maybe, as the declining sales numbers seem to indicate, Square Enix has lost sight of what fans loved about Final Fantasy in the first place, and I’m just one of many players who fell out of love with the series around FFXIII.

If that’s the case, maybe this is not a strong proposition. Maybe you don’t ask the people responsible for tearing the series down from its legendary status to redefine the most iconic entry in the series, and maybe the most iconic RPG of all time.

But here we go. They’re doing it, and we’re going to hope for the best. This is either going to be the game that puts Square Enix back in touch with its fans, or it will damage the bond irreparably.

In the meantime, at least we’re getting a new Nier game made by Platinum. So I still have something to be excited about. At least Platinum knows what its fans expect from it.