In 1997, Squaresoft made a game that would become Sony Playstation’s second best selling game of all time (and I mean that by today’s standards). That game was Final Fantasy VII, a game that brought amazing story and characters into a franchise that was doing well in Japan but struggling in the US.
After some time has gone by and Squaresoft has now become SquareEnix, technology has changed, and FF7 continues to sell copies. So, SquareEnix did the only sensible thing: remake one of the greatest RPGs ever made!
I was able to play the Remake of this amazing title here at PAX West this weekend. It was an experience I won’t soon forget.
For Those Unfamiliar With the Series
It has occurred to me that there is an entire generation that doesn’t know much about Final Fantasy VII. So, let me give you a quick recap of the story before I move ahead about what I truly thought about it.
In a very brief summary, You play as Cloud Strife, a mercenary that used to be a part of the Shinra Electric Power Company’s elite soldier group. Cloud is hired by Avalanche, a vigilante group bent on taking down Shinra because they are destroying the planet and draining it of its life force, known as Mako.
Along the way, we are introduced to an array of wonderful characters who join your cause including Barret Wallace, Tifa Lockhart, Aerith Gainsborough, Red XIII, Cid Highwind, and a few more.
This is grossly under preparing you for the adventure this game took us on in 1997. However, it was necessary to catch everyone up to speed.
After waiting in line and being harassed by some very convincing Shinra guards, the presentation starts with an introductory video. The video starts as it offers up a glimpse of Midgard in a cutscene. In that glimpse, the city was beautiful and filled with people, coming alive in a way I’ve never seen it before. The voiceover explains all the amazing things that Shinra is doing for the cities on the Planet and then the feed gets interrupted.
Jesse (one of the Avalanche freedom fighters) cuts in and explains what your mission is. She also gives you a quick rundown of all the new features that can be found in the game, particularly emphasizing FF7 Remake’s real-time combat and all its new features.
They do this because it is the most notable change when compared to the original turn-based combat system. Some will say that it’s easy to write it off as too fast-paced to be truly meaningful, but there is still a tactical component to it that is vital for survival. I can explain a little more in detail later.
After the film, we are ushered to where we can all play and that’s where the fun begins. The opening demo was the first 15 minutes of gameplay from the game. A scene that many people know very well; The Mako Reactor scene.
This is one of the very first scenes in the game and the original gives us a clear picture of our heroes, villains, and the threat to the world. The Remake Demo gives us a few pointers as we play but otherwise it’s up to each individual to figure out how to best handle the situations at hand. Then we were off and playing.
The Remake’s Active Time Battle
A big key feature to Final Fantasy VII was its Active Time Battle (or ATB for short), this is still present in the remake, but with one key difference. Battles start as soon as an enemy engages with your party, and characters can perform combo attacks right away. The once turn-based system is traded in for the FFXV/Kingdom Hearts style of fighting.
Players can attack their enemies at any time by pressing the square button while also being able to immediately dodge and block attacks in between. The ATB gauge can be found right below each character’s health meter and is divided into two separate bars.
Actions such as using spells, performing a special, or using items during combat use up half of the ATB gauge. Once your character has gained at least one bar, you’re free to slow time enough to explore the menus to plan your next command. It is a device that I found runs smooth as butter.
The first battle from the demo is a group of soldiers that Cloud and Barrett fight and the only thing he can do in those initial moments are pure close-quarters combat. As soon as his ATB gauge fills, however, I was able to land a finishing attack on one enemy, stop time, and use a different ability to strike down another enemy once I finished the initial command. While some old school players will feel this is a little cheap as far as gameplay is concerned, we still have no idea what the full game has in store and the difficulty level may change for those that want a harder time in their battle.
For others, this system might sound a bit confusing, but it is relatively easy to pick up and encourages new ways to experiment with combat. I found myself using more abilities because I knew I could free of most consequence. Which, in turn, made my experience all the greater.
Don’t misunderstand me though. I found that if you aren’t paying attention, slowing time that much, almost becomes ineffective if your timing is wrong. Remember, using this system means that the way you move and use ATB is key.
The opportunities you’ll get in combat depend largely on your actions. For example, if you aren’t paying attention you can use ATB right when an enemy is about to land an attack. This is the absolute worst timing, and when you return to normal speed, the baddie will just interrupt and cancel your attack, magic, or item use. Then, unfortunately, you will need to recover the ATB bar from scratch all over again.
That isn’t the only aspect of combat that has changed for the better. There are two additional aspects that feel like significant changes in the combat system in Final Fantasy VII Remake. They are staggering and limit gauge.
Staggering shows itself as a secondary bar on the enemy life bar. Once the enemy receives enough damage, they’ll become stunned for a brief period. With many of the smaller opponents, you will rarely see this function. However, it is important to take notice of in Boss fights so that you can take the upper hand and plan your abilities accordingly.
Limit Gauge works a bit different in this game than the original. Instead of filling over a steady course of the battle, it only is filled once he’s been dealt enough damage. Then you can pull out your signature Limit Breaker during an ATB set up. Don’t think you can try to cheat the system like in Super Smash Bros. and try and charge it away from the battle.
Something’s Still Bothering Me
As we now know, the first part of this project will take place entirely in Midgar. For those that are unfamiliar with the original game, Midgar is just the beginning of the game! It’s just a slice of the world and story. Despite that, Producer Yoshinori Kitase says that this narrative segment will be massaged, stretched, and expanded to match the length of previous stand-alone entries in the series.
This means that the game will not only be longer than the original but also have, most likely, filler missions and side quests that will pad out the story and playtime. This admittedly sparked concern in me. Several questions popped into my head at this moment.
Will the scenes that, so carefully and brilliantly, frame the heart of the FFVII plot also be swallowed up in a huge city with vast new gameplay and narrative distractions?
Will it take away from the intense storytelling the original gave us?
Will the game make us less emotionally attached to characters when sent out on menial tasks for getting the story that they are weaving for us?
Could you retain a dense, urban-enough of the Midgar environment while using the freeform camera? Would it feel like the Midgar I knew?
Even Still, I’m Content
I realized, after playing the demo and feeling the surrounds with my own eyes that I had little to worry about. Overall stories can still be told while padding it with nonsense. Look at games like The Witcher or NieR: Automata. Never did I lose focus on the main story when embarking on side quests. I was never less impacted in an emotional scene just because moments ago I was sent to collect 5 frog eyes for some random witch in a shop.
My point is that just because there are filler quests doesn’t mean the main quest and connections you make with other characters be any less important. In fact, It almost enriches and enhances your connection to them as you spend more time with them.
It is undeniable that there will be (and is) a lot of concern about how a classic is remade. Especially since this game is a “Remake” in the most literal definition. So much of the original may be burned into our memory, but I truly feel that now, it may be worth taking a step back.
Stop guarding those memories like a dragon guarding treasure and try to imagine again. To enter this new Midgar with wonder in our eyes. If its original developers can do it, so can we. It’s time to mix admiration and nostalgia with a new sense of excitement and fantasy (get it?)
Final Fantasy VII Remake comes to PlayStation 4 on March 3rd, 2020. Are you excited for the Remake? Tell us in the comment section below!
Cover photo via Square Enix
This article was written by John D. (AKA SomeBeardy2Love). John has been gaming for 30 years, has a bowtie tattoo, and watches nothing but Bob’s Burgers. He co-hosts a mostly weekly podcast and has a sponsored beard.