When Final Fantasy XIII rolled out, people were frustrated about the slow pace of the game. Around 10 hours in, the game would finally open up the combat system to what it was supposed to be. The hours before being some kind of excruciatingly drawn out session with trainings-wheels on. It would then take another 10 hours to finally eject you out of the corridors into an open world to go and actually play a Japanese RPG.
Final Fantasy VII Remake is worse than XIII in that respect.
Caught in-between Eastern and Western audiences, riding on a tsunami of nostalgia, and chained to an out-of-this-world level of expectations, you can't really blame the game. But dear lord, does it make some weird choices long the way.
Remake takes about 20 hours to finally, kind of, hand-to-its-heart honestly let you fight some actual battles. Where the original swamped the player with random battles in separate boxes, Remake attempts to integrate battles into the exploration like an action game. But instead of taking note of one of the best games in its portfolio - Chrono Trigger - Square Enix decided to employ the battle system of the Kingdom Hearts series, following in the footsteps of the XIII trilogy and XV.
That in itself isn't even that bad (though the turn-based battle system is sorely missed in all of Square Enix AAA-output these days), but the game seems positively allergic to combat. Areas that might look like a traditional dungeon may contain only 3 to 4 battles with anaemic enemies that die if you as much as look at them. These tiny battle sequences only serve to fill up the space between cutscenes as Remake rides Uncharted's coat-tails in exactly the wrong manner.
It's even worse when bosses enter the fray. Final Fantasy games this godawful tendency to only and only make the first boss enemy interesting. VI had a snail that would retreat into its shell, retaliating upon your attacks. VII would do the same with a raised stinger. It would highlight the Active Time Battle system, letting you wait out your turn even if you were capable of doing something, showing the system's potential.
Potential that would immediately be squandered as all other bosses degenerated into brute force slugfests. Remake is also allergic to this particular trope and attempts to fix it instead, by giving you bosses with multiple phases as if every one of them is Kefka reborn, and mechanic weaknesses that puts that snail to bloody shame. There's only one problem with that: you never ever seem to get the chance beforehand to actually learn Remake's combat system in a normal environment.
As all normal enemies are push-overs, boss battles quickly become annoying trial-and-error sequences as you scramble to discover which bit of the system you're supposed to use this time around. It makes boss battles tense, but the lack of any normal training grounds to get to grip with what you're actually doing, can do, and are supposed to do, is maddening.
So it transpires that after around 20 hours this annoying veil is finally lifted when you get access to the coliseum in Wall Market. Yes, after plodding through half of the game, you finally get to fight normal enemies at a decent level as much as you want. After 20 sodding hours, this JRPG finally lets you grind.
Doing so immediately exposes that the system was never meant to be 'grinded'. Your levels will soar upwards insanely fast, your materia will rapidly grow beyond measure, and your weapons can seemingly be upgraded without limit.
To me it's utterly baffling that Remake thinks this is the proper way of doing things. Why do you take a game that is 90% turn-based battles and change it into a combat-averse slog of cut-scenes, only to crank up the volume to 11 during boss-battles? How is this proper pacing? And why does progress seemingly break almost immediately when you do introduce multiple battles? Why on Earth are you fighting Hell House before you can properly get to grips with combat and magic in a multi-stage fight that feels more like an exam than a tense capstone.
The one redeeming feature is of course the presentation. And it hits the nostalgic feels with all the impact of a hydrogen bomb. Graphics, sound, animation, design, everything here feels authentically like the original. Compare the two directly and you wonder why both titles have over 200% the same energy, yet at the same time couldn't be further removed from each other.
Picking out the references, the updated locales, and the new-found dimensionality of the game is manna from the heavens. Combat themes kicking in pump up the adrenaline. Flashes backward and - confusingly - forward make you go teary-eyed. Watching scenes play out as they do can make your heart sing.
This is such a strange game. It's like an dissertation art-piece that is perfect yet curiously misses the goal of the original assignment by a country mile. With combat finally opening up, it's becoming better and I'm beginning to enjoy it properly. But man, those first 20 hours were annoying.
This is such a strange game.