In an era dominated by unnecessary reboots, soulless sequels, and the relentless strip-mining of our youths to cash in on our collective nostalgia, one could be forgiven for having a cynical reaction to finding out yet another thing they love is having its corpse exhumed, gussied up, and prepared for a proverbial Weekend at Bernie’s. But when it comes to Final Fantasy VII Remake — Square Enix’s complete overhaul of one of the greatest role-playing games of all time, Final Fantasy VII — I only have one thing to say: Shut up and take my gil.
Final Fantasy VII is a deeply meaningful game for me. It was my first exposure to the world of role-playing games, a genre in which a terminally shy, lonely child growing up in the suburbs of Boston could lose himself. It was the reason I bought a PlayStation (shout out to Santa for being a real one in 1997). It also exposed me to a vast universe of thoughtful storytelling, immersive world-building, and high-stakes gambling on giant birds which I bred and raced for sport at a mountaintop casino. In short, it’s my favorite game of all time, and as such, I approached Final Fantasy VII Remake with a mixture of feverish excitement and deep-seated trepidation.
After spending four hours playing it at Square Enix’s offices at a recent press day, I am pleased to say it absolutely slaps. The orchestral swell during the opening cinematic gave me goosebumps and all my fears melted away. Even compared to the demo I played at E3, which was satisfying but slight, this is world’s better and delivers on the title’s promise.
What’s Old is New Again
Our demo begins in the familiar confines of Mako Reactor No. 1, which is a massive power plant owned by the nefarious Shinra Electric Power Company, one of the game’s main antagonists. They’re basically using it to frack the planet, extracting a substance known as the Lifestream and converting it into energy known as Mako. Taking control of the mysterious, sardonic, spiky-haired mercenary Cloud Strife, you join up with Avalanche, a band of eco-terrorists led by Barret Wallace, a towering beefcastle with a machine gun arm who has zero patience for Cloud’s aloof attitude. Their mission is to low the Mako Reactor to smithereens and hit Shinra where it hurts: their wallet.
As the game’s first mission, it’s a fairly on-rails experience meant to introduce you to many of the game’s core mechanics, including its completely redesigned combat system. Final Fantasy VII Remake features a markedly different combat system compared to the original. Basically, if you’ve played any modern action-RPG, you’ll feel right at home. You’ll have total freedom of movement in a three-dimensional space and you can hack, slash, dodge, and parry your way through hordes of enemies.
As you attack your enemies, you build up your active time battle gauge (or ATB if you’re nasty) which, in a throwback to the original Final Fantasy VII, allows you to essentially slow down time to issue advanced commands to your characters in “Tactical Mode.” From casting powerful magical spells to unleashing souped-up physical attacks, the abilities unlocked by building up your ATB gauge adds a shocking amount of depth to the combat experience.
This isn’t just a mindless hack-and-slash experience either; you’ll need to make ample use of dodging and parrying, and you must think critically about the best ways to defeat your enemies or else you’re going to wind up a human Jackson Pollock painting splattered against the Mako Reactor walls. Honestly, thanks to this new combat system, the Guard Scorpion boss felt menacing for the first time in nearly 20 years.
A Total Remakeover
Seeing Final Fantasy VII Remake‘s gorgeous graphics in motion is a deeply satisfying experience, but the extra horsepower provided by the PlayStation 4 allows Square Enix to create an even more immersive narrative experience. As I escaped on to the streets of Sector 8, the post-explosion chaos felt more tangible and more horrifying than ever before. Terrified civilians flooded the streets, nursing injuries, seeking solace in their neighbors, and trying to take shelter from the ongoing destruction all around the. What Avalanche had done was ostensibly for the greater good, but it also had a very real, very human cost that felt more immediate and more visceral than in the original.
But it’s not all doom and gloom; the graphics are a visual feast and they’re prompting all sorts of realizations that I never had when I was younger. For example, did you know how imposing the Shinra President and Heidegger were supposed to be? In the original, they looked like grade-A doofuses thanks to the game’s signature “super deformed” low-polygonal style. Now they feel like the true corporate autocrats that they are and I truly cannot wait to lay the smackdown on their conniving butts.
Speaking of the original, as I mentioned earlier this isn’t just a point-by-point remake of the 1997 game, and nowhere was that made more abundantly clear than in the Sector 5 Mako Reactor mission. This mission sees Cloud and Avalanche seeking to repeat their success by bombing yet another Mako Reactor, only to wind up caught in a deadly trap set by the sinister Shinra Company. In the original game, this reactor was a carbon copy of the first one you attacked, but this time around they have added tons of new areas, mechanics, and treasure for you to uncover.
For instance, before you do battle with the infamous Air Buster boss, you will encounter groups of Shinra guards and scientists, who drop keycards which can be inserted into various computer terminals to sabotage the Air Buster’s weapons systems. As you progress further and further into the dungeon, you’ll have more chances to disable various abilities to make your life easier in the impending boss fight. However, since there are way more weapons systems than there are keycards, you’ll have to choose wisely and live with the consequences. In my playthrough, I completely disabled the Air Buster’s magic attacks, only to leave it with truly horrifying movement speed.
There’s also a lockpicking minigame that made me want to throw my controller through my screen, but what RPG doesn’t have at least one of those? (I’m looking at you, Final Fantasy IX‘s jump rope and Final Fantasy X‘s lightning dodging…)
As a result, this reimagined experience feels fresh, exciting, and completely different than it used to despite hitting the same overall narrative beats. It rewards exploration in a unique way and opens up a world of possibilities for different play-styles. In particular, I’m fascinated by how the speedrunning community will try to optimize this particular boss fight, but that takes a level of galaxy brain gameplay that is far beyond me.
What I do know for sure is that Final Fantasy VII Remake was incredibly fun from start to finish. The worst part was when I had to stop playing for the day. Its gorgeous graphics, thoughtful gameplay innovations, and killer sci-fi storytelling make it an absolute must-play for both longtime fans and newcomers alike. Here’s hoping that the final product is as good as what I’ve played so far when it finally drops on April 10, 2020.
Images: Square Enix