Sunday, 6 December 2015

What we need from the Final Fantasy VII Remake

So, It's official, the happiest of happy days has come and gone. The day where the Final Fantasy VII Remake has been officially announced. I remember it well, On this day, I had a brief argument with the wife about some general mundane something-or-other, which ended swiftly when I exclaimed to her; "You're spoiling Final Fantasy day!" To my utter delight, this ended the argument outright, she understood how just important this is to me. This is one of the many reason I love her so much.

But now that we know it's coming, what could/should we expect?


Although this is a remake, I can't imagine Square would be treating this as a simple HD up-res, they have already confirmed this will be a total remake, but if they are really serious about this, it doesn't just have to be a modernised version of FFVII, it needs to be on par with the standard of the latest Final Fantasy titles too so that it can truly stand on it's own, which means it will likely be compared to, and need to be better than FFXV too.

Having recently played the FFXV demo, along with the re-released FFVII on the iPhone I've been considering how the sequel, could and should be handled, with that in mind the below is pure speculation and just my general hopes for the remake.

For anyone who hasn't played FFVII in any form, Warning: (it should be needles to say, but) massive spoilers ahead.

Graphics

I wanted to get this out of the way first as it's the most obvious change, the graphics will be upgraded, sure. But there is more to FFVII than a 3D world (or pre-rendered backdrops), it has style, with roots in an alternate world diesel-punk meets anime. And to make a more realistic game, we're probably going to loose the chibi-anime style of the characters among some other stylistic choices from the original.

Consider FFXV as a benchmark for the graphics, as it's going to need to be. So with that level of quality in mind, we can start to visualise a diesel-punk world, a world which in many ways is far more advanced than our own. But without the invention of electricity, fossil fuels alone have paved the way to a new future, one limited by technology but not ambition. Where people make space ships that are almost entirely mechanical. You see in the world of FFVII electricity (or a form of) is a relatively new concept, one that leads the world and it's inhabitants down a grave path. With the realism bar set with FFXV and this world being so grim at ertain points, we are probably looking at a fully rendered 3D environment where the characters and world fit together seamlessly. So bye-bye to the anime style, but the neo-tokyo meets diesel-punk aesthetic will very-likely stay, thankfully we have Final Fantasy VII Advent Children as an idea of what this will turn out like.

But the task of creating world itself is something that makes me wonder, it's essentially made up of one large city, a few small towns and villages, some mountain ranges (with caves), and some forests. But mainly a large expanse of open plains and the ocean. FFVII original relies on the chibi-style and has little care of the accurate use of scale (in many places on the world map, cloud is depicted as taller than the village he is visiting) in order to create an entire planet. but to make a realistic version, everything would need to be in scale. Surely this would take forever to make!





Take the image above, top left as an example, this is Kalm town, when you enter it looks like the image on the top right, this is the exact size of explorable space from the original game. But these are purely representative of what the world is really meant to be like, in the action sequel Dirge of Cerberus (bottom), Kalm is much, much larger with hundreds of houses. Although this particular game may not be used as exact cannon and the layout may differ, the concept of Kalm town is that it is much larger than it was shown in the original game. So how will they depict this in the remake? 

On one hand consider what we have seen and played of FFXV the cities look enormous. but does this mean we will be greeted with a Kalm town that is enormous, how will it be populated? if it is fully populated so that it looks real will there be an almost endless supply of people to talk to? 

I'd imagine it will be far larger, but not on the scale that Dirge of Cerberus shows it and there will be an abundance of non interactive people having their own conversations as you walk by, perhaps this is how the story of the world and it's current events will be conveyed to the player.

But that's just Kalm, imagine Midgar, which has potentially tens of thousand of inhabitants? In the original we were locked off to specific areas, and those areas were again only small representations of the actual size of the sector which is supposed to house thousands of people. The sequel may follow suit to some regard. 

What I really want to see from this world its to open up Midgar and let it become the huge city it is depicted to be. I want to see the whole world of Gaia for what it really is. We don't jsut want a new Final Fantasy VII, we want a bigger one.

Sound

If you change the music, I will seriously consider not buying this game. (I'll still buy it, but I will be unhappy). Let's be honest, this wont change.

It's hard to remember the midi tunes of the original game as they've been redone so many times, but that music is iconic, Each character has their own theme, each location has it's own theme, battles have a theme, bosses have a theme and key moments have a theme, My wife walked down the Isle to Aerith's theme, because it is such a beautiful note. The only thing that should change here is that they need to replace the electronic tones with an actual orchestra as they have done on separate occasion with some parts of the score, as these just sound beautiful.

In addition to the music, the sound effects will likely improve but since FFX we have a new expectation from games in the series, voice acting. I never read a book when I was young, but I read FFVII which probably has as much text as a typical novel. The actual (unofficial) novelisation is split across 3 books and that whizzes past some large parts of the game.

I welcome voice acting with open arms, so long as the actors work, I think they nailed the actors in Advent Children, but I'm not sure if these actors and actresses used would even consider making a comeback. The only one which worries me was Mena Suvrai's Aerith, whilst it was perfect for ethereal Aerith, I dont think Suvari can act well enough to breathe enough life into a character we could love. Something which is of key importance to delivering one of the most pivotal points in the story

But as mentioned above, we could now avoid the traditional method of talking to everyone in town and reading what they all say in order to learn about the world. Now we can get the story from overhearing NPC conversations as we go along. Not only does this make the world more believable, it allows the opportunity to build on the story of the world with more people and new diologue. I just hope they intentionally keep all of the original NPC's and make some nice nods with their original conversations, like the couple you meet outside the train stop when you first arrive in sector 7, who talk about sneaking off to find somewhere to canoodle. 

I'd love some direct comparisons to all the people from the original in this new version of the world, just so I can say, "I know you." (yay, nostalgia moment).

Gameplay

The gameplay in the original was really split, you have your exploration, character set-up, battles and the overall journey. Well, and some daft mini-games. Now before I begin, I must say, I actually like random encounters and the turn based battle system, I think it shouldn't be changed much, but it needs to be done much better to be on par with today's standard of games.

The exploration system will most likely be pretty-much lifted off what we have seen of FFXV, running around cities and the world should be just like what we have seen in XV, albeit the demo we have seen is the area of Duscae, but if this could be opened up into one consistent world (not split into areas like XIII was).  The best thing for me about the XV demo is that it showed random encounters still work when they are part of the world. AS it's so large you can try to skirt around a pack of beasties but you'll likely just come across another, or an airship will fly in and drop baddies off, or they'll be just behind that rock. Random still, but integrated directly into the world perfectly.

The battle system is the one that's up for debate here, players just aren't very attracted to turn-based combat anymore, people need the action and games need to be moving all the time. But the last thing I want in a remake of this game is to be put in control of only one character and button-mash through encounters or set up characters to randomly select from a list of moves and carry them out as and when they please. I want full control, I want the depth of strategy whilst having to make split second decisions during a fight. I want action chess where it's my "team" vs the enemy team.

After all this isn't just Cloud's story, it's not just his journey and part of the reason you love the characters stories is the investment you've put into them outside of the plot. You're building them and you care about them because of that. Without this you would care less about specific character moments. Just like when you get 3 Hit's on Tifa's Limit Break and turn the tide of a fight in the 11th hour of a dungeon, I loved Tifa for one of those moments and I cared more for her story because how how I cared for her in battle and exploration. If you give me control of only Cloud, everyone else becomes superfluous.

I'd like to see the turn-based combat with the Materia system intact, ATB gauges and numbers flying out of enemies heads, but have something more dynamic too. 

My idea here is that you're running along as Cloud with party following you (not 3 people merged into one body like they did in the original) making idle chatter amongst each-other and building the characters narrative, then all of a sudden "battle" cue battle music. But then, the camera pans out to show you all 3 of your guys laying into the enemy forces, both throwing and receiving blows as their status bars reflect the changes, (basically take the attack button away from the player and have all the characters just auto attacking and defending all the time. Backed up with some awesome animations, even some combo moves and arial attacks etc (see Dragonball-Z for reference). You're essentially just along for the ride. But as the ATB gauge fills for each character, the player can then select a more advanced attack or ability or item etc. and then continue to watch as beauty fills the screen (perhaps even zoom in to the cater) and magic flies from the wielder in an array of colours, lighting and particle effects. No more pauses in the gameplay to watch animations unfold, just an array of action and movement to delight the senses. This means that later on when your parts becomes super-levelled but you're traversing those earlier areas for hidden loot you are essentially doing what you did in the original and just spamming the attack button. but without having to even press the button, you just get to watch the awesome show as you'r guys lay waste to the baddies.

The actual journey of the game will probably need the biggest overhaul, back at the time FFVII was considered to be an open world game, because it had, well, an open world. But nowadays open world games are rather common, sure we haven't had one that encompasses an entire planet per-se, but open world now means branching quest lines and optional tasks not just a big space to run around in. By today's standards FFVII is actually quite linear. Aside a few (and a mean "few") optional side quests, which were never labelled as side quests, the game pretty much tells you where to go next in bright pink lettering. The only thing that was open was the world map and the only options were, do I run this way and get a random battle or that way and get a random battle. Now we'll need something with branching quests (such as Skyrim). The main story path can stay the same, but we're gonna need some (a lot) more, hey check into this cave or go get this and bring it back. Lets be fare all quests are normally, get from A to B, or Kill x many things at B and come back or go to B and get something (or x many somethings) and bring it (them) back. But stick some of this in please and I't gives me some more reason to endure the numerous random battles. And it also give you the opportunity to expand the story of the world, it's people, it's locations and it's concepts. I want a mission (several) that explains the history of Cosmo Canion, or several quests that explain what Materia is, how it works, where it came from and how it is made now. I want to learn more about the world's inhabitants and what their thoughts to the events of the game are, give me quests in which I can earn these snippets.

The actual journey of the game would (I imagine) follow a similar path to the original, but with side quests along the way for some power levelling and extra story. One thing that some games seem to do now is scale the enemies level to match the level of the player. Please, please, please do not do this! I don't know where this idea cam from, probably because it makes games more accessible to people who don't want to grind, but if the game is balanced right, people shouldn't need to do much (any) grinding anyway. Enemies at a higher level than you are a great way of telling the player "thou shall not pass" and when you come back to those areas later and trounce the fuckers, it just feels awesome.

Take for example the Snake, if you've played, you know exactly which snake, but for those who haven't; Once you leave Midgar, one of the first places you must go is through a cave. But to get to that cave you need to cross an area with a massive snake. If you're really, really lucky and follow a guide you can just about run past it, if you're really good at fighting, you'll be able to defeat it (but another re-spawns before you can heal and will probably kick your ass this time). The way the game wants you to play (which is important to learn a mechanic you may use later) is to catch a Chocobo and ride it across as the snake can't catch you. When you cross you are rewarded with a scene showing that the game's main adversary is so ridiculously strong, that he not only killed the beast without much effort, he impaled it on a fucking tree!

You'll be probably coming back here much later on to get some more Chocobo food, so whilst you're in the area you'll wanna take on the snake and you'll find you can do it with ease, and you may venture back again even later in the game and destroy the fucker with one hit.

That's the thing that shows you how far you've actually progressed and how strong your team has become, if this was auto levelled and remained super strong, what is the point in levelling up if the game just rises to match you?

The Materia system works, it's nice and simple, it's backed up by the lore of the game and the way it is applied to your weapons and armour is great. there are different types which grant abilities or improve other abilities if on a linked slot. The only change I'd really like to see here is a deeper version of Materia, where you can potentially link multiple support Materias to one other, like "All" and "Steal as Well". I think you'd need to level up the weapons and armour to unlock triplicate or higher Materia links, but that would just be a great new level of depth that could be added.

The weapons and armour we're important, not only would they allow you to do/resist more damage, but they also had the Materia slots allowing you to equip a certain quantity of magic and other abilities. The ultimate level weapons and armour allowed you to have a full array of condensed mako (Materia) equipped. With all the slots linked so you could you could have an ability Materia equipped with a support Materia across the board. but you really had to earn that equipment!

The equipment section could do with an overhaul too, firstly, the clothing should make actual changes to your characters physical appearance. In the original, all the weapons looked different but no matter what accessories or armour you equipped, your character model always looked the same. I'd really like to see your new clothes on the character, it shows growth, Hell i'd even like them to look torn and ragged as you fight and they get grubby. 

The new system could benefit from equipment requiring maintenance and you being able to level it up, add to it or even craft new items from it. Cloud's Buster sword is Iconic  but you loose that pretty early on in the game, and by the end (if you do it right) you have Ultima Weapon, a crystal looking sword. I'd like to keep the Buster but craft on new parts and level it up so that it resembles the one he uses in Advent Children. Still the Buster, but an Ultimate Weapon version. (at the same time, I'd miss several of the other ones he uses throughout the original).

On the journey of the game, don't lock off content, on my first play-thorough, I needed a guide to make sure I got all the Materias when I could, or speak to someone to get some important dialogue before it was gone forever. Because one of the flaws in FFVII is that there were so many opportunities to take the right of left path, and you have no way of knowing which one is correct. Take one of them you get a unique Materia at then end, take another you get a cutscene, the story progresses and you can't go back (Gold Saucer anyone? Ramuh was sat right there but you decided to talk to the dude by the elevator first because he was closer!). So, don't lock anything off, at least not without obvious warning that people can't come back from what is about to happen. Not a Materia, not an item, not a side-quest, not a random line of dialogue, nothing. If I get this game I want to experience 100% of what the developers created, why would they block me from that.

Also, stick an autosave feature in there. Nowdays everyone is distracted by their phones at least once evry 30 minutes, 5 hour play sessions (even 1 hour) turn more people off these days, you need pick-up play for a but and put down with your progress saved. this game needs to autosave at mission checkpoints and after every battle your party level needs to remain. that mens I can continue at the plase I left off but always at the strength level I left off at.

I definately expect we will see a re-vamped structure to teh game where you embark on individual missions and I hope these (along with NPC dialogue in cities) now paint a bigger and more solid depiction of the world. I hope to keep the Materia system intact and keep random turn-based battles, just make them more action oriented than 3 guys standing opposite another bunch of guys waiting for their turn to throw a punch. Make teh system deeper along with upgrading the equipment system and I'm sold.

One final thing, the W-item glitch, needs to stay, just for posterity reason and that really helps out when you're getting tired of battling towards the end of the game.

Story

First off the grammar is just awful, one of the biggest issues with the translation has been comments like Aerith saying "this guy are sick". This didn't bother me in the original play-through, my child like brain didn't even realise the amount of issue there were. A lot of this was taken as intentional based on how some of the characters spoke, Barrett especially.

But the grammar alone brings up questions about the translation, was it accurate? was the story correct? We know there are holes in the take, so many parts of the story which haven't given fans enough closure. But we find that with a lot of translated Japanese media, the stories don't often have closure, the journey seems to be the most exciting part of any Japanese tale (or translation has just never been good enough), but westerners need the closure, they (we) need every loose thread tied up.

This opportunity is by far the most exciting part of any remake. More story and a complete story.

The good thing is that 20 yaers later, we've gotten much better at telling stories in games, sure cinematics play a part but a lot more effort has been put into the structure of story delivery too. Cut-scenes are rewards staggered equally throughout a game. Story arcs are separated by different quest lines (albeit with some crossover). Background info is delivered by random NPC's or audio files and text logs. These kind of additions could help to deliver a deeper world and paint a better picture than it ever did before?

By deeper, I want to delve into the past more, there was a kind of hidden segment of the game, after cloud goes through a realisation of who he is you can return to the Nibelheim Manor and if you've found the hidden way into the secret room below the manor (you may have needed to have gotten Vincent by now) you get a very long explanation of who Zack was and Cloud's actual journey up to the the events before he arrived in Midgar only a few of weeks before the game proper starts. But did you know that Avalanche (run by Barrett) was actually an amateur copy of a much earlier (and much more sophisticated) version of a group by the same name? What about the Wuitai war that made people like Sephiroth such heroes?? Be get brief nods to these things happening, but what actually happened. tell those stories now too.

For me, along with the main quest-line, I'd like to see a few quests run along-side, quests explaining the world. explaining the technology, explaining Materia. I'd love a quest that see's you going though the process of how Materia is made and has you perhaps even running through different factories where Mako is condensed and at the end of each one is a Materia reward, hell perhaps even a new mechanic where, as you travel the globe you stay true to avalanche's vision and destroy reactors as you go. only to find some of the ones you visit, your tasks doesn't go quite so smooth. (you who've played it know where and when I mean). So a series of secondary quests if you will. I'd like to see each location have a series of sporadic quests that are just arbitrary but paint a picture of the history of each town. I'd even like to see multiple endings based on how much you've accomplished in the game. Don't take out enough reactors or help enough people, perhaps the planet isn't strong enough to fight the coming apocalypse and you don't get quite as good an ending. maybe the planet fails to save itself, maybe after it beats meteor it goes back to people not caring enough to save it an they go back to power consumption and the true ending is when life returns to the world and you get to see Midgar overgrown with plant life. But start some of the main quest-lines as early as possible and make the end game about closing those loose threads (or not, players choice).

But the most important series of quests should be the ones for the characters.


Characters

Pretty much everyone of my favourite games ever has been primarily about the characters (that and it contains sci-fi elements). Specifically games that have dedicated quest lines about the characters. Mass Effect 2 (my favourite in that series) is literally a game where you are introduced to peole and love them or hate them you have a couple of long quests to do specifically about their coloured histories. Love that, it introduces them, explains their background, shows their strengths and weaknesses an helps you decide how much you like them. Final Fantasy ViII, although not as structured in the quest system as Mass Effect was, there were still points in the journey where you learned about pretty much each character. Barrett had his history details whilst at the camp below Gold Saucer, Yuffie (if you got her) was explained when you entered Wutai after she joined you and my personal favourite Red XIII when yo got to Cosmo Canyon. Cloud's story is the deepest and told throughout the game and Tifa and Aerith kinda followed along-side his tale.

But most of these felt incomplete, what really happened between Barret and Dyne (show the history as a cutscene reward at the end of that quest line perhaps) Where was Tifa between Nibelheim and Midgar and what the actual fuck is Cait Sith (Reeve)? Is it a robot cat that controls the giant Mog or is the cat alive and can somehow talk and follow Reeve's will. all of these details and more could be added if the remember to focus on the characters.

Show us more please what are the histories here and show us some quests about the secondary characters too. Bugenhagen, Hojo, Sephiroth, fully learn his history and show the story of hero to nemesis. explain the Turks, everyone seemed to like Reno in Advent Children but have you forgotten that this is the Cunt who dropped the sector 7 plate? Sure, he was following orders, but he caused mass genocide! If you're gonna redeem him, show his transformation from Villan to Anti-hero. If we can forgive Vegita after his conquering of worlds, we can forgive Reno if we can see him repent.

It would be nice to se some more detail in the interactions this time too. There was a point in the original where Cloud could take one of the female characters on a date depending on certain interactions you had made with them earlier in the game. And i was gutted that i took Aerith out instead of Tifa, Clout spent all his time with Tifa and they were almost childhood sweethearts. Although there was intended to be a semi-love story with Cloud and Aerith, I wanted him with Tifa, I just prefer a stronger willed woman with big tits. A Character relationship system could be great, depending how much time you have spent with a character could open new dialogue options (banter) during the fighting and exploration and could even increase each-others stats when they are working together. Perhaps have Barrett and cloud weaken when they pair in battle but after putting the work in let them be the pair that has the strongest bonuses. (like the Magikarp situation) Reward the player for working hard at a broken relationship by making it the best in the end.

But I'm still thinking of this game as it was, forget the old 3 person max in a party situation. If I can wish for things here, why not keep your whole group together for the whole game? et us have all 9 people in a battle together and wander together and make idle chit-chat. at the very least, let all 9 fight the final battle together.
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