This morning, Square Enix surprise-dropped a demo of the hotly anticipated Final Fantasy VII Remake for the PS4. You can download it here on the Playstation Store, and it takes around an hour to complete.
The demo starts with a truncated version of the beautiful intro movie that Square recently released, and then plunges you right into the iconic opening of the game…where you’ll find that everything is bigger, flashier, and more intense than you remember. Aside from some nostalgic camera angles, dialogue callbacks, and an elaborate rendition of some of the same classic musical themes, this is an entirely different and new video game compared to the 1997 classic.
For me, that’s a great thing. The most controversial change will likely be the battle system. The combat system is no longer menu-driven or turn-based. Instead, it plays more like a Dynasty Warriors game, but with an extra layer of depth and tactics on top. You’ll mostly fight in real-time, but you can pause and issue commands. I’m a big fan of brawlers, so I’m all-in for this. However, I know some fans will be perplexed that one of the timeless examples of the JRPG genre is now a hack-and-slash action game, especially if they haven’t been following its long development.
Combat encounters happen in the main environment of the game, without the zooming loading transitions of old. You’ll hammer on the square button to attack foes and build up your “ATB” meter, a nod to the Active Time Battle system of the older games. ATB is now an ability resource, which allows you to cast spells, use stronger attacks, and use items. It’s weird to have to slash enemies with your sword a certain number of times before you can drink a potion, but it gives the fighting a relentless pace a la Doom 2016 that hopefully won’t grow tiresome over the length of the game.
The story is far more fleshed out than in the older game, with fully-voiced dialogue and numerous seamless cutscenes integrated into the gameplay. The direction and acting in these sequences are both wonderful. The plot of the opening, where you control spiky-haired Cloud Strife as he helps a group known as Avalanche blow up a Mako reactor, isn’t any different than it was in the old game…but the characters have far more dialogue than they used to, and there are a few cutaways to one of the game’s antagonists in order to better establish the overarching narrative.
If you wanted Jessie, the girl who joins you on this mission, to have way more things to say, well you’re in luck! Again, I know that some folks won’t like the new script here, but I think it’s great. It stays true to the old story but also gives these characters the personalities and depth you’d expect from a modern video game.
Presentation-wise, Final Fantasy VII Remake will likely win awards at the end of the year even though newer consoles are about to come out. The game’s world is meticulously crafted. If you have an HDR screen, the lighting of both the environment and the many particles that fly during battle pops with color and detail. The characters look impressively close to the CG movies Square has made in the past, with realistic clothing, skin textures, and highly-detailed animations. They manage to look like real people while also retaining the expressive art style of the original game.
I also love the music. It’s all drawn from the original compositions, now recorded in high detail with real instruments. It’s also unafraid to play with the familiar, mixing up themes into “new” music that still evokes the original game. It’s perfectly-tied to the events on-screen, and there’s a ton of it even in this demo. Music is a near-constant mood setter here, and it proved to be the strongest nostalgia tug during my hour spent playing. It caused me to shout “yay!” on a few occasions, just at hearing how great it sounded.
When I got to the end of the demo I wanted to start it up again and check out the other difficulty settings. Again, it plays nothing like the original game. It’s more action-heavy even than Final Fantasy XV. Also, the game is only the first of three planned installments in a trilogy that will cover the entirety of the original story. I’m not sure how I feel about that yet, but it’s impressive to see Square go all-in on a video game trilogy in a way that no one has really tried since Mass Effect.
They’ve promised that even this first game will be a full, massive experience as you’d expect from the genre, and from the ways in which this demo is extended and fleshed-out, I believe them. The final boss fight against the scorpion robot thing took nearly a fourth of the time I spent with the demo, and it cleverly forced me to engage with both the action and tactical sides of the combat system.
The design changes mean that this game should appeal to the large audiences drawn in by other modern action RPGs like The Witcher 3, and the perfectly-polished nostalgia of the graphics and music will hopefully keep long-time fans from feeling left behind.
The use of “Remake” in the title is a little misleading and almost does this game a disservice at this point, considering how new and modern it is. It seems like it’ll be an awesome time whether you’re familiar with the old game or not. I played and loved the original as a thirteen year old, and I love action combat games, so this feels like it’s perfectly targeted at me.
Final Fantasy’s core gameplay has been creeping closer to “action game” since the MMO style of Final Fantasy XII, and with VII Remake the transition is complete. The demo is only a little under 8 gigs compared to the 100 gigs the full game will apparently take, and it’s absolutely worth downloading.
As an action RPG fan, I’m almost relieved that Cyberpunk was delayed, because now I don’t have to decide which sprawling example of this genre I have to spend my time with this spring. The full game launches in just over a month, on April 10th, and I can’t wait to see how it turned out.