Final Fantasy 7 Remake Hands On: It’s Not a Remake, It’s a Reinvention
Square Enix’s Final Fantasy 7 Remake presentation during its E3 2019 conference was an impressive spectacle, but it’s only when you get your hands on this much-anticipated return to Midgar and Mako that everything slots into place. The development team have seemingly captured the very essence of nostalgia that is powering fans’ hopes and dreams, and injected it into a 21st century action game. It’s a game that plays nothing like the 1997 original, but simultaneously feels just like it.
Final Fantasy 7 Remake is not a remake. Not really. It’s a complete reimagining of Square’s most famous JRPG, albeit one that remains slavishly faithful to the tone and world of its source material. The E3 demo – split between an introduction hands-off presentation and a hands-on section – covers the majority of the first Mako Reactor bombing run. Fans will find it instantly recognisable, from the elevated gantry ways over ghostly green vapours to the way the camera pans up to show the Mako Reactor cooling tower as Cloud enters the building, but also discover plenty of new things to see, from redesigned areas to brand new conversations.
As you descend ladders and climb deeper into the planet-destroying machine’s guts, familiar enemies stand in your path. Remember Mono Drive, the weird floating plant-like creature? Yup, they’re back. As are the bizarre, scrap-like ray turrets. How you fight them, though, is entirely different, and this is where both old fans and newcomers begin on a level playing field.
I’ve already explained why I think Final Fantasy 7 Remake’s combat system is a great idea, and getting hands-on with game only cements that. The hybrid of Active Time Battle, where you wait to take ‘turns’, and action combat works fluidly; you can unleash attacks with Cloud’s Buster Sword just as you would in a game like Devil May Cry (even to the extent that Cloud will launch himself into the air to strike at flying enemies), but abilities like skill attacks and magic can only be unleashed when an ATB ‘charge’ is ready. These charges build incredibly quickly, so while having roots in Final Fantasy’s turn based history, this is definitely a faster, more frantic experience.
The hands-on is mostly made up of the Guard Scorpion boss battle, or the Scorpion Sentinel as it’s now known. The arena it takes place in is almost identical to the bridge the original fight took place upon, although the platform is much wider to allow for the more kinetic action to unfold. (Oh, and there’s no save point at the bottom of the ladder. Have save points been cut, or are they just missing from the demo? I suspect the former, it’s 2019 after all).
The fight itself is a three-stage affair that combines classic attacks and a variety of new elements that make the most of the new combat system. The Scorpion still has a focus scope that targets your characters and locks on for a devastating attack. It can still use the tail laser, although the Scorpion now causes that much devastation that you can hide behind collapsed sections of reactor to avoid the attack. But in addition, the boss now has a huge battery of missiles it can bombard you with. Luckily, Cloud can guard with his sword to reduce incoming damage.
You’ll want to take some damage though, because that’s what builds your Limit gauge. Yes, Limit Breaks are back, but not quite how you remember them. Cloud’s classic Braver attack is now a skill you can use at any time provided you’ve got an ATB gauge filled, and so Cross Slash is now his first Limit Break. Barret has similarly had a small change, although it appears that Big Shot has simply been renamed Fire in the Hole.
Chaining together these attacks is a joy, and part of that is down to the tag-team like way you swap between characters. A tap of up or down on the D-Pad swaps between Cloud and Barret, allowing you to adopt their unique fighting styles when you decide you need them. While characters not currently under you control will still fight on their own, you can use the tactical menu by tapping X to issue attack commands to them without re-taking direct control.
The whole system takes a little getting used to; you’re constantly switching between characters and attack modes, issuing commands and cycling through potential attacks. While veteran Final Fantasy 7 fans will have a slight advantage as they will know what several of the skills do, it’s still a complex beast that every player will have to master from the ground up. Assigning favourite skills to shortcuts makes moment-to-moment gameplay a little snappier, but the core of the system seems rooted in a very classic, command-based approach, even if it unfolds among a much flashier set of actions.
By the end of the Scorpion Sentinel battle, in which individual limbs become targetable and must be ground down in order to see it destroyed for good, you’ll have a relatively good grasp on how combat works. There’s almost certainly more to it – who knows how summons will work, and a third party member will unlock further possibilities – but what we have here feels great and I’m excited to explore it further, especially against other bosses if they’ve been retooled akin to the Scorpion.
The demo is very combat oriented, and so it’s hard to talk about the wider elements of the game in any detail. But so far, Square Enix’s treatment of it’s beloved characters seems strong. What were once static conversation boxes are now mini cinematics, and it allows the personality of the characters to shine. Barret is incredibly exaggerated in his mannerisms, and the game knows this; a cutting remark from the far more understated Cloud makes a confrontation between the two nice and humorous, indicating that Square hasn’t forgotten that Final Fantasy 7 has a ridiculous and goofy side.
Like many people who are excited for Final Fantasy 7 Remake, the 1997 original is a vital component of my gaming past. As such, it’s hard to truly say how this hands-on demo would go down with someone unfamiliar with Mako Reactors, Materia, and Shinra. I do know, though, that it has adopted the sort of approach that a lot of people are looking for. This is a remake that, at least from this tiny slice, feels on the same level as this year’s Resident Evil 2. It’s very clearly a reinvention; something that takes a classic world and builds upon it with modern ideas, rather than just re-building the same game with modern graphics technology. If that philosophy extends for the whole experience, then the years-long wait for Final Fantasy 7 Remake will have been worth it.