5 years after the announcement, fans finally got their highly requested return to Final Fantasy 7's Midgar... Sort of. Final Fantasy VII: Remake follows the story of Cloud, a former member of Shinra’s elite SOLDIER unit now turned mercenary, as he aids Avalanche, an eco terrorist organization, in fighting against the Shinra Electric Company's abuse of the world's Mako energy (its life essence). This remake is far more than a massive visual update. It is a reimagining of the original game while still sneaking in plenty of call backs.
The story of Midgar generally follows the original game's progression but alters some events to add in more world building. All characters have extended backstories, some new story additions alter certain original events, and the addition of 26 new side quests help successfully craft a 40 hour narrative that's deeper and more impactful than the original's 10 hour Midgar experience. So while not the exact same, I felt the remake carefully and successfully improved on the original story for a more cohesive and emotional flow.
Departing from turn-based mechanics, the remake opts for a more modern action RPG system where your character can freely move around the battle field to attack, dodge, or block. Unlike Final Fantasy 15, the game borrows the Kingdom Hearts style of menu navigation and puts the game in slow motion while browsing this menu. Square also introduced a Classic mode for more strategic players. While still not turn-based, Classic mode has the AI control the action mechanics of all characters while the player focuses on party management activities like performing special abilities, casting spells, and item use.
So, how does the battle system feel? I'm a bit bias in this since I prefer action systems over turn-based systems but I feel the game does well in the balance of action and strategy. The original game had a lot of depth with its abilities, customizations, and items, so the addition of slow motion helps the remake retain this complexity and feels far less pressuring. Dodging and blocking can sometimes be frustrating when characters opt to finish combos rather than obeying a dodge action or when an enemy has attacks that never miss.
The side quests help you explore more of the environment, bond with the locals, and do have an importance for character progression (e.g. leveling), but are technically optional. I highly recommend playing the quests. There are only 26 of them, they're quite fun, and they help make the story's major events feel far more impactful. However, don't feel pressured because although the game will warn you that you'll be unable to return to any unfinished quests if you progress past the chapter, that's only for the current play through. After you beat the game, you'll be able to replay chapters with Chapter Selection; Which allows you to choose any chapter to play through again but with all your current items, unlocks, and abilities.
Final Fantasy 7's soundtrack is highly beloved by fans of the entire series and the remake helps elevate many iconic tracks through higher fidelity reprises, partly in thanks to the return of Nobuo Uematsu. The track "Midgar, City of Mako" in the introduction cinematic still gives me chills with its haunting inclusion of Sephiroth's theme's choir chants! There are also new tracks in the remake and my favorite new piece would have to be the Sector 5 slums' "Hollow Skies", closely followed by "Collapsed Expressway". They both capture the vibe of the areas brilliantly and are real bangers!
In conclusion, if you're looking for just a visual update, you might be turned off by the changes that this game makes to the story and it's choice of an action battle system over turn-based mechanics. The remake is positioned to alter the original story and offer something new, yet familiar, in a far bigger world than the limitations of the 1997 entry could offer. As long as you treat this as a retelling/reimagining of the original instead of a replacement, I think you'd enjoy the epic journey that Square lovingly crafted in FF7: Remake.