It’s been a long time since I discussed the possibility of a Final Fantasy VII remake. After mentioning it here and there in other posts, I made a dedicated post on the subject six years ago. And six years ago isn’t even the start of all of this hype, so it’s safe to say this game has been a long time coming. And it’s almost here. In order to drum up excitement (and maybe quell some negative press at release), Square-Enix released a free demo for the remake on the PlayStation Network this week. To access it you simply need a PlayStation 4 and a network connection. You do not need to be a subscriber to Sony’s paid online service. The demo should take about 10 minutes to download and install and contains roughly an hour’s worth of content, so if you’re curious about the game and have yet to check out the demo you might as well go rectify that right now.
The demo contains what I assume will be the start to the main game. If you played the original Final Fantasy VII then it will be quite familiar. You take on the role of Cloud, a mercenary in the employ of Barret Wallace and his organization, Avalanche, which is in the process of storming a mako reactor in the city of Midgar owned and operated by a company named Shinra. As Cloud (who is given that name outright, so no more choosing your own name), you’re expected to take orders, do the job, and collect a paycheck at the end. The goal of the mission is to take down and destroy this reactor, which Barret explains rather passionately is destroying the planet. Basically, if you’re familiar with the original game this is all routine, but if you’re a newcomer you may have some questions, but those will have to wait for retail.
It has been an exceptionally long road getting to this point. Final Fantasy VII was released to huge publicity way back in 1997 and is a very popular and beloved title. For many, it was probably their introduction to the franchise as it was only the fourth entry in the series released outside of Japan. And by far, it was the most publicized, though the US version of Final Fantasy VI was no slouch in terms of marketing. It’s hard to say when the thirst for a remake arrived, but it was definitely here after Square unveiled a PlayStation 3 tech demo that contained images of Final Fantasy VII with a new engine. At the time, Square intended this to be just a demo of what a Final Fantasy title could look like on the new hardware, but naturally many fans just wanted to see these resources used to create a new version of a game they loved.
A remake of Final Fantasy VII never arrived during the PlayStation 3’s lifespan, and it was rarely even hinted at. The company line soon came to be “We hear you,” and fans were expected to just keep voicing their desires for a remake in hopes it would one day happen. Well, that day has just about come and it’s going to be met with some degree of dissatisfaction, but overall I think this title will do well for Square-Enix.
First of all, fans have known what to expect leading up to this point. Gone is the old mechanics of the Active Time Battle System and in its place is a more action-oriented gameplay system. Anyone who has played Final Fantasy XV or even Kingdom Hearts III should feel relatively comfortable with this new system, but anyone going straight from Final Fantasy VII to this will likely be left with their head spinning. At the start of the demo, the player just controls Cloud who battles solo. As enemies come into view, Cloud goes from a passive state to a combat position seamlessly. Mashing the square button is really all that needs to happen in order to win the day against these early foes, but there’s a bit more going on under the hood.
As Cloud attacks, his ATB meter fills. Yes, a relic of the past still exists in some form this time out. When that meter fills, Cloud can use Abilities, Spells, and Items at his whim. Pressing the X button brings up a menu which greatly slows down the action onscreen allowing the player to cycle through the options at his or her leisure. In the demo, Cloud has some abilities that should sound familiar, like Braver. These moves do extra damage and consume ATB. For spells, Cloud has access to Fire which isn’t of much use in the demo, save for when Cloud has to fight flying enemies he can’t quite reach with his sword. Under items are a bunch of familiar options like potions and ethers.
Adding a little extra layer of complexity is the fact that Cloud has two methods of attacks. Think of this as a relic from the Squaresoft classic Bushido Blade as Cloud basically has two stances. He begins in Operator mode which is his default approach. With a tap of the triangle button he can move into Punisher mode. In this state, his sword flurries are more elaborate and deal considerably more damage. He also moves much slower making it harder to evade enemy attacks. Blocking or taking damage will knock Cloud out of this mode, so it’s something that is to be deployed in moderation. At work, is a system of staggering in which repeated blows on an enemy fill a bar below their health. When that fills they become staggered and momentarily incapacitated. You won’t get to play with this too much in the demo as the fodder will like fall first, but it would seem the standard play is to attack an enemy until staggered, then bust out Punisher mode to deal additional damage while they can’t move.
About midway through the demo, Barret will enter the fray. When a second member joins the party in battle, switching between the two is as simple as pressing a button. Barret works in the same manner as Cloud, except he’s a ranged fighter and not nearly as fast or nimble. He can more easily hit flying enemies and instead of a Punisher mode he has a charged attack that gradually fills. He also has access to the spells Thunder and Cure, though you should have plenty of potions to render the latter useless for the demo. You can give the A.I. controlled party member commands during battle, though for the demo I found it mostly unnecessary. When controlling Cloud, Barret did a good job of attacking enemies Cloud could not, but I suspect in larger frays with three characters in the main game it may become more necessary to micro-manage the combatants.
Combat in the Final Fantasy VII remake has the potential to add layers of complexity. And in some ways it already feels that way, though much of the confrontations in this demo can be resolved by simply mashing the attack button. It remains to be seen if that’s just simply a matter of this being a demo, or if that will be the general flow of combat for lesser enemies (the equivalent of the original’s random encounters) or if the game will demand more from these enemies as it moves along. Near the end of the demo is a boss encounter in which you will have to do more and pay attention to Cloud’s suggestions. He’ll yell out to Barret how to deal with the enemy, and as the player, you’re expected to do the same. These range from what magic to utilize and where to strike. It’s during this battle that you’ll likely encounter Limit Breaks for the first time. They seem to work as they did in the original, though with Braver being a standard move, Cloud’s first Limit Break is now Cross-Slash. I did not see Barrett’s in my play-through.
When not in battle, the game is pretty much just a nicer version of the original. The camera is always behind Cloud, but can be manually controlled via the right analog stick. The visuals are on par with the best titles Square-Enix has produced so you’re not likely to find many complaints there. Cloud more or less resembles his Advent Children self, but he has been noticeably reworked some and I think he looks a little better now. He’s still a touch goofy looking since he’s an anime design made real, but it’s fine. The voice acting is good as well and since these characters have all spoken before since the original game’s release it’s not as surprising as it might have been fifteen years ago. In short, if this game is a failure the production values will have little to do with that.
Exploring the environment of this demo is not exactly exciting, but it’s also a tutorial disguised as a mission. I don’t want to make assumptions about the rest of the game based on this section. There are some chests scattered about, but they’re all in plain sight. There are boxes Cloud can smash with his sword to uncover items and even some simple obstacles that need to be cleared. Cloud can basically just run, run faster, and swing his sword. When he needs to jump he’ll do it automatically. It appears the old equipment and materia systems will work largely the same, though the game doesn’t give you an introduction to that aspect in the demo. Oddly, I found you have to use the real-time item list (accessed via the X button whether in or outside of battle) to heal via potions and can’t do it from the pause menu. It would be nice to see an auto-heal feature in the main game.
Ultimately, what is going to make or break this game is the combat system and how that aligns with expectations. There are certainly plenty of fans of the more recently released Final Fantasy XV that will likely welcome a more modern, action-oriented, battle system. There are also those who will yearn for the days of old and the turn-based system. There was a rumor making the rounds over the summer that the game could be made into a turn-based one, but that is not the case. You have options to greatly slow it down, but it will never be truly turn-based. It’s more you can make it similar to a Bioware RPG in which you could basically pause the action, issue commands, then resume. I am not surprised that Square went modern with its combat system, though I have reservations about it. The generic encounters are rather mind-numbing. Again, you could say the same of the original, but relentlessly mashing buttons somehow feels more tedious than the old system. As such, I kind of wish it went even more action and added multiple attack buttons, combos, and a more robust parry system. The thought being if you want this to be an action game, just make it an action game. The boss fight does show how the system can be expanded, but the battle was long and when it was over I don’t know that I felt accomplished. I was kind of just glad to be done with it.
The other elephant in the room is also just what can fans expect of this initial installment of Final Fantasy VII Remake. Square-Enix has almost gone silent on the subject since it was announced, but this game is not the entire Final Fantasy VII experience. The assumption, which has mostly been confirmed, is that this game only covers the Midgar portion of the original. It basically ends with the rescue of Red XIII, who is reportedly not even playable in the full version. We do not know how many games this remake will span. We know it’s more than one, and that is all. My guess is that it will be three games, just because publishers seem to like trilogies, but how it ties in with the sequels remains unknown. Fans will want their characters to carry-over, but if this stretches beyond two games it seems unlikely the third would be a PlayStation 4 game. There’s no timetable for the release, and considering how long it took to get this out, I have my reservations about diving into an incomplete experience.
This demo largely accomplishes what it needs to. Fans get a taste for how this very intriguing game will work and play. That’s all a demo really needs to do. It can’t answer whether or not the final release will be worth it, but it provides some indication of what to expect. I do think that game, which I presume is around a 15 hour experience, will be largely good. The questions though about when the next installment will arrive gives me some trepidation, enough so that I will not be a day one buyer. I don’t feel like I need to get to this right away considering the full story won’t be available for years. It makes it easy to back-burner as I still have other titles to finish. I think there will be plenty of fans of the old game to make this a commercial success, so I don’t think there is presently any danger of Square abandoning the project. And from a value standpoint, it can be all but assumed that eventually, when all is said and one, there will be a Kingdom Hearts styled package release of all of the titles at a friendlier price.
Those are all things to consider. If you don’t care about the release schedule then by all means play the demo, decide if it’s something you want more of, and go ahead and buy it. I expect there will be critical voices out there on Twitter and such, and they will be loud, but not very impactful in terms of sales. This game will do well because there is so much anticipation for it. And because of that anticipation, Square-Enix was right to take its time and basically build this from the ground up, even if I would have personally been really tickled by a “downgrade” in the form of a sprite-based remake. I expect modern gamers to respond well to the new combat mechanics, though I do wonder if people experiencing this for the first time will be left underwhelmed. They may not understand what made the original so big and exciting to begin with. For them, we’ll only be able to offer up a “I guess you had to be there,” explanation and leave it at that.