It is strange how paradoxically safe, and yet risky, the notion of a Final Fantasy VII Remake is. Sure, Final Fantasy VII is a well-regarded classic for good reason. However, despite working overtime to capture audience nostalgia, from remastering Nobou Uematsu’s legendary compositions to replicating the camera angles of the old FMV cutscenes on the PSX, I was more struck by what changes Final Fantasy VII Remake has made to the game in its demo. From overhauling the battle system to totally restructuring the story into a quasi-episodic release schedule, Square-Enix has much loftier goals than simply resurrecting its old classic with a new coat of paint. Whether what Final Fantasy VII has turned into now is your cup of tea, is of course subjective.
The first thing you will probably notice is the battle system, which has been completely revamped. No longer turn-based, it now more strongly resembles Final Fantasy XV, where you control one character at a time and indirectly order your allies via a menu. In addition, there is a focus on staggering enemies with special attacks, not unlike Final Fantasy XIII. There is a “Classic” battle option, but that just automates a lot of the attacking and guarding, and feels more like playing on autopilot. In the remake, the player holds down the Square button to attack with Cloud or Barrett’s main weapon. Where the old Active Time Battle system kicks in is with special attacks, spells or items that the player can activate. While the game is far more action-based than before, it preserves the idea of needing to wait your turn before you can use your special abilities.
The demo comprises of the opening sequence in the Mako reactor from the original game. Considering the entire game is supposedly going to be just the Midgar section of Final Fantasy VII, we already begin to see how they are going to start fleshing it out. In particular, Wedge and Jessie, two fairly featureless members of AVALANCHE, are given a lot more personality this time around. Cloud and Barrett still have plenty of arguments and snark in their various arguments in the demo. I am looking forward to how their interactions play out in the expanded Midgar section. It took me a while to adjust to Cody Christian voicing Cloud, but he settles into the role well enough that I wasn’t focusing on how he didn’t sound like Steve Burton.
The climactic Scorpion Sentinel fight at the end of the demo foreshadows how Square-Enix is looking to expand Final Fantasy VII Remake’s scope. In the original game, Guard Scorpion (as it was known in that game) is a fairly simple tutorial boss who exists to demonstrate the ins and outs of the ATB system. In Final Fantasy VII Remake, while still kind of there to teach the battle mechanics, the fight itself is much more complex.
From summoning allies and other targets to fight, to jumping up on the wall to get out of Cloud’s reach, to forcing Cloud and Barrett to use cover to avoid its tail laser, it shows how there is more to Final Fantasy VII Remake than just mindlessly chopping down enemies. It really makes one wonder what they have in store for the original game’s more elaborate boss fights.
Admittedly, I still have some concerns. As with many games that mix turn based and real time combat, it is not quite superior to the sum of its parts. Cloud and Barrett never felt as reactive as I wanted them to be, especially when trying to avoid annoying AOE attacks. The fact that fan favourite party member Red XIII will apparently only be a guest character is an additional reminder that we aren’t really getting a complete experience here, regardless of what Square-Enix suggests.
While the demo can of course only give a glimpse into what the full game will be like, it remains to be seen how Final Fantasy VII Remake can construct a robust narrative out of a story that has been explicitly cut down. I hope that they can give Midgar enough depth and scope so as to not make the player long to explore the land beyond its walls.
Still, Final Fantasy VII Remake’s demo is a strong first showing for this revived classic. It is unlikely to have the same cultural impact as the original – but what will? However, the amount of changes to its story and gameplay make it worth keeping an eye on.
Final Fantasy VII Remake will be coming out April 10th, with a year’s exclusivity to the PS4.