Back at E3 2019 I had the opportunity to get my first crack at Final Fantasy VII Remake. I have to be honest, I was extremely skeptical. I’m not a massive fan of action-RPGs. I enjoyed Final Fantasy XV as a whole, but I felt the combat was the game’s weakest asset, and I was a bit scared that FFVII Remake would play like FFXV with a FFVII skin.
Not only does it not play like Final Fantasy XV – it’s much less clunky – but we also learned later on that there would be a Classic Mode that will allow players to just focus on inputting commands while Cloud, Barrett, Tifa, and company focus on moving around and building up the ATB.
Classic Mode is a big deal to many fans, but let’s first talk about what I did get to play in the three or so hours with Final Fantasy VII Remake last week that isn’t in the demo that was released today.
Do keep in mind that in describing my experience below, I may include a few mild story spoilers, which are required to drive the point home about how the game’s narrative evolution compared to the original.
First of all, my demo began by playing the entirety of the first chapter of the game and a portion of the second chapter. This started of course with the infiltration of the first Mako Reactor and ended with Cloud escaping the area and hopping onto the train.
In case you haven’t or won’t have the chance to try the demo, the opening Mako Reactor section, like everything else in Final Fantasy VII Remake, has been greatly expanded on from both a combat and story perspective.
There is additional dialogue, boss fights that are more intricate, and even “random battles” that require more strategy (they aren’t actually random anymore obviously). For example, only Barret can easily hit wall-mounted enemies that are too high for Cloud to quickly unleash all his combos on.
In Chapter 2, when Avalanche escapes the reactor and scatters throughout Midgar, we got a taste of just how expanded the story would be. All of the story beats from the original game are there, but there are a lot of new details added on top.
What was once a pretty short sequence as Cloud makes his way through the city and hops on the train to escape, now takes at least twice or thrice as long because of all the additional cutscenes and dialogue.
For example, Cloud still flees from Shinra’s goons and runs into Aerith and she gives him a flower, but this time there is an evil entity that only Cloud and Aerith can see that harasses both of them, and it eventually forces Aerith to take her leave.
Cloud also begins to receive haunting visions of Sephiroth as he makes his way through a burning Midgar, establishing the events that will come later earlier on in the story than it originally did.
This may bother some purists that want everything to be left untouched or don’t want to see new things added. Personally, I found them to be tasteful and just added to what we remember without replacing or radically changing anything.
Another example of this happens in the next section of the demo we experienced: the lead up to the Air Buster battle.
Once again, the same story beats were there, with more dialog and details added. Barret, Tifa, and Cloud work their way to the bottom of the reactor and plant the bomb. Cloud receives a disturbing vision featuring Tifa, and then they make their way back up and work the levers to open the doors that allow them to escape.
However, this time, players can also find keycards which allow them to disassemble parts of the Air Buster that will make the fight easier. You can choose whether or not you want to slow the Air Buster’s movement down, eliminate its big bomb ammo capacity, or obtain items that will boost your chance of survival.
The game will give you a couple of freebie keycards, but you can also find a few more and give yourself even more of an advantage if you explore well enough.
After some trash talking from Heidegger and the Shinra President, the Airbuster battle begins as it did in the original on the small bridge platform. Cloud, Barret, and Tifa will be able to navigate around Air Buster and try to avoid/mitigate its powerful attacks.
The battle was extremely fast-paced, dynamic and made interesting use of the tight quarters. For example, Air Buster would drop proximity paralysis bombs that would force you out of whatever comfortable position you were in. I found it was best to switch from characters that were in a bit of trouble and let the AI navigate them while I continued the attack from a character that was in a safer position.
Each character has their own combat style, abilities, and spells that can be further customized by slotting materia. So, for example, if you know you have a fight that will require heavy use of the Thunder spell in order to Stagger the enemy (new of course to the action-heavy gameplay of FFVII Remake, but similar to previous FF ARPGs), you can spec your characters out to have Thunder, and boost their magic skills as best you can by changing equipment.
Tifa can weave relentless fast-paced attacks that snowball into powerful combos, Cloud focuses more on attacks that are a bit slower, measured, but more powerful, and Barret can hang back and fire with his gun from relative safety, but he also has a lot of HP and defense to try and draw the attacks of enemies if needed.
After the Air Buster battle, we finally got to experience the fight against Abzu which has been featured in a recent trailer. This was most strategic of the battles that we experienced.
Abzu can be a tough fight if you aren’t mindful of its weakness to Fire, don’t target its weak points (horns) and/or you pay close attention to the environment.
The Abzu was the first fight I experienced during my hands-on that really required you to combine elements of strategy and awareness. For example, standing in puddles that are scattered in the area at the wrong time can be punished by Abzu. Also not knowing where Abzu is at all times (it jumps around the arena) and not seeing where the attacks are coming from will lead to you getting hit very hard.
This fight also allowed me to really see how summons can change the course of a battle. Not only are they a visual spectacle – truly the most impressive part visually in the demo for my eyes anyway – but they are incredibly powerful.
Ifrit did a ton of the heavy lifting in this fight for me. He will attack on his own, but you can expend another character’s ATB charge to issue Ifrit, or any summon, commands such as using abilities. Once the summon’s timer is up, they will exit but not before using their ultimate ability such as Inferno or Diamond Dust for Shiva.
Even with Ifrit pounding away, there were times I made mistakes and got smacked around by Abzu. Fortunately for this fight, you do have Aerith and her powerful healing and support skills, but I got the gist from the Abzu fight that later battles are going to be even more intense and challenging than the already action-packed battles from the beginning of the game.
This kind of leads me to what is really the only thing that has somewhat concerned me about Final Fantasy VII Remake: the action getting too overwhelming and even cumbersome.
By the later chapters, you’re going to have a ton of abilities and spells to micromanage while also paying attention to what’s going on in battle. I found myself constantly entering tactical mode every few seconds and it would rip away from the flow I had in the action. In other words, there were times where I felt the tactical and action elements were at odds with each other and fighting for my attention.
This isn’t Final Fantasy XV where you can play a little bit mindlessly and get away with mistakes for story battles. Final Fantasy VII Remake is far more tactical and will punish those mistakes, hard. You need to play smart on the tougher battles.
Fortunately, there are hotbars you can set to alleviate some of the stops and gos, but that, of course, will drive you further down the path of turning Final Fantasy VII Remake into a full-blown ARPG which may or may not be your jam.
Classic Mode is, of course, an option as well if you want to effectively only focus on the in-menu strategy, but it’s certainly a very different experience.
Classic Mode strips away the need to worry about movement and to use basic attacks and allows you to input ATB attacks such as a spell Blizzard or a weapon skill. This gives you an experience that’s more in-line with the original game.
This mode will likely appeal to purists that want as close to a 1:1 experience as possible, hate action-RPGs, or newcomers that have no idea what’s going on and want some time to breathe and figure out what everything does without getting pummeled or hiding in tactical mode constantly.
I’m very happy this mode exists because I do not think the ARPG gameplay is going to be for everyone.
For example, one of my closest friends growing up was the person who got me into RPGs and Final Fantasy VII. FFVII was his favorite game
He never even made it to the PS2, though, and he has never even experienced a modern action-RPG. When he found out FFVII was getting remade, he was pumped and said this what was going to finally get him to buy a modern console, but I’ve had to warn him that it may not be exactly what he imagines in his head
There’s a lot of people in that boat: pure Final Fantasy VII fans that may not even be big-time RPG, JRPG, or even video game fans. They, like so many people, just have a special place in their heart for FFVII and want to relive those treasured memories with modern graphics, nothing more, nothing less.
Fortunately, Square Enix appears to be casting a net as wide as possible with Final Fantasy VII Remake in terms of appealing to new and veteran fans, while also staying true their word about wanting to do something more than just remaking it 1:1 from the original game.
Based on what I played I feel good about Final Fantasy VII Remake appealing to me, and many other RPG fans, but I hope that people that are like the friend that I described above will enjoy it too.
We’ll see how the full experience of part 1 plays out when it releases on April 10 for PlayStation 4.