Final Fantasy 7 means so much to me.
It released at a time when I needed a distraction. I’d never connected with a story in a video game before and this bizarre tale of alien gods and eco-terrorists grabbed me, for some reason. It also looked amazing at the time. I remember my dad coming in my room just to see the cutscenes - it was the first game I’d owned that he took such an active interest in.
While still playing the first disc, a random, real life attack changed our lives forever. Final Fantasy 7 helped me and my father reconnect in the aftermath.
I remember hitting a wall - quite literally a wall, in the form of that wall-bastard boss in the Temple of the Ancients. I just couldn’t beat it. I went out one day and came home to find my dad playing it. He’d been doing laps of the dungeon for hours, letting the clock hands knock him off before making his way back up. Grinding it out. My characters were far more powerful and I was finally able to beat the thing. He didn’t even attempt the boss because he knew I wouldn’t want to miss the story.
When I eventually reached the end of the game my TV died, just as I got Sephiroth into his second phase. I had been trying to get this far all day. My dad went through the attic and found an old monitor, hooked me up, and I finished the game on it.
I still get emotional when I hear the music because it takes me back to that place in time. That part of my childhood was mostly awful, but Final Fantasy 7’s music gives me a deep yearning, reminding me of the fleeting good moments. Nostalgia is a powerful thing.
That deep connection to a piece of media complicates things when trying to look at Final Fantasy 7 Remake through an impartial lens. But from what I’ve played so far, it might just live up to my high expectations.
At E3 I’m first shown a hands-off demo of the opening section, the bombing run on the mako reactor. Beat for beat, it’s exactly the same as the original. The dialogue is tweaked so it fits modern standards, but Cloud still dramatically flips from the top of the steam train like he’s the coolest prick alive, Jessie still roundhouse kicks a soldier in the exact same way. Cloud remains a grumpy bastard and Barret is still a potty mouth. Modern performance capture techniques bring these moments to life like never before. It feels like a proper, full, new Final Fantasy game, despite being such a faithful recreation.
After the short opening we’re straight into combat which is now a hybrid system of real-time and command inputs. You smash enemies with your buster sword manually, each tap slicing into them, throwing them back or knocking them into the air. As you attack, you charge the ATB gauge which can be spent on magic (you also need MP for that) and abilities such as Braver. You also need ATB for item use, so you can’t just buy 99 megaelixirs and game it. When you do bring up the command menu, it’s like classic Final Fantasy 7: time slows almost to a pause, and you can flick through the menu to choose an input.
You can also switch between party members, which is vital since you need to make the most of ATB gauges that are all charging at different paces. Not only that, but Cloud can’t touch flying enemies easily, although Barret can with his arm cannon. Then there are the nuances around magic use and enemy weaknesses. You can also hold up your guard to reduce incoming damage, or manually dodge out of the way of big attacks. It feels like you’re playing as the characters we would only ever see in cutscenes in the original.
On top of all this, there’s a new stagger mechanic that works similarly to Final Fantasy 13’s. If you keep attacking enemies and using their weaknesses against them, you eventually fill the stagger meter, they’re incapacitated and opened up for extra damage for a limited time. The strategy here comes from making sure you’re fully stocked when they’re staggered so you can make the most of this window. Characters also have different attack modes: for Cloud, Operator Mode is his standard stance, while Punisher Mode slows him down, raises his sword into an attacking stance, and allows you to deal more damage at the expense of movement speed.
The layout of the mako reactor is almost exactly as you remember, except there are extra pieces where screens used to fit together, it now being one continuous, seamless thing. As you move around these areas, the action transitions into cutscenes without a break, moving smoothly out of them again and putting you back into the action.
Some of the dialogue is a bit hammy, but it seems like a huge improvement from the original, even if the original text is still exudes a strange charm. At one point, Barret says, “While you sleep, while you eat, while you shit, it’s here sucking up Mako. I can hear the planet crying out in pain.”
“You really hear that?” Cloud replies.
“Yeah,” Barret answers.
“Get help,” Cloud responds, deadpan.
Barret barges past Cloud at every opportunity. Cloud is a dick to everyone. I can’t wait to watch these characters grow beyond this hubris all over again. Even in battle, their personalities clash, with Barret saying, “That was something else,” at a fight’s climax, while Cloud responds, “That? That was nothing…”
In my hands-on, I got to take on the Boss Scorpion. It’s a multi-layered fight, feels tactical, and is stuffed full of spectacle. I honestly don’t know how Square Enix plans to keep up this level of quality for the entirety of the two blu-ray discs. But the developer knows how much this game means to everyone - there’s a reason it’s taken this long for them to cave and make the thing, after all - and so far it’s exceeded my high expectations, taking me back to those fleeting moments where nothing else mattered.