Final Fantasy 7 Remake hands-on: 7 things to know from hours of play

By Alex Donaldson, Monday, 2 March 2020 09:00 GMT

Final Fantasy 7 Remake was meant to be out this week, but a delay means we have another five weeks to wait. Here’s some juicy preview impressions to tide you over until then.

After four hours with Final Fantasy 7, getting to know its four playable characters, exploring the revived and expanded city of Midgar, and getting properly to grips with its combat over four different sections of the game, we’ve got some significant thoughts and impressions about the hotly anticipated remake. There’s a lot to say – so let’s get to it.

All four playable characters feel very different

A switch to directly controlled action-based combat means that the cast of Final Fantasy 7 don’t all just need different abilities – they need to move, attack and feel different, too. The good news is that FF7 Remake really does differentiate between its core cast – Cloud, Barret, Tifa, and Aerith all feel extremely different to play.

The open-ended nature of FF7’s Materia system is still intact, however – so while Barret is a ranged, tanky sort of character and has unique character abilities to match, you can load him up with magic materia to make him part mage if you so wish. All four of the characters are fun to play, but if I’m honest, Cloud definitely feels like the one given the most care and attention. As a result, he’s definitely the most fun to play. He’s also definitively the protagonist – while you can switch to anyone in battle, as soon as battle is over your perspective switches back to Cloud. You can’t walk around and explore as Tifa, no matter how hard you try.

You might notice, by the way, that I mentioned four playable characters. While the section of the original Final Fantasy 7 featured in the remake does include the moment when you first meet and then get to play as Red XIII, Red won’t be joining the playable cast in this game. Instead, he’ll join the party and fight alongside you as a ‘guest’ party member, using recognizable fan favourite moves from the original game as he does.

The combat is designed not as an Action RPG, but as a continuation of the turn-based Active Time Battles of the original

While FF7 Remake is definitively an action RPG – you can’t deny that – it isn’t designed to be one, per se. When approaching the design of FF7 Remake’s systems, the co-director in charge of combat and the moment-to-moment play, Naoki Hamaguchi, instead focused on one thing: recreating the turn-based battles of the original but with a modern twist.

“The ideology of creating the battle system for FF7 Remake really started out with the… ‘how do we represent and how do we reimagine the core ATB battle system from the original game for the modern audience?’ The result of that is it became a slightly more action oriented system, but really I don’t want people to forget, at its core, [it] is still an ATB system,” Hamaguchi tells VG247.

“It involves charging up the ATB gauge and using that to use your abilities and your items, and things like that. Really, the action is is placed on top of that.”

The result is a battle system that is so dedicated to its turn-based roots that the game has the surprisingly fluid Classic Mode, where the action elements are entirely automated to allow the player to simply focus on selecting attacks and skills from a menu, just as in the original game. The default option is somewhere in the middle, however: you’ve got a solid real-time action RPG that can be slowed to a crawl so that you can execute skills or give your allies orders once a character’s ATB gauge has charged up.

It also brings in elements of Final Fantasy 13 – another ATB evolutionary strand – by adding the ‘Stagger’ mechanic, where enemies can be worn down through attrition until they fall into a ‘stagger’ state that leaves them vulnerable to massive damage. This leads to a flow of battle very similar to FF13, especially in bosses: your goal is to stagger them first, then unleash all your big guns to do a huge amount of damage in a very short time. The design of encounters, especially how lengthy boss battles are, leans into this to encourage players to use these mechanics.

Smart additions to existing story areas often add context and justify distractions

It does seem as though Final Fantasy 7 Remake is going to be split down the middle into two different camps: there will be the content that is a modern recreation and reimagining of moments from the original game, and the content that is all-new, designed to expand the city of Midgar and this relatively limited section of the original FF7 into a fully-fledged, full size game.

The preview sections we played from the first, second, and seventh chapters of the game were all recreations of familiar areas and stories from the original game, and the additions here are smart. After the game’s opening mission, Cloud spends an extended time walking through wrecked city streets, seeing the brutal aftermath of the bombing he believes he’d just helped to perpetrate. Kids are crying for lost parents, paramedics are desperately trying to save lives, and empathy-lacking business bastards are complaining that their train to work is cancelled. This section of the original game spans four ‘screens’ and a few minutes – in the Remake, trawling through these streets is the better part of an hour.

Moreover, this section is also used to introduce story elements held back in the original game. The villainous Sephiroth appears to Cloud as a vision, taunting him. The scene around Cloud warps, displaying imagery that will be an intriguing mystery to newcomers and an exciting tease of future twists in the story to those who know the original tale. Then things snap back to normal and the story heads back down familiar pathways. Sephiroth’s introduction is genuinely effective – but hopefully he doesn’t become a distraction from what this section of the story is actually about.

Chapter 7 depicts the second Mako reactor mission from the original game, where Cloud and Barret are now joined by Tifa. In the original game this is a straightforward mission that might last twenty minutes; you walk into the reactor, place your bomb, sneak back out of the reactor and get caught in a trap that triggers a surprise boss. In the remake, the entire framing of this mission is changed. The alarm is raised and the threat of the boss looms over you from early on, with one of the villains introducing it as your doom over an intercom. The escape from the reactor then includes a side distraction: you must find keycards and use them at terminals to disable certain systems of the robotic killing machine. There’s player choice here in how to use the keycards – so you could reduce the amount of times the boss could use its ultimate weapon or lower its speed, among other things.

This is a cool little distraction, and it’s great that the added choice also impacts an iconic moment and classic boss. It makes sense to find as many key cards as you can, too, because the bosses are damage sponges, with encounters going on for upwards of ten minutes.

What’s more curious is how this mission plays out. The reactor is gorgeously designed, but look closely and you’ll notice the keycard-swiping follows a very linear pattern; you climb some stairs and walk through some corridors before entering a boxy room. Some enemy soldiers are here, guarding the terminals. You kill them, then use the keycards you found along the way before heading into another set of stairs and corridors to repeat the pattern again. You do this a few times.

The area design here is reminiscent of Final Fantasy 10 and Final Fantasy 13, the latter of which was lambasted for being too linear – but so too was this section of the original FF7. In this, it is faithful, and the remake softens how repetitive this area could be through razor sharp combat and character interactions throughout the mission that are genuinely funny and endearing. I think it works, but keep in mind I’m one of the people who was okay with much of FF13’s linearity.

…but we still know nothing about the all-new aspects of the game

If any aspect of this hands-on is a little concerning, it’s the lack of anything that wasn’t in the original game. It’s now clear from what I’ve seen that the development team has it down: the sections of this game that faithfully recreate characters, places and moments from the original FF7 are crafted in a way that reimagines the game as you remember it rather than as it was. It is respectful, it is smart, and with excellent combat it honestly has the whiff of a game of the year contender about it. But then there’s the rest.

Square Enix has elected to not show that other half other than a few brief teases. We’ve seen glimpses of areas of the Midgar slums that might be a little more open-ended in a FF15 sort of fashion, but only in a few screenshots. Descriptions of some optional quests and explainers detailing the nature of those quests does set off some slight alarm bells: fetch quests, hunts. The same sort of stuff, bluntly, that padded out FF13’s open-ended Pulse area and practically the entirety of FF15.

Similarly, everything I played was action-packed and intense, but the original FF7 is a game replete with downtime where the music retreats and the game takes time to bask in its characters. The remake is already doing a stunning job with its cast, so hopefully these moments live up to the promise of the original and the characterization so far.

This is the stuff I really want to see now, and the stuff I’ll be anticipating most eagerly when the time comes to review the game. The Midgar section of the original FF7 is six or seven hours at most – and that’s being slow – so even if those areas and events are significantly expanded, this game will need a fair amount more in order to fulfill Square’s aim and promise of this as a ‘full-sized’ Final Fantasy game. As it stands, this stuff – which would make up as much as half of the game – remains a relative unknown.

The FF7 spin-offs are still canon – sort of

All you eighties and nineties kids will remember the Compilation of Final Fantasy 7, the noughties expansion of the FF7 universe through a range of products. There’s Last Order, an anime, Advent Children, a full-length CG movie, novels, manga and a whole suite of games including a Japan-only mobile prequel and an utterly diabolical third person shooter sequel starring Vincent. There’s a lot of Final Fantasy 7.

Final Fantasy 7 Remake director Tetsuya Nomura previously said that the remake wouldn’t share continuity with the compilation titles – but that doesn’t mean everything they introduced has been jettisoned from the world of FF7 for the remake. In fact, in the remake hands-on we heard a new arrangement of ‘The Promised Land’, a piece of music from movie sequel Advent Children.

“All of the lore from the works created after the original game, the Compilation of Final Fantasy 7, that’s all very much in the base of the canon for the remake, and going forward it will be too,” producer Yoshinori Kitase says.

The character writing and translation are incredible

The writing and translation team behind FF7 Remake have a hell of a task on their hands. Not only do they have to expand these beloved characters without upsetting people, but there’s also a sometimes chasmous gap between the original Japanese text and a western translation that, while beloved, took a lot of liberties with character and detail. This is perhaps where FF7 remake is at its most astonishing, as the writing and translation work together to provide a ‘best of both worlds’ mix of the two.

Barret is the stand-out – still as loud and over-the-top as he was in the original game but also more thoughtful and more philosophically sound than the original western translation painted him as. Some might take issue with his preacher-like tone, but I think it’s a perfect fit, and somehow he manages to both be profound and an effective comic relief simulataneously.

The English-language voice acting feels a little more hit and miss than I’d like, but the actual character is ridiculously good. Justice appears to have been done to these iconic characters, and many side characters appear to be set to make huge gains thanks to the expansion. Shinra security head and relatively minor villain Heidigger had probably as many lines in my hands-on as in the entirety of the original game, for example – he feels a significantly more fleshed-out character.

The dynamic music is excellent, but hopefully there’s a good amount of variety

With FF7 Remake having a seamless transition from exploration to battle and back again, the developers were faced with an interesting question: what to do about the game’s soundtrack. The answer is an excellent ‘dynamic’ soundtrack, where the game switches between various music states depending on what’s going on. An area like the Mako Reactor will have a calm exploration version of its music, an up-tempo battle version, and a sort of tense version that’s in the middle. The tracks seamlessly merge from one to the other – it’s great stuff.

This means that in some instances music is different; inside the Mako Reactors you don’t hear the classic battle theme nearly as much, because this area now has a battle-ready version of the Mako Reactor theme from the original. The original battle melody is used frequently, however, slipped into multiple tracks.

The dynamic music is great, but hearing as many slight variations as I did on the same few memorable themes throughout the hands-on did get me thinking. With composers as excellent as Masashi Hamauzu and Mitsuto Suzuki on board, I really hope the soundtrack has the confidence to strike out with quality all-original compositions, too, even as the arrangements of older tracks are excellent. In that sense, I suppose the soundtrack mirrors the wider game.

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