This afternoon at E3 in Los Angeles, I watched an extended demo of the Final Fantasy VII remake and got my hands on a build for about 15 minutes. Here’s the good news: it could be really special. The bad news: well, we have no idea when the whole project will be completed.
“We can’t reveal that many details about this,” legendary producer Yoshinori Kitase said when I asked him today how many games will be in the series. We know that the first one is set entirely in Midgar, and that, according to Square Enix, it’s the size of an entire numbered Final Fantasy game – a radical reimagining, given that Midgar was maybe five or 10 percent of the original game on PlayStation 1.
“Before we actually started working on this, we knew it was going to be a large amount of content,” Kitase told a group of press. “When we started out planning the plot for the first game, it hit us again... at that point we decided we were going to focus the first game on Midgar and what happens in Midgar. Unfortunately we can’t say anything more about the future games, because we don’t know ourselves.”
Kitase added that the development team is simultaneously finishing Final Fantasy VII remake’s first game, which is out in March 2020, while planning game number two.
Following a brief presentation during which Kitase and his team demonstrated a build of the first few moments of the game (which looked great), I got to play a demo that takes place within the first Mako Reactor. I hacked and slashed through some enemies, climbed down some ladders, and fought a reimagined version of the scorpion robot that makes up Final Fantasy VII’s first boss.
The best way to describe the Final Fantasy VII remake is “fleshed out.” It’s like the PS1 version of Final Fantasy VII was an outline and this is the final paper. Whereas in the original game you’d see a few dialogue exchanges that were meant to broadly convey feelings – Jessie being flirty, Barret trying to convince Cloud that the environment is worth saving – here there are fleshed-out conversations, genuine personality, and dialogue with a surprising amount of warmth. There are some clunky lines in there, but it’s fun to watch.
Here’s one exchange I particularly enjoyed:
Barret: You gonna stand there and pretend you can’t hear the planet crying out in pain?
Cloud: You really hear that?
Barret: Damn straight I do.
Cloud: [after a pause] Get help.
Jessie, a member of Barret’s Avalanche eco-terrorist group, has more dialogue in the 30 minutes of footage I saw today than she does in all of Final Fantasy VII on PS1. Wedge and Biggs have more personality. There are cut-scenes around every corner. It feels like a completely new game.
The combat system is also brand new. Here are the basics: as Cloud, you can slash, evade, and block with button presses. With every attack you’ll build up your ATB gauge, and every time you fill up an ATB bar (to a maximum of two in the demo), you can use it for a spell, ability, or item. This version of Cloud was equipped with some skills like Braver (formerly a Limit Break; now a regular ability) and a triple-slashing ability that sends him spinning from enemy to enemy. There’s also a stagger system reminiscent of Final Fantasy XIII in which you can build up an enemy’s “staggered” gauge. When it fills up, you’ll do bonus damage – 160 per cent in the demo.
As a result of this system, it doesn’t feel like a hack-n-slash action game. It’s got a very, very different vibe than, say, Kingdom Hearts III. Just mashing the square button doesn’t seem like an effective strategy in Final Fantasy VII’s new combat system. You don’t do a ton of damage with standard attacks. From what I watched and played, getting through fights requires frequent use of abilities and swapping between your characters – in this case, Cloud to take out short-range enemies, and Barret to gun down sentries from a distance.
As you play, the music swells in and out, transitioning between enhanced versions of classic Final Fantasy VII tracks based on your current state – the combat music weaves in and out naturally rather than following a hard-transition the way it once did. The framerate isn’t great, at least in this build. Square says the game’s coming to PlayStation 4 “first,” and I must confess I really want to play this one on PC.
The demo I played centred on Guard Scorpion, the boss of Mako Reactor 1. No longer is this boss fight over in 30 seconds of button-mashing and waiting; now, it’s an elaborate spectacle, complete with different phases and barriers. It’s very, very cool. During one phase you have to circle around back and attack the core underneath its body; during another, Cloud and Barret have to duck for cover under some nearby debris while it uses its powerful tail electricity attack. (“Attack while its tail is up!”)
So yes, this is all promising. Especially the expansion of personalities. The lingering question is: what is this game going to be, exactly? How are they going to expand Final Fantasy VII’s introduction into an entire game that Square says fits on two entire Blu-ray discs? Is all of Midgar going to be explorable? Are we going to get a 10-hour version of the Honeybee Inn? Guess we’ll find out in March.