Dementor Ex Machina and other thoughts on the FFVII Remake
(This post contains spoilers.)
The original Final Fantasy VII is one of my all-time favourite games. I could rant for hours about its fantasy cyberpunk aesthetic, its intricate story and the sheer wonder it made me feel as a little bitty 13 year old embarking upon my grand adventure for the first time. Aside from the shit arse graphics and that goddamn dragon boss at the end of the Temple of the Ancients, I love every little inch of it. Then the remake came out. I was ready to feel like I was 13 again.
Instead, it made me feel…. old.
Part of the reason may be simple — the remake seems to be aimed at 13 year olds, but alas, I am no longer 13 and as it turns out, I am indeed too old for this shit.
By “This Shit” I mean a number of things. I mean unashamedly grindy chunks of game which involve hours of running around identical-looking sections of scaffolding flipping switches. Cringy anime-ish villains, complete with “gya ha ha” laughter. A script that I’m not convinced wasn’t actually penned by a 13-year old boy.
But mostly, by “This Shit” I mean sex doll Tifa.
This is 2020. I just can’t anymore. Even writing this makes me feel tired. I have to move on to the next point now, for my own sanity, before I become trapped in a long sigh that it takes me years to escape from.
Of course, there is quite a bit that the FFVII Remake does very well. The graphics are unbelievable. The world is realised in astonishing detail (I cried four times in my first play session simply because I was overwhelmed about it all BEING THERE. LOOK. MIDGAR. THERE IT IS. THERE IT FUCKING IS IT’S SO BEAUTIFUL.)
The combat has also received a much-needed upgrade. The sluggish turn-based system is now a combination of real-time and turn-based action where you can run around franticly stabbing things but also need to bullet-time pause the chaos to take special actions (like cast magic or use items) and issue commands to your team mates. It’s a combination of the best of past and present and it’s just perfect. They nailed it.
The guys who arranged the soundtrack need to win all the awards ever conceived by humankind, and then some. Gold trophies should appear at their feet wherever they walk. Most of the tracks are beautifully re-imagined versions of songs from the original, which made all my nostalgia neurons sing in sweet harmony.
So why couldn’t they have put even a fraction of that effort into the writing or voice acting? Why do we get a gorgeously realised environment and soundtrack, and a garbage script with lines like this?
Why did the combat system receive a modern upgrade but Tifa’s character model is still the same masturbatory fan service that stepped straight out of 1997? And why did they change large sections of the plot, but KEEP THE SAME PLOT HOLES?
The changes to the plot are, frankly, baffling. The key new addition is these dementors whom you are forced to fight in extremely tedious battles, and which do absolutely nothing but further complicate the plot in a completely useless way. In fact, rather than refining and clarifying the already-existing plot so that newcomers to the franchise can have a hope of understanding what the heck is going on, the designers chose to throw a whole bunch more complications into the pot. Into the plot pot.
Ironically, the final fight of the game, in its desperate attempt to be “SupER EpiC BRO!!!!1!” is a let-down. I can’t fathom how they will be able to continue building tension when they already turned everything up to 11 in the first installment. Fuck suspense and careful planning, lets just do an Avengers: Endgame now and worry about the rest later.
This willingness to throw pacing out the window makes me worried for the future of the series. The original game is a masterclass in suspense, a 40-hour epic with a slow build-up of tension throughout. If memory serves, it is many hours into the original game before we even so much as catch a glimpse of our villain Sephiroth. We spend much of the game following whispers of a “man in black”, always one step behind the carnage (at one point which ventures into proper horror, we follow a literal trail of blood and bodies). He is terrifyingly malevolent because he is left largely to our imagination, appearing just long enough every so often to scare the pants off us before blinking away. When we finally get to go toe-to-toe (or wing?) with the freaky evil-angel-form Sephiroth, it’s a heart-poundingly intense experience because it’s the culmination of a 40-hour long journey.
What does the remake do? It lets you fight Sephiroth as soon as you leave Midgar. It’s the equivalent of Frodo having an epic battle with Sauron before ever leaving the shire.
A lot of meat has been added to the bones of the original game, which you would expect, considering that this first installment expands what was a four-hour slice of game into a 30-hour long feast. Unfortunately, much of that meat is the same cheap baloney that every other open-world AAA game is made from. You get more time in the slums to run around trash piles doing useless chores and fetch quests. Kill some beasties, find my cat, I’ve lost my favourite boomerang. Run here, tick the box, run somewhere else. The open world gods have been sated.
More sections have been added. More plot holes come along for the ride. There is now a whole chapter spent running around Hojo’s lab. In the original, you just bust out and escape. That has now been turned into a seemingly neverending sequence wherein Hojo pits you against his lab-grown monstrosities for his own amusement. This makes enough sense until, for some reason, he just lets you walk right out the door, taking two of his precious specimens with you.
There are more scenes with your Avalanche buddies. It makes no real difference since they all have the charisma and personality of a cardboard box. Everyone gets a boring backstory. The game invents an insignificant henchman for Don Corneo and EVEN HE gets a boring backstory. It’s more but not better.
It’s also not…worse. Perhaps one of the best things I can say is that the FFVII Remake doesn’t ruin my childhood. It’s far from a shameless cash grab. The designers clearly went to pains to do justice to the original. Environments are faithfully recreated, bits of dialogue are preserved, memorable enemies get their moment in the sun. If anything, at times it’s too faithful to the original. Just in case you think my memory might be a little too rose-tinted — I’m well aware that the original FFVII committed its own litany of crimes against gaming (and sometimes, common sense). It had tedious busy work (random battles, hello?), pointless mini games, plot problems, cringy moments and less-than-cinematic writing. I mean, the entire character of Cait Sith is one long “what the?!” moment. I can’t wait to see how the remake will deal with that whole….situation.
So — and I can’t believe I’m saying this — I wish the remake had changed more.
At this point I’m aware that it’s starting to sound like I hated the FFVII Remake but I really did like a lot about it. There are little moments that betray genuine love and care. Aeris is finally named Aerith. That redress of past sins almost singlehandedly makes it all worth it. She describes Zack as “the first guy I ever loved” rather than the incorrect translation of “my first boyfriend” from the original. Someone put some serious TLC into this game and it shows in the fine details. It’s these little details that I loved most about my play sessions. Looking up and seeing the Midgar plate above my head. Hearing the tinkle of Aerith’s theme the first time your paths cross. The light streaking in through the church windows in the Sector 5 slums, onto the only patch where flowers grow. Even the weird murder machine from Wall Market is here. You know the one I’m talking about.
But there’s a problem. I have this test, you see. It’s a question I sometimes ask myself while playing a game. It’s called the “Would I Be Embarrassed if My Non-Gamer Friends Saw Me Playing This” test. And the FFVII Remake fails the test with flying colours. Frankly I was embarrassed playing it with no one else around. I’m embarrassed with Sex Doll Tifa, I’m embarrassed at the hammy writing and voice acting, I’m embarrassed at the cheap baloney meat of side quest drudgery. In a way, this game is a spectacular technical and audiovisual achievement. In another way, it fits pretty much every stereotype of what non-gamers probably think all games are — juvenile, cheesy, and clearly inferior to the “real” art forms of film and television. Despite my giddy eagerness when I first booted up the game, by the end — to my horror — I found myself willing it to end sooner. It turns out that all those little let-downs that leave a bad taste in your mouth just start to overwhelm every other flavour with bitterness after a while. Sadly I think that is the taste that’s going to remain on my tongue the longest.
That, and the sting of the Tonberry.
Youtube: Pixel a Day (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCRmZM0WpKzSu_27unPuyEZA)