All aboard for Seventh Heaven.
Seeing the reimagined opening of Final Fantasy VII Remake for the first time really is something special, if the original is something you're familiar with. The establishing shots of Midgar, the train, the first couple of battles--there's definitely an unavoidable nostalgia, no matter how reserved and wary you're trying to be. I'd certainly been very skeptical about how Remake was going to turn out, and that's partially on me--I generally avoid watching pre-release coverage of things I know I want to experience myself. But after getting the chance to spend somewhere between three and four hours playing the first two chapters and some mid-game stuff, I'm feeling much better about letting myself be very excited about Remake's impending release.
You're likely already aware that Square Enix is blowing out the Final Fantasy VII saga to encompass multiple releases. The first part is set solely in the corporate-owned slums of Midgar, ending when your party leaves the city, and will extrapolate greatly on the beats of the original. Having started a replay of the PS1 FF7 shortly before I dove into the first few hours of Remake, it's a little shocking how much more detailed the new game feels. The original Final Fantasy VII was in no way a small or unambitious game, but if I were to imagine the same kind of treatment being given to the rest of VII--well, I hope I live to see it all happen.
A big part of the joy, of course, is simply seeing a more realistic depiction of a Midgar you likely know, and from all angles. There's a big nostalgia factor, naturally--jumping off the train for the first time is pretty cool. But there's a lot more about the setting that was never present in the original, and that certainly brings a feeling of curious wonder about something completely new. You can look up and see the plate far above, which physically separates the city's rich from poor. The streets are populated with people, shopfronts, and ads for hair gel, giving the city a kind of character I never thought about it having.
Similarly, scenes that fly by in a minute in the original are expanded on for almost an hour. We encountered a handful of 'slow walk' scenes where the game spends time fostering a particular tone and atmosphere as it forces you to take a closer look at the aftermath of events through the city, listen to the citizens, and delve into Cloud's fragile psyche. Speaking to Yoshinori Kitase, a producer on Remake and director on the original Final Fantasy VII, he pointed out that this would be the first time fans will see a greener, more unsure and inexperienced Cloud in this kind of realistic detail, and that's something they paid a lot of attention to--the Cloud we saw in Advent Children and other supplementary Final Fantasy VII material in the years after the original release was far more hardened after the dramatic events of the game.
But the most notable example of expansion I saw in Remake was the entirety of Chapter 2, wherein Cloud, Barrett, and the rest of Avalanche split up, agreeing to rendezvous back at the train. Fans are used to seeing short scenes of Cloud running through the city streets, nonchalantly bumping into a seemingly inconsequential flower girl, and quickly being backed into a corner by Shinra guards before making a daring escape.
In Remake, a lot more focus and attention is given to that seemingly inconsequential flower girl. Cloud converses with her for longer, the two get into a bit of trouble with the guards, and there's a very curious and unexpected wrinkle complicating things. Kitase mentioned that the development team did some research into scenes fans found particularly memorable from the original game, wanting to make sure they had some extra consideration in Remake. This feels like one of the results, but personally, the expanded flower girl scene was one of the points in the demo where I was left feeling a bit unsure--something I'll only be able to resolve once I see where it goes in the full game.
Following this scene, Cloud's originally quick escape from guards is extended out into an exploratory segment where you're asked to move through the streets and rooftops of Midgar, trying to find your way to the meeting point. It feels primarily like a chance for you to get a better feel for the new tactical real-time combat system with more challenging enemies. The defacto 'boss' enemy of this area is a named elite unit called "The Huntsman," an incredibly defensive shield unit who forces you to get used to dealing positional damage--you either have to distract him long enough to hit him from behind, or do what I do and perfect your parrying and countering skills to stagger him. At this early stage, and in my short time with the game, I was more than happy to spend time exploring every nook and cranny I could, finding out-of-the-way chests with equipment and Materia upgrades for Cloud, and just marvelling at a Midgar I hadn't seen before.
But my biggest worry comes from wondering about the full game's pacing, and the ifs and whens of whether roaming around expanded city streets and Mako reactors for the sake of a seamless Midgar will get tedious. These worries crept into my mind a few times during my hours with the game--when I was asked to wait for laser grids to momentarily come down before dashing across, when I had to hunt for keycards three different times before progressing, after climbing up my 20th ladder. I expect some roadblocks and puzzles, and the sequence where Cloud has to pull levers synchronously with Tifa and Barret was nice to see again (with additional unbridled enthusiasm from Barret), but I really hope there isn't too much busywork placed between major beats.
But the thing that I just couldn't get enough of, the part of Remake I'm dying to go back to, is the tactical real-time combat system. It's accessible. It's complex. It's flashy, it's challenging, and best of all, it has a good heft to it, a good feel.
If you've been following the reveal, you know have some idea about how it works: There's a lot of focus on blocking and dodging, regular attacks are mapped to the Square button, and when you're using melee characters like Tifa or Cloud, individual strikes are linked to discrete button presses. Characters with long-range weapons, like Barret's gun arm or Aerith's magic staff, require you to hold down Square for sustained fire. Sustaining attacks will build up segments of your ATB meter, at which point you can spend the segments on abilities and spells (which still require MP).
You can activate spells and abilities in two ways: the first by assigning them to shortcut commands (L1 in tandem with the face buttons), allowing you to trigger them instantaneously, which allows you to seamlessly combo into them from your regular strikes. Played this way, Remake's combat can feel closer to a character action game, ala Devil May Cry. The second method is to hit a button to slow down time to a crawl, allowing you to more casually peruse a menu in order to weigh up the option available to you, and target them more specifically.
Even given the game's huge focus on action in combat, I found that when playing some of the mid-game content, at which point your characters have dozens of skills, spells, and items under their belts, the tactical pause option is vital to make the most out of your assault. Slowing down time lets you squeeze out advantages without faltering for a second--taking advantage of elemental weaknesses, piling enough pressure onto enemies to lock them down, and making sure your positioning is optimal. To me, it evokes the same kinds of feelings of playing an intense FTL scenario.
This is especially true in boss fights. Those familiar with FFVII might recall the Air Buster fight, which takes place in Chapter 7 of Remake, where your team of Cloud, Barret, and Tifa are separated by the boss itself. I had to constantly switch between characters to make sure they were mitigating as much damage as possible when they were being targeted (with abilities like Barret's Steelskin and plenty of heals) while pressing the advantage when they had the opportunity to attack Air Buster from behind. Your party members will behave of their own accord when you're not directly in control, but they won't be as effective, and won't build up their ATB meters as quickly. During regular battles, I found it was usually okay to just stick to my preferred character (Tifa, of course), but making sure you're optimizing your plan of attack during boss battles, where the dynamic can change dramatically on a dime, is a tense and welcome challenge in Remake's combat. Summonable creatures (like Ifrit, Shiva, and Leviathan) act like extra party members when called upon, attacking of their own accord for a limited time. Anyone who has ATB meter to spend can use it to trigger one of the summoned creature's special abilities, and once time is up, the summon will perform their big, cinematic attack before disappearing.
I was pleasantly surprised by how different each character feels to use. Not just because of melee vs. ranged weapon preference and abilities, but also the innate secondary skills each one has. Pressing Triangle with Cloud will switch his sword stance, for instance, giving him access to stronger hits and the ability to counter at the cost of his dodge. For Barret, however, Triangle is a single charged shot that does a huge amount of damage but has a long cooldown. Tifa has a Whirling Uppercut with a short cooldown that becomes a frequent part of her combo toolkit as she gets in close, and Aerith has a ranged ability called Tempest that gets more powerful the longer you hold the button to charge it, at the cost of, well, doing anything else.
The short time I did get to use Aerith in battle was the most divergent experience of the four. The last portion of the game I got to play was the fight with Abzu in the sewers, which takes place in Remake's 10th chapter. Abzu is ferocious, pouncing all over the arena and unleashing huge area-of-effect attacks. Focusing your efforts as Aerith during this fight felt necessary because of how devastating Abzu can be. Staying far away from danger zones and repositioning when necessary, I spent most of my time laying down buffs, debuffs, and regular heals to avoid having to frantically throw Phoenix Downs around to revive everyone one by one. When things were generally okay, it was a matter of working out how long I could charge my Tempest ability for a big hit without getting interrupted. This supporting role is the kind of action that can really stall the momentum of a fight in a turn-based scenario, but with the constant dangers of Remake's real-time combat, even the act of keeping everyone alive can be thrilling.
And with all that Remake experience now under my belt, it's the constant thrill and excitement of combat that makes me happy to charge headlong into any and all battles the game wants to throw at me. I may have come away with some hesitations about how the structure of Remake's first part might shake out in the full game, but so long as the fights keep coming, I think I'm going to have a buster of a good time.
Have any questions about the Final Fantasy VII Remake content we saw? Leave it in the comments below and we'll answer what we can. For more coverage, read our interview with Yoshinori Kitase, director of the original Final Fantasy VII and a producer on Remake.