We all have those games, the ones eternally etched into our memory. No matter how far in the past you need to look, you can recall exactly when and where you acquired it, the house you played it in, and the sensations you felt as its sights and sounds washed over you for the first time. Final Fantasy 7 is one of these games for me. And because it's so near and dear, the initial announcement of Final Fantasy 7 Remake in 2015 left me with mixed emotions. I was happy Square Enix was finally giving it a serious go, but all I could think of were the things I expected to get cut, or potentially worse, disfigured by the norms of modern game design. Keep the classics classic, I thought.
Nearly four years later, playing Final Fantasy 7 Remake at this year's E3, I finally confronted the things that worried me the most: real-time action taking the place of turn-based combat, voice actors speaking for main characters, and a 3D camera system in place of fixed perspectives. I walked out of the demo completely surprised, not by the sweeping changes but by my shift in mindset. I naively thought I wanted a conservative remake of the game I remember, but it turns out the reimagined Final Fantasy 7 is giving me the best gift of all: a chance to fall in love with the world and characters all over again, and potentially for new reasons.
It would be far too premature to claim that the final product will be as amazing as my demo, but at the risk of sounding naive once again, I'm given hope as I recall the experience I had when I first played the original PlayStation demo in 1996, and how that experienced carried over to the full game.
Stepping into a dingy Mako Reactor--one of the many beating hearts of the corporate-run operation that saps, sells, and profits off the earth's natural resources--two powerhouses clash. Cloud, a cold-hearted, former super (svelte) soldier of the Shinra Power Company, is just there to do a job. Barret, the hulking environmental activist behind the mission to destroy the reactor, has no choice but to work with Cloud to glean from his experience at Shinra. But as a person who wears his heart on his sleeve and fights for a noble cause, Barret's contempt for Cloud's self-centered opportunism is loud and clear. The two grit their teeth through the tension after a few spats and lay down their explosives. Their escape is cut short by a massive crimson mech, the Scorpion Sentinel. Using a little magic, Cloud's massive sword, and a Gatling gun surgically grafted to Barret's arm that never runs out of ammo, the two overcome their opponent and accomplish their mission, inflicting a massive blow to Shinra when the reactor ultimately explodes from within.
Core components of Final Fantasy 7 have undergone massive transformations, but these aforementioned beats, the events that made my first taste of Final Fantasy 7 so memorable the first time around, have returned to center stage under a brand-new hi-def spotlight. The attention to visual details, from the environment to special effects in combat, gives everything a dreamlike quality, almost as if I'm seeing my imaginary version of Final Fantasy 7 brought to life. I only have good things to say about the way the remake looks, and my mind runs wild when I consider what the rest of the game will look like in the years to come.
I was equally impressed by the new real-time combat system during my brief stint playing the remake, which I did not see coming. Rather than standing orderly on opposite sides of a rectangular battlefield as before, every character involved in a fight can now run in any direction at will. The ATB Gauge is back, but you needn't wait for it to fill if you want to throw out basic attacks, which conveniently speed up the refill process too. You only have to wait for a full ATB gauge to do something more substantial, like cast a spell or use an ability. And if you want a taste of the past or simply need to catch your breath, you can also bring combat to a halt while picking commands from menus. This process is somewhat optional as your allies are controlled by AI when they aren't given explicit instructions, but it's definitely handy.
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I still have questions about the finer points of Materia management--the items that govern what a character is capable of beyond simply attacking and using items--and time will tell how exciting battles remain long run, but it seems like it will strike a good balance between free-flowing action and menu-based mechanics from the past.
The Scorpion Sentinel boss, as seasoned players will recall, has a tail equipped with a powerful laser that's best avoided. In the past, you would only bear the brunt of it if you attacked the scorpion while its tail was raised. That laser is still dangerous, but it's guaranteed to attack in the remake's version of this fight. Once the tail goes up, that's your cue to run and take cover behind debris strewn around the reactor platform. This occasional threat, along with the scorpion's leap-and-smash attack, lends a new kick to the familiar foe. My hope is that this is also setting the tone for the rest of the game and that positioning will become a critical component of combat. Juggling priorities was a treat rather than a hassle thanks to the largely intuitive controls, so the ongoing challenge would be most welcome.
I feel silly in retrospect for being so fixated on what Final Fantasy 7 was rather than what it could be, and now I'm more excited than ever to find out.
There was a lot to love about my time with Final Fantasy 7 Remake, but it wasn't without some concern. Even though I'm glad characters can speak for themselves and thus have more natural interactions now, I am a little concerned by Barret's over-the-top characterization. Final Fantasy 7 has a ton of strange things in it and I don't want it to be overly self-serious all the time, but in the face of a more realistic presentation overall, Barret's cartoonish delivery rubs the wrong way.
When Final Fantasy 7 Remake releases in March 2020 I'll be turning 35. I've changed a great deal since my first exposure to Cloud, Barret, and the rest of the gang, and the E3 demo reminded that my relationship to Final Fantasy 7 is a holdover from the past. With that in mind and the overall quality of the new demo, I can't wait to rekindle my connection to one of my favorite games of all time. I feel silly in retrospect for being so fixated on what Final Fantasy 7 was rather than what it could be, and now I'm more excited than ever to find out. I'll always have the original if I need it, but this new version is shaping up to be an enlightening trip down memory lane.