The first time I dropped into a game of Final Fantasy VII: The First Soldier, my main opponent was the clutter on my phone's screen. The game's smattering of touchscreen controls include an analog stick for moving around, a button to shoot, another button for a melee attack, one for jumping and parkouring, and one for crouching and hiding. Get close to a treasure chest and you can open it with another button. There's the inventory menu for swapping between weapons, and the one for using your consumable items to heal. And there's the section of the screen dedicated to Materia, the little orbs you can find that give Final Fantasy VII characters the ability to use magic.
Because The First Soldier is a mobile game, all that stuff sits on the screen, occupying the same space you're expected to fight off other players in. It's cumbersome--half the time, my thumbs were in the way of the action. The other half, I couldn't remember which button to hit to call down some lightning bolts in a fight or to dash my way out of danger in a pinch.
Plenty of battle royale games, including big-market favorites like Fortnite and PUBG, have mobile versions. And plenty of players enjoy them, even though they reach a similar complexity to The First Soldier. But Square Enix's Final Fantasy take on the genre throws even more systems into play than those other games with the addition of classes, magic, and mounts. It all feels like too much for my little phone screen to handle. And that's a shame, because The First Soldier is a compelling take on battle royale. A Final Fantasy version of last-player-standing is great fun--provided you can hit the buttons you want to and see the enemies you're fighting.
The idea behind The First Soldier is that operatives of Shinra, Final Fantasy VII's energy megacorp with its own private military, are squaring off against each other as part of elite special forces training. SOLDIER, in the game's universe, refers to a division of high-level operatives who are feared on the battlefield. Cloud, FFVII protagonist, is one such SOLDIER, as is Sephiroth, the game's incredibly powerful villain. So this is, to some degree, the story of how those legendary operatives first came to stand above the rank-and-file Shinra military: by fighting on huge battle royale battlefields.
In practice, this is pretty much like every BR you've played, if you're familiar with the genre. Players drop into a huge map (in this case, the undercity slums of Midgar, complete with a few recognizable places from Final Fantasy VII Remake) and search for weapons and items to fight against any other competitors they happen to run up against, with the last player or team standing declared the winner. Over time, the playfield shrinks, and anyone caught outside of the "ring" defining the new battlefield takes damage. Like games such as PUBG or Fortnite, you can grab vehicles randomly placed around the map to make the journey go a little quicker, although at the cost of making yourself conspicuous to other players. You can also quickly parkour up most vertical surfaces just by running and jumping at them, allowing you to change elevations, set traps for players, and circumvent obstacles.
As in other BR games, you'll use firearms to do most of your fighting. The First Soldier is a third-person shooter at heart, and there are guns of various types and rarities that determine their effectiveness. Constantly searching for better guns, or taking them off the corpses of your enemies, is key for surviving long enough to claim victory. On the whole, the guns in The First Soldier feel pretty good, and the differences in the ways they handle--like the heavy recoil but high damage of a submachine gun, compared to the longer range but less crushing assault rifle--make your choices of what to take with you pretty meaningful. Add to that the fact that you can only carry two guns at a time and your weapon decisions have a major effect on the game.
However, where The First Soldier sets itself apart is with all the Final Fantasy VII elements it adds to the BR formula. In addition to guns, you can find and carry up to three Materia orbs, each of which represents a different magic spell. You can cast magic using mana you either recover over time or find in destructible boxes, much like in FFVII Remake, and having certain kinds of magic at your disposal can be a massive game-changer. A Thunder spell blasts a whole area with electricity, restricting your enemy's movements, while a Fire spell is akin to hucking a bomb at somebody that sends them flying. With things like Gravity for locking players to a spot, Bio for poisoning anyone unfortunate enough to wander into its noxious cloud, and Cure for healing yourself, magic adds a deep layer of strategy to the usual battle royale gunplay. As in FF7, you can level up your Materia to make it more effective by finding copies of the Materia you already have, giving you another incentive to continually loot the world around you and the players you fight.
You also choose a "class" for your character at the start of each match, which comes with its own caveats. In addition to the guns you find, each character gets a melee attack, which is determined by your class, plus a special ability. The Knight class gets a melee dash attack that also provides you with a brief shield against attacks, for example; the Mage class can drop an arcane ward on the ground that quickly recharges mana; the Ninja can briefly become invisible to sneak away from opponents or relocate in the midst of battle. There are five classes in total, and the longer you survive with one, the higher your class level reaches, boosting your attacks and your abilities as a reward for staying alive until the end of the match.
And finally, there are accessory items you can find for your character, which add special bonuses like damage protection outside of the ring, resistance to certain types of magic, or better luck in finding money on the ground for use in The First Soldier's many vending machines.
All those systems bring the RPG ideas of Final Fantasy 7 Remake to The First Soldier, and they really help to freshen up the battle royale formula--even if it means a ton of controls competing for screen space on your phone. The possibilities of things like surprising an opponent with a fireball, unloading on them with a shotgun, and then closing off their retreat with a Thunder spell make for some pulse-pounding, strategic fights. Combat in The First Soldier has its similarities to other BR games on the market, but the addition of magic and class abilities, plus accessories and the in-match level-up systems, means it also gains some of the best elements of FF7 Remake. There's just nothing else really like it.
When you're able to execute your attack commands quickly and fluidly, battles against opponents feel great. There's a lot to keep in mind, but once you get the hang of utilizing it all under fire, fights are gripping, intense, and unpredictable. You can also execute really fun strategies, like catching an enemy in a doorway with a fireball to trap them inside or placing a poison field near cover to flush an opponent out of hiding.
The trouble is that things get frantic on a touchscreen, especially as you're battling to keep the camera aimed at the action and competing with the controls to see what's going on. The camera in particular is a huge pain, since you have to swipe at your screen to rotate it, which means you can't use other controls with that thumb at the same time. It can take melee off the table altogether, more or less, since the close proximity you need to attack other players means you can whiz past them, putting them behind you and therefore out of sight.
Because of the touchscreen issues, The First Soldier improves by a huge leap if you use a Bluetooth controller to play it. When I plugged a controller in, my experience changed dramatically for the better. Suddenly, I could execute every attack I wanted to whenever I wanted to, while keeping the camera aimed where I needed it to be. There are still maybe too many controls to handle elegantly--between shooting, using consumables, and throwing magic, you often have to hold one button while pressing another to have enough commands to get everything done--but using a controller was a huge step forward in making The First Soldier work. The controller feels like a significant advantage over touchscreen controls, even in just being able to reliably manipulate the camera so you can see who you're fighting. Returning to touch controls after using a controller highlights how much the game strains the real estate of a phone screen.
Once I could see everything I was doing and reliably execute the attacks I wanted, though, it became clear how well all the ideas of Final Fantasy VII work within the battle royale framework. Magic, guns, and swords go pretty damn well together, and The First Soldier becomes a very fun take on the BR formula that's both familiar and fresh.
It's just that it feels like The First Soldier is a game that strains the confines of the mobile medium. Not only is the game overwhelmed by controls, but The First Soldier includes a bunch of additional systems that are fun in theory but in practice make the game a bit unwieldy for a medium meant to be played in short bursts. We haven't even mentioned The First Soldier's entire chocobo-breeding minigame, where you find eggs in special treasure chests in a match, hatch them, and then combine chocobos to get exactly the measure of stats you want. The birds you decide to keep can be marked for deployment in-game, so if you find a chocobo sign while playing a match, you can call your bird in battle to transport you around; you can even attack other players with chocobos, and they can be devastating if you're able to get close to a target. It's a fun system you can choose to engage with or completely ignore that further contributes to making The First Soldier feel like something new and different in the BR space, but it's something else to keep in mind when you're in matches, or to mess around with between runs, when you're probably only signing on for a quick match or two on your phone.
I'm enjoying The First Soldier and I'll keep it in my BR rotation, but it already seems like a game I'll struggle to get better at. This is a battle royale title that's good enough, smart enough, and different enough to attract and keep a healthy player base--it's bursting at the smartphone's seams. On PC or console, The First Soldier would take a well-deserved place against other BR powerhouses, but on mobile, it's just too cramped.