It’s dark. A light drum roll interrupts a heavenly harp solo as horns and strings creep in, introducing a stark title screen. It’s almost empty, except for a comically large sword buried in the ground and the words, “PRESS ANY BUTTON TO CONTINUE.” I almost wanted to reach for my controller, before the dizzying six-floor difference between myself and that harp I just heard snaps me back to reality.
The Final Fantasy VII Remake Orchestra World Tour didn’t just transport me back to Midgar, it brought me back to one of the most thrilling gaming experiences I’ve ever had: sitting in my parents’ basement, escaping the fervor around a pandemic I naively expected not to consume a tenth of my life two years ago.
Final Fantasy VII’s soundtrack has long been one of the most celebrated and iconic in the pantheon of videogames. But with intricate rearrangements and new compositions that sampled the original’s music, 2020’s Final Fantasy VII Remake outdid its 25-year-old predecessor. It only makes sense that Square Enix would want to proudly put such a masterfully-written collection of music on display to its fans in orchestra halls across the world.
Coming 25 years after the release of the original game, the Final Fantasy VII Remake Orchestra World Tour largely lives up to the high expectations that come with such a prestigious soundtrack. Songs that weren’t originally written to be performed by an orchestra didn’t quite hit the mark, but otherwise, the cheekily-dubbed Shinra Symphony Orchestra and conductor Arnie Roth delivered an exciting performance at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra earlier this month.
Lately it seems like every other day marks another celebrated videogame’s anniversary, with every year after a game or franchise’s release treated as a marketing opportunity. It’s rare for a game to receive any special treatment beyond a celebratory Tweet and a sale on digital storefronts. A world tour featuring orchestral performances and re-arrangements of pieces from a game is an entirely different level of reverence. Ironically, the Final Fantasy VII Remake Orchestra World Tour wasn’t supposed to line up with Final Fantasy VII’s 25th anniversary perfectly, but Square Enix made sure to capitalize on that regardless.
The concert opened with the Prelude as a brief video celebrating 25 years of Final Fantasy VII played on a projection screen. The moment the harpist plucked their first note, the audience briefly erupted in applause before going almost completely silent to soak in the near-angelic tune that everyone in attendance surely knew intimately.
Roth spoke a few opening remarks, giving a brief speech where he thanked Square Enix and the composers who worked on Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy VII Remake. When they returned to the music, the projection screen didn’t go up, and continued to show footage from the game. While it makes perfect sense that a musical performance for a videogame’s soundtrack would feature the game’s visuals, just as a live scoring for a film or TV show would, it was occasionally jarring. Some members of the orchestra were even completely blocked from view by the screen. Even though the projections occasionally distracted from the music, it was a fresh way of revisiting a game some players might not have touched in nearly two years.
Roth would interrupt the concert to introduce a video featuring a composer who worked on the original or remake after every four or five songs. The composers discussed their creative process or how they rearranged a song for an orchestra. The most amusing of them all came from Final Fantasy VII’s sole composer, Nobuo Uematsu, who introduced a song with all the pomp and excitement of a tax form before emphatically saying that he hopes the audience enjoys the song.
At a concert with such a rich and diverse setlist, those small breaks allowed each composition to stand on its own. Were the orchestra to pivot from piece to piece with seconds-long breaks for applause, which the audience supplied happily, the bombastic ‘Let the Battles Begin!’ might’ve overshadowed the more tame—though just as incredible—‘Tifa’s Theme.’
Final Fantasy VII Remake’s “greatest hits” naturally shone brightly as always, but what stood out the most about the performance were the less popular tracks. Themes that players undoubtedly heard for extended periods of time while playing the game, like “Mako Reactor 1,” sounded better than ever before. It certainly helped that the song wasn’t being played for upwards of 20 minutes in a loop.
The only sour spot in the entire setlist was the theme from Remake’s dance minigame in the Honey Bee Inn. The electronic, jazzy sound from the original composition worked so well because of the instruments and synthesizers it was played on. Coming from a traditional symphony, on the other hand, sounded like the musicians were playing off-tempo on untuned instruments.
The Final Fantasy VII Remake Orchestra took me back two years, back to turning all my lights off and cranking the volume on the TV in my parents’ basement at the beginning of lockdown. While newer compositions missed the mark, screeching violins competing and a chorus chanting “Sephiroth” taking turns sending a tingle down my spine never gets old. When their duel is happening in the same room, it’s an entirely different experience that anyone with even a passing interest in Final Fantasy VII, its remake and their respective soundtracks owes it to themselves to hear live.
Charlie Wacholz is a freelance writer and college student. When he’s not playing the latest and greatest indie games, competing in Smash tournaments or working on a new cocktail recipe, you can find him on Twitter at @chas_mke.