The Final Fantasy 7 Remake and Legacy Baggage
Before I begin let me say that I haven't, nor do I plan to finish the Final Fantasy 7 remake, so take it with a grain of salt. And I'm not saying Squeenix (as they will be heretofore named) didn't do many many things well. In most cases it extrapolated from the original and expanded upon it in intelligent ways. But there were mistakes made. One is apiece of legacy detritus that, more than anything else, kept me from finishing it: The Battle System. But before I get into my complaints I'd like to talk about what worked well.
The Characters Every character has seen an incredible reworking here. Their body models were all well updated. Well, except for Tifa and her tits-o-doom, of course. I mean seriously, they don't have breast reduction surgery in Midgar?
But, more importantly, the characters themselves have all received a great deal of attention. Even minor characters like Biggs, Wedge, and Jessie feel like fully fleshed out individuals with their own desires and fears. And the major characters are incredibly well done. You can see Cloud struggling to present the facade of someone who is cool and aloof, but who can't seem to keep his inner nice guy from slipping through the cracks. Tifa's morale struggle about what Avalanche is doing is also far more real.
Those were great, but the character that got the most attention was definitely Aerith. (Hence why she gets her own paragraph) I didn't even like Aerith in the original game; she struck me as a naive wallflower, which was ironic since she was a flower girl. But here she seems wise beyond her years. It's as if she sees right through Cloud's front and is laughing at him. In this game I actually like her more than Tifa, something I would have flatly refused to be possible before.
The voice acting is also top notch. And, I don't mean just a few of the actors; everyone does a fantastic job. Again, I have to single out Brianna White (the voice of Aerith) for a lot of credit. She had quite the hole to dig the character out of and she did it amazingly well.
If you'll recall, the first FF7 was made in Japan, and ported here with a translation that was probably conducted out of a Japanese to English manual by a person who spoke neither language. It was that bad. I sincerely hope the Japanese version made more sense.
But, here the dialogue is fantastically adjusted for English speakers. The characters act in character at all times, instead of the writer taking the shortest line to the next plot point. This allows each one to become more and more believable as you continue the game, as opposed to jarring you out of the story as they act out of character.
The story has also been improved. The first game felt very rushed in execution. Here there are several added missions and enemies. Even the side quests were inventively fun. Best side quests I've played since playing a goblin in Warhammer Online, actually.
The Stagger System
FF7 . . . I don't want to say steals . . . let's say creatively appropriates the stagger system first unveiled in FF13. And it does it in a fairly simple way. Certain abilities do less damage (Cloud's Focused Thrust, or spells the target is weak to, for example) but increase the stagger gauge more. And when a creature becomes staggered they take much more damage. Its basically a stun mechanic, which is odd because FF7 Remake has retained stun as well. But, it makes fights more interesting, giving the player different paths they can take to victory.
This is hardly new to gaming, and its certainly not exclusive to Final Fantasy. Ironically, its something that has become more and more apparent as story based games have continued to come further into the main stream. How many times in games have we seen the main character seem incredibly weaker (or stronger) in a cut scene than they are in the rest of the game? It breaks the player's immersion into the story, jars them back to reality when things stop fitting. Not two minutes ago I was playing this character and killed twenty guys. Now one guy is holding the character by the throat and suddenly they are helpless? Spoiler alert: that's from not one, but two parts of Horizon Zero Dawn.
The FF7 Remake may not have invented this little faux pa, but it certainly had its fair share of instances, starting with the main character. Cloud is a Mako infused soldier. This has given him the ability to wield massive weapons while looking like he's on a drastic weight loss program. He is extremely strong, yet seems incredibly weak anytime the writers forget about his strength. Like:
Jumping: In several instances in both cut scenes and battles we see Cloud making leaps that could set new records in the high jump, without using a high jump pole. At one point he jumps to a raft in the center of a lake (without so much as a single step head start) grabs two children, and leaps back. Yet in regular travel he cannot step over a six inch block.
Sheer Strength: Cloud's strength is clearly ridiculous. Want proof? Take for instance, his choice of weapon. A broadsword that seems to be the result of frenzied mating between a machete and a meat cleaver.
If you'd like an idea of just how heavy that sword is, take a look at this video of Man At Arms building one. Now that's two guys just to hold the sword up. And these aren't normal everyday shlubs either; these are blacksmiths. They certainly won't be on the weak end of the scale. Yet, Cloud carries it, completely extended, with one arm as if it were a foam lightsaber. Or even a real lightsaber. Either way, that's 80 pounds of metal collaborating with Archimedes to drag that sword back to Earth. Or Midgar, or wherever. And Cloud's holding it up with a shoulder. One shoulder. Yet, he is regularly flummoxed by locked gates, as if he continually forgets he could snap that lock apart like it was kindling. Or jump over the gate like Yoda on crack.
The Equipment System
I know this one's going to annoy you purists out there, but why exactly can Cloud and Co. only equip one piece of armor or accessory? Why can't he wear boots and arm guards? I understand that this system comes straight from the original game, but really? We couldn't rework it to give players a little more in the way of options in how they choose to build their characters? It's not like they have much in the way of variance to begin with because of:
The Materia System
I am not going to say that the materia system is bad. Mostly because if I did I'd have a mob of the aforementioned purists outside my house wielding pitchforks and burning torches. I mean yes, they'll probably be foam pitchforks and LED torches, but do you have any idea the kind of mess an angry mob leaves?
That said, I would have liked a more updated materia system. As it was in the original game any character could learn any spell and be almost as effective at it. I'd have loved to see some sort of synergy system where certain characters can get more out of their materia, beyond just having a better magic stat. As it is, the only thing that differentiates the characters are their weapons.
But all of that is really just a minor story telling faux pas. The big issue, the issue that forced me to quit the game was:
The Battle System
I know what you're thinking: I'm one of those twits that complained about switching to a real time fighting system. Well, just in case that last sentence didn't alleviate you of that opinion, I shall clarify; I hate turn based combat systems. My first RPG was Secret of Mana, and I never understood why anyone would make a turn based combat system when that game had shown how well real time worked. Ender said it best when he said that without movement there could be no combat. A large part of tactics is movement. Even boxing relies heavily on movement. And if there is one sport that's more about standing around trading punches, its boxing. Movement is essential in combat. Otherwise you're just recreating 17th century European warfare. There's a reason the Indians kicked France's ass in the French and Indian War: they refused to line up.
So yes, I applauded the announcement that they were transitioning to a real time combat system. The problem is that they did not make a full transition to real time combat. Instead they created a fence sitting, half this, half that, amalgamation. They deliberately hauled along ill suited components of the previous system in what I can only imagine was a nostalgia move. They should have worked from the system in Kingdom Hearts 2. Instead they gave us:
A Triple Economy Combat System
Here's what I mean by that: in order to do anything you have to satisfy three criteria. Two of those are just what we'd expect from a real time system.
The first is the resource requirement. If you're casting a spell you'll need enough MP to cover the cost. No, there are not loans for this. If you're using an item you'll need to actually have it in your inventory. Basically, you have to use something you only have a limited amount of to pay for the ability.
Second, you'll need time. Everything takes time. That time varies based on what you're trying to do. If its grabbing an item, the time is fairly short. If it's casting a spell its longer. With weapon abilities the time needed varies largely. Some are quick, while others have one hell of a wind up. This forces the player to make choices. Some slower moving creatures will give you the time for that big wind up. Faster moving monster might just interrupt you, no matter where you were on the field.
These two requirements are both common in real time combat games. What is decidedly unprecedented was Squeenix's decision to carry the ATB system over.
Previously, in turn based games, this system has functioned to determine which character goes next. It's supposed to simulate how much time each character needs to complete each action. For instance, in Final Fantasy 10 it took less time to use an item than virtually anything. Overdrives took longer than any other ability, delaying your next turn at bat.
But, as I'm certain you'll recall from the second requirement, we already had that. It's factored in already. There's no reason to force the player to build up a gauge on top of that.
Worst of all, you are in no way guaranteed that spell, item, or ability because should you be hit, you not only lose the ability (though it should have already been paid for via ATB) you also lose any resources you would have spent on the ability that got interrupted! In other words, should the character get interrupted while casting a cure spell, you lose your ATB, your Mana Points, any time you'd used for the casting, and get knocked off your feet for your trouble. Where did the MP go? I don't know. It didn't get used. But its still gone. Thanks for trying anyway.
The same is true for items. Items, which take as much ATB as casting a spell would. And just like magic, if interrupted you lose the item. Again, not sure what happened to it. It's just gone. But hey, you can always build up your ATB and try again.
The only part of the ATB system that makes any sense at all is in use of the different weapon abilities each character gains. These don't use magic, and don't use items, so it sort of works. Not that we couldn't have balanced those with the time they take, or by increasing damage taken (due to not being able to defend oneself while performing it) instead.
The truth is the ATB Gauge has no business being added to a real time combat system. It serves no useful purpose. It's not simulating how quickly the character performs abilities; they have to do that separately. It's not a measure of the character's stamina; you can still use basic attacks to your heart's delight. And, I find it hard to believe that the use of a potion would require as much stamina as an ability or casting a spell. It's just there, forcing the player to go through unnecessary hoops. Maybe it represents how slowly the characters think? You'd think Cloud's would fill a lot slower in that case though . . .
It's as if Squeenix was building a puzzle based off of an old puzzle they had in a basement. They really liked one piece of this old puzzle; they wanted to add it to the new one. So they dug it out of that crumpled, dusty box and brought it over to the new puzzle. Unfortunately that old piece didn't really fit. It did not match the new puzzle's color pallet. It was too big. It used different connecting shapes. But, instead of recognizing this and putting that piece back where it came from, they reached for their trusty rubber mallet and hammered that little bastard into their new puzzle like a determined kid with a birthday pinata.
Now, I'm sure some of you are wondering why I'm making such a big deal about the ATB. Sure, its annoying, but not insurmountable, right? That's what I thought after playing the Demo. But that one boss you fight in the Demo has built in breaks that help to hide just how much this screws with the player. It's not until later on that you'll be dealing with enemies that can leap across the entire arena to hit you, that move faster than you, that use attacks that can't be defended against. And they only have to do such twice before you are most certainly out of ATB. Then you have to build it back up before you can even try again.
What's that; how do you build it up? I thought you'd never ask. Basic attacks my friend, basic attacks. That's right: you tried casting that cure spell on a wounded ally and got interrupted. You tried again, and got interrupted. Now you have two seriously wounded allies (and you're not looking too hot either) and you're out of ATB. You're only two options are to a) run around and hope the enemy chooses not to use any of those same abilities, watching frantically as your gauge slowly fills , or b) go right up to him and wail on him. You being low on health of course.
You might think this would be rare, but it happened to me all the time. I got as far as the fight beneath Don Cornholio's estate (yes, I know that's not his name) before I'd decided I'd had enough of having the game tell me 'no' for no good god damned reason, over and over.
But wait, there's more! I haven't even gotten into:
The Surprising Stupidity of the Enemy AI
And it is stupid. I think it actually had more depth in the original game. Here all it does is hit whomever your controlling at the moment. And, in just a tad of fourth wall break, it knows exactly when you switch, and who you switch to. And when it comes to bosses, there is often no defense for their attacks. Got your block up? You're still getting knocked over. Tried to dodge? Tried is the operative word there, as they will often correct (sometimes in mid air) for your dodge. No, there are no invincibility frames
Now, I know what you're thinking. (Amazing how often I say that isn't it? But its true. I'll prove it). You're thinking you could use that very simplicity to your advantage. Just use one person as the tank and let the others wail on the target, right? I'm right aren't I? Okay, you don't have to admit it, but we both know.
The problem with that particular plan is:
The Surprising Stupidity of the Allied AI
Yep, they're about on par really, your allies and enemies. As stated above, ATB charges when you make attacks. But when you're not controlling your allies they just mosey about the battlefield. They rarely attack, and they never use a single ability without you're direct say so. So keep an eye on that slowly (I mean like molasses in winter) filling ATB guage so you can tell them do something. You know, while your constantly dodging the boss that is.
Oh, but don't worry; if you really want them to do one thing autonomously (like say, something critical, like healing a critical ally) you can socket a materia for that. It's not as good as the non autonomous materia because . . . apparently its spending most of its effort increasing their intellect past that of an angry turnip?
I mean really Squeenix? If you were going to put so little effort into allied AI's couldn't you have at least borrowed the License board from FF 12? Or even the chess board from Secret of Mana. The original, not the reskin. At least then we could program our characters to not be total dip shits.
It blows my mind that the company that brought us Secret of Mana and Kingdom Hearts could have failed so badly in the a real time combat system. As I said above, I won't say the game is completely terrible. But it seems that Squeenix was doing a little ditch to ditch driving on this one. The things they hit they really nailed. But when they missed, it was by a mile. I haven't finished this game. I doubt I will ever finish it. But I can guarantee that I won't be buying the future installments unless Squeenix gets rid of that ridiculous ATB bar. And, if any of you want to experience a well done real time fighting RPG, I recommend you play Horizon Zero Dawn. That's what I did to try and get the dirty taste of this game out of my mouth.
As it is I'm giving this game a 50%, and all of that goes to the writers and animators.
P.S. The part with Cloud earning the right to cross-dress was hilarious.