I didn't play Final Fantasy 7 as a kid. I came to it with all the cynicism of a full-grown adult who has no time for half-baked melodrama or an infamous rush-job translation that undercuts important scenes—like when Tifa tries to jog Cloud's memory of an important conversation they once had on a water tower by saying "Look, the well." For starters, it wasn't a well, and he can't look at it because you're having this flashback inside a bar. Tifa, are you drunk right now?
(As Tim Rogers points out in his excellent YouTube series about FF7's translation, a more accurate version of that dialogue would be: "Come on, the water tower? In our village?")
One of the biggest problems I had with FF7 was its hero. Grumpalump Cloud, the angriest prettyboy in Midgar, who smouldered with generic rage like an all-too-typical western videogame man. The first thing Cloud does is tell his partners in ecoterrorism he doesn't care what their names are, because that's just how cool and distant he is. What a tool.
Eventually he's revealed to be kind of a dweeb, which is how you make a character likeable when your audience is nerds, but that's after hours of him acting like a guy who never got over reading Berserk when he was 12. FF7 fans will tell you Cloud was the first character of his type, that it was Square Enix who originated this model of tormented, Byronic hero. I'm pretty sure that was Byron, actually.
I never did finish FF7, got bogged down by random encounters and eventually gave up. If I'd been 13 years old with all the time in the world maybe I would have been one of those people who made it to the end, but even they seem to mostly reminisce about disc one's Midgar rather than the rest of the game. Which is why the remake turning that cyberpunk city opening into its own 35-hour modern prestige videogame sits fine with me.
In Final Fantasy 7 Remake Cloud still acts all stoic and alienated, but the contrast between that and the goofy world he's in feels more deliberate. After all, this is a place where poor people get around by riding giant chickenbirds, where the manifestation of pure evil is a walking house that shoots missiles, and where you can summon a tiny cactus badass to help out if you're in a jam. It's hard to be Captain Serious Business when a lizardman turns you into a toad, or you have to call on Fat Chocobo for help in a boss fight.
The remake rubs Cloud up against the setting's goofiness in a self-aware way, especially in sidequests involving the children of the slums. He wants to be a mercenary, but half his jobs involve rounding up or working directly for the local kids. He competes in their whack-a-box game, tracks down their missing cats. One kid cosplaying as a fuzzy moogle makes him collect "moogle medals" to exchange for treasures. Cloud's tough guy act is constantly deflated by his circumstances, and not just in that one bit where he puts on a dress.
Eventually Cloud starts offering the kids a "special discount on toad kings" and giving advice on how to follow your passion. Contrasting a hardened hero with innocent kids is a classic storytelling move, from Lone Wolf and Cub to The Mandalorian, and in Cloud's case it forces him to act like an adult instead of the moody teenager he has the mental age of—to be a human instead of a stereotype.
This all happens in the first couple of sidequest hubs, areas where a lot of the remake's new additions take place. First Tifa and then Aerith drag Cloud around their neighbourhoods, introducing him to everyone. Tifa's landlady is particularly unimpressed, telling her not to bother with a guy who has no personality even if he's got a "big sword", nudge, nudge.
These sequences add a lot to Midgar, which can sometimes feel like a nonsensical mash-up with its old-fashioned pickup trucks alongside cyberpunk motorbikes, cowboys and wizards. The remake doesn't make Midgar realistic, but it does show enough of the ordinary life of its inhabitants that you care whether they get blown up. You want to save these gangs of misfit urchins and feisty matrons by fighting for them.
There is, of course, a lot of fighting.
Hiroyuki Ito, working as battle designer on Final Fantasy 4, came up with its Active Time Battle system because he liked Formula 1 racing. Watching the fastest drivers lap the others, he decided to incorporate speed into what had previously been turn-based combat. By FF7, the ATB system was entrenched. I hated it.
The basic idea is that you're only allowed to tell a character what to do once their ATB gauge is full. It's a game of hurry up and wait. When the gauge is filling, there's nothing to do but watch, and then as soon as it's full you rush through the menus to select an attack or drink a potion or whatever as quickly as you can. All so you can get back to watching the bar fill again.
The intent was to make you feel pressured, but it builds more annoyance than tension. You're either waiting for the game to let you play while nothing happens, or frantically navigating a menu, fighting against the abstraction that should be getting out of your way. Even if you set it to the mode that pauses time in menus, you still have to wait for the bars to fill up before you're allowed into them.
At first, the combat in FF7 Remake looks like an action game. Characters launch combos, they block and dodge in real time. They still have ATB bars that fill up while this is happening, broken into chunks that can be spent on special abilities, but if you just watch it being played it seems like any other test of your button-pressing reaction speed. In play, it's something quite different.
Those dodges don't have invincibility frames, and some of the attacks have a lot of commitment—Cloud's big sword needs some big wind-ups. What matters is spending ATB bars to cast spells or fire off special attacks, and those bars fill up much faster when you're controlling a character.
It's an odd dance and the game doesn't teach it super well, but the ideal way to play is hopping between characters like a psychic frog, building up their ATB bars, choosing a special, then hopping over to the next while the animation goes off. Cloud's got an attack called Infinity's End that costs two bars and does a heap of damage, but it takes ages to play out. Instead of sitting there watching an admittedly slick animation, you jump over to someone else and get the next move going.
This plays into the stagger mechanic. Build pressure on an enemy—enhanced by targeting specific areas, exploiting elemental weaknesses, and so on—and they'll be stunned. As well as being unable to attack, staggered enemies take more damage, multiplied by a percentage that can be increased by some attacks. Push that percentage way high, and when it peaks you're in a perfect position to slam down a high-damage finisher like Infinity's End.
However, most enemies don't stay staggered long enough for you to do it that way. Instead, you queue up infinity's end with Cloud first, then jump over to Tifa and race to get the multiplier maxed before his hit connects. Get it right, and thousands of hit points fall off some giant robot like confetti. It feels great.
There's more to the combat than that, with positioning playing a role—you want to keep Aerith in her arcane ward where spells get cast twice, and sometimes characters can gain bonuses by attacking from behind—and returning elements of the original like limit breaks and equippable materia. There's a fair bit to it, and the keyboard controls are terrible, but it's the closest thing to real-time-with-pause combat I've ever liked.
It sneakily illuminates more of the main characters' personalities as well. Cloud can switch between two fighting stances, operator and punisher, each based on the style of someone he used to look up to (check out the way he stands in each and see who he resembles). Even the way he casts the cure spell is expressive, with a super casual over-the-shoulder flick as if even when he's keeping someone alive he doesn't want them to know he cares.
Cloud isn't the only character I understand the appeal of more now. In FF7 and its spin-offs Aerith sometimes comes off so wholesome she might as well be a capybara instead of a woman. In the remake she's wily and street-smart, and gets some of the funniest lines. And when Cloud gets put in a dress, her response is ecstatic in a real "This better not awaken anything in me" kind of way. (That whole sequence, and how it's recontextualized to ditch the original's "men wearing dresses is funny" message is way better than I expected.) The whole cast, even minor secondary characters, feel like they have internal lives.
If I'd been in the right place at the right time, I might have been able to see past FF7's flaws to realize its characters were more than just stereotypes way back when it came out. But the big RPG of 1997 I played was Fallout, and by the time I got around to FF7 its moment had passed. The remake helped me understand why it's endured, why people wear t-shirts with the heroes' names like they're the Beatles.
It's still a shame the PC port is so lackluster and I had to plug in a controller to stop the minigames feeling painful, though.