It's finally happening. Final Fantasy 7 Remake finally got a release date as part of a surprise announcement during the Final Fantasy VII - A Symphonic Reunion concert earlier this month in Los Angeles, California. But there was an even bigger surprise in store for fans eager to get their hands on the game: A playable demo at E3 2019!
Of course, I naturally had to swing by the Square Enix booth, which was done up like an enormous mako reactor, to experience the game I've been waiting for most of my adult life. It felt surreal as I walked into the briefing area. This is a game I've been clamoring to see for far too long, and to see it in action felt like living a fever dream. How did it fare? In a nutshell, I was absolutely blown away.
The gameplay demo kicked off after a very cool presentation framing you as a member of AVALANCHE looking to take on Shinra, and took place at the beginning of the reactor room in Final Fantasy 7's opening mission. It was painfully short, but oh-so-sweet, giving me that much-needed rush of nostalgia I've been waiting to revel in ever since the Final Fantasy 7 Remake was initially announced -- which I received with many tears and elated shrieks.
For this battle, I could utilize both Cloud and Barret as party members. The first few battles meant to get me acclimated to the combat mechanics involved plenty of soldiers and mechs. Immediately, though I noticed the lack of victory fanfare after the end of each battle (they've honestly gone the way of the dinosaur in newer Final Fantasy entries), I appreciated the hilarious and prescient commentary on the end of each battle by Cloud and Barret. After one scuffle, Barret himself hummed the classic victory tune himself, which brought a teary grin to my face.
Right away, I noticed the attention to detail given to every aspect of this vision of Midgar and its inhabitants was off the charts. Cloud and Barret have been lovingly redesigned, for one, with gorgeous costumes, modern looks that still manage to remain faithful to their original designs, and dazzling environments that brought even the dingy walls of the reactor to life in a way that felt like a brand new area. Even though the area and the mission was familiar, it all felt totally new, as if I'd never played Final Fantasy 7 in the past . That's exactly how it felt to play the Resident Evil 2 remake earlier this year, which Capcom did a fantastic job of. Square Enix has taken a similar treatment and applied it to one of the best RPGs of all time, to fantastic effect.
Though the hands-on demo was brief, the nature of the battle with the Scorpion Sentinel made it feel like a lengthy, multi-faceted affair. The original encounter was something of an annoyance, capping off the lengthy foray into the North Mako Reactor at the beginning of Final Fantasy 7. It's the first boss fight of the game, equipped with the same move cycle it repeats over and over, with a particularly frustrating Tail Laser move that unleashed devastating damage to your party.
This time, the Scorpion Sentinel (its new name, which says something of the new script for the game) is a much more difficult beast to fell. Simply wailing away on it with melee attacks isn't going to cut it. You've got to be far more strategic about taking it down, which I was -- and both Cloud and Barret have plenty of new moves to spare.
The game features something of a hybrid combat system that lets you swap between a system that feels more akin to Kingdom Hearts than Final Fantasy traditionally has and a slower, tactical mode where you can issue commands using the ATB system. Using an item, ability, or magic will use up an ATB charge, and you'll have to stand by and wait for the modules to fill up again, or attack an enemy to make sure it happens quicker.
This system is a much more fast-paced, exciting, and nuanced take than the standard turn-based affair of the original game, and it's easy to figure out when your characters are going to make a move and perform their moves. It's approachable for anyone whoever felt the traditional battle system was too slow-paced or frustrating, and fresh enough for hardcore veterans to jump into without missing a beat.
Tactical mode ensures you've got plenty of time to figure out your next move, though there's still depth to each move you make. You can swap between characters at will, which means you can ensure everyone's doing what you need them to. For instance, I knew I needed one of Barret's moves to stagger the Scorpion Sentinel, but he wasn't exactly ready to use it on its own. That's when I decided to take matters into my own hands.
I decided to swap from Cloud to Barret, have Barret perform the move, and then swap back over to Cloud to devastate the enemy with Braver and a myriad of other abilities from Cloud. Being able to switch between characters reduces the frustration of other similar RPGs where your teammates are left to their own devices. Plus, you can assign your frequently-used abilities and spells to shortcuts in the menu to make things easier, just in case you're averse to scrolling through menu commands while in the heat of battle. I recommend getting over that if you want to conquer in Final Fantasy 7 in general, but for those who prefer to do this, the abiliy is certainly useful.
Final Fantasy 7 Remake is a clear-cut example of a developer working not to make the same game over again with updated graphics and mechanics, but to expand it beyond what was previously thought possible. Speaking on the game's expanded story and features ahead of my time with the demo, producer Yoshinori Kitase noted that the game will be a fully standalone experience that will focus on the part of the story that took place in Midgar. I know from this annotated slice of gameplay that there's nothing I want to do more when 2020 begins than spend time once again in the hallowed ground of PlayStation's finest role-playing game and see where this new vision of a classic goes.
Final Fantasy 7 Remake is a home run so far, and I'm confident it's going to continue knocking it out of the park.