Like being reunited with your high-school chums but better. Photo courtesy of Square Enix.

Final Fantasy VII helped revolutionize games upon its release for the original Playstation in 1997. Spanning three CDs, it told a globetrotting story full of excitement and heartbreak, and its use of pre-rendered cutscenes helped merge video games and movies in ways we’re still seeing. It was also a product of the technological limitations of the time, and fans have begged for a hi-def remake since the PS3 era. Now, five long years after its announcement, Final Fantasy VII Remake is here, and while it can’t replicate the impact of the original, it more than easily brings back the emotions of playing it.

The game centers on Midgar, a metropolis ripped from Blade Runner with slums ripped from Dickens. Run by the dictatorial Shirna Electric Power Company, it comprises the Upper Plate, sitting hundreds of feet up in the air, where Shinra’s elite and the majority of their workers enjoy a middle- to upper-class life, and the slums below, where people live in fear of monster attacks and reside in buildings literally made from the garbage tossed from above. The entire city is powered by Mako, an energy source derived from the lifeforce of the planet itself. Opposing Shinra is the eco-terrorist group Avalanche, out to keep corporate greed from sucking the planet dry. Players control Cloud Strife, a mercenary and former Shinra special forces SOLDIER member, recruited by his childhood friend Tifa Lockhart to help take down a Mako reactor with machine gun-armed Avalanche leader Barret Wallace. When one of their missions goes awry and Cloud meets flower girl Aerith Gainsborough, an even larger threat to the planet emerges, and Cloud and crew must get out of Midgar and go on a larger quest to save the planet.

Thing is, that larger quest happens after the first five hours or so of the original game, which Remake focuses on, with the rest of the full remake experience taking place over multiple future games. However, that doesn’t mean this is just a quick tease of a game. Rather, Square Enix has expanded on the Midgar section, exploring new locales not seen in the original, spending more time with side characters, and making a full-fledged 30-hour experience.

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Helping that along is engrossing gameplay. The combat is a fast-paced mix of real-time and strategic combat, with attacks, dodges, and blocks taking place in real time and building up Active Time Battle, or ATB, meters, which can be used to pause the action and unleash special techniques, magic attacks, and items. Accompanying this is the Materia system, magic orbs formed from Mako, which, when attached to weapons and gear, grant the ability to shoot fireballs and heal or grant extra defense against certain attacks. Players can also swap between each member of the party during combat, allowing for a breadth of gameplay styles, from Barret’s long-range gun focus to Tifa’s martial arts melee style. It has enough elements of the original’s turn-based combat and modern action games a la God of War to provide ways for players to customize their preferred method of gameplay, helped along by explosive visuals for magic attacks and particle effects emphasizing each sword swing and machine gun blast.

Perhaps the thing FF7R does best, though, is retell the original story. Cloud and the gang are well animated, voice-acted, and written, with lots of flavorful banter during combat and heartwarming cutscenes to enjoy. Backed up by loathsome villains to encounter, memorable bosses to fight, and the scope of Midgar lovingly rendered, the game’s long-development cycle pays off with one of the most enthralling games of the year. The game’s secret weapon to eliciting warm nostalgia fuzzies is the music, with returning maestro Nobuo Uematsu, accompanied by Masashi Hamauzu and Mitsuto Suzuki, slicing through any gamer’s defenses with each thundering guitar strum and tinkling piano key. While there are minor texture pop-ins and a few skyboxes that could use some work, Square Enix has taken their high pedigree of flashy presentation to another level.

It’s obvious the returning staff from the first game and the new additions care a lot about the characters and world, because this may be one of the most lovingly crafted AAA games ever made. Playing is like being reunited with your best friends from high school, only better. Things are better than you remember, the people are as great as you think you remember, and players will find themselves thinking, “God, it’s good to see you guys.”

Final Fantasy 7 Remake

Directed by Tesuya Nomura, Naoki Hamaguchi, and Motomu Toriyama

Produced by Yoshinori Kitase

Voice-acted by Cody Christian, Briana White, Britt Baron, and John Eric Bentley

Published by Square Enix

For Playstation 4

Rated T