This is a cross-post from my game design blog. You can find the original article here, as well as more like it.
A great story is more than a string of plot points. Characters are what drive us to resonate with the memorable moments they act within.
When you think of Final Fantasy VII, flashes of Aerith’s death and the Nibelheim incident flash through your mind. You remember Barret recounting the tragedy of the friend and town he failed to save, and Red XIII’s homecoming. You may or may not want Cait Sith and Yuffie erased from existence. But you definitely fondly recall arduously climbing 59 flights of stairs to breach the Shinra headquarters. Why fondly? Because spending 5 minutes climbing virtual stairs is only engaging if you’re doing it with characters you’ve grown to love. The banter between Cloud, Barret, and Tifa make the act not only something you enjoy against the odds but also a trek you actively choose to relive in the remake where it takes twice as long. If the cast is strong enough to sell what in most situations would be dull monotony, it stands to reason that you could theoretically drop them into practically any situation and they’d flourish.
While Final Fantasy VII Remake is a game of many merits, one of its most impressive is expanding upon both its main and supporting cast in meaningful ways. The original Western localization of Final Fantasy VII notoriously saw many nuances found in its native language lost in translation (Tim Rogers’ Let’s Mosey video series chronicles this in great depth). Personalities were dampened or even entirely overhauled, not out of maliciousness but because of the realities of the industry at the time. Localizers were often under extreme time crunches, and typically one-man operations at that. Further, some localizers added new flavor despite the short timeframe. Ted Woolsey’s original Chrono Trigger translation famously gave Frog a medieval speech pattern not present in the Japanese script and due to time-crunch often messed up his “thees” and “thous”; in the DS re-translation, Frog is more accurately translated with his original intent in mind (though to many lost that special — if flawed — touch). Similarly, Barret’s personality comes across racially stereotyped in the original Final Fantasy VII and Aerith loses much of her quippy attitude. Final Fantasy VII Remake takes the opportunity to corrects course and even add new layers of personality beyond what was technologically possible in 1997.
Jaunting across the rooftops with Aerith, she toys with Cloud and gleams with assertiveness. Barret remains brash but it’s more clear that this is a facade through the cracks in his machismo allowed by superb voice acting and facial animation. Similarly, the advent of modern technology gives nuance to Cloud’s archetypal standoffishness as we see him slowly learn to express his suppressed emotions, often in the small nuances to his anime grunting reactions that alter over time. And Tifa’s heightened struggle with weighing the righteousness of Avalanche’s cause against the destruction it brings upon innocents emphasizes her empathetic nature.
As each character is heightened with even more distinctive personalities, they also become a more cohesive unit through the shared humanization it brings. We can better relate to them because they seem more like us. This is precisely why remaking this all-time classic stirred such excitement. Being ahead of its time in 1997 meant multitudes of untapped potential that has been successfully realized 23 years later, especially on this critical character level.
There is, however, one key character that Final Fantasy VII Remake got wrong: Sephiroth.
It’s easily argued that even showing Sephiroth at all in Remake upended the character and plot’s emotional heft. In the original, seeing the death left in the wake of his rampage through Shinra HQ without actually witnessing the man himself made him an enigma. The Nibelheim incident paid this restraint off as it shows his normal, humanized self before transforming into a cold-hearted psychopath. That moment of relatability to who soon become a distinctly unrelatable character was what sold Sephiroth as more than a generic evil JRPG villain with a cool design. In other words, it’s why people cared about him. Further, his menacing power is sold through standard combat sequences where he pulverizes hulking enemies that take out Cloud with so much as a scratch. By the time he starts speaking in cold, convoluted prophecy we already have a reason to both have an emotional attachment gto him and fear the immense power we’ve seen him wield first-hand. And all importantly: this connection to Sephiroth makes it believable that Cloud idolized him. Pre-Nibelheim Sephiroth is also who we want to be, at least insomuch as in-game power. By the time we reach the ultimate showdown between the two, we feel how far we and Cloud have come through our journey. This is to say that Sephiroth’s character exists as a barometer by which we measure Cloud’s increasing strength and besting him at strictly the end fulfills his purpose and Cloud’s arc.
Remake uproots everything about this version of Sephiroth. We first encounter him not much more than an hour into the game, before any point in which he was even mentioned off-hand in the original. His dialogue now written in Kingdom-Heartsian cryptology, he speaks to Cloud foreboding sentiments that have no meaning to the player or even Cloud himself. These moments are tonally out of place with everything else in the game and given that we haven’t been given a reason to care about Sephiroth like the original did so deftly, his presence is always off-putting. It’s a definite fumble that at the very least undermines the impact of any humanity they try to inject into him later. But what truly throws Sephiroth under the Hardy-Daytona is his role in Remake’s finale.
As previously stated, the showdown between Cloud and Sephiroth at the end of Final Fantasy VII has impact because it’s specifically at the end. Finally proving you’re able to best him is Cloud’s resolution. Having the power to face him is the reward for investing 40ish hours into the game. So when you take him on at the end of Remake to the pumping tune of “One Winged Angel” (the song used in the original game’s final battle), there’s no balance of power between our heroes and villain. Sephiroth is no longer menacing. You’ve bested The Most Powerful Dude in battle, so now what? We’re gonna have near-death experience with a tough set of trash mobs in the next game? Are we to infer that those trash mobs can also beat Sephiroth? And sure, Sephiroth’s plans still need to be stopped, but is there any real tension in the prospect of facing him again? That we won a narratively unearned battle that was far from the most difficult in the game to me says no.
And then there’s the issue of Sephiroth’s coded diatribing. It’s frustrating in its obtuseness throughout the game but becomes particularly egregious when in the finale he drags the entire quality of character writing down to his level. From the moment Cloud and co. end their highway escape, the cast break from plainspeak to start rambling about “defeating fate” and other high-concept basically-just-introduced meta-narrative intangibles. It’s a cheap way to artificially raise the stakes so that Cloud and Sephiroth can leap across debris in a portal world as they clash swords. It’s extremely against the ethos of Remake up until this point; Gurren Lagann levels of cranking the volume from 5 to 11 wherein the characters are suddenly speaking in tongues and have insane cutscene powers defies the established grounded nature of the world painstakingly crafted up until now.
While I can ultimately still consider Remake a success, this lack of restraint is worrying for what comes next. Changes to the story are welcome; it would be far from engaging if in a few+ years we’re playing through an exact recreation of forthcoming character subplots we’re already intimately familiar with. As I said in the opening, if characters are truly great then you can drop them into new scenarios and they’ll continue to shine. However, they have to be written with consistency. The note on which Remake wraps calls into question if this is how Nomura and co. plan to tell their version of the story moving forward. But looking at everything that came before, it’s hard for me to believe that they’re going to “jump the shark” completely as they’ve already shown serious writing chops. As long as the world and story are still recognizable as Final Fantasy VII, there’s a lot of leeway. We already saw this with the overhaul of the Wall Market arc and Cloud joining Jessie and co.’s escapade to the upper plate. I’d argue you could push plot alterations/additions even further (the closing words of “The Unknown Journey Will Continue” signal this to be the plan). Whatever is to come, it can succeed if it feels authentic.
The difficulty of critiquing Remake’s ending in regards to the future of the series is that it all happens so fast before closing the curtains that there’s no clear indication of exactly what to expect. Until we get glimpses through interviews and reveals, all we can do is speculate.