By Harold Goldberg
Last week, I played about three hours of Final Fantasy VII Remake. The original Japanese role playing game evokes many memories, including the time a hotel worker chatted with me about why the game was her favorite. She said the three-disc, Square Enix offering for the original PlayStation evoked passion and emotion like she’d never felt in a game. And as she described the death of a beloved character late in the story, she began to tear up. It was like that for me, too, except for a different reason.
In the spring of 1997 when writing for Wired magazine, I flew to Hawaii to interview series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi and his team, who had just opened a studio in Honolulu. It made sense, Sakaguchi told me. “Hawaii is equally close to Japan, but also close to the United States.”
We sat in a small room at a long conference table. The lights went down and when Sakaguchi proudly revealed the movie-like sequences so rich in spacey, cyber-science-fiction detail, I gulped. Then, too, I began to tear up – because I had seen part of the future of games. The next 20 years would be comprised graphics wars that would gobsmack, one company pitted against the other to make better popular art. When I played, I noticed the writing wasn’t great (the studio cared more about art). But the whole was stupendous. The original would be one of history’s important games; I was sure of that.
I liked the twisting plot, but not the dialog. And I liked the enemies. In Wired, I wrote, “Rarely daunted, your gang helps you save the cyberworld Midgar from Shinra – evil, super-rat bastards who are more sadistic than Gotti, Valachi, and Vinnie the Chin combined.”
Last week, my impressions of Final Fantasy VII Remake inspired some whispered wows. The fires early on still are as affecting as any: “Far Cry 2” and “Beyond: Two Souls” came to mind. Cloud Strife deals with fire gone exponential in a hyper-urban city called Midgar that looks as devastated as Manhattan did on 9/11. (I have an issue when a game recalls 9/11 for me because I was here in Manhattan then, close to the World Trade Center. It still kind of panics me. So I put down the controller briefly.)
What’s brilliant about Final Fantasy VII Remake is this: Square Enix has embellished the world carefully and with love. The music respects the original, but riffs on it to make it feel bigger, more spectacular. Looking down upon the city from a high point is as thrilling as seeing it from a bat-like perch on a skyscraper in one of the Arkham games. The battles are properly challenging – even painfully difficult – on the “Normal” setting. In fact, even bigger minor enemies like Huntsman are pains to defeat. And finding curious items like a “tuft of Phoenix Down” is magical.
I’d gotten used to the new battle system by the time the looming, devilish Sephiroth tells Cloud to “Hold on to your hatred.” It’s 2020. How hard can that be? But there’s a Biblical creepiness to these words, like something out of Matthew 4, which is not unusual because religious allegory in the series is well-documented.
What I don’t like is the old school dialog. What I watched and heard can feel stilted and cliche. It can seem stuck in 1997, not as new as, say, the re-imagining of Midgar. Cloud is tough and won’t show his emotions, even though he occasionally looks like he could break down and reveal all. Tifa is really nice to Cloud and wants to be his teacher/mother, despite his annoying coolness. Her original description from back in the day still rings true: “Bright and optimistic, Tifa always cheers up the others when they’re down.” *Sigh.*
And yet as a whole, there are moments when events in the world can be stupendous, everything from battling the Air Buster to moving through a train that feels like something out of “Snowpiercer.” Yet I’m fully aware that the whole is a part. Fans won’t get the full Final Fantasy VII Remake game for $60. You’ll get a chunk. Unlike streaming TV, you’ll likely have to wait months or a year for the next – for want of a better description – episode. Will it be worth it? Not to go all time-will-tell on you, but I’ll have to play all of this, not just three hours, to find out.
Journalist/author Harold Goldberg is the founder of the New York Videogame Critics Circle and the New York Game Awards.