The moment that many have been waiting decades for, that some didn’t dare dream would ever happen, is just around the corner. Final Fantasy VII Remake releases this month, meaning we get to dive back into a wonderful world where massive swords clash against machine guns.
For fans, new and old
Final Fantasy VII Remake is, I believe, a magical experience. You can feel the care and effort that has gone into bringing some big setpieces to life, from similar layouts of buildings to familiar minigames. It was as if the whole of Midgar was lovingly pulled apart, examined, and then rebuilt, with extras, using today’s technology. I constantly found myself marvelling at locations that I could remember or recognise from 20 years ago, back when everything was just a flat surface trying to create a 3D illusion. Except now, everything looks like it comes straight out of Advent Children, with in-game graphics better than any cinematic was possible of back then.
“Will it feel complete?” is the question that most people will have about this game and some 40 hours later I can say yes, this is a complete experience.
But what does this mean for new or old fans? Many will notice that the game’s box doesn’t mention anywhere that this is part 1 of something bigger, a point which has had me and many others worried about what is going on. In the original game, the city of Midgar is merely the beginning of a pretty long game, and here we have a game set just in Midgar. “Will it feel complete?” is the question that most people will have about this title and some 40 hours later I can say yes, this is a complete experience. While it might not tell the whole story of FF7, the care, attention and extra depth added to Midgar results in a hefty journey full of wonder, joy, loss, challenges and a gripping story with a satisfying climax.
This game creates a satisfying middle ground where veterans will nod along as they remember things from their visit to the PS1 classic (especially when bumping into the various tracks playing on jukeboxes and radios in the game), while new fans will have a blast experiencing everything for the first time, with twists, reveals and amazing characters begging you to spend time with them. Older fans will be happy to see a few nods to their previous journey through Midgard, with a few changes or additions to give time for characters and plots to come to life.
All of those characters you wanted to spend more time with, all of those locations that looked explorable but you could never reach are now there, waiting to be enjoyed and experienced. The full scale of Midgar has been realised, and every character has had so much more time to speak and grow than ever before. While crawling through dungeons or reactors, the party is continually talking, making the journey feel alive. Get ready for banter between the characters, from Aerith poking fun at Cloud to Barret and Cloud trading barbs, or Jessie showing she is the thirstiest lady in Midgar.
Similarly, NPCs are everywhere, talking about life or the big news of the day, making everything seem a lot more like a city. Crowds congregate around large outdoor screens to watch the news, or grab a bite to eat at a food truck. The only gripe here is that some citizens are far too talkative, saying their same line every time you venture too close to them.
The game’s pacing is a slow burn in the beginning as you get taught the various systems in place in the game but by the end, things are moving so quickly that you might want to pause to catch a breath or two. This “part 1” has more amazing boss fights and story than some other fully-fledged games, and while I am desperately looking forward to “part 2”, I am wholly satisfied with what I have just witnessed over the last few days.
New systems, new materia
I have always loved Final Fantasy VII’s materia system, which offered opportunities for all sorts of clever tricks once you mastered it. With combat changing up so much, the materia system has been tweaked a bit, but not so much that the magic (drum sting please) of the system is gone. In fact, so much has changed that fans of the original might want to pay attention to spell and ability descriptions, and while the game does a lot to try and teach players about the finer points, some have to be learnt the hard way if you are not careful.
For example, in FF7 magic attacks never missed. Now some spells create projectiles or effects in the world, and clever running, dodging or other forms of movement can allow you to bypass big spells, or interrupt their cast altogether. Some spells will always hit, making them valuable against the quick and nimble enemies you will face. There is nothing worse than watching a spell go off and the enemy zipping across the battlefield, leaving you with wasted effort and MP, so pay attention to what spells can be dodged, and try to dodge them yourself. Some spells create small AOE zones and while the all support materia is gone, there is another that creates a similar effect where spells hit more than one target but at reduced damage per target. Some new materia have been added that allow parrying, improve your attack after dodging, or what happens when you block. Get ready for something familiar but with a whole bunch of new bits.
Get ready to fight
The jump from ATB to active combat has been done, in a word, masterfully. Combat is quick, flashy and a lot of fun, with surprising depth to it. Learning how to manage your party, who to control and when, becomes a dance that feels more natural the longer you practise the various steps. The character you control will always be the one doing the most damage, for two simple reasons: 1. The character you are controlling fills their ATB gauge faster and 2. Ability usage is where the real damage output is. AI-controlled characters will play defensively, blocking attacks or moving out of harm’s way if they can, leaving you to focus on dealing damage. This doesn’t mean you can ignore them, but at least they aren’t standing around waiting to get hit in the face. Basic attacks are mostly to get more ATB rather than to do damage, while the abilities and spells that you spend ATB gauge segments on are what bring your punch. Also learning what to dodge and block will greatly improve your survivability, as many attacks are simply not meant to be taken to the face… unless you want to burn through your supply of Phoenix Downs.
The jump from ATB to active combat has been done, in a word, masterfully. Combat is quick, flashy and a lot of fun, with surprising depth to it.
Learning each character’s strengths and when to unleash them is extremely important. Cloud might be great at wading in, but his big damage abilities can leave him open to counter-attack or can be dodged easily, meaning you need to pay attention to what you are fighting. Quicker enemies will require different abilities and spells, or you might want to take advantage of Tifa’s lightning-fast martial arts to pummel, kick and pressure enemies. Ranged threats are Barret’s domain, and he can also learn how to become the tank of the party, mitigating damage or even taking damage on someone else’s behalf! He isn’t just a tank though, as his machinegun arm can also help fill stagger gauges or pressure enemies, and some of his abilities will lay waste to the battlefield.
Tough enemies will require a bit more than ability and spell usage to finish them off, and the stagger gauge will be your best friend if you learn how to best make use of it. Almost every enemy has attacks that can knock them off balance, allowing you to attack while they are under pressure. This fills the stagger gauge much faster and when it fills, the enemy is unable to act and takes 160% damage. During this state you should unleash your biggest attacks to cause the most harm or switch to someone who can stagger them even more, pushing the bonus damage multiplier up. Some enemies are difficult to stagger or pressure and without staggering an enemy, you might find fights almost impossible and, as the fight drags on, your available resources and health will slowly dwindle if you are not careful. I have had boss fights (and a few normal ones too!) end horribly for me, only to reload, stagger everyone and end things quickly. Nothing feels more satisfying than watching a limit break stagger someone, or using one on a staggered enemy and watching their health bar melt away.
I could write much, much more on the intricacies and pleasures of the combat system, but perhaps that is a topic for another day.
Before launch, besides that part 1 worry I mentioned earlier, I was extremely worried about performance issues on my base PS4. Over the last while, games that have run perfectly for those with the Pro have given me some very nasty performance dips, some of which were so bad they detracted from gameplay. Final Fantasy VII Remake seems to run on black magic, because it looks amazing and runs with almost no hiccups or slowdown, allowing me to get lost in the game’s graphics. From an abandoned church in the slums to the titanic metal reactors, spell effects to character hair and faces, this game looks absolutely beautiful. Often the game just provides a vista so gorgeous that I would stop and slowly pan the camera, enjoying this visual buffet. I lost track of how many times I pointed at something and said “Look how good that looks, look how pretty that is” during my playthrough.
NPCs aren’t a hodgepodge of the same three characters copied and pasted around the world, and every corner, every alley has loving detail. From Aerith’s flower garden to Seventh Heaven’s assortment of booze bottles, to the various nightlife spots in Wall Market, everything has been modelled with care, showcasing the various fashions of Midgar and how daily life plays out in this weird city.
There is something fascinating about playing a game about a megacorporation that has more power and influence than a municipality or a government, a world where profit at the detriment of the planet is the norm and the divide between the poor and well off is so stark… This is a reminder of how the story of a game from so long ago still rings true and illustrates how dystopian and cyberpunk Final Fantasy VII is, from neon lights and megacorps right through to body modification.
Final Fantasy VII Remake is a heartfelt love letter for Final Fantasy VII fans, and it makes for a great opportunity for anyone who hasn’t ever experienced the world to hop in and get acquainted with it all. A slow burn is rewarded with one of the greatest high energy finishes I have seen in a long time, this game is one where you can feel the love, care and passion of the developers seeping through.
PS. I am using the opening movie trailer instead of the latest trailer for the game because it has so many spoilers in it that it will ruin almost every big moment of the game. Be careful out there.