Final Fantasy VII: Remake is actually only one third of a hybrid retelling/sequel to the original Final Fantasy VII and this book narratively takes place in between the first game, Remake, and the yet-to-be-released second game, Rebirth. Sound confusing? Well, don’t worry, it’s essentially just backstory for Tifa and Aerith with only the framing scenes of them telling the stories actually set in the “post game” (or oddly, sometimes on different parts of their travels that haven’t been adapted in the Remake timeline yet, like on the ship on the way to Costa del Sol.) While I did enjoy the scenes of Cloud, Tifa, Aerith, Barrett and Red XIII having a friendly chat during their big journey, definitely don’t go into the book thinking its description, mentioning being set after Remake, will actually have an impact on the games.
“Traces of Tifa” covers everything we know about Tifa’s past but in great detail. Her time as a child in the sleepy town of Nibelheim, her crush on Cloud, how she got out some frustration by training in hand-to-hand combat with Zangan and even touching on the big incident involving Cloud and Sephiroth in Nibelheim, though the actual event itself isn’t covered (that’s for Rebirth to do!) how she landed the job as Guide despite being a teenager and how she ended up in Midgar after the fact are. We hear of the painful recovery from her wounds and how it left her with a massive medical bill and a place in the Midgar slums as she tried desperately to pay it off, and most importantly (and most interestingly) how she met Barrett and ended up joining Avalanche with him. That bit was fun, and unlikely to ever be tackled in the games, so it made sense to do it here if anywhere.
“Traces of Aerith” on the other hand I felt was quite weak, but then the big parts of Aerith’s backstory involve characters like Zack and big yet-to-be-covered-in-Remake events surrounding him, so in order to avoid that, she focuses briefly instead on her and her mother’s escape from Shinra and then spends most of the time talking about living with her adoptive mother Elmyra and how nice it was, with the exception of having to hide her powers for a while. Great detail is given to Elmyra’s father-in-law’s business giving her lots of money but her family using it to help the slums unlike… well, every other rich person in the Final Fantasy VII universe. There is some interesting drama involving Elmyra’s husband and Aerith’s powers but it’s nothing surprising, and frankly, it can be quite dull. You can tell author Kazushige Nojima’s hands were tied with what he could cover in the book with this one.
The third story is titled “Picturing the Past” and actually already featured in the :Final Fantasy VII: Remake “World Preview” Book though apparently this is an expanded version, a fresh translation, or both. It’s hard to tell as I don’t have the World Preview book so I can only go by hearsay! Either way, it follows an unnamed character narrating a story where he was the son of a Shinra company man and was pretty much told to befriend Aerith, who at the time was a child watching her mother get experimented on and being frequently told to draw pictures of things she can see in her mind’s eye as they hoped it would lead to places to put Mako reactors. The narrator claims he got sick of seeing her so badly treated so told her to pretend she saw a town called Mideel that he had a magazine picture of because it’s known to cause Mako poisoning to local residents, she does and it leads to a lot of soldiers getting sick. Now an adult, the narrator talks about his search for forgiveness as he tries to track down those affected by that incident, eventually including Aerith herself. It’s a fine short story that I’m glad I got to read… and frankly find out it existed at all!
The prose is strong with good scene setting and characterisation, which given Nojima’s track record with the FFVII series should come as no surprise. While I obviously can’t check on Stephen Kohler’s translation work, it certainly flows well in English and all the details are here, so I can safely assume it’s a good translation of the original work. I’ll also mention that I wasn’t expecting a full-size hardback novel complete with dustjacket; in my mind’s eye, I was assuming the usual manga-sized paperback, so that was a pleasant surprise.
So overall, it’s safe to say that any fan of the Final Fantasy VII universe will get enjoyment out of this book, especially “Traces of Tifa” and the scenes set in between the flashbacks, plus the bonus re-printed short story is strong too. It’s also safe to say that if you are a casual fan or not a fan at all of the world of Final Fantasy VII then a book delving deep in the backstories of two characters from that world won’t appeal to you; there is zero effort to try and keep non-fans in the loop here. It’s a companion piece to please fans of the series, and in that sense it works very well.