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Final Fantasy VII Remake's side characters are its radical, shining core
“You’re a man of many talents, but talking’s not one of them.” That quote could apply to many video game protagonists, who often skew strong and silent, but it fits Final Fantasy's Cloud Strife perfectly. The description, levied by Aerith Gainsborough, one of Cloud's many colorful accomplices during Final Fantasy VII Remake, is a perfect summation of why the game's biggest and best change from its 1997 origins is in its side characters: Cloud Strife is long on sword and short on personality.
Expanding the first chunk of the epic RPG — running around the Midgar Slums — into a full-length game means spending a lot of time with a sulky merc, but it's the newly fleshed-out gaggle of excited radicals, multifaceted townspeople, and charming eccentrics that make the journey enjoyable.
Cloud is such a sour little swordsman that he acts as a foil for nearly everyone he encounters. Imagine The Witcher's Geralt, but somehow less expressive; his attitude takes teen angst to truly fantastical levels. However, the eco-terrorist cell he's hired by, AVALANCHE, shines. The writers decided they had the chance to make these characters, which were mostly implication and imagination in the original, into smart, full people. Cloud's childhood friend Tifa is there, sure, but Barret, Biggs, Wedge, and Jessie all get massively expanded roles from the original game — and they're completely necessary.
**This story contains minor spoilers for Final Fantasy VII Remake.**
Biggs and Wedge are a charming, heartfelt duo this time around, helping to give Cloud purpose just as their namesakes inspired Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars. Wedge becomes a cat-loving, pizza-snarfing Cloud fanboy who calls the hero "bro" and gets shot in the butt, while Biggs earns sidekick bona fides and a new backstory involving the orphanage Leaf House. They're funny, heroic, and tragic figures; they're not just eco-terrorist filler anymore.
That goes double for Jessie. The crew's demolitions expert is still an irrepressible flirt who loves taking the piss out of Cloud’s self-serious nonsense, but she also gets a scene centered on her reasons for fighting. In order to get access to IDs to a Shinra facility, Cloud is asked to rob Jessie's house while Biggs and Wedge distract her mom over dinner. Meeting Jessie’s family — even in this tangential sense — gives players a glimpse into a family wrecked by Shinra. Her father, comatose after an accident on the job, lies motionless in a backroom populated with potential. It's a section that may not catalyze change in Cloud, but it certainly helps to win over the player.
So too do the changes in Barret. The gruff leader of the group has a gun arm and lots of racist baggage to overcome since his Mr. T-esque debut, but Remake does a lot of good work in updating him. Granted, as former Vice Games head Austin Walker puts it, Barret still "swings from uncomfortable comic relief to clear-headed, focused voice of revolutionary action in the same scene."
But where the original simply showed glimpses of complexity underneath a big, brash stereotype, Remake allows him to be brusque and over-the-top, yet deep. His relationship with his daughter, Marlene, is much bigger this time around. He often references his daughter’s book collection — sometimes with quotes and morals, other times with comparisons to mazes — and is sweetly silly: Go through enough fights and you'll hear him singing the OG Final Fantasy victory tune.
He's also poetically, defiantly radical. When he's not comparing reactors to slaughterhouses for the planet, Barret is dropping knowledge on his crew as any experienced resistance leader should. When faced with tragedy and setbacks, he tells the enraged survivors to "Hold onto this ... this anger. OK?” When faced with losses, he explains that it only means they must soldier on for their fallen friends: "We carry that weight.”
Barret doesn’t just rush head first into their destructive successes, but into their devastating failures as well. He embraces it all as part of the struggle. He is, as he says, "a man of modest dreams." This depth comes far earlier in the Remake thanks to all the extra time spent in the slums, but it's necessary. It doesn't just help fix Barret's character, it helps make the world and its quest believable.
Outside of the main crew, the rest of the world is just as vibrant. People in the undercity sectors are angry, gossipy, and scared — mostly with regard to the actions of AVALANCHE. Their realistic reactions make having a level-headed, devoted leader a must. But the people are also tough and charming. An old lady bats a guard with a broom; a slum resident is as suspicious of a merc that’d defend Shinra as she is of the company’s own soldiers. There's a new bearded, baritone Chocobo cowboy named Sam who channels Sam Elliott. There's a new potty-mouthed masseuse named Madam M. I even love Chadley, the new nerd whose very name should render him only fit for wedgies.
These small side characters do as much to build the world of Final Fantasy VII as the view of the electronically dappled metal sky from down in Sector 7. They also make a game based on a legendary tale's introduction completely worth playing, even for those well versed in the original's lore. Cloud may be the same, but those he's surrounded by make all the difference.
Final Fantasy VII Remake is available on the PlayStation 4 now.