Sometime in 1997. I am in my last year of compulsory education. My brother, ten years my senior, has come home from America to visit, on vacation from his job on Electronic Gaming Monthly and the Official U.S. PlayStation Magazine. I always enjoy this, because he tells me all about the interesting new games that are coming out for exciting new platforms like the Sony PlayStation.
“Have you heard of Final Fantasy VII?” he asks. I respond in the negative. I had a feeling I’d heard the name Final Fantasy before, perhaps in the Super NES magazine Super Control that his ex-girlfriend used to work on back before they split — and before he left our green and pleasant isle for pastures new — but I’d never really paid it much mind. He seemed excited, though — and given that his position meant that he saw a lot of new games each and every day, this was enough to make me pay close attention.
“It’s the only game that I’ve ever seen make someone cry,” he said. I knew immediately that I had to play it. And thus a switch flipped, and what would become the Pete of today was born.
Final Fantasy VII is, it’s fair to say, one of the most defining gaming experiences of my youth. Having heard this unusual and unexpected description of the experience from my brother, I decided to pick up a copy, not even sure if I would be able to make it work using the notorious “pen lid trick” on the battered old SCART-modded Japanese PlayStation he’d left behind at our parents’ house.
Thankfully, it did work, and from the moment I booted it up, I knew I was experiencing something truly special. The dramatic, sweeping intro sequence. The (kind of) seamless transition between cinematic and gameplay. The incredible music. The fact that these characters seemed like people with actual motivations, feelings and personalities. All of it drew me in, and it wouldn’t let go. And yes, I cried at the end of Disc 1.
Okay, I found the dumpy, super-deformed field screen character models pretty weird and jarring even back in 1997, but it was testament to the game’s compelling nature that this exceedingly inconsistent aspect of its presentation wasn’t offputting at all; in fact, before long, I became rather attached to those little Lego people and the stories they had to tell.
I told my friends about it. They, like me, had never really encountered a console RPG before, and didn’t know what to expect — but they had much the same experience as me. Immediate emotional engagement, total attachment to these characters, absolute addiction to the mechanics, progression and overall structure.
In the summer of ’98, while my parents were on a trip to the States to visit my brother, my friend Woody and I played the game for 36 hours straight, fuelled by a combination of Pot Noodle, chicken tikka slices, Pringles, illicit tequila, Coca Cola and Belgian buns; we took it in turns to ensure the one who didn’t have the controller in-hand at any given moment wasn’t about to fall asleep. At one point Woody became so delirious that he absolutely convinced himself that an “X-Walker” was an item in the game, and awoke from a momentary slumber, moments before I twatted him over the head with the couch cushions for the fifteenth time in the last two hours, urgently demanding what it was.
Final Fantasy VII is the source of numerous incredibly fond memories — both inside and outside the game, and it has stuck with me ever since I first experienced it. And so, on March 2, 2020, it was with a combination of intense trepidation and eager anticipation that I downloaded the brand-new demo for Final Fantasy VII Remake on PlayStation 4.
Could this reimagining possibly match up to my experiences with the original? What if the characters didn’t sound like I’d always imagined them? What if the battle system sucked? What if the music didn’t have that magic? What if I didn’t get goosebumps in the intro cinematic the same way I always did when starting the original PS1 version for the umpteenth time?
I turned out the lights, turned up the volume and settled in to see what was what. Immediately, I was confronted with a lovingly recreated yet expanded version of the original game’s intro sequence. There was Aerith, gazing at the leaking Lifestream energy; there were the busy streets of Midgar, with Aerith seeming like such a delicate, fragile flower among the harshness surrounding her; there was that powerful sweep back from street level to view the whole city; there was that crescendo in the music; there was the game title, appearing perfectly in sync with the climax of the music; there were the fucking goosebumps.
I won’t lie, I was mildly disappointed that the first words in the demo were not “C’mon newcomer, follow me,” but from the moment you step off that train at the beginning of Final Fantasy VII Remake, it’s clear that the philosophy behind the intro sequence — lovingly recreated, yet expanded — is the thinking behind the game as a whole. And the sheer majesty of the experience — including the fact it runs beautifully even on a base, non-Pro PS4 — soon makes you stop nitpicking the ways it’s not exactly the same as the original, and gets you enjoying what it is on its own merits.
Let’s start with the combat system, because you’re almost immediately confronted with it in its basic form — and this was probably the part of the game most people were concerned about, given that it was a bit of a shift from the original Final Fantasy VII’s system.
For the unfamiliar, the Final Fantasy games between IV and IX all made use of a system dubbed Active Time Battle, whereby both player characters and enemies had a “time gauge” that gradually filled at a rate in accordance with their speed statistic. The enemy gauges were invisible, but they were there; meanwhile, you could use your own visible gauges to determine who was going to go next and figure out what order you wanted to perform actions in.
When it was first revealed that Final Fantasy VII Remake would be using what appeared to be a real-time, action-style combat system that bore something of a resemblance to Final Fantasy XV, those prone to overreacting about such things were quick to get upset. But with each new reveal of more detail about the game mechanics, people seemed a little more at ease with what was coming; it seemed that Active Time Battle would indeed be playing a role in combat, unlike in Final Fantasy XV, and that basic attacks, blocking, dodging and moving around would be the things you did in between instances of your time bar filling up, not something you had to wait to perform.
Yes, in Final Fantasy VII Remake, you can freely move and attack during combat, and protagonist Cloud Strife even has two different stances for performing these basic attacks — one where he’s more agile and one where he cannot move quickly but deals devastating damage. Much like in classic turn-based, menu-driven role-playing games, basic encounters can often be cleared with nothing more than the standard attack actions — particularly because Cloud’s three-hit combo deals a hefty amount of damage with its final strike — but as you progress through the game, you start encountering foes that require a little more effort to defeat.
There are a few mechanics that come into play when you meet tougher enemies. Firstly is the aforementioned Active Time Battle system. As you attack, each character fills an “ATB” bar, and when at least one segment of this is full, you can hit the X button on the controller to slow time to a crawl, pop up the action menu and choose something to do — be it making use of a character’s distinctive abilities, casting magic spells or using an item. In fact, for those who don’t get along with the more “action” side of things, there’s even a “Classic” mode available, where you don’t have to do any of the real-time stuff, and simply issue orders when your ATB gauges are full.
The second system you’ll encounter is drawn from the Final Fantasy XIII subseries, and it concerns a second meter beneath a foe’s health bar. After dealing an enemy a certain amount of damage, you will “pressure” them, which will throw them off balance; during this period, you can repeatedly attack them in an attempt to fill this bar, which will “stagger” them. This usually knocks them to the floor, making them completely vulnerable and causing you to deal increased damage for the entire period they are staggered. As you might expect, this mechanic is especially useful against strong foes and bosses.
One key aspect of the battle system is the fact that you can switch between your party members at any time, and you’ll need to in order to pass some of the encounters. Cloud’s sword can’t reach foes that are in awkward places, for example, so during those times you’ll need to switch to Barret, who has a gun mounted in his arm and thus is able to attack at range. You can also issue orders to any party members who have at least one full ATB gauge segment without switching to them; this becomes especially important during the boss fight at the end of the demo, where Barret has the Thunder spell the boss is vulnerable to, but where you’ll probably want to keep in control of Cloud for quick melee damage.
Despite being real-time, the combat system really does have something of a “classic Final Fantasy” feel to it. There’s a really pleasant rhythm to things like Cloud’s sword strikes, and while the game is filled with over-the-top pyrotechnics and physics objects dramatically shattering at seemingly every opportunity, the action never feels overwhelming; it’s easy to focus your attention on an enemy and concentrate on the mechanics rather than the spectacle of what is happening. It’s not a button-masher, in other words; in some respects, the rhythmic pace at which you perform basic attacks calls to mind Final Fantasy XIV’s cooldown-based combat as much as anything else.
One thing you’ll need to remember as you play is that you’re playing an RPG, not an action game. And as such, healing is important; you’re going to take some damage. That said, there’s some impressively elaborate collision detection going on rather than damage always being a dead cert. For example, during the climactic boss fight of the demo, you’ll be repeatedly pelted with missiles, and if — this is a big “if” — you can avoid any of them actually hitting the character you’re in control of, you’ll avoid damage altogether. This also means that positioning is important; it’s quite possible to spread your party out so one member “tanks” the enemy while another smacks them in the back. In fact, there are quite a few situations where this is an essential tactic to succeed.
It’s safe to say that the combat system, while rather different to the original Final Fantasy VII in many ways, is neither a reskinned version of Final Fantasy XV’s divisive stance-based combat nor a mindless button-masher. It is, as is tradition for the series, yet another reinvention of classic mechanics, taking a little of what works from past installments and blending it with new ideas.
So that’s all good. But does it feel like Final Fantasy VII, specifically?
Yes. Absolutely. Definitely. The aesthetic of the opening raid on the Mako Reactor is spot-on, from the overall colour scheme to the layout of the locales through which you proceed. The music consists of recognisable, dynamic reimaginings of classic themes in full orchestral glory. And even the characters maintain the distinctive visual cues from their classic Lego-man appearances while being brought right up to date with the very best Square Enix’s character modellers have to offer. Biggs, Wedge, Jessie, Barret, Cloud — all of them are beautifully rendered, and excellently cast, too, with Jessie being a particular highlight for me personally.
I always kind of loved Jessie, even though you don’t get to spend much time with her in the grand scheme of things. So I’m kind of delighted that not only is she an A-grade cutie in Final Fantasy VII Remake, but the slightly husky tones of Erica Lindbeck’s voice acting do perfect justice to her unashamedly feminine yet somewhat rough-around-the-edges character. So yeah. I still kind of love Jessie. And with the first episode of Final Fantasy VII Remake being a full-length game set entirely in Midgar, I’m counting on being able to spend a lot more time with her than in the original game. At least until… well, you know. We’ll have to wait and see, I guess.
Anyway, suffice to say that after playing through the demo today and being absolutely enraptured by it — not to mention feeling genuinely impressed by the technical mastery evident in a video game’s visuals for the first time in what feels like ages — I am 100% on board with Final Fantasy VII Remake. That sense of trepidation I felt is long gone, to be replaced with naught but a feeling of excitement — and satisfaction that the team behind this remake know exactly what they are doing.
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