The impending release of Square Enix’s action RPG Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth comes with an astronomical amount of baggage. Whether or not it’s ‘good’ baggage tends to be a matter of perspective, with series purists bemoaning the trilogy’s direction while others express contentment at the reinvention of a classic title.
This is what happens when you not only remake one of the best JRPGs of its era, but also make alterations - taking the story, and its characters in fresh directions. Though we know that the remake trilogy has set its characters on this new trajectory, we don’t yet know exactly where they’re headed. Despite my Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth hands-on giving me glimpses of what it might bring, I’m almost none the wiser as to what the sequel means in the long term for Cloud and pals.
What I do know, however, is that this new direction for the story makes a replay of the trilogy’s first part, Final Fantasy 7 Remake, absolutely essential, not only for figuring out where these characters are coming from but also for appreciating where they might be going. Though it pains some, you’ll no longer be able to know exactly what’s going to happen just because you played the 1997 original. Where once was certainty, there’s now only tantalizing mystery.
However, Final Fantasy 7 Remake can help us dispel this ambiguity by allowing us to engage with the series’ characters in a way that was simply not possible in the original source material. Not only are awkward Cloud and worldly Aerith given more life than ever by their 3D, photorealistic character models and stellar voice acting, but the game also brings into focus moments that were previously blurred, filling in the gaps and allowing us to dive deeper.
Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth will live or die depending on how effectively it builds upon this depth and whether or not it takes advantage of the solid foundations laid over the course of Remake. By understanding these foundations, we can better prepare ourselves for what Rebirth might have in store.
It’s the little things
Minor spoilers for Final Fantasy 7 Remake ahead.
The most significant elements of Remake aren’t necessarily the loudest or most obvious. The biggest changes to Cloud, for instance, come not in the dramatic setpieces, but in his quieter interactions with others.
Take, for example, a scene from early on in the game where Cloud helps fellow freedom fighter Jessie steal a keycard from her family home. Our spiky-haired hero does this by sneaking in the back while his allies distract Jessie’s mother by dropping in for a meal.
Throughout this sequence, which flat-out doesn’t exist in the original, Cloud is portrayed as a lone wolf, deliberately distancing himself from others - no change here. What’s new, however, is how effectively Remake conveys to us all the ways in which, beneath his detached veneer, he desperately wants to let others in.
As Cloud stalks through the back entrance to the house, we hear the happy sound of Jessie’s friends and family tucking into a pizza. The contrast between the idyllic scene in the background Cloud’s little stealth mission in the foreground is as palpable as it is tragic. In that position, we as the player are made to feel like an outsider, looking in on a scene of warm domestic life that’s just outside our reach. At that moment, we step into Cloud’s leather boots as we’re invited to feel his sense of isolation thanks to the game’s environmental storytelling.
This is the extra level of detail that Remake offers that the original simply couldn’t. By putting Cloud in this context, the game creates tension between who Cloud is and who he wants to be - a theme that will almost certainly feature heavily in Rebirth. During our hands-on with a preview build of the game, we saw the beginning of a flashback sequence leading up to the destruction of Cloud’s hometown of Nibelheim, so we know that our baggy-trousered buddy will be taking steps towards confronting his past in Rebirth, making the extra hints in Remake all the more important.
It’s not just Cloud that receives extra new details in Remake, though. In a heartbreaking scene towards the game’s final act - another that doesn’t exist in the original - Aerith urges Cloud not to fall in love with her, affirming hints throughout Remake that Aerith is aware of her eventual death at the hands of megalomaniacal, wannabe-god, Sephiroth.
“We need to make the most of the time we have”, she says, forebodingly, “to live our lives the way we want to live”.
This isn’t the Aerith of the original game, this is a more rounded, enlightened version of the character who is seemingly aware of her tragic role in the 1997 title. Naturally, this has huge implications for Rebirth. Is her awareness the result of time-travel shenanigans, or perhaps some sort of previously unexplored power of foresight that she might have? There’s a fun sense of mystery, here, but, without the groundwork in Remake, it could easily get lost.
A dark second act
In an interview on the official PlayStation blog, Rebirth director Naoki Hamaguchi impressed upon audiences that the upcoming title would be a “standalone game in its own right”. While technically correct, looking at all the hints and foreshadowing in Remake, it seems like this is unlikely to be the case in practice.
This is because Remake set up stakes for the story that go beyond those of the original Final Fantasy 7. With Nomura’s decision to adjust the canon, all bets are off as to what awaits Cloud and his friends. Remake goes out of its way to stoke a sense of the unknown, using new story beats to create new sources of tension. For instance, Cloud barely interacts with Sephiroth for the majority of the original Final Fantasy 7, while Remake has the two square off in a dramatic duel during the game's finale - an interaction laden with foreshadowing for Rebirth.
“That which lies ahead does not yet exist”, says Sephiroth after Remake’s final battle, as he asks Cloud to help him “defy destiny”. It seems as though Rebirth won’t just have our heroes fight the Shinra Corporation and Sephiroth, but also against fate itself. However, it’s the new scenes from Remake, like Cloud’s keycard heist and Aerith’s heart-to-heart, that help give us a sense of greater stakes at play moving forward into Rebirth.
We don’t know how this struggle will go just yet, but, thanks to its new scenes and their more intimate look at the game’s ensemble, Final Fantasy 7 Remake provides us a captivating insight into what we can expect from Rebirth. This makes the 2020 offering a must-play for those looking to get the most out of Square Enix's upcoming game.
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Cat Bussell is a Staff Writer at TechRadar Gaming. Hailing from the crooked spires of London, Cat is an experienced writer and journalist. As seen on Wargamer.com, TheGamer.com, and Superjumpmagazine.com, Cat is here to bring you coverage from all corners of the video game world. An inveterate RPG maven and strategy game enjoyer, Cat is known for her love of rich narratives; both story-driven and emergent.
Before migrating to the green pastures of games journalism, Cat worked as a political advisor and academic. She has three degrees and has studied and worked at Cambridge University, University College London, and Queen Mary University of London. She's also been an art gallery curator, an ice cream maker, and a cocktail mixologist. This crash course in NPC lifestyles uniquely qualifies her to pick apart only the juiciest video games for your reading pleasure.
Cat cut her teeth on MMOs in the heyday of World of Warcraft before giving in to her love of JRPGs and becoming embedded in Final Fantasy XIV. When she's not doing that, you might find her running a tabletop RPG or two, perhaps even voluntarily.