One of the most anticipated video games of the year isn’t really new. It’s 15 years old. And it’s a prequel to a game that’s even older.
The new game is Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII Reunion, set for release next week. It’s a reboot of a hand-held game with almost the same name from 2007, except with nicer graphics and sped-up battles so it can be resold for modern systems, including new PlayStation, Xbox and Nintendo consoles. It’s also a prequel to yet another game reboot, 2020’s Final Fantasy VII Remake.
If that sounds confusing, that’s because it is. Video game reboots are nothing new, and, boy, there have been a lot of them lately. This year, game studios have released refreshed versions of popular titles including The Last of Us, Marvel’s Spider-Man and Tactics Ogre, among others.
With Reunion, the maker of Final Fantasy, Square Enix, is capitalizing on the enterprise of nostalgia. Final Fantasy, originally released in 1987, became a blockbuster when the game’s seventh installment debuted in 1997. In that game, players took on the role of Cloud, an angsty mercenary working with a group of misfits to prevent the apocalypse.
Since then, Final Fantasy VII has become one of the most influential games in history, spawning spinoffs, animated movies and fan fiction. The game has been rereleased at least half a dozen times on every major gaming platform, including PCs, tablets and smartphones. It’s a juggernaut — and Reunion is playing its part in keeping that franchise going.
Most video game reboots don’t do much more than bump up the resolution of the graphics to look better on new TVs, but Reunion is different. With completely overhauled visuals and smoother gameplay, it is much better than the original. It’s a strong example of how to do a reboot with justice and to keep a well-established title going with a very safe bet.
“We can see the audience for these characters and the Final Fantasy VII franchise better than if we were to do something that didn’t already have a certain amount of recognition,” said Yoshinori Kitase, Square Enix’s executive producer of Reunion, through a translator.
I finished Reunion last week after playing part of the original Crisis Core. The changes in the battles and visuals transformed the game from a so-so installment into a must-play episode of Final Fantasy, whose cachet in the gaming world rivals that of “Star Wars” in pop culture. (To put it another way, Reunion is Final Fantasy’s “Rogue One” — the prequel we deserve.)
Reunion is also an extreme approach to a “remaster,” which is video game parlance for an old game whose graphics have been scaled up to look better on new TVs. Since Square Enix originally released Crisis Core for a hand-held gaming device, the obsolete PlayStation Portable, the graphics had to be redone for modern systems.
Now the pixelated, expressionless faces of characters in the original have been replaced with detailed, lifelike mugs; the drab backgrounds of city streets and dungeons have become rich with color and texture.
The game’s producers also took an extra step to fix the most annoying aspect of the original — the battle system — to make progressing through the game more fast-paced and fun. That’s a smart fix in an era when people have unlimited options for other stuff to do if they get bored with a video game.
Square Enix otherwise left Crisis Core’s story intact, including its script carried by voice actors. The game centers on Zack Fair, a member of the elite military force, Soldier, which is controlled by Shinra, the world-dominating electric power company.
Zack is tasked with tracking down a pair of comrades who have deserted Shinra. It’s not a spoiler to say our hero meets a tragic end, a fact that has been well known by fans of the franchise for more than two decades. But the prequel tells the story of how his legacy contributed to the epic events of Final Fantasy VII.
Yet while Reunion’s graphics are a marked improvement from the original, the game is not nearly as polished or as highly produced as its sibling, Final Fantasy VII Remake.
That’s because Reunion is essentially an intermission for a much bigger show. Its main purpose, according to Square Enix, is to keep gamers hooked on the franchise in between releases of Final Fantasy VII Remake, which sold 3.5 million copies in its first three days in 2020, making it one of the fastest-selling PlayStation 4 games. That remake is being spread out into installments that will come out every two to three years. (Episode 2 is expected for release next winter, nearly three years after Episode 1, and the series will conclude with Episode 3.)
“It’s going to be a long wait,” Mr. Yoshinori said. “So we want to make sure to keep those fans on board and interested.”
Even so, this intermission is a crowd pleaser. The game gives lots of airtime to Aerith, Sephiroth and Cloud, the stars of Final Fantasy VII, fleshing out these characters and setting the stage for the epic game.
In terms of gameplay, Reunion takes a novel approach to battles. Players can freely control Zack in 3-D space, swinging his giant sword at a monster and dodging its attacks in between nuking it with magic spells. This feels more stimulating than the old-school “turn-based” system, in which players exchanged blows with an enemy by pressing a button to trigger an action and then waiting for the enemy to take its turn.
The biggest problem with the original Crisis Core’s battle system was the Digital Mind Wave, which is essentially a slot machine constantly running in the background of each fight. When the reels land on certain combinations, special attacks are triggered that can obliterate enemies.
In the original, the slot machine was noisy and downright obnoxious, interrupting a battle to play its animations. Fortunately, it has been toned down to silently run in the background, and when the slot machine unlocks a bonus, players can press a button to activate it whenever they wish and even skip the animations.
Reunion also streamlines the experience of grinding, which traditionally involves doing repetitious (often mind-numbing) fights to get strong enough to proceed through the game. Instead of wandering around and fighting random enemies, players can embark on optional missions, which deploy Zack to eliminate a specific foe. In this process, players can level up and gather useful items and magic spells to aid them on their main journey.
In the end, it took me about 18 hours to complete the game, and I had fun (unlike my experience with the original Crisis Core, which I stopped playing after four hours because the battles were so tedious). My chief complaint is that the game was too easy. After completing a small number of optional missions, players will find themselves overpowered and vanquishing the game’s main villains in a few effortless blows.
Some gamers eager for brand-new titles may feel that releasing reboots is too easy for game makers like Square Enix. Mr. Yoshinori said the risk to reboots was that they could end up appealing to a single demographic of older fans. The company had originally intended to do a more modest refresh of Crisis Core with minor improvements to graphics, but once it became clear that Final Fantasy VII Remake had drawn in many new fans, the mission changed to attract those gamers, too.
“We decided midway through development that we had to up the game,” he said.