The Final Fantasy VII Remake does not treat the original story as sacrosanct — and that’s a good thing
This post contains spoilers for the opening hours of Final Fantasy VII Remake.
As the Final Fantasy VII Remake begins, speckles of green lights swirl in front of a black background.
They coalesce slowly into sparks of mako energy – the life blood of the planet, being extracted by humans as a power source. And then we see her: Aerith, a sweet and simple flower girl, just like in the 1997 original on the Sony PlayStation.
My breath stops for a split second. I feel pangs of emotion I didn’t think existed. Square-Enix is dealing with weapons-grade nostalgia here, to borrow a saying.
But a little an hour into the experience, something unexpected happens.
The first mission is more or less a point-for-point redux of the opening bombing mission on a mako reactor plant.
Cloud, the moody merc with a sword as tall and wide as he is (which surprisingly isn’t an in-text compensation tactic) makes his way through the metropolitan areas of Midgar, the sprawling industrial city that sucks the mako energy from the planet to keep the lights on. Regular work-a-day citizens are terrified, some injured, by the reactor bombing.
But minutes later, something unexpected happens. The player is bombarded with new elements — and it isn’t certain at first when they’re fleshing out the background of the world, and when they might be rewriting history.
Cloud is visited upon by an apparition of Sephiroth, the silver-haired supervillain with an even bigger sword. In the 1997 original, we don’t see him until several hours after leaving Midgar.
Here, he taunts Cloud with nonspecific taunts and visions of flame and destruction. Perhaps most unusual, though, is Cloud’s retort, saying “I killed you with my own –“ before getting cut off.
Cloud’s memory of his history with Sephiroth is extremely muddled at the outset of the game for multiple reasons that are explained much further along. This one line will set alarm bells for players of the original game. Why did Cloud say that? How does he know (or think he knows) this detail?
And perhaps most tantalizingly: is Sephiroth actively messing around with Final Fantasy VII’s timeline? Is this a different version of the story to begin with?
As of the time of writing, I’m approximately just past the halfway mark of this game, so I don’t know the answer to this. I’ve seen “we have to talk about the remake’s insane ending” articles floating around online, but I refuse to spoil myself on what the heck is actually going on.
I think this is the right approach, because for people familiar with the original, the constant guesswork about when the remake zigs when you think it’s about to zag appears key to the experience.
Early on, mysterious wraiths clad in black appear at key points in the story. They sort of look like the black-clad Sephiroth clones, obsessed with “The Reunion,” that appear in the original game.
Here though, they seem to appear when the early storyline diverges the most.
They turn Cloud’s first meeting with Aerith into a frightening encounter. They later guide the two to safety when Reno of Shinra’s secret ops team the Turks chases them through the Sector 5 church.
The spirits’ attack on the Sector 7 slums, which until then had felt like a casual series of missions meant to flesh out the game’s world-building, suggests their involvement is important to the story this game wants to tell.
Because they appear so early on, I’m always on edge, wondering if the story will take another swerve or tangent without warning. At one point, an unnamed resident of the Sector 7 slums mentions rumours that Shinra has a secret underground lab in the area. Cloud says he’s never heard of such a thing.
Was it a throwaway line? A tease for a short mission a few hours down the line? Or the location of a major plot twist? Normally such a detail isn’t that big of a deal; but when it’s thrown into the remake of a childhood classic, every minor line becomes a potential tease.
The video game remakes I’ve played over the years have generally focused on updating the visuals and game mechanics to make it playable for the modern age.
The HD versions of Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon, for example, aim to evoke players’ experience of playing the original blocky versions with a shiny coat of paint.
Even the popular Resident Evil remakes, with completely rewritten scripts and performances, are essentially telling the same stories that we were familiar with from over 20 years ago.
Final Fantasy VII Remake is doing something different. More than a simple remake, it appears to be a re-telling of the story millions know and love, aiming to surprise and subvert expectations as much as it will play the hits. And I can’t wait to see where this new train ride will take me.