The remake of the near-universally adored 1997 JRPG, Final Fantasy VII Remake, has remained shrouded in mystery since its announcement back in 2015. After five years of being left to analyze all the pours in the character renders, we finally have the chance to play the opening of the game ourselves, and it doesn't disappoint.
The demo starts just as the original PlayStation game opens - with big sword anime boy, Cloud Strife, joining with an eco-terrorist group to destroy a Mako Reactor. One thing is clear from this demo: that Final Fantasy VII Remake won't just be the original with improved graphics and voice acting; rather, it is a complete re-imagining. Square Enix isn't just banking on nostalgia - it is clear that they have more of a story to tell, and they utilize all the improvements to gaming since the 1990s to tell it.
But before we get to the story, the biggest and most obvious change is the gameplay. In this demo you get to try out Cloud and Barret, both of which have their own unique play styles for the more action game inspired combat. The real time combat, and the fact that enemies attack as soon as they notice you,rather than wait for you to bump into them like a Pokémon-style encounter, changes the gameplay and pacing completely. Enemies make the most of fighting in a larger 3D environment, such as flanking from vantage points and sending attack dogs to go in for quick hits. This also means that, as well as learning the RPG elements, you have to get good at taking cover, dodging and blocking quickly enough. This was a worry for myself and many other going in, that the game would forget its turn-based routes. I'm happy to report that it does not at all. In fact, if you go in with purely an action game mindset, you won't get very far.
You can also enter tactical mode, which slows the action to near stop and allows you to take your time selecting spells and items. Both ordinary and tactical mode have their benefits, too. At normal speed, you can wipe out some nearby enemies, and in tactical mode you can take your time to get yourself out of a pinch. When taking on the Scorpion Sentinel fight, I was constantly flipping between the two and the flow was effortless.
I do have to wonder though, how will this impact the balancing of Final Fantasy VII Remake? With the original purely being a turn-based RPG, there was a heavy emphasis on character builds, and therefore a lot of grinding if you muck it up. Whereas with no random encounters, will there be areas in the games more open world to consistently find enemies? That isn't clear from this taster, but it will be interesting to see how this affects the game at large.
Spells and limits also make a return. To use items and spells, you fill up an ATB (active time battle) bar, which is done by damaging enemies. This is a good example of the action/RPG elements complementing each other well. In order to use the more tactical RPG elements, you have to rush in and perform some real time combat first, making the encounters that more strategic.
One area of concern, however, is the difficulty. As a complete newcomer to the more recent Final Fantasy games, I breezed through this demo with little struggle. Admittedly I had Cloud and Barret chucking back potions like it was nobody's business, but considering I was playing on Normal difficulty, I do hope there's more challenge to be found in the full game.
Outside the new gameplay mechanics, we also get a taste at what we can expect to happen with the story. Rather than faithfully retelling the story of Final Fantasy VII from start to finish, Square Enix is instead using it as an outline, and cramming as much more as they can in between. That's not to do the original a disservice, but the remake oozes life in a way in which you can tell they have been dying to re-tell this story. The main indication of this is through the character interactions. Now, characters will break out in conversation outside of cutscenes, which allows for much more dialogue and world building.
But while we're on the topic of these character interactions, these are one of the few things that could do with some polishing. For example, Cloud and Barret seem to bounce from having a genuine hatred for each other in the cutscenes, to playful bickering like an old married couple in-game - and then back to swearing again. Hopefully this is put down to the flow of this segment being different in the demo than it is the final game, because having the tone of interactions change so quickly would get very jarring.
The tone is also much more serious from what we've seen so far. The antagonists are not playing about and immediately come off as intimidating, and as previously mentioned, the rivalry between Cloud and Barret is turned up to eleven, with Cloud's grumpiness even more apparent. That's not so much of criticism than it is an observation. The exception to rule here is the standout star, Jessie, who throws subtlety out the window when it comes to her crush on Cloud. In fact I don't think she goes two words without hitting on our favorite stoic sword wielder, so with any luck, there will be more dialogue like this to drown out to ease the gloominess from time to time.
But most importantly - the jury is still out on whether or not Final Fantasy VII Remake even needs to be split into parts. Sure, the Mako reactor explosion jumps from a 15 minute affair to an hour and a half ordeal, but the original still takes a little under forty hours to complete. Even by extending segments, there's no doubt that they'll have to add in some more to make the first part feel worthy of being its own game. Square Enix has already been under fire for the length of Final Fantasy XV's story and its DLCs, so it hasn't exactly earned any goodwill in this area.
All in all, the concerns about the change in gameplay have been smashed out the park and there is little doubt that Square Enix are putting their all into this re-telling of Final Fantasy VII. We can only hope that they'll cram enough into the first part so we don't leave feeling conned - or that we've just played hours of pointless filler - but there's no doubting that this will be a thrilling title dripping with charm.
You can play the Final Fantasy VII Remake now on PS4.