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Final Fantasy VII Remake – The Double-Edged Sword Of Episodic Content

At 2015’s PlayStation Experience, Sony and Square Enix divided the opinions of many nostalgic gamers with a trailer for the incoming remake of Final Fantasy VII. While the existence of the game had been announced at last summer’s E3, the latest trailer was the first time we’d seen any gameplay footage, with Square Enix revealing the new combat system at work. While most of the reaction was quite positive, some fans were concerned at what appeared to be the loss of the turn-based ATB battle system from the original game.

However, the most shocking announcement regarding the game came shortly after the event. It was revealed in a press release that the Final Fantasy VII remake would be released in multiple parts as episodic content. This decision has proved even more divisive among fans, and the backlash has been intense from certain corners of the Internet.

Regardless of your opinions, the argument for Square Enix taking this approach is persuasive, and they have suggested that this is the only way they can justify remaking the game. This decision may be bringing the project to fruition, but also simultaneously killing the remake’s chance of success. Here’s why.

Making games is expensive; that much is a given. However, a shot-for-shot, 1:1 remake of FFVII would be a massive undertaking for any major studio, let alone one that is simultaneously trying to push out another similar game in the shape of FFXV. If you think about the polygon count on the newly redesigned version of Cloud, he probably has a higher level of fidelity in his character model than the first game did in the entirety of Midgar. For them to design fully 3D environments on this scale is going to take a lot of blood, sweat and tears, not to mention money. Once you leave Midgar and the scope of the game increases dramatically, imagine how much work would be required to recreate that world map with the same fidelity. Even if they cut corners and radically alter the scale of the world map (as they originally did in FFVII), it would still be a gargantuan effort to recreate all of the other locations and environments with this level of detail.

Cloud himself probably has more polygons than the entirety of Midgar in the original game.
Cloud himself probably has more polygons than the entirety of Midgar in the original game.

Also, bear in mind that Square Enix are having to make all of these assets from scratch. This isn’t just a HD remaster. The assets they used in 1997 are simply unusable by today’s standards, created in an era before high definition displays and widescreen aspect ratios. Those same assets would have then been downscaled to suit the 320×240 resolution of the original Playstation. Even disregarding that information, Final Fantasy VII was graphically sub-par for the time, saving valuable disc space to focus on beautiful FMV sequences, a gigantic world map, and a dense script instead. This means that virtually nothing is salvageable from the original game, excluding ideas and story beats. Areas such as Cosmo Canyon, The Gold Saucer, Junon, Nibelheim, Gongaga, The City Of The Ancients and the Northern Crater are just a few of the environments that would need to be created from scratch. Graphically, the original version of FFVII is little more than concept art at this point.

By making the game episodic, Square Enix may be taking the only course of action they can to try and keep development times and costs under control. By splitting the project down they can keep funding the game’s growth, whilst also dividing it into more (barely) manageable chunks. It’s an understandable business decision. However, this may be one of the major factors that is damaging the game in the long run.

Depending on how quickly they can release later episodes, the overall time between releases is a cause for concern. Telltale have proven that episodic gaming is a sustainable model, and Square Enix’s very own Life Is Strange has been something of a hit this year. However, those games are designed specifically to accommodate large gaps between chapters. It’s easy to pick up another episode of The Walking Dead because the gameplay systems are simple enough to pick up and play. After a short refresher on the story, you’re usually ready to go. But how would this apply to the Final Fantasy VII remake?

Simple enough for an RPG, but will those elements translate into an episodic game?
Simple enough for an RPG, but will those elements translate into an episodic game?

Without pretending that Final Fantasy VII is a complicated game (especially compared to other JRPGs), the game is a fair bit more convoluted than most other episodic games. The materia system may need some reintroduction between episodes, not to mention remembering how to navigate your equipment, recalling what individual items do, and the effects of your magic, enemy skills and summons. Also, how will the levelling system even work? If you have to wait several months (or years) between episodes, what’s to stop the player grinding their way up to level 99 while they wait for the next installment? Over-levelling was always a possibility before for determined players, but the wait between episodes may just encourage this kind of behavior, leaving players with nothing else to do while they wait for the next chapter to release.

Recapping the story may also be a concern. If the plot follows the basic premise set out by the original game, there’s a lot of density and detail that could easily get lost or forgotten about between games. This may be mitigated by the memories of older players who are familiar with the 1997 release, but new players may find their experience with the story to be somewhat patchy. As someone who replayed the game a couple of years back, there are many story beats that had been totally lost to time. The only real way to remind players is with a detailed recap at the start of each episode, which is perhaps an impossibility without forcing the players to relive every moment again.

Speaking of which, there’s nothing to say that the gaps between episodes are going to keep players entertained long enough to sustain the development. While other episodic games often generate more sales as they go on, mainly by creating buzz and piquing players’ interest to go back and play the first episode onwards, would this work for a known quantity like Final Fantasy VII? Inversely to how sequels often work, the hype behind Final Fantasy VII could be front-loaded, and sales could decrease over time if players either don’t like the first installment, or simply get bored waiting for the next one.

It seems that Square Enix are in a catch 22 situation here. On one hand, a remake of the most beloved entry in their flagship franchise seems like a no-brainer in terms of business. This is an age where Japanese console developers are struggling to adapt to changing tastes at home and abroad. Japanese gamers are increasingly flocking towards mobile games that can easily be played on their commutes, while Western gamers are becoming less engaged with the peculiarities that punctuate Japanese game design. This can be evidenced by the rather negative legacy of Final Fantasy XIII, which reviewed fairly well on release, yet quickly fell out of favour among fans. There was also a muted response to Final Fantasy XV, despite having a rather extensive gameplay trailer towards the back end of last year.

Square Enix wants to revitalize what is ultimately their flagship product; the series that turned them from a developer on the verge of closure to the publishing powerhouse it is today. In order to restore Final Fantasy to its past glories, the company are looking towards one of their most beloved titles to engage those lost customers once again. Plus, when the fans are so vocal about getting a remake, it’s difficult for Square Enix to ignore.

About 19 years too late, Cloud...
About 19 years too late, Cloud…

On the other hand, the only way to make sure that the remake comes to market in a way that doesn’t kill the studio is to release it in an episodic manner. This is the title’s saving grace, especially since Square Enix have said in the past that a remake of Final Fantasy VII would be almost impossible to do. But it could well be the same thing that kills the remake before it ever reaches completion.

In a twisted fashion, the fans are getting exactly what they asked for. While firm release details remain sketchy, the episodic nature of this remake could be the very element that causes Final Fantasy VII to fall short of its potential. Let’s hope that Square Enix, a company who have had very mixed fortunes over the last few years, know exactly what they are doing.

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