I played Final Fantasy VII when it first came out on the PlayStation 1 more than 20 years ago. I’ve gone back to it every few years. The major beats are ingrained in the farthest corners of my subconscious.
Playing through the free demo of the Final Fantasy VII Remake, I felt a looming inevitability that I will be compelled to buy and devour the full game, whether or not I like it.
The demo covers the pivotal first scene, where our spiky blond-haired hero Cloud joins a group of rebels infiltrating the Sector 1 Mako Reactor — one of the main stations extracting untold amounts of energy from the planet’s Lifestream to power the industrial mega-polis of Midgar.
When news surfaced that the entire first “chapter” of the Remake would take place in Midgar, everyone wondered how Square-Enix would make a full game out of what was an introductory slice of the original game lasting only a couple of (at most six or so) hours.
What originally took a little less than 30 minutes is stretched out to at least twice that thanks to a larger area to explore, extended dialogue scenes between Cloud and his crew, and a much longer boss fight with a giant robotic scorpion.
The longer layout of the mako reactor takes you through sections that one could imagine existing all along: a public-facing station for the train you originally stowed away on; holding facilities for the Sweeper security machines; and several ho-hum checkpoints where hapless Shin-Ra soldiers are stationed.
The newest bit was a couple of rooms where you have to carefully navigate a series of on-and-off-again laser beam barriers. It felt more “video game-y” than the other environmental additions so far.
Nothing felt unusually long or stretched out; it makes sense that a reactor station that dominates the slums’ horizon would be complex and cavernous.
The fully-voiced cutscenes and interstitial dialogue fleshes out our leads Cloud and Barret, as well as give a glimpse at the expanded roles the other Avalanche rebels will necessarily receive.
Cloud’s starting demeanour as a detached merc, soft-spoken and kind of a jerk, comes through pretty well. I’m more interested in how voice actor Cody Christian (Pretty Little Liars, Teen Wolf) will play him as he goes through a dramatic character progression arc, but it’s not like we’d see any of that in the opening scene.
Barret’s wild gesticulations and heavy No Name Brand Mr. T. shtick worries me, though. Square-Enix hasn’t been great with its black characters in the past. I hope we’ll get enough screen time to explore the human element of his fascinating and tragic backstory in greater depth — not that we’ll see much of that in this installment of the remake.
Cutscenes in modern Square-Enix games have always weirded me out. Dialogue tends to feel overdone and hollow, rather than naturalistic. It’s like a live theatre performance of a first-year theatre student who wants to show you how many new words they’ve learned.
Cutscenes like Barret badgering Cloud about being a former Shin-Ra Soldier veered to this wrong side of the uncanny valley. But incidental lines before and after fight with enemies fared better. (Barret humming the classic FF Victory Theme significantly brightened the mood.)
And oh, the fights. FF7R’s most extensive facelift, other than the visuals themselves, are easily the combat mechanics.
Flushing away the turn-based system almost entirely, your party will slash, shoot, dash and dodge in real-time environments in something more akin to modern FF games with, gasp, even a little bit of Kingdom Hearts thrown in.
I understand the need for a more dynamic system, but it all felt like a bit much in the heat of the action. Wailing with Cloud’s giant sword and Barret’s gun-arm felt pretty fun when fighting it out against Shin-Ra soldiers and the larger Sweeper mechs.
Smaller enemies like the mutant-flower thing called a Monodrive proved far more difficult to keep track of as they flitted and flew around me.
It turns out that having to pay attention to several battle-system meters, fast-moving enemies while also manually adjusting the camera can feel overwhelming.
Figuring out what kinds of attacks will “stagger” your enemy to deal extra damage sounds interesting – in practice it meant finding elemental weaknesses, or using magic instead of physical attacks on enemies with high dodge rates.
But an overall visual clutter and seeming lack of visual cues on which attacks are working best seemed to obfuscate this. When facing the jittery Grunt enemies, I was more distracted by a shower of sparks from them blocking Barret’s shots and a frankly irresponsible number of cardboard boxes bouncing around the area, seemingly placed there just to show off Square-Enix’s physics engine.
A so-called “Classic Mode” puts an emphasis on navigating the menu-based attacks, but in effect it only automates your regular attacks and doesn’t tweak the mechanics or frenetic tempo of the fight at all.
It’s basically impossible to tell how the combat will evolve over the game with such a small slice present in the demo. But at this point, I would rather prefer the game to either be a full-on action game or a full-on turn-based game. It will take more time to suss our whether this hybrid will work out in the long run.
In its free demo, Square-Enix has shown that Tetsuya Nomura and co., are willing to entreat fans to deep cuts of nostalgia while peppering in its most modern sensibilities. People will likely find a wealth of things to both hate and love in equal measure. We’ll find out if that results in a game (and perhaps series of games) worth playing in when it launches on the PlayStation 4 on April 10.