After a Long Sleep, the Time has Come – The Rebuilding of Final Fantasy VII

The day of Final Fantasy VII Remake’s release is upon us. However I’ve already finished it having got it a week or so early. Here’s my history with the original and my thoughts on the themes of Remake and the direction it’s going in.

Warning: There will be spoilers beyond this point. Even if you have played the original game I would advise against reading if you don’t know what you’re walking into.

“I want to know you. The real you.”

With its 1997 release, Final Fantasy VII changed everything about RPGs with its incredible presentation, story and gameplay. And by being one of the first JRPGs with a huge marketing budget and a worldwide release it also acted as a seminal title for Western gamers. The jump from cartridge based storage to disc based gave Square more freedom with the huge space available to them in addition to the brand new 3D hardware the Playstation offered. While the graphics have aged horribly, the pre-rendered backgrounds were a sight to behold back then looking gorgeous on a CRT.

My personal history with Final Fantasy VII starts just shortly after release, the 17th November 1997. At that time I’d only ever known games like platformers and arcade style score chasers, so after my brother came home with case in hand my understanding of what games could be was shattered. Watching him play this expansive game filled with dialogue that went over my head and slower paced methodical combat blew my mind. I wasn’t ready for it, literally, I was too young to understand it. That didn’t stop me watching him play it though.

This is how I remember the game looking.

I had my attempts at playing it, I didn’t do well. I didn’t fight battles so I didn’t level up and when I did I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t get far, didn’t even escape Midgar when I first played it. I was hooked though. As I grew older I understood things better and I was able to play it to the end, completing it by the new millennium. After that I continued to play it a lot until disc one got damaged and I was unable to afford a new copy. This was early 2000, it wasn’t as easy as going online and getting a copy back then. No game store nearby ever had it and they all stopped stocking PS1 games by the time the PS2 came out. I must have completed it about 4 times by the time my copy died.

I had admitted defeat and moved on. That game that meant so much to me was lost forever, as far as my young mind was concerned. Then the door to Midgar was reopened to me on 2nd June 2009 as Final Fantasy VII was re-released on the PlayStation 3. I immediately bought it and played through it again and I felt what I did all those years ago once again. My love affair with this game was back and stronger than ever as I was now more able to appreciate its themes and nuances at the age of 17. Time went on and I played it many times more. To this day I must have finished FFVII at least 15 times and that’s not counting the speedruns I’ve done of the game.

After many, many years of speculation and clamouring for a Final Fantasy VII remake, Square finally announced that they were doing it at E3 2015. The time was right, technology had developed far enough for them to recreate Midgar in the stunning detail that fans had imagined through low-resolution pre-rendered backgrounds, and the original team behind it were getting on in years and wanted to do it before it was too late. Over the next few years details were scarce and the development of the game being rebooted. Square announced it would be multi-part and each section of the game would be massively expanded so that each part would be a full length game unto itself.

I could prattle on about my love of this game for hours. The gameplay, the aesthetic, the story, the characters, all of it woven together so perfectly to create a masterpiece. But the meat of this article has to start somewhere and I think 7 paragraphs in is enough.

“It’s Different From a Memory Locked Deep Within Your Heart.”

So let’s start with what is the same. Most of the game is extremely faithful to the original with everything you remember intact. The Sector 1 bombing mission, Seventh Heaven, Wall Market and the crossdressing sequence (my favourite part of Midgar), all the boss battles and even the silliest enemy encounters. My partner and I literally screamed with joy when Hell House made an appearance, disappointed that it didn’t appear in its usual location, we gave up hope for it until it appeared as a three stage boss fight. Square understands what people loved about the original and instead of trying to make Remake dark and brooding, they took all of the original game, silliness and all, and not only embraced it but expanded upon it.

The game is full of small but significant differences that at first have a plausible deniability of just being expansions on the game’s original story. The first major difference occurs when Cloud meets Aerith who is being attacked by an unknown force, and upon touching her Cloud begins to see strange apparitions, which a returning player might presume are the souls of killed in the bombing or Sephiroth clones, and has a vision of Sephiroth speaking in cryptic words. At first this all seemed far too early to be introducing Sephiroth, as he isn’t mentioned much until his apparent return in Midgar in the original.

The changes grow but still don’t detract from or derail the original narrative, but instead feel more like they’re filling in the blanks in the original. For example Cloud is not initially hired for the Sector 5 Reactor mission, but after being attacked by the apparitions Jessie is injured and taken out of action so Cloud needs to take her place. These subtle near-changes have significant meaning revealed later on in the game as we learn what these apparitions are.

Cloud’s mother finally gets a name.

As for additional content, the night before the Reactor 5 mission you have to accompany Jessie to go and see her parents and steal a blasting agent for the bomb. This adds a lot of depth to the other Avalanche members and gives a lot of context to their motivation to save the planet. You also encounter a new character called Roche, a slightly unhinged 3rd Class SOLDIER. It’s hard to introduce new characters in a remake but I feel he was done well, he fits in pretty well with the story, doesn’t overstay his welcome and leaves you wanting to know more about him. He’s one of the more intriguing additions to the story and I’m looking forward to seeing what the future holds with him.

The battle between Avalanche and Shinra also gets a massive expansion. In the original Avalanche are framed as a small-time terrorist cell who are an annoyance to Shinra. Now they’re a full-fledged threat to the establishment and now President Shinra is using them to further his agenda by framing them as agents of Wutai, a nation that Shinra only recently stopped warring with, to stoke a nationalistic fire in the hearts of the citizens of Midgar. These are a small sample of some of the changes and additions made and for the most part, they’re pretty good.

I say “for the most part” because I take issue with the changes made to the bombing mission in particular. In the original game, Avalanche blows up the Sector 1 Reactor and that’s that. They believe the ends justify the means and the people who die are a worthy sacrifice to save the planet. In Remake the bomb blows and does only minor damage to the Reactor’s Core before Shinra higher-ups give the order to have the mechs guarding the reactor destroy it entirely causing a large explosion. Jessie then spends a lot of time wondering why the explosion was larger than she planned for, feeling guilty for the chaos caused.

I understand that depicting heroes committing terrorist attacks now might be in poor taste but it still doesn’t make much sense. Shinra already sets them up later in the game with the plate drop. They are supposed to be morally grey characters who do bad things for a good outcome. Whether you agree with this or not is up to you. What this change does is that it absolves Avalanche and tells you “It’s okay, they didn’t really commit a terrorist attack that killed a lot of people” and I feel like this is a shame because removing their agency like this makes their actions feel a bit meaningless. This is the only real change I complain about though, initially Sephiroth’s early appearance bugged me but that is explained later.

“Hey, Do You Know Who I Am?!”

Now I want to discuss the characters. They are extremely faithful to the original, plain and simple. Cloud is a cold-hearted mercenary who cares only about himself. Barret is a slightly dorky eco-warrior obsessed with stopping Shinra. The part I worried about most was the depiction of Tifa and Aerith. Over time the perception of the characters changed with the Compilation and misremembering the game. People remember Tifa as a sexy, confident, flirty badass and Aerith as the meek, demure princess type. This couldn’t be further from the truth as Tifa is insecure, full of doubt and afraid of the future while Aerith is confident, playful and flirty while remaining cheerful and optimistic.

These characters have survived the transition intact thankfully. Aerith is better than ever with a chirpy attitude that makes you feel at ease, Tifa’s depth and complexity remains as she struggles to understand what she wants and what the future holds for her. Cloud’s relationship with both of them is the same as it was, quite messy. Barret is a real standout character in Remake, lively, animated and passionate, more than ever does his devotion to the planet shine through. As for Red XIII, he doesn’t get much screen time appearing in the last 2-3 hours of the game but from what I’ve seen he is very much the same as ever, cryptic and insightful.

Even the fellow members of Avalanche get a lot of love and care as Biggs, Wedge and Jessie all get massively expanded upon as previously mentioned. They each feel like actual people now and the time we spend getting to know them only makes what is to come hurt more. As we all know, they tragically perish when Shinra drops the plate on Sector 7…

Last chance to escape before the major spoilers.

“The Future is Not Only Yours!”

…Or not.

So we have some major changes to the story. As we later learn, the strange apparitions are ‘Whispers of Fate’ who are trying to enforce the destiny of the main characters. They have appeared during significant events in the story to make sure they play out as they should in the original. Sometimes they succeed such as attacking the party before the Sector 5 mission, injuring Jessie and making it so Cloud must take her place. Sometimes they appear to fail and we get things like Wedge surviving the plate collapse, as does Biggs as shown in the final cutscene of the game, though the fate of Jessie is unknown.

It all comes to a head in President Shinra’s office when Sephiroth kills Barret and you fight ‘JENOVA Dreamweaver,’ an incarnation of JENOVA not present in the original game. After this Barret is revived by one of the Whispers with the characters speculating that he wasn’t destined to die yet and the Whispers won’t let the course of history be altered.

The game then appears to play out as normal. You fight Rufus, you fight the mech in the elevator, you escape Midgar on the Hardy Daytona and all that. Once you’re about to leave, Sephiroth confronts you again telling Cloud to follow him through a mysterious portal. The Whispers are now swarming Shinra HQ with only Rufus and the party being able to see them. Aerith explains that Sephiroth is the biggest threat to the planet and they must stop him but once they go through the portal, there’s no coming back and everything will change.

They travel through the portal and a cutscene plays, the scene where Zack dies in a fight against Shinra grunts before the events of FF7. Cloud and the gang then come out to a destroyed Midgar with a giant Whisper wrecking everything as you fight three other Whispers, one armed with a sword, one with a gun and the last with gloves. Each Whisper mimicking Cloud, Barret and Tifa. Over the course of the fight you have visions of the future the Whispers have planned out. Aerith dies, Meteor strikes the planet, Red XIII running with his children toward Midgar in the future.

Despite seeing all this, you continue to fight Destiny and eventually overcome it before a showdown with Sephiroth (or at least a manifestation of Sephiroth.) He then brings Cloud to the ‘Edge of Creation’ and tells him that he must help him to defy fate so they can both exist beyond the end. Cloud refuses and a battle mimicking the end of the original game occurs with Cloud being defeated. Sephiroth tells him it’s not time yet and sends him back to the outskirts of Midgar.

Now another scene plays showing Zack, hurt but alive, having defeated the wave of Shinra soldiers that kill him in the original timeline. After this we see the party head out and continue their journey to stop Sephiroth while at the same time, Zack and Cloud pass them by on the way to Midgar in an alternate timeline and the game ends.

This entire ending is fascinating from both an in-universe perspective and a meta perspective. In-universe it means that we are getting a new version of the game, new events will play out and everything we know about the original doesn’t apply anymore. The Whispers no longer have a hold on the characters, including Sephiroth. History will no longer play out like it did in the original game and while I believe the same story beats will be the same with many of the iconic scenes being in future parts, I think we’re going to see some shocking changes.

From a meta perspective, the general idea is that it talks about the need for Square to move on from Final Fantasy VII. In essence The Whispers represent the fans who want a faithful remake, doing their best to keep history on its correct course, not allowing Square to do something new or try to move on. They’ve been hounding Square for a remake for years and they have had to live in the shadow of Final Fantasy VII. They made one of the greatest games ever, they had nowhere to go but down.

Final Fantasy VII has always been a crutch for Square. Their best selling game ever. Their Magnum Opus. Many fans will argue that Square has deteriorated since then, especially with The Spirits Within, a flop so big it nearly killed the company and required a merger with Enix to save them.

Sephiroth’s confrontation of Cloud at the Edge of Creation very much feels like Square admitting that they need to stop this reliance on FF7, and more specifically Cloud and Sephiroth. They need to move on and change fate.

“The Price of Freedom is Steep”

The original game is very much a subversion of the typical narrative of JRPGs. Cloud is a nobody. Cloud has no special destiny, no birthright, nothing that sets him apart from the average person. Even his backstory is a lie, he was a grunt for Shinra, the guys you kill by the dozen, who somehow managed to defeat Sephiroth by sheer luck. All he has is a sword given to him by a dead friend and the words that Cloud will be his legacy, a future Cloud did not choose for himself. Only when he self-actualises and accepts himself does Cloud gain the power needed to defeat Sephiroth.

Zack is much more like the destined hero archetype, he’s born with great power and reaches the highest ranks of SOLDIER, he inherits a legacy through Angeal. He is very much in the archetype of Final Fantasy protagonists of old, such as Cecil or the warriors of light, and he dies a pathetic, meaningless death before the game even starts. Being destined to be a hero doesn’t make you one. As much as I love Zack, this isn’t a world that can be saved by, and Sephiorth isn’t a villain who can be defeated by someone like Zack.

Now that Zack is alive it means we might see a very different version of events play out, probably for the worse. Cloud will likely never recover from his Mako poisoning as he no longer has the legacy of Zack placed on him as an impetus for him to start his journey of self-discovery. Tifa will continue to be defined by her relation to Cloud as she will likely play caretaker for him. Zack likely considers himself too heroic to join a terrorist group and Barret’s recklessness will probably get them all killed in the Sector 1 bombing mission. Aerith will get taken by the Turks and the events won’t be set in motion that leads our heroes to grow and defeat Sephiroth. Ultimately Zack’s survival may make things worse and that might be what Sephiroth in the remake wants.

As for our party in Remake, what will they do? Where will they go? What will change? We could see some radically different events. Aerith might never die. Other characters might die. They may do things very differently and it might cause chaos. The future is theirs now, it’s not set in stone. It’s not beholden to the original game.

This ending has so much to speculate on and everything I’ve said here is just my interpretation but one thing is for sure: There is no turning back from this. History is a blank page and it’s about to be rewritten. Only one thing is sure…

2 thoughts on “After a Long Sleep, the Time has Come – The Rebuilding of Final Fantasy VII”

  1. Since I dont have the game because I dont have money to buy it (thanks to the lovely pandemia)…. I could only read until the major spoilers part, I find your article quite fun to read .

    Like

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