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Final Fantasy 7 Remake interview: developers talk fan reaction, hard mode and balance

What’s the feeling like at Square Enix after shipping the publisher’s most highly anticipated game of all time? We decided to check in.

Yosinori Kitase and Naoki Hamaguchi must have spent April and May very happy with themselves. The task of remaking Final Fantasy 7, one of the most beloved, important and iconic games of all time, wasn’t an easy one. In fact it seemed like a development nightmare, an easy lose-lose situation where lofty fan expectations and rose-tinted memories would be impossible to match. Somehow, it all worked out.

While we’re only one title into this multi-game Remake project, Final Fantasy 7 Remake did it. It stuck the landing to satisfy fans, even while making curious – and sometimes rather brave – changes.

Key in that process was Kitase (Producer) and Hamaguchi (Co-director) – and we caught up with them shortly after the release to see how they were feeling. They weren’t quite ready to talk about some of the major points towards the end of the game or the future just yet – but we talked about hard mode, fan expectation and enjoying the reaction to the released game. Here’s our brief chat.

VG247: First of all, I hope you and the team are keeping safe. It’s been a crazy time since I saw you in London, but the game made it despite everything going on. How do you feel about the reaction so far? In particular, there’s a lot of excited discussion on the internet about the future – are you following it all? Have there been any favorite things you’ve seen or read?

Yoshinori Kitase: Thank you to everyone who enjoyed the game. There are a lot of people who played the original game who are now working in the industry as developers, game writers or even influencers, and I think that those people liked the remake and talked about the game, becoming evangelists and spreading the word to new players. I am very grateful indeed to all those fans who have been with us since the original and supported Final Fantasy 7 over the years, and it’s great to welcome all the new players who are experiencing the game for the first time.

We’ve really enjoyed seeing these theories and guesses of what the ending means. We wanted the fans to keep the discussion going on social media and keep their excitement high as we head towards the next game.

Naoki Hamaguchi: I have been keenly watching the fan and media response to the game since its release, both in Japan and in the West. I am truly proud that the remake has been embraced by so many of the fans. Our core concept for Remake was to pay homage to the elements that people loved from the original, while rebuilding it as a very modern piece of entertainment. We really wanted to create an experience that felt nostalgic, but at the same time a game that is also new and fresh. Of course, I am not just paying attention to the positive comments, but also looking carefully at the improvements people are asking for as important feedback for the next game.

As well as this, it goes without saying that we could never have imagined that the world would be plunged into uncertainty by the Covid-19 virus at the time of the game’s release. The situation with retail distribution prior to release was difficult to predict, and we were just as concerned as everyone else about whether we could get the game into player’s hands safely or not. However, I strongly feel that the essence of entertainment is to be something that gives people hope and dreams and energizes them for the future, so getting Final Fantasy 7 Remake, a game that has been loved by fans for over 20 years, out to the world had a great significance to me as a creator.

Now even more than ever in these difficult times. I want to express my deepest gratitude and respect to every one of the fans who chose, played and enjoyed Final Fantasy 7 Remake during these times.

VG247: I want to start by talking about combat and skills. There’s a wide range of materia abilities… some returning, some all-new. What was the process like of deciding which would return and which wouldn’t, designing all new skills and ensuring a balance to avoid the game becoming game-breaking? I’ve seen a lot of people desperate to find a second Magnify materia…

Hamaguchi: For materia, we did refrain from using the ultimate magic such as Flare, but apart from that, we incorporated new ideas with an open mind, without sticking too closely to the rules of the original. Given the evolution of the battle system to more of an action focus, following too close to the functions of materia in the original would not work well with the new gameplay balance.

On the other hand, there was one thing that we made a conscious decision to deliberately not carry over from the original version – materia splitting. In the original game, if you grow materia to the maximum level it splits into two allowing you to increase the number of the same materia you have.

We deliberately did not include this function in the remake. The reason for this is that the remake was designed to give players an even greater ability to stamp their own personality on the character customization through weapon abilities and enhancement, so we felt it would give more depth if players have to deliberate which materia to give to which character, rather than being able to create enough for everyone.

If any materia could be multiplied freely and you were able to set the best combination for any of the players without any thinking, players would be deprived of the excitement from trial and error needed to work out the best combinations to win in the more challenging battle modes, such as hard mode, and this would be a great shame.

VG247: On the same sort of topic, Remake was designed as a full, stand-alone game, but obviously you want to hold some stuff back. We don’t get Ultima Weapon or Omnislash – but it still feels like Cloud grows a lot…

Hamaguchi: In terms of the combat, one of our primary objectives was to make the remake a game that can satisfy players as a standalone experience. Accordingly, we were conscious of giving them various different elements to play with, and one example of that is how we have included summons, which you could not acquire until after you escape from Midgar in the original story.

As this is the first game in the project, we left out the most advanced weapons and materia. However, we added in new elements to make it possible for players to enjoy the character growth cycles like in a standalone game, and I think that might explain why you felt that way.

VG247: How difficult was it to find a balance in Sephiroth’s appearances? He obviously didn’t appear in this section of the original game, so was it difficult to include him as much as you did while trying to make sure new players understand him and his motivations, while also retaining some of his mystery. With regards to that last part, do you feel new players with little knowledge of the original can walk away with a complete understanding of things?

Kitase: Given that Sephiroth is the most prominent enemy character in the entire Final Fantasy series, there were some challenges with how to treat his character in the remake. The reason why he appears from the outset, unlike with his later appearance in the original, was to give a strong impression of his presence right from the start. Of course, some of the new players unfamiliar with the original may find this puzzling at times.

However, my expectation is that this approach will evoke a greater sense of excitement in the players than just having vague hints at who the character is. When they do an internet search and learn more about this character called Sephiroth, I think it will stoke an even greater desire to know more about him. Exploring the background of something on your own with information obtained from sources beyond the game can be another way of enjoying things in this day and age.

VG247: It feels like the fan response to the characters in particular has been really strong this time out. A lot of memes, a lot of relationship fandom, people pairing off Cloud and Jessie, or Tifa and Aerith… what do you make of these reactions?

Kitase: It’s something we’ve seen since the original game released. We never talk about how characters relate with each other outside of what is depicted in the game. Our only focus has been how best to depict the characters in an appealing way as part of the remake. However, I also love to see the exciting discussions among the fans within the community.

VG247: Obviously many of the original staff were involved, but how comfortable did you feel introducing new characters to the game and world? Was there a concern that fans wouldn’t be willing to accept them? It feels like all-new stuff is, in a way, riskier than simply changing up events.

Hamaguchi: I was not really worried about adding new characters, but was conscious about it in the sense that I should only be adding to the game and it’s characters in order to deepen the in-game world of Final Fantasy 7.

Roche, for example, has an important role in explaining the situation for SOLDIER operatives who fight on the side of Shinra, when he secretly enters the Shinra facility with Cloud and the other members of Avalanche. In his cut scenes, you can also see a bond between Cloud and Roche, so I am quite excited to see what could happen to them in the future.

Then, at Wall Market, we wanted to portray Don Corneo in the style of a real-life mafia boss who holds power in the underworld. To make the portrayal feel more real, we wanted to add henchmen who work for him for their own mutual benefit, so we decided to add in Madam M, Sam, and Andrea who do Corneo’s dirty work.

VG247: Now I’ve got the Platinum Trophy, I want to ask a little about hard mode and the post-game content, staying as spoiler-free as possible. How do you feel about what you ended up with there for players to experience after the credits roll? Do you feel like you delivered? Was it difficult at all to design these challenges knowing you almost had to hold some progression back for these characters to grow in the future?

Hamaguchi: I didn’t feel any difficulty with the game design or striking a balance there, because this is the first game in the project. We did refrain from using the ultimate magic materia, such as Flare and the more advanced skills for the benefit of future games, but our first priority was to make a game design that enables this to be a standalone experience for people to enjoy on its own.

We considered various ideas with an open mind, without being held back too much by the rules of the original game. For example, summon materia are something that you only found after escaping Midgar in the original, but they are included in this game. This was because we thought it would be necessary to have those materia as part of the dynamics of the player experience.

My personal favorite new element is the chapter select available after completing the game. The combination of materia and the tactics you use are vitally important to play the hard mode which is also unlocked after completing the game for the first time, so the aim here is for players to enhance their characters by first playing through chapters that they are good at without necessarily going in order from chapter 1. It was the first time in the entire Final Fantasy series that we have done something like this, but we are pleased about the positive reaction we have seen from players since launch.

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