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Final Fantasy VII Remake – First Impressions

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The remake for Final Fantasy VII is upon us, albeit later than expected. Square Enix isn’t just making the JRPG again with today’s modern graphics, it rejigs the elements of the original into a modern, action RPG template.

We played a bit of a demo- an early build first seen in E3 2019, and also the build playable at Gamestart Asia – provided by Playstation Asia. It was a short, 10-minute-ish demo.

How was it, you ask? Well…

Mako Reactor

The snippet we played takes place early in the game, where Cloud just got roped into the eco-warrior resistance group Avalanche for the money, while Barret wants to recruit him for good. It’s a small section where you climb down stairs and walk around the steel walkways leading to the first Mako Reactor. Enemies appear on the screen as in no random battles, and treasure chests can be found away from the critical path. Simple traversal, closer to the original Final Fantasy VII.

I have no nostalgia for the original game. But what I’ve seen with the writing of the characters was good. It started with Jessie giving a brief to blow the Mako Reactor. Then near the end of the preview saw a nonchalant Cloud bickering with the loud-mouth Barret. The Japanese voice-overs are great from what we’ve heard. Barett rolls his “r’s” and goes “ora-ora”.

Let The Battle Begins

The combat is where the biggest shake-up lie. The original game is a turn-based JRPG that uses the Active Time Battle (ATB) system- wait for a segment of the bar to fill up and issue a command. That is true, but now you control characters directly ala Final Fantasy XV, or Kingdom Hearts III. Control-wise, Cloud moves okay, a bit too slow for my taste. You can dodge and guard. If you’ve played the other two games, you’ll be right at home.

What’s going to throw all of the fans of FFVII is when the combat starts. Normal attacks are done directly. The KH III style shortcuts are there where you hold L1 and a face button. You can also select the list of commands- covering Abilities (skills), Magic and Item use. Note that unlike KH III or FFXV, using items require an ATB bar, not immediate, which threw me off a bit.

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It’s not a combo-based character action game. The skills don’t connect or flow if you just button mash. But press the buttons more deliberately and it actually feels okay.

Given this is an older build, we saw none of the character-specific moves. Cloud doesn’t get his stances as previously revealed. As a result, the initial combat tools you feel a bit limited. Taking down mooks is so easy you can just mash away. But bosses are basically bullet sponges that require you to keep using those ATB bars for hard-hitting abilities.

Fight On

Taking a page from Final Fantasy XIII, there is a stagger system. Hammer down enough attacks and enemies will stagger, giving an opening for your party to deal more damage without interruption. You will see the stagger bar at the bottom of the enemy HP and will tick down as you deal damage on the immobile enemy, decreasing alongside its own health bar.

The current battle system isn’t showing its full potential – no menu access where you can tinker with materials – so the preview build does feel a bit limiting. What bothers me is how many ways to access the same command menu, maybe too much. The X button (or the main confirm button rather) opens the command menu but with time slowed down. L2 and R2 do the same thing, but goes straight to your other party member’s command menu instead. L1 is the shortcuts with no time slowdown. It takes a bit more time properly acclimatise with how the command menu flows with the button-press-based combat.

It’s cool that you can directly control all of the party members. Cloud plays like your regular guy with oversized sword, with solid attacks. Barret shoots with his gatling gun bolted on his arm, and engages from afar. The enemies tend to target you rather than the AI-controlled party member, which you can use to your advantage. Low HP? Switch to the secondary character and to get the enemies’ attention away.

The switching system is akin to the current version of Final Fantasy XV, where switching on the fly (even on this old demo) is smooth as butter and does break the flow of combat during intense situations.

The main boss fight has cool gimmicks. It has three phases, not clearly indicated but the boss brings in different attacks to the fight. One of them includes hiding behind conveniently dropped rubble for cover. It’s a spectacle for sure, but if you just wail on the attack button it’s a bullet sponge of a HP pool. You really need to use the abilities and magic from the ATB command, and the occasional Limit Break, to really take it down.

Combining all the traits mentioned and this short demo can be done within 10 minutes or less, which depends on the player and its mixture of Final Fantasy and a bit of Tetsuya Nomura’s Kingdom Hearts for good measure.

Victory Fanfare?

Final Fantasy VII Remake is not exactly like the 1997 PS1 game, but what Square Enix hopes how you remember it. It feels in tone with the original.

The new battle system, while it has potential, is still a bit rough to be something completely enjoyable and will take some time for veterans to get used to. Note that there are many mechanics not present yet. So there’s room for the combat to flourish still.

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It’s a decent foundation at least.

Putra Danial also contributed to the impressions. Preview access provided by Playstation Asia