For blockbuster franchises, 2019 was a year of spectacular swings and misses. Rise of Skywalker deflated fans and earned half what The Force Awakens drew at the box office. Game of Thrones fared even more perilously. Season 8 broke viewership records but also the hearts of at least 1.73 million fans who signed a petition demanding it be remade with "competent" writing.
Anticipation, clearly, is a double-edged sword. It means emotional investment, but also expectation of a big payoff.
So imagine how Yoshinori Kitase feels. After directing Final Fantasy 7 in 1997, he's now the producer of Final Fantasy 7 Remake. When its expected April 10 launch arrives, millions of people will rush out to buy the game. Many of those people have waited 15 years to play it.
That's because Remake started life in 2005 as, of all things, a tech demo. In an attempt to sell the world its upcoming PlayStation 3 hardware, Sony enlisted Square Enix to remake the intro to PlayStation classic Final Fantasy 7. But it was too successful. People were excited about the PS3 — but arguably they were more excited about a nonexistent Final Fantasy 7 remake.
"A lot of people misunderstand," laughs Kitase during an interview at a Remake preview event in Sydney. "It really wasjust made as a tech demo for the PlayStation 3 platform."
It wasn't an actual, real-life game in development.
But fans wanted to believe. Anytime a Square-Enix executive or developer spoke in public, Kitase says, they were barraged with demands for an FF7 remake.
Awkward, because it wasn't feasible at the time. Kitase was tied up with Final Fantasy 13 and its two sequels. Tetsuya Nomura, character designer of the original and director of Remake, was busy expanding the Kingdom Hearts universe. The reason it's taken so long for Square Enix to get on with an official remake, Kitase says, is the banal reality of scheduling conflicts.
Which brings us to 2020, and April 10 being the culmination of a long wait for fans. This is the challenge Kitase and his team face: Is it possible to make a game that satisfies people who've waited 15 years to play?
"There's definitely a big responsibility with the Final Fantasy 7 Remake," says Kitase. "It's undeniable that the story in Final Fantasy 7 has been idolized and put on a pedestal."
"We really have to satisfy the players with not just what we gave them the first time, but the expectations and their memories, which are more beautified than what originally happened."
It's a hard win, but one Square Enix could use. Final Fantasy is still a prestigious and lucrative brand, but not quite as influential as it once was. Final Fantasy 13 and 15, the two most recent single-player games in the franchise, were plagued with development issues. Both sold well and received solid reviews, but they lacked the lasting influence or universal acclaim of previous titles.
At best, the last time Square Enix set a benchmark for role-playing games was with Final Fantasy 12 in 2006. At worst, the last truly momentous game in the franchise was Final Fantasy 10, released 19 long years ago.
Reimagined, not just remade
Final Fantasy 7 Remake will be the first time in 14 years that a mainline Final Fantasy game will launch on the console it was actually intended to launch on. That's a good start. But how to actually go about meeting and beating lofty fan expectations? Expand the universe.
Though it didn't begin making Remake until around 2014, Square Enix certainly did take advantage of the hype that the 2005 tech demo created. Later that year it released Final Fantasy 7: Advent Children, a feature-film sequel that takes place two years after the events of the original game. Dirge of Cerberus, a game focusing on FF7 fan favorite Vincent Valentine, would come a year later in 2006. Then in 2007 the company dropped Crisis Core, an excellent prequel to Final Fantasy 7.
Between those titles, in addition to furtherminor releases (including an anime film, a novella and a mobile game), the lore of Final Fantasy 7 has expanded greatly since the original. Kitase wants to reflect that in the Remake project.
"After the original Final Fantasy 7 came out, we did other sequels and spin-off games," says Kitase. "There are a number of characters who maybe weren't touched upon so much in the original story who became really popular."
"We decided that one of the big things we could do was to flesh out the roles those characters have and feature more stories, a more in-depth look at these characters, to give new surprises to the players."
Final Fantasy 7 depicts a world in which a megacorporation named Shinra extracts Mako, the planet's life force, and sells it as energy. Shinra has its own military force called Soldier. An ex-Soldier mercenary, Cloud Strife, is FF7's main character. The original game begins with Cloud being hired to aid a local group of eco-rebels in blowing up a Shinra plant. Chaos ensues, you encounter mythical ex-Soldier Sephiroth, and before long, like all good fantasy, you're fighting for the survival of the planet itself.
It's one of gaming's most famous tales, but Kitase notes the original game's story was "oversimplified" because graphical limitations restricted storytelling. Now those restrictions don't exist, allowing a more extensive story to be told.
"If you're going to go back and remake that story but with modern graphics and storytelling techniques, it kind of becomes incoherent and chopped up" Kitase explains. "There's bits in between that you have to put in there to make it a solid tale … So by going back and making a really coherent narrative, that increases the volume of stuff in the game.
"Rather than trying to force everything into a single game and make it a choppy digest of the original story, we decided it was a much better option to go for a multipart project."
We don't know how many games there will be in the project — Kitase says Square Enix hasn't made that decision yet — though we do know a second one is already being developed. I asked what the roadmap of the Remake project will be and if we should expect new Final Fantasy 7 games closer to every two years or every five years. He couldn't say.
It's easy to think of Final Fantasy 7 Remake as just the first part of a larger tale that's been artificially divided. But after playing the game for two hours, I get the sense that it deserves your undivided attention.
Unlike the original, much of the combat is in real-time. To FF7 diehards that'll sound like sacrilege — like remaking Halo as a third-person shooter. But along with the expanded story, it's a reminder that this is more Final Fantasy 7 Reimagined than Final Fantasy 7 Remake.
"One of the first things we discussed about the project was how far we were going to push it in the direction of action," Kitase says. "There was a lot of debate about that. We worked out a spectrum [where] the original Final Fantasy 7 is at one end, a pure menu-based system, and Kingdom Hearts is the other end of the spectrum. We felt we had to fit somewhere in that gap between those two games."
That paradigm makes sense, considering the game is being led by Nomura, director of the Kingdom Hearts games, and Kitase, director of the original FF7.
There's an Attack button, a Dodge button, a Block button and a button to switch between Party members. Deal enough damage and your character's Action Time Bar (ATB) fills up, allowing you to slow combat to bullet time. From there you'll scroll a menu to cast magic, use items, hit your Limit Break special attack and more.
It sounds complicated, but it works exceptionally well. I was quickly struck by how intuitive the combat feels. Kingdom Hearts games, which serve as at least partial inspiration for this system, often suffer from button-mashy combat. This is a trap that this game, during my two hours with it, avoided.
Instead, there's a need for strategy and coordination. You'll have three party members on the field of battle at any given moment, one controlled by you and two on autopilot. You're encouraged to take control of different characters as different enemy types attack you — switching to canon-armed Barret, for instance, when ranged opponents strike. Many battles throw multiple types of opponents at you simultaneously, meaning you'll be constantly switching around. The result is combat that's both stylish and satisfying.
That said, I played through two early sections and still have unanswered questions. Combat was certainly fun in my demo, but it's hard to tell if it'll remain so for the 40 hours Final Fantasy 7 Remake will likely take to beat. But the foundation's there.
Part one takes the story up to when Cloud and his party leave Midgar. How effectively Square Enix makes Midgar feel like a living, breathing city will be a big part of the game's success or failure. Much of what I played was dungeon-crawler style combat through huge, serpentine buildings. But the moments I spent wandering (or brawling) through Midgar's streets felt strangely comforting. The Midgar you imagined while playing the blocky original is finally real.
More Mako, more problems
A recent trailer for the game shows Cloud dolled up in a black dress and blush, blond ponytails falling in front of his shoulders. It's part of a section from Final Fantasy 7 in which you disguise yourself as a woman to infiltrate the mansion of a lecherous local baron to save Tifa, Cloud's childhood friend.
The mission is both famous and infamous. Some remember it fondly, but it's a part of the game that, when Remake was announced, others suspected would get cut. But Kitase says the team's philosophy is to include all the key moments fans remember from the original. And he's keenly aware of the thin line the team is walking.
"With our philosophy of keeping everything the fans want to see in the game, we thought we had to [include] that," Kitase explains, but he adds, "we had to redo the way the scene is portrayed."
"Rather than feeling it's over the top and played for laughs … we felt if we showed it in a natural and not-too-forced manner it would just work and people would accept it."
It's a microcosm of the delicate balancing act that Final Fantasy 7 Remake demands of Square Enix. Make combat familiar enough to satisfy older fans but dynamic enough to attract a new fanbase. Expand the remake into multiple parts because one game would be too crammed, but don't spread it too thin. Retain enough story elements to keep this Final Fantasy 7, but with enough additions so fans of the original "can be surprised once again," as Nomura previously said he hopes for.
The aforementioned trailer shows glimpses of new directions. We see the party in combat with Jenova, a character you don't fight in the original until after Midgar. It also reveals a completely new, yet-to-be-named character confronting Cloud. Someone's got to be the final boss, since it won't be Sephiroth in part one, right?
We'll find out on April 10 whether this means minor additions to the story or deeper changes. Like the decision to have Cloud dress up as a woman, the team's alterations to Final Fantasy 7 will be intensely scrutinized. And Kitase knows it.
"Compared to a new game, where everything is new and will be accepted as something new and different, because this is a remake, everyone's got their expectations towards each individual part of the game," he says."First you've got to meet those expectations, and then you've got to go above them and break those expectations.
"And that's really hard."
Final Fantasy 7 Remake is scheduled to launch on the PlayStation 4 on April 10.
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