America - Front
America - Back
By Issa Maki 12th Jul 2021 | 4,147 views
I was there, my friend. I was there when Final Fantasy VII changed the landscape of the gaming world. With a single release, Squaresoft turned the industry on its head, ushering in a Golden Age of turn-based RPGs, where storylines and character development reigned supreme. What was once a niche genre became as mainstream as Mario or Zelda, and for a brief few years dominated the fifth and sixth generations. Almost everyone playing a modern title with RPG mechanics owes a debt they may never know they carry: in one way or another, the ship of gaming largely travels in the wake of Final Fantasy VII's success.
After years of speculation, Square Enix embarked on the ambitious quest to remake the classic for modern audiences. Using assets from Advent Children to Kingdom Hearts, the project's already massive scope was augmented further by an infusion of additional characters and battle mechanics, culminating in an experience familiar to some but fresh to us all. Intergrade continues the march forward with some great additional content in tow, held back only by the diminishing returns of a re-release and the dubious pricing structure of the DLC.
Originally published in 2020, Final Fantasy VII Remake follows the exploits of troubled mercenary Cloud Strife, his dealings with the rebel terrorist group AVALANCHE, and their struggle against the Shinra Electric Power Company, a corporation bent on harvesting the planet for its own profit. The broad brush strokes of the story are similar to what was established in 1997, but the overall plot has been radically altered into something different entirely. This (predictably) ruffled the feathers of the diehards, though after seeing how everything played out it becomes hard to argue against.
New arrivals such as Roche, Madam M, and Chocobo Sam feel like they've been part of the narrative the entire time; returning characters like Jessie and the obscure Johnny are given expanded roles. If you haven't met Andrea Rhodea yet, I'll just say that he takes a memorable segment of the original game and turns it into one of the best moments of the franchise. It might sound strange declaring that the remake is already weaving a more intriguing tale, but with an episodic format being portioned out over years, there's simply no way it couldn't be.
Like the story, the enemy encounters were given a dramatic overhaul, mixing real-time combat with a classic menu-based system reminiscent of the PlayStation original. Auto-attacking fills the Active Time Battle (ATB) gauges, which are spent casting spells or using abilities and items. Other combatants can be swapped to on the fly with a touch of the d-pad, but another complementary option also exists. Materia such as 'Autocure' or 'Synergy' can be equipped on non-leader characters, allowing them to provide meaningful contributions in battle without direct input from the player. This indirect approach evokes the 'Gambit' system found in Final Fantasy XII and is a compelling aspect of the Remake. If further steps are taken in this direction then Square Enix could easily end up with a system where it becomes just as meaningful customizing characters you don't intend on using as it does equipping your personal favorites.
Intergrade hosts a couple of features unique to the PlayStation 5 version of Final Fantasy VII, with much attention going to the 60 FPS Performance Mode. Battles are much smoother than they were last year and have a fluidity that finally matches the amazing visuals. Tifa and Cloud gain a minor advantage over their ranged counterparts in this respect, as evasion and defending are easier to perform due to the increased responsiveness of the controls; transitioning between Cloud's 'Operator' and 'Punisher' styles in particular feels more organic than it once did. Considering this is a free upgrade for existing PS4 owners, it's hard to go wrong here.
One of the more interesting additions is bringing 'Classic' Mode to the Normal difficulty. With this activated, auto-attacking and guarding duties are delegated to the computer, freeing up the player to focus on the party's menu-based commands. I don't usually advocate making a game easier, but those having troubles learning the intricacies of the new system or desiring a return to form of sorts should take notice: an answer to your plight may have been found.
A few other bonuses round out the base game. Photo Mode has been bestowed upon us; I wanted to keep it a surprise, but I can't help myself. The new 'Graphics' setting might beckon the call of those who once complained about the backgrounds or the quality of the door on Cloud's apartment, but the enhanced framerate is the superior choice. Finally, an additional boss has been uploaded to the battle simulator in Chapter 17 of Hard Mode; I can't tell you who it is, but it's a great choice that opens up the lore farther than what might be expected. Overall, the additions and quality of life changes improve what was already an impressive outing in 2020.
The biggest draw of Intergrade is the INTERmission DLC starring company-favorite Yuffie Kisaragi in a completely original scenario. It won't last as long from a story perspective as some might like, but adds some fresh gameplay ideas and a great mini-game that continues to successfully build on the freshly poured foundations of yesteryear.
Clad in her post-Advent Children attire (which also serves as a subtle foreshadow), elite government operative Yuffie graciously(-ish) makes her way into Midgar to meet up with AVALANCHE so they can form a united front against Shinra. Taking place after Cloud is separated from Tifa and Barret, Yuffie's new adventure sheds more light on a side of the narrative previously unseen, extrapolating on it in a way that wasn't possible in 1997.
Aesthetically, Yuffie has been recreated to faithfully resemble Tetsuya Nomura's original character design. I was actually younger than her when we first met; now I'm over twice her age and have changed as a person, but Yuffie is still the same ego-centric, materia-obsessed ball of lightning she ever was. The exposed midriff and unbuttoned shorts might be a little much in 2021 (she is only 16, after all), but there's something comforting knowing that, decades from now, Yuffie will be just as recognizable then as she was when I was a teenager. Some day in the future, one of us will have been forgotten and one of us will be immortalized. I must endeavor to brandish my belly about more often.
Yuffie shines even more brilliantly in combat. Combining ranged techniques with effective close-up attacks and a series of elemental buffs, the master ninja quickly becomes the most fun character to play as. With the amount of abilities and materia at her disposal right from the start, Yuffie gives the impression of being overpowered. It doesn't take long for this myth to dissipate, as it becomes apparent that she can't do this alone.
Assisting the White Flower of Wutai is fellow countryman and series newcomer Sonon Kosakube, staff-wielding disciple of Yuffie's father, Godo. Unlike the party members in the remake, Sonon can't be taken control of directly, but he can be issued commands in battle. To compensate for this he brings the new 'Synergy' (not to be confused with the materia) ability to the table. When synergized with Yuffie, the two begin to attack in tandem, harmonizing their efforts against the enemy. If both have their ATB gauges full they can perform enhanced versions of Yuffie's abilities, similar to EX-moves in fighting games. Mastering when and when not to synergize is the key to INTERmission, and similar to 'Autocure' it serves to add another layer to the 'indirect' members of the party. I hope it carries over into the future.
While short, the main story of the DLC is interesting for a variety of reasons, highlighting elements of the original game while integrating its descendants into the existing mythology. Like Remake, INTERmission seeks to remind players that Barret's cell of AVALANCHE is a more extremist splinter faction of a larger organization, featuring cameos from its various members. More than a hint of racist undertones concerning the Wutaians or 'Ws' permeates the streets of Midgar. In the 1997 narrative it's easy to forget that Wutai and Shinra were at war before the events of the game, and that Wutai was utterly humiliated and relegated to a bastardized tourist attraction of what it once stood for.
In an unexpected turn, both of the other fans of Square Enix's ill-fated Dirge of Cerberus will be pleased to learn that the secret military installation Deepground figures very heavily into the plot of INTERmission. I can only imagine how this will impact the future of the story, but speculation about it until the next release will be entertaining.
The last part of INTERmission worthy of mention is the re-vamped Fort Condor mini-game. What was once a location on the world map where Cloud helped a group of rebels defend a reactor against Shinra has been transformed into an interactive board game with collectible pieces to discover. The core paper-rock-scissors RTS mechanics of Fort Condor are quite faithful to what was in the original, but the new coat of paint makes it far more accessible. If Square Enix expands on this formula in the future then we could be looking at the best mini-game in the series to date.
As much as I enjoyed the DLC, INTERmission is held back by a number of decisions that slightly harm the total package, least of which is the pricing structure of the supplementary content. INTERmission itself is $19.99, somewhat high for a campaign whose main story can be finished in 5-6 hours. There's $19.99 worth of content to be sure, but it's the completionists squeezing the water out of every stone they come across that are going to find it.
Also worthy of note is that if you missed the pre-order bonus, Yuffie's Cacstar weapon, Square Enix is willing to sell you one for a whopping $9.99 – half the price of the DLC itself! People can talk about Nintendo locking content behind Amiibo all they want, but this is Oblivion Horse Armor levels of greed. Granted, the Cacstar will probably end up being given away like last year's summon materia, but small decisions like this have profound effects on the future. If I end up seeing an 'Ultima Weapon Collection' five years from now, I'll know why.
Regardless of your affiliation with Final Fantasy VII, this is one sweet package. If you're coming into Intergrade blind, get ready to experience one of the best RPGs of 2020. It might be admittedly bloated in a few sections (Aerith's 'shortcut' home is similar to the one Christopher Columbus discovered) and the boss fights are overtly cinematic for my personal tastes, but these are small prices to pay for how wonderfully this new vision of Final Fantasy VII is shaping up to be. The bevy of new features and QoL improvements make Intergrade the definitive way to experience the remake, and $69.99 is a fair price to pay for first timers.
If you're just looking at the INTERmission DLC, deduct a half point from my final score. Don't get me wrong - Yuffie's transition into the ninth generation is about as perfect as it could be and she's the most fun party member to use. Likewise, Sonon is a great addition to the cast, Fort Condor has the potential to be the remake's signature mini-game, and Dirge of Cerberus' influence on the narrative is bound to have ramifications down the road. But INTERmission's short duration and somewhat high asking price is just enough to chip the game's horn, no matter how many more Götterdämmerungs you can get.
With our real world on the mend, there could be better ways to spend the summer of 2021 than taking a trip back into Midgar - but you won't catch me doing any them.