Final Fantasy VII Remake: Intergrade Review (Spoilers)

I come to you, hat in hand, with my Gamer Card on the line — I do not like Final Fantasy, and Final Fantasy VII Remake: Intergrade (hereafter FF VII R) is only the second game in the franchise I’ve played more than an hour of. With a few exceptions, I’m historically not a fan of turn-based battling, and whenever I start up one of the Final Fantasy games I’m immediately reminded why. I’ve tried the original VII, I, X, XII, XIII and XIV to no avail; however, I quite enjoyed my time with Final Fantasy XV and played it to completion. All this is to say, FF VII R had absolutely no business pleasing me as much as it did.

This remake caught my attention when I saw that it’d be live combat like FF XV. “Finally!” I thought. “I have a chance to really genuinely get into this game, one that people push as one of the all-time greats!” I purchased FF VII R last year on a sale with no intention of playing it until a patch for 60 FPS was introduced. I sat on the disc, and my patience was rewarded with Intergrade, the PS5 update that featured 60 FPS, enhanced lighting, enhanced sound, new particle effects and new textures. Just a few days after the next-gen edition launched, I began my journey into Midgar with that guy with the big sword from Smash Bros.

Like I mentioned previously, I don’t know the story of Final Fantasy VII. I absorbed bits of it through osmosis, such as the cat riding a mechanical gnome and Sephiroth killing Aerith, but largely I didn’t know a single concrete thing about the narrative going in. We begin our story in the dieselpunk city of Midgar, a beautiful and horrific collision of magic and industry. Our hero Cloud assists the eco-activist/terrorist group Avalanche as a mercenary in sabotaging the reactors owned by Shinra, a traditional cyberpunk mega-corporation that has a hand in everything and owns everyone’s lives. The reactors burn mako, a substance that is the “lifeblood” of the planet, to create power for Midgar’s many industries and citizens. The theming is heavy-handed right up front, which, as a fan of Hideo Kojima, you know I love.

The main players that we meet are Barrett, the head of Sector 7’s cell; Tifa, Cloud’s childhood friend; Aerith, a local florist; Wedge, who is Badger from Breaking Bad; Biggs, the cool upperclassmen; and Jess, who is trying just a bit too hard. I liked all of these characters after just a few interactions, but I really fell head over heels in love with the main quartet of Cloud, Tifa, Aerith and Barret. Quintet, I suppose — Red XIII is part of the family too! The main positive selling point of FF XV is how well they nailed the realationships and dynamics between the main characters — FF VII R does it almost as well. It does basically everything else, however, remarkably better than XV. The overall storyboard, while prone to bouts of getting too “anime,” was largely interesting, well structured, and thematically coherent.

I feel comfortable saying that FF VII R is some of my favorite combat in all of video games. This is a near-perfect fusion of turn-based and live combat, and by appealing to the action-gamer in me I think it got me to appreciate turn-based combat in general a little more. I was literally wiping sweat off my brow while my brain was moving 100 mph in some fights, but I died less than a dozen times throughout the entire game (Normal difficulty). Almost every boss, however, left me right on the verge of failure when I snatched victory at the last possible moment. FF VII R is incredibly well balanced, so much so that I have had to rethink what the concept of “balance” even means for other games.

While it took me a little while to understand the materia system by just playing around with it, I was very happy with how it worked and that progression moved at this very precise pace to keep the difficulty ramping up every so slightly with each chapter. I used the auto-skill button to set up my characters stats so I didn’t have to worry too much about the nitty-gritty RPG stuff (maxing out Cloud and Tifa for Attack and Barrett and Aerith for Defense). This was great and left me to focus on moving materia equips around between characters to keep things fresh as my party constantly changed.

Shuffling my playable team between every possibly configuration of characters was a little bit forced narratively, but damn it made me learn to improvise and I loved it. The challenge I want from games is a demand for me to be resourceful, working my way out of fights by making stuff up while I go and flying by the seat of my pants. This is of course why I love Arkane Studios games so much — I’m not interested in mastering anything or getting mechanically better at fighting. Make me drag out every last inch of my resourcefulness, kicking and screaming, to stay alive.

FF VII R is perhaps the best looking game I’ve ever played. It’s certainly one of them. I played in performance mode (the correct mode) and the new lighting engine for Intergrade is still so outstanding that it looks better than nearly every game I’ve played with actual ray tracing. The particle effects are the prettiest I’ve ever seen, and even with thousands of them flying around every second I never felt like too much was going on at once on screen. The character designs somehow have found the perfect midpoint between anime and real life without falling into the uncanny valley, maybe for the first time ever. The reflections are beautiful, the colors are vivid, and save for some textures that still just wouldn’t load it was visually flawless. And not once did my game drop below 60 FPS. Thank god for the photo mode that let me capture nearly 600 pictures throughout!

I was upset last year when Final Fantasy VII Remake clutched the Game Award for best score, when I felt there was no way it could have topped Ghost of Tsushima’s phenomenal sound track. Well, here I am, admitting I was wrong. FF VII R completely blew me away with the score. Almost every track was exceptional in its own right, and hats off to the sound mixing and editing teams as well for their work with the game audio. Let the Battles Begin! might very well be the best combat theme in all of video games, not to mention One-Winged Angel from the Sephiroth boss fight. Nobuo Uematsu is truly one of the best in the biz, and with help from fellow Final Fantasy music veteran Masashi Hamauzu their rearrangements for the remake outdo the originals.

I’ve been putting it off long enough, but unfortunately I can do so no longer. Nearly everything wrong with Final Fantasy VII Remake is in its pacing and padding. I’ve thought about it, and FF VII R is the worst paced narrative-heavy game I’ve ever played. I could cut 10 hours of game out of the 35 playtime and absolutely nothing of value would be lost. But there wasn’t any one segment that should disappear; rather, every single scene in the game suffered from needless padding and forced slowing of the player. Dozens of times the player is made to just hold forward on the control stick to walk slowly for 10 unbroken minutes while someone talks to them about something.

In addition, there are long stretches of game where every 5 minutes another 2 minute-long cutscene plays and then throws you back into gameplay for 5 minutes before doing it again. It’s jarring, relentless and almost none of it is needed. The piss-poor pacing of nearly every action scene killed a lot of the excitement for me, particularly in the final stretch during the Whisper Harbinger boss fight. Every time I killed one of Whisper, a cut scene would play out, some character would get tossed away or added back to the party, and I’d fight them again but this time they’re a dragon. I died 40 minutes into this boss fight and had to redo the entire thing, which was frustrating to no end as I neared the finale of a 35 hour RPG and just wanted to be done.

Narratively, FF VII R had over a dozen moments that felt like “the end” and just kept going. Professor Hojo’s Lab Dungeon was so egregious it was almost enough to make me drop the game just hours from the end. “Release me, Nomura!” I cried in my dark apartment as I fought the 4th boss in a row that I thought was the last one.

This is not to mention all the unnecessary and boring as hell side quests, at least half of which you’ll be forced to complete if you want to have enough money for the necessary equipment and items. Slowing down a narrative and filling it with fluff does NOT have to be part of a game story, and I’m tired of people making excuses for padding like this because it’s just something that most JRPG’s do and they’re used to it. It’s bad. Stop it.

The last 10 hours of the game really soured my opinion on the whole piece, but it was indeed redeemed by the actual final battle (9th final boss battle in a row but whatever) with Sephiroth. This was one of my favorite final boss fights of all time, so perfectly paced and interspersing the cinematic narrative with my own gameplay so seamlessly. I finished the fight with no potions left, two of my characters down and Tifa on her last legs as she delivered the final blow with a Limit Break. It was so perfectly timed it was hard to believe it wasn’t choreographed. The victory and sense of accomplishment I felt in that moment almost made up for the offensively bad pacing of the entire rest of the game — almost.

Final Fantasy VII Remake: Intergrade — 8.5/10

A few months ago, I would have said that Final Fantasy as a whole was just a thing I did not like. It wasn’t for me. I think it’s unlikely I’ll go back to the old turn-based games still, but I am now excited for Final Fantasy XVI and beyond thrilled for Remake Part II. I loved the narrative decisions of the larger storyboard in this game, and it’s so much more interesting that Square Enix made this a sequel rather than a straight remake. Cloud, Aerith, Tifa, Barrett and Red XIII became real characters I actually cared about along the way. I want to play the next game so desperately simply so I can find out what happens to them, and that’s about as high praise as I can give. I’m glad it deviates from the original going forward, because I don’t think I could stop myself from popping open a plot summary to see what was coming otherwise. It’s not going on my all time favorites list after how much it dragged nearly every chapter, but it’s not one I’ll soon forget. With some of the best visuals and music in video games and unbelievably fun combat and characters, it’ll be hard to wait for the next installment. But hey, until then this is the only game where you can get mugged by a turtle with a knife. So yeah, go play it.

PS. I did not get to the Yuffie DLC yet but I will soon after a quick break! It’ll get its own review.

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