I’ve always wanted to play Japanese RPGs (that is, games of the jRPG genre, not necessarily RPGs that just happen to have been developed or set in Japan). They seemed to be full of wondrous worlds, characters and stories.
But I never got very far with any of them.
The characters and the world showed a lot of potential and I wanted to interact with it. But the way you were actually expected to play the games felt alienating.
These games tend to have a lot of combat that I don’t find particularly engaging, but that’s true of the vast majority of combat everywhere. The main roadblock was always the unending random encounters combined with the in-built expectation of grinding.
There is no way to "clear" an area while exploring. Combat encounters trigger randomly and often enough to never really feel like you’re exploring a space. What’s worse, these encounters are in no way signposted. You keep walking back-and-forth down a completely empty corridor and you will be attacked indefinitely.
Low on health or items? Tough, you can’t go back safely. Went down one long branch of a dungeon and wanted to check the other one? Sucks to be you.
All this would still be somewhat bearable if there weren’t times where to progress you really had to go and spend a couple hours just running around "empty" areas to level up your characters.
It seemed that the natural progression always involved hitting a difficulty wall that one needed to grind through.
But Final Fantasy VII in particular is something I’ve always wanted to experience.
When the Remake was announced, I’ve researched the gameplay and it seemed like this time it might actually work. You can set the difficulty (so I could play on Easy and hopefully have to do less grinding) and the encounters aren’t as random. You always see the enemies ahead of you and you can at least brace yourself for the encounter.
You still can’t clear an area (when you backtrack, the enemies respawn) but you also get an option to just teleport out once you’ve achieved your main objective there.
So yeah, I went for it.
I fell in love with the characters immediately. They’ve got good banter going on, and they all have their own unique feel.
The music and visuals are absolutely wonderful too. I loved how distinct the areas you get to explore are and I would have loved to spend a lot of time in the world. Just exploring areas, talking to people, being part of the world.
Unfortunately, the game gives you very few opportunities to do that.
Most of the time, you’re on a railroad from combat to combat or puzzle to puzzle. Pretty much all the areas are completely linear with the occasional route off the side to pick up an item and immediately go back.
Now, "linear" doesn’t automatically mean "bad". But in this case, the game dangles this beautiful tapestry of places and then funnels you down a (sometimes literal, other times figurative) corridor.
What’s worse, it’s a linear gameplay pretending to be this complex narrative of twists and turns. There’s always exactly one thing you can do. Exactly one place you can go to. But you can’t gauge how far into your objective you are because the game keeps throwing Deus Ex Machinas at you left and right.
With a book, you know whether you’re about halfway through the chapter or whether you’re getting towards the end. Here, you’re literally a couple meters from your objective only to witness a huge twist, slapping another four hours onto it.
There are areas where you are left to your own devices, welcome to explore and hop around, talk to people, do some questing and character development if you’re so inclined and just soak up the atmosphere.
These were the highlight of the game.
You had actual freedom there, actual agency.
But they were few and far between. I wish more of the game was centered around these populated areas and less of it in the combat-filled corridors.
Playing on the Easy difficulty, I didn’t have trouble with any of the combat. But even then, it all felt really drawn out. The regular combat encounters were okay, but the boss battles took a really long time.
Even with learning about the vulnerabilities and understanding what to focus on, the fights inevitably felt like whittling down a huge health bar (or three). I shudder at the thought of losing 10 minutes in and having to go through the grueling experience again.
Now, I’m no stranger to beating my head against a wall again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and 75 more times.
But in Bloodborne, each failed encounter took a few seconds to a minute. Losing tends to happen quickly and suddenly, none of this drawn-out suffering.
Even on Easy though, the game changes rules sometimes, taking an even more frustrating turn. One of the last boss fights took place on a highway, you on your motorcycle trying to catch up with the enemy. The driving controls are extremely fiddly and controlling the distance (a crucial element in this fight) felt more like a matter of luck rather than anything you did with the controls.
And despite having stocked up on all the usual healing/boosting items, this time there was no way of using them. So I failed this stupid fight four times despite blasting through every other thing in the game.
The whole game took me some 40 hours to finish and I had fun for maybe 10 of those.
In the end, this is a beautiful game with fun characters being seriously dragged down by the flimsy controls, pacing, unclear signaling and most of the gameplay itself.
PS: I didn’t know this when I bought it, but the game does not cover the full scope of the original Final Fantasy VII. I don’t know how much of the original story is not covered, but at least according to the plot summary on Wikipedia, it’s at least another game’s worth. A Part Two is apparently in development and I’m not even sure that’s the last one. I’ll pass.