I’m almost done with Final Fantasy VII Remake, but from when I first started it on Thursday night, it’s deeply reminded me of one of my favorite entries in the series, Final Fantasy XIII. Despite its commercial success, the latter is not one of the Final Fantasy games that are remembered most fondly. Many players took issue with its linearity and combat — among a few other things — and felt it was too much of a significant departure from the series. But it’s Final Fantasy XIII‘s tight scope and battle system, along with its gorgeous music and bold risks, that have served to be the foundation for my favorite aspects of Final Fantasy VII Remake.
Possibly the most criticized aspect of Final Fantasy XIII was its linearity, which I always felt was a slightly unfair critique. I don’t find linearity inherently negative and I was never a huge fan of the AAA industry’s push toward open worlds in the name of realism. On the contrary, more often than not, bigger but emptier worlds took away from any realism they offered on the surface. While a world map was present in most older Final Fantasy games, it largely offered the illusion that there was a sprawling world filled with secret places to explore and stories to uncover — and an illusion was always all it was. Every Final Fantasy game that came before Final Fantasy XIII was linear and some of the most popular entries, like Final Fantasy X, made an equally low effort in hiding it.
And like the aforementioned two, Final Fantasy VII Remake isn’t shy about its linearity. Midgar is filled with hallways to run through and spaces to be explicitly pushed away from. And yet, it doesn’t feel any less realized or look any less stunning for it. An open world and deep sidequest system aren’t responsible for the newfound depth in characters like Jessie, Biggs, Wedge, and even Cloud himself. They’re not responsible for how I think about Midgar’s people, who are sometimes congregated and at other times stumbling alone on the streets, living their difficult lives and existing without Cloud. That’s all due to the much more nuanced writing and characterization. Side quests are present but there aren’t many, nor is there much of an attempt to make them compelling. Most of the resources have gone into presenting and improving upon an already successful main story, with everything that truly matters existing within it. I’ve honestly missed that focus from a role-playing game with a budget this large.
Additionally, Final Fantasy XIII established staggering, the core mechanic behind Final Fantasy VII Remake‘s battle system. In Final Fantasy VII Remake, your goal is to attack and exploit an enemy’s weakness enough to stagger them. Staggering them leaves an enemy in an especially vulnerable state where you’ll be dealing the majority of the damage.
It’s extremely similar to Final Fantasy XIII‘s system of filling up an enemy’s Chain Gauge to enter Stagger Mode — albeit Final Fantasy VII Remake is action-based instead of time-based. It’s a fantastic way of making battles feel more engaging than simple button-mashing while still feeling familiar to the series. Even though Final Fantasy XIII still has my favorite battle system, this is a clearly improved version of it. Yoshinori Kitase, who has been the producer of both games, implemented a mechanic that gracefully complements director Tetsuya Nomura’s preference for action-oriented combat due to his work as the director of Kingdom Hearts.
While the series as a whole is known for its masterful soundtracks, Final Fantasy XIII still has my favorite of the bunch despite standouts like those of Final Fantasy VIII and Final Fantasy XIV. Not only is every track in it beautiful, but it is also comprised of arguably the most diverse selection of themes and styles in any singular entry’s soundtrack. Some pieces are evocative and ethereal; a few are lighthearted and catchy; others are bombastic and incredibly effective at heightening your adrenaline. While this applies to every Final Fantasy soundtrack, Final Fantasy XIII was the first in the franchise to be entirely composed by Masashi Hamauzu, who is also one of the primary composers for Final Fantasy VII Remake.
And Final Fantasy VII Remake‘s soundtrack is so incredible that it rivals Final Fantasy XIII‘s for me because of his contributions. In comparison to many remastered video game soundtracks, Final Fantasy VII Remake‘s feels like it always adds to rather than takes away from, especially with its heavily orchestral tracks. Hamauzu’s interpretations of classics like Aerith’s Theme are gorgeous enough to immediately tug at the heartstrings, preserving yet heightening their beauty. At the same time, he shows the breadth of his range with the experimental classical and jazz renditions of familiar songs you can buy through the vending machines located across Midgar. While he’s not the only composer, Hamauzu has a style that feels instantly recognizable to his fans due to the prominence of the piano and dissonance, and each track in Final Fantasy VII Remake oozes with his influence.
The last aspect of the remake that reminds me of Final Fantasy XIII is more felt rather than seen or heard. Final Fantasy XIII sits alongside Final Fantasy VIII and Final Fantasy XII as the most experimental entries in the series, breaking away from many of its conventions in the name of diversifying the palette. While some would say they deviated too much in some ways, they capture what is the core of Final Fantasy to me most effectively. To me, the core of my most beloved franchise is that there are few constants and traditions. Final Fantasy is ever-evolving, as popular and culturally massive as it is because it’s unafraid to tread new grounds and to commit to those choices.
Final Fantasy VII Remake is unafraid to be wildly different from the original game. It could’ve been the same game, just with Cloud’s pores lovingly crafted in high-definition, and I and many others would’ve been satisfied. Instead, it’s true to Final Fantasy‘s spirit, willing to take significant risks and tell a familiar story about beloved characters in some entirely new ways. It expands on character details and subplots that were merely hinted at before and introduces entirely new ones. It’s happy to rectify some of Final Fantasy VII‘s failings, such as its much more sensitive and arguably touching execution of the Wall Market section. It even moves forward with an entirely new voice cast from the one fans have become familiar with over the last decade. It is simultaneously familiar and new, nostalgic and unwilling to stay married to too many aspects of the original.
These aren’t easy choices to make, and they’re never guaranteed to work — especially when making them for the remake of one of the famous games in the world. But, time and time again, like with Final Fantasy XIII, Square Enix has shown it would rather make those choices, explore new ideas, forward its ways of thinking, and fail in some ways than not try at all.