Final Fantasy VII remake: hands-on TGS 2019 preview

The raw, visceral reaction to the announcement of the FFVII remake at E3 2015 was a memorable moment. After all, this wasn’t just one of the most beloved games of all time, but a remake that had festered in the imagination since the FFVII PS3 technical demo back at E3 2005. Once we had come to terms with the fact that we were finally getting what many of us had craved for so long, the questions started piling up. Would it still have a snowboarding mini game? How would they handle Cloud’s cross dressing scene? Would Tifa still be improbably proportioned? Most importantly of all, would a 22 year old turn-based JRPG work in 2019? A seemingly troubled development, and confusion over the episodic nature of the game, added to the speculation… and the concerns.

Having finally gotten my hands on an all-too-brief demo at TGS 2019, I can say that although many of the answers to those questions will have to wait until it is finally released next year, the FFVII remake is looking like it has the potential to live up to the lofty expectations being placed on it.

While a brief glance at the trailers would give you the same impression, it really is worth pointing out how good the game looks. It’s very much a matter of personal preference; but I greatly prefer the warmer, more detailed, more human-looking designs of the remake compared to the beautiful but cold, lifeless, doll-like appearances of their Advent Children doppelgängers. I can’t wait to see what they’ve done with some of the stranger characters like Cait Sith and Red XIII. And whilst we will likely be waiting a few more years until part 2, I can’t even imagine what the wonderfully elaborate Arthurian fireworks display that is the Knights of the Round summon will look like. For now, all I can say is that the reactor looked appropriately futuristic yet gritty, and those robots looked absolutely fine.

The player has the ability to switch between a more traditional, turn-based combat that those who haven’t touched an RPG since the original should feel more comfortable with, and more direct control of the character, with the action taking place in real-time. Though I initially thought it’d play in a similar fashion to FFXV, in practice it feels less floaty and more satisfying. Rather than a regular attack being given the same cooldown as any other ability, you can continually attack with Cloud using the square button (or in the case of Barret, hold it down). It was fun to hammer away on a button and have Cloud slash through some robots. But it’s the ability to switch between the action-focused and slower-paced styles on the fly that works in a way that was a pleasant surprise.

You can be running around swinging away wildly, but when you need to take a break and reassess the situation or throw out a potion, you can pause the action and plan things out with a clear head. Keeping track of the action bars filling up to know when to release special attacks or cast magic makes the combat feel engaging in a very different way to the original.

Switching between Cloud and Barret was a fun way to mix things up, with the close combat style of Cloud and the ranged attack of Barret’s machine gun arm both proving to be useful against different types of enemies. The boss fight in which Barret’s lightning attacks are more effective than Cloud’s fire highlighted the benefits of dynamically hopping from character to character in order to fight more effectively.

It’s in that boss fight where the action and the cinematic presentation of the game intersect, that could prove to be either a way to keep the combat fresh, or a tiresomely funnelled experience. When the boss is charging up its laser attack, the player has to run behind a barrier as the AI controlled partner does the same. Then throughout the fight the spider robot will fling itself between walls, during which it’s essentially impervious to attacks. It certainly looks good, and it feels exciting to have the stages of the boss fight progress in such a cinematic manner. In a turn-based combat system when you’re waiting for a short cutscene to play out, it’s not even a minor inconvenience; but when you’re sprinting around, swinging the camera sharply in an attempt to chase down a boss which you may not actually be able to damage, it could prove to be frustrating. Much like infamous boss fights of the era when you are supposed to lose, it’s annoying not knowing when you have a chance to do some damage, and when you have to wait for it to run its course.

One other thing that gave me pause for thought was just how linear the demo was. It’s hardly surprising for a show demo that was just 10 minutes long, but after bad memories of being shuttled down a 30 hour corridor before finally being given some freedom in FFXIII, I’m hoping the innovations of the remake will extend to a bit more player freedom.

It was a relief to finally get a taste of FFVII, and discover that no one had desecrated my rose-tinted memories yet. In fact, it come off as a smart reinterpretation of a game that is a huge part of many people’s gaming history. Much like the RE2 remake earlier this year, it looks to be using the original game as a basic blueprint, then tweaking, refining, and modernising it all whilst twanging the strings of nostalgia in the hearts of even those who, perhaps rightfully, are cynical of the need for the game to exist at all.

Its gorgeous depiction of the world of Midgar and its iconic characters, the smart and flexible combat system, and a story that’ll (hopefully) be a hell of a lot more comprehensible than the garbled nonsense that FFVII originally sported, all mean that it’ll likely be a huge success when it’s finally released next year. Unfortunately, with this only being part one, many questions will remain. Until part two of course, though when, or indeed on what systems it’ll be released, is something we may not know for some time yet.

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Written by Stevie L.

Stevie Lim is a man in Japan.

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