This post contains story spoilers for Final Fantasy VII Remake.
The most intense fight I’ve had in Final Fantasy VII Remake, thus far, is with a house. It’s not in the same place it was in the original game, but Hell House is lovingly recreated in this edition in all its haunted glory. Scaled up, rendered in 4K, it bounced around the screen firing flaming chairs at my party while I did my best to hit it with magic and avoid taking too much damage. Its one arm, twisted claw, and weird orb-like head are back too. People in a crowd around the fight shouted specific catcalls and jeers when I used specific spells or the house used specific attacks. When I used Aerith’s limit break to heal the party, an announcer wondered aloud if using it was cheating and called the ability by its name.
I destroyed that house, burned it to its foundations, and felt great doing it. It’s what Cloud and Avalanche do. They destroy. They’re terrorists, and they're the heroes. In a dystopia where a greedy corporation is literally draining the life force out of the planet, Final Fantasy VII Remake tells a story of revolutionary violence making the world a better place. It is also a comforting nostalgia trip. I didn’t know I needed to experience both of those right now, but I did. I do.
In Final Fantasy VII Remake, everything looks like how I imagined it when I was a kid. This is not the Final Fantasy VII I remember, but the dream of a Final Fantasy VII. It’s a surreal, staggering, and loving tribute to a beloved role-playing game. The voice work, the music, the story, and the combat system are rebuilt from the ground up and brimming with detail.
Midgar feels alive. Its streets teem with human life, voices cascading over each other and mingling into the background hum of conversation that once constituted normal life in any major American city. The night is dark and full of neon. The orchestral music, recreated so many times over the years, never failed to fill my heart and head with memories of 1997. The remake transcends my memory of the game, overwriting it and forging a new essence. It’s hyperreal.
I know nostalgia is a negative force in the world. It is a longing for an imagined past that never existed. It’s a force that makes us look to that imagined past and attempt to recreate it in the present, with often tragic results.
But god damn, I needed Final Fantasy VII Remake right now. Many of us are trapped inside right now, beset by uncertainty that threatens our ability to make a living and go on living. Politicians argue about the causes and cures. Meanwhile, the planet gets hotter and people keep dying.
In Midgar, the planet is dying but I can do something about it. Aloof Cloud, idealistic Barrett, composed Tifa, compassionate Aerith, lecherous Don Corneo, and the mysterious Sephiroth are all here, ready to play their parts in a story I’ve played and replayed. Their familiar presence is a comfort, though perhaps Square Enix erred too much on the side of familiarity in places. Barret remains a stereotype. The script is better and he’s given more empathetic character moments, especially with adopted daughter Marlene. But he’s still, fundamentally, an angry black guy with a gun for an arm whose voice actor shouts much of his dialogue.
Square Enix has been a bit more daring with the ways it establishes setting and builds-out its world with minor characters. Story beats are different, there are more side quests, lots more dialogue, and better explanations of minor characters in Final Fantasy VII Remake. The Honeybee Inn scenes have been completely revamped and revitalized with a fierce and joyous drag-cabaret energy that left me grinning for hours afterwards. That’s all lovely, but it’s the combat that keeps bringing me back.
Final Fantasy VII Remake’s revamped real time combat system is a joy. It’s been a long time since I’ve had this much fun playing a JRPG. I bounced off of Persona 5 and have failed to enjoy a Final Fantasy for more than 15 years. But the delicate mix of old and new in Final Fantasy VII Remake is so good that I’m enjoying grinding, an activity I actively hate in most other games.
If you’ve played the demo, you know the score. Final Fantasy VII Remake has a real-time revision of the original’s combat system. Cloud and company actually move around the battlefield. Placement matters. A boss in the Train Graveyard broadcasts when he’s going to use a short range attack that will put anyone to sleep in front of him. I’d move Tifa and Cloud, my frontline attackers, off the boss and take control of Aerith to hit the boss with long range magic.
The combat is a mix of active engagement and paused tactics. The battle plays out in real-time but I could always enter a tactics menu to give my characters specific commands. Like VATS in Fallout 4, this tactical menu slows down time rather than pauses it. As the characters deal and take damage, their Active Time Battle (ATB) meter builds. Issuing a command—whether that’s casting a spell, using a character’s special ability, or using an item—eats up a pip on the ATB meter.
Each weapon and piece of equipment comes with slots for materia. The materia offers a range of spells and abilities that changes the way characters interact and the kind of damage they deal. Like the original Final Fantasy VII, it’s possible to set up unique combo chains with the materia. During a fight against a boss weak against lightning, I had my entire party synergized so that when one character cast a lightning spell, the other characters would cast it too.
It makes the combat feel great. I love the story and the detailed world of Midgar, but the combat keeps me coming back. Final Fantasy VII Remake feels just difficult enough. I’d often lose a fight, reload the game, and switch up my equipment to better deal with the encounter, and succeed. Experimenting with the materia helped me discover unique combinations and the game always threw me a curve ball in combat that rewarded my knowledge of its systems.
That violence appeals to me right now. Cloud, Barrett, and the rest of Avalanche are terrorists. They’re using violence to achieve a political change. In the world of the game, that violence is justified. Shinra, the corporation destroying the planet, is guilty of the crimes Avalanche accuses it of. Worse, they exacerbate Avalanche’s bombings to make the group look worse. Shinra doesn’t mind, say, dropping a plate from upper Midgar onto the slums and killing 50,000 people if it maintains its political power.
There is a history of radical political violence in America, even if our cultural memory seems to have forgotten. 9/11 so changed how the world views political violence and bombing so much that it obliterated a reality from a few decades ago. During the 1970s, in the aftermath of the Vietnam war and as the government increasingly abandoned the incomplete work of expanding civil rights and liberties to black Americans, American political groups blew up a lot of stuff. In an eighteen month period from 1971 to 1972, the FBI recorded 2,500 political bombings on American soil. That’s five a day.
It was a period of political chaos and upheaval where everything felt up for grabs and many felt that violence was a legitimate political tool. It was mostly leftist groups who reached for it, having been cut-off from political power with the rise of the new right and targeted for decades by propaganda and legal suppression. Puerto Rican Nationalist set bombs, and even stormed congress in 1954 and shot it up. The Weather Underground and other New Left movements planted bombs across the country. People died. Buildings were destroyed. Direct action meant violence. It meant making political change at the end of a gun.
Those revolutionary movements failed. In terms of direct political violence on American soil, we live in peaceful times. The state's monopoly on violence is near-complete, augmented by a powerful and pervasive surveillance apparatus. But this history only seemed distant when FFVII came out in 1997, and today it requires far less of an imaginative leap to empathize with characters who have concluded that the only lever of power left to grasp is violence.
Final Fantasy VII Remake does not make the choice look easy or reassuring. The heroes are terrorists. Their actions are justified by the horror and obvious villainy of the enemy, but that does not make the actions themselves feel heroic. People get hurt. People die. Innocent people. The game’s story didn’t let me forget that. Not everyone in Midgar wants the change Avalanche is attempting force on them. That cascade of voices in the streets is just as likely to condemn Avalanche as it is to sing their praises.
Later in the game, Shinra drops the plate on the slums where Avalanche makes its home. It’s a tragedy that one member of the organization calls “a reckoning.” Barret blames Shinra but Tifa blames the group. In the ruins of their home, she calls Barret out on it.
“It was us, we did this,” she says.
But Barret won’t have it. “No matter what came before,” he says. “It was Shinra pulled this trigger.” Tifa’s upset. She forms a fist and Barret takes her hand. “Hold on to this anger,” he says.
I’ve been thinking about that line since I heard it. I need a break. I need a game like Final Fantasy VII Remake to retreat to. But I also need to hold on to my anger and I can’t let nostalgia wash everything else away.