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It can be borderline comical how often Square Enix has dipped back into the “Final Fantasy VII” well. Frankly, you can’t blame them. The universe they built in the seminal 1997 release has been burnt deeply into the minds and hearts of so many gamers, there is a reason Square Enix has indulged in it 25 years since its original release. In 2020, Square Enix released the long demanded first part of the “Final Fantasy VII Remake,” a game that is so beautifully made and quite audacious in the new path it’s seemingly carving for its next two parts. Now, at the tail end of 2022, Square Enix released a remake/remaster of one of the PlayStation Portable’s most celebrated cult classics, the prequel “Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII: Reunion.”
Now, the release of “Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII Reunion” is a pretty big deal. The reason is simple: this has been a story confined to Sony’s beleaguered first handheld. Unless you still have or managed to track down both a PSP and the UMD disc of the original release (a rare big PSP game that never got a digital release), there has been no modern way to experience this prequel other than through a YouTube playthrough. More importantly, one of the bigger/controversial changes implied in “Final Fantasy VII Remake” hinged a lot on a big plot point of this prequel. Its availability now in modern hardware finally gives it a perfect time to have its moment to shine, even if its origins as a handheld game made for the PSP hold it back a bit from a modern lens.
Set 7 years before the events of “Final Fantasy VII,” “Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII Reunion” tells the story of Zack Fair, a young new member of the Shinra Corporation’s SOLDIER program. Through the game’s 15-20 hour adventure, we follow Zack as he ascends the ranks to become a 1st SOLDIER, and we witness his tragic relationship with his mentor, Angeal Hewley, and his goal to stop Angeal’s former best friend(and Crisis Core’s primary antagonist), Genesis. Throughout the game, Zack also crosses paths with several key “Final Fantasy VII” characters (Cloud, Aerith, Tifa, Sephiroth), with some being wink and nods to the main game, while others are significant interactions that inform and flesh out a lot of the story of the main game, leading directly to it.
Compared to the transformative work Square-Enix did with “Final Fantasy VII Remake,” the work done to “Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII Reunion” is more a modern visual update to what is basically the same PSP game. Die hard fans who worried that Square-Enix would go and change big things story wise, like what they ended up doing with “Final Fantasy VII Remake,” need not worry. The story told here is exactly the same one as the one told back in 2008. It’s an approach that has both its benefits and drawbacks. For one, this is the equivalent of you watching an old movie that may have last come out on Betamax tapes finally getting the long awaited 4K Blu Ray release. It’s a nice way to preserve the story as it was told back then, just way prettier. On the other hand, it’s still a story written as it was back in 2008. So what some may find sweet and saccharinely charming in an anime sort of way, others may find overly corny and cringeworthy, especially in the stilted in-game conversations that have some painfully awkward pauses in the dialogue. These stand out even more when the other two styles of cut-scenes are way stronger with none of the awkwardness (even though some of the CGI cut-scenes are obviously upscaled from their original work and look like 480p resolution put into 4K).
Even with some of that old awkwardness here and there, I appreciate that Square Enix did keep its recent impulses in check and stayed its hand from trying to muck up the original story, especially with its lack of availability before now. While at times it falls into what I like calling “Attack of the Clones” syndrome, with over-explaining a bunch of techno/mythical mumbo jumbo, the core of the story, centered on Zack and how his ultimate actions define who Cloud is in the main game, still resonate strongly. The ending may feel a tad manipulative, but don’t be shocked if you cry. It’s an ending that will stick with you, and the way it ties directly to “Final Fantasy VII” will make you want to immediately jump to that game afterwards.
The gameplay for “Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII Reunion” is its strongest element. Side stepping the original’s turn based combat, “Crisis Core” is more of a straightforward action/RPG game slightly closer to something like “Kingdom Hearts.” Unlike the “Final Fantasy VII Remake,” with combat that tried to be an action RPG/turn based hybrid, this is more straightforward in its action. When you combine your main attacks with your dodges and your action/magic Materia, which you assign to a left bumper plus a face button, the ensuing flashing chaos is delightful. Because of its origins as a PSP game, the levels are on a much smaller scale, taking you much more quickly towards every combat scenario without too many yawning gaps (you could even argue it takes you almost too quickly from one combat scenario to the next).
The way “Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII Reunion” is structured makes its origins as a handheld game clearer. While the game’s 10 chapter main path is clearly stated and easy to follow, at every save point you can access the innumerable bite sized “side missions,” where it takes you to a small area of all the different biomes you visit to complete small combat skirmishes that lead you to a final boss. These skirmishes are so quick to complete and very bite sized in nature, clearly coming with the idea of a handheld device providing you something in quick bursts that can be finished in a few minutes with a big reward at the end (either Materia, extra item slots, or infusion material for the Materia Infusion system). If at any point in the main quest you run into a brick wall with a boss that just kicks your ass mightily (and there will be a few random difficulty spikes), you can always grind up these missions to level yourself up.
The only problem with these bite sized missions becomes apparent if you do so many of them too often. Even though there are a few different biomes, at times these missions take you to the exact same locations repeatedly. Doing so many of these in a row can grow very tiresome after a bit, even if the allure of “just one more for the shiny thing its dangling” can prove quite addicting. The addictive nature of these bite sized side ventures means that you can do so many in a row, leveling up so significantly without the game stopping you, that there is a chance you can then trivialize the rest of the main game (something that happened to me, getting my Zack to Level 30 before starting Chapter 5, making me so strong I “Firaga’d” my way through some late game hard bosses). If you want to maintain a level of challenge playing through Normal difficulty, keep your impulses in check with these side missions.
It should also be noted there are a few rough spots in the main path as well. While the pacing mostly holds up, there are three specific points where you have to go into some fetch quests in order to advance the plot, and, though they are not long, they feel like momentum killers. Particularly when you meet with Aerith, you have to engage in banal tasks, like finding a kid who stole your wallet, at first, to then help Aerith build her flower cart as you explore a few sections of Midgar. Unfortunately, most of the interactions you have with Aerith are with the awkward long pause in-game cut-scenes that can make you grit your teeth. Near the final chapter, you are also tasked to find seven special Materia in these awkwardly laid out cave sections with no way to track if you have collected all seven other than going to the spot you insert them on. I don’t think they ruined things much, but they stood out like a sore thumb when the rest of the main path was relatively smooth sailing.
From a visual and audio sense, “Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII Reunion” definitely toes the line between a Remake and a Remaster. The core game is exactly the same as it was on PSP, so it could qualify as a Remaster. The visual uplift is so significant though, it can definitely qualify as a remake. While the overall quality of the visual uplift is not all the way to the high quality of “Final Fantasy VII Remake,” the level of detail in the environments, the particle effects, and the character models get real close. Square Enix definitely didn’t half ass how hard they went to visually uplift this PSP game, even when some elements, like the bite sized empty environments, can make the handheld origin of the title rear its ugly head.
It also performs admirably, maintaining a smooth 60fps and a high resolution on the PlayStation 5 version I reviewed it on. The voice work is solid, bringing in a lot of the voice actors from “Final Fantasy VII Remake” to do the line readings of the old script. The one question mark is the voice of Zack, which definitely sounds different from the original incarnation. One of my best friends struggled acclimating to the new voice, while I found it perfectly fine, so your mileage may vary.
It should be noted “Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII Reunion” is also available natively on the Nintendo Switch. Considering how the original version of the game was a handheld game to begin with, theoretically the Switch in handheld mode can provide the closest way to experience the game as originally intended. While I have not played that version myself, what I’ve seen around shows it’s a very solid port that holds its own despite the better bells and whistles on the current generation platforms. If you are willing to take some lesser frame rates and resolutions, the Nintendo Switch seems like an ideal way to experience this originally handheld game.
In the pantheon of the extended media surrounding “Final Fantasy VII,” it was always “Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII” that was the one I’d hear the most positive championing out of all the ways Square-Enix expanded their seminal title. I’m glad the hardcore fans who always sang the praises of this original handheld prequel get a chance to see their baby get a massive spotlight like this, for once. Thankfully, it mostly holds up upon scrutiny, even with some of its dated elements. If you have any interest in the “Final Fantasy VII” universe and want to understand the massive implications of the changes made to “Final Fantasy VII Remake” and the upcoming “Final Fantasy VII Rebirth,” “Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII Reunion” is definitely an important piece in the puzzle and totally worth playing!