The Final Fantasy VII Remake Demo: First Impressions

Platforms: Sony PlayStation 4

When Final Fantasy VII hit the PlayStation in 1997, the impact was seismic. By that point in my life, I had been gaming for over ten years, and by this point had already experienced major technological shifts from generation to generation but even as gaming shifting into 3D graphics, I felt like I had seen everything the medium had to offer. The graphics might get better but the experience would always fundamentally be that of a game, you may get a cool intro but then you get a loading screen and the game would prompt you to start playing.

A game existed to entertain but immersion was never truly a consideration; that all changed with Final Fantasy VII. The game began with a beautifully realised cinematic intro of a train barrelling towards its destination, nothing out of the ordinary here as the PS1 era heralded in a glut of cinematic intros for games even ones that never really required them, but things changed as the train pulled into the station. Suddenly, the game characters leapt out of the pre-rendered train and started talking to each other, the game had begun, the transition felt seamless and a sort of magic was cast at that moment. This was not just a game that you played, for the first time it was a game you immersed yourself in, this was an experience.

Final Fantasy VII revolutionised gaming, it opened the doors on what a game could be and how the stories could be told, not just within the JRPG genre but the medium as a whole. The likes of Uncharted or Grand Theft Auto probably do not happen without Final Fantasy VII pioneering the idea of cinematic gaming adventures, where movie quality directed sequences can blur seamlessly into thrilling gameplay. That immersive, rollercoaster style of gameplay has become more advanced with time but Final Fantasy VII started that ride.

This week, Square Enix released the demo for Final Fantasy VII Remake, coming over two decades since the original release and in the face of countless years of anticipation and expectation, how does it fare against the groundbreaking original?

The opening is structured in the same way as the original but with a more pronounced cinematic style and a keener focus on character than was possible before; we meet Aerith as she takes in the beautiful green glow of MAKO energy from a cracked pipe in a back alley. Something spooks her, clueing players to the dangers that lurk around the corner for our beloved flower girl, and she makes her way to the streets of Midgar. Where the original had a handful of people walking by, this street is bustling with activity, strangers hurrying about their business with little regard for anyone else. Aerith takes a knock and one of her flowers falls to the floor, as she reaches to pick it up a passing boot crushes it, and Aerith looks pained. Even without 23 years of experience with her, we know this character in these opening moments. The camera begins to pull out, passing busy streets, soaring overhead exquisitely detailed buildings before zooming passed the great reactor at the heart of the city. Helicopters fly by. Every street looks alive with individual lights and activity. As a child, I always imagined what Midgar would look like if it were a real place, this opening scene is the vivid realisation of what I always pictured in my head. In 1997, Final Fantasy VII felt huge in scope but today it feels weirdly small and intimate (to it's credit, it remains a game of immense charm) but Final Fantasy VII Remake genuinely feels huge. It is making good on the promise of the original in all the right ways.

As Nobuo Uematsu’s iconic score swells with a stunning new orchestration, the game title emerges. It takes me back to the emotion and awe felt in 1997. Immediately, the game shifts, a frantically realised sequence of the train moving towards its destination. The camera is constantly in motion as it moves along the side of the stopping train to meet the first two guards your heroes will dispatch, each character is introduced one by one before Cloud Strife makes his superhero-landing entrance.

While all of this clearly cannot match the original in terms of revolutionary presentation, it feels right. It feels like it is honouring the pioneering spirit of its predecessor. There is an attention to detail in the way the game is presented, the design of the world and the way the characters look and move, that shows how much these scenes mean to the developers. It honestly feels like a game being made to accomplish everything they wished they could do with the original but were hamstrung by the technology. Immediately it feels like Final Fantasy VII Remake is no mere cash grab, this is a labour of love, the likes of which the Final Fantasy franchise has not seen in some time.

Almost immediately you are pulled into your first fight. A detailed series of tutorial pop-ups appear throughout the demo to help you get to grips with every element of the combat system. Hit square to attack, hold down the button to string together a quick combo. Triangle is used to switch between combat styles; for Cloud, that means a choice between the faster Operator mode or Punisher mode, a slower, more powerful combat style that leaves you exposed to range attacks. For Barrett, you have your standard fire style and an overcharged style that you have to power up before using but delivers massive damage when it is accessible. Circle dodges incoming attacks and the right bumper lets you adopt a defensive position to deflect hits for a period of time. The cross button opens up a menu that slows down the action and allows you to make snap tactical decisions, like using potions or activating special attacks or magical offence. This brings that hybrid real-time/turn-based combat to the fore; action is constant but it allows you windows of time to make decisive choices in the fray that bring you back to the original’s classic system.

The combat animations are smooth and fluid, every sequence of combat syncs together beautifully. The controls are detailed and require your focus and the presentation lends it that much more impact and spectacle. It is a deeply rewarding, enjoyable experience.

The scorpion tank boss that caps off this demo also offers the right level of challenge, after the demo spends its runtime acclimating you to the new play style, it sees to test your mettle in a battle that will punish your mistakes but reward smart decision making and good timing with an exhilarating experience. This battle highlights how character positioning is key, with your enhanced freedom of movement compared to the static formations of the original, you can choose what angle to attack from. If you are in the wrong place, a special ability will miss, if the boss has a front-facing shield ability then you need to manoeuvre a character to the rear while another character focuses on keeping the boss busy at the front. This also means you need to be conscious of your other character’s health, in real-time, if anyone is going to be working as bullet sponges for you.

It is not a mere button masher, such as Final Fantasy XV’s decidedly steak-free sizzle, this game requires genuine strategy to execute a battle properly. Another fun addition to the boss battle was the use of your environments, when the scorpion charges up the tail cannon, rather than simply taking the hit, you can run behind a pile of wreckage to shield you from harm.

It is a combat system that is simple to pick up but offers enough depth to engage your brain in more hectic scenarios, by the time you are done working with Cloud and Barret, you will be itching at the thought of experimenting with the system more once your character roster grows.

Anyone concerned about the fact the remake will only be covering the first discs worth of story, basically up until you leave Midgar for the wider world, then please lay your fears to rest. The demo only covers your time inside the MAKO reactor, a part of the game that roughly only covered a handful of screens in total and brings it to life on a massive scale. You could fit the majority of the explorable environments in the original Final Fantasy VII into the vast, open MAKO reactor map. Yet despite this massive upgrade in scale, and wealth of new obstacles, the entire thing feels comfortingly familiar to an old player, I passed through areas and made my way down long flights of stairs and I knew exactly where I was in relation to the original layout. It is near perfect design work and this is onlyna fraction of the overall game. Simply astonishing work.

The characters look right, realistic but with enough of that fantastical charm that made us love their original designs so much. The voice acting is similarly appropriate, every voice matched the way I originally heard them in my head back in the days when every character interaction was handled by pages of text rather than professional voiceover work.

The reason Final Fantasy VII Remake feels so familiar, yet so new, is the way it has implemented the original creative team in new ways. The original game’s character designer, Tetsuya Nomura, best known for directing the Kingdom Hearts trilogy, now serves as director while original director Yoshinori Kitase now serves as producer. Original writer, Kazushige Nojima, also returns to expand on his original ideas while composer Nobuo Uematsu is now joined by Masashi Hamauzu and Mitsuto Suzuki to bring new life to Uematsu’s iconic score.

Even in such a comparatively short demo (roughly an hour, all in), the new qualities brought to the remake are apparent. The direction immediately feels impressive, making full use of modern advancements to deliver more dynamic sequences, old scenes you recall from static positions have come alive in entirely new ways. The writing has brought new flourishes to the story, new twists that were not present in the original that adds layers of intrigue to the war between eco-terrorists Avalanche and the insidious megacorp Shinra. The score is simply stunning, all the old emotions felt when you first heard these themes are now amplified to epic levels.

Everything about this demo feels both modern yet true to the soul of the original. The incredible combat system epitomises this feeling; it is exciting and new, a potential new benchmark for the genre, but the spirit of the original’s turn-based, tactical character-centric style remains. The score similarly reflects this, the classic themes come alive with full orchestration, feeling comfortingly familiar yet filled with previously unseen nuances. This is how it feels to play Final Fantasy VII Remake, a familiar surface but with enticing new layers discovered beneath. If this short but comprehensive and utterly remarkable demo is anything to go by then Final Fantasy VII Remake could be another groundbreaking masterpiece that will more than satisfy fans of the original.

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