Final Fantasy VII Remake Hands-On Preview – Giving New Life(stream) To A Beloved Classic

Since it was first announced (or even before that), the debate around what a remake of Final Fantasy VII should be has been fierce and ongoing. Should it be a traditional, turn-based JRPG or more of an action game? Does it need to retell the original story verbatim or is there scope for change to the established canon? The sheer pressure that must be felt in revisiting one of the most beloved video games of all time makes it all the more impressive that Square Enix are about to launch Final Fantasy VII Remake, and after getting hands-on with around three hours of the game I can say this with some degree of certainty: Final Fantasy VII Remake feels like the game that Final Fantasy VII would have been if it were made today.

The decision to go and fill in all of that detail that has been left to people’s imaginations, to speculation and fanfiction and art, is a bold one. It’s clear right away though, that producer Yoshinori Kitase and the development team at Square Enix made up of series veterans and newcomers aren’t taking the challenge lightly. This isn’t about cashing in on a popular title, or remaking for remaking’s sense, this is a chance for them to revisit one of their crowning achievements and fill it with all of the things that the technology wouldn’t allow back in 1997. Comparing what I played with the same sequences in the original, it really feels like we got the ‘abridged’ version way back when, and this is the full story. I can’t go into too much detail without spoiling some cool stuff, but even something as simple as returning from the first Mako Reactor bombing hits so much harder when you’re forced to walk through the streets of Midgar in the aftermath. You’re no longer being told how badly things went down, you’re living it.

In my session, I was able to play through the first two chapters in the game – starting at the very beginning – as well as parts of two later areas. Square Enix shared the game’s opening with the world not long after I saw it for myself, and I’m sure everyone will agree that the game’s transition to current-gen is stunning. That doesn’t stop when the game gets going, either. A huge chunk of what I played took place in various Mako reactors and wholly linear areas even within Midgar, so I have a lot of questions about just how linear the game is as a whole, but there’s definitely room for exploration and side content even in the more structured scenes. A lot of it feels like Final Fantasy XV’s later chapters (albeit far less disjointed), which actually suits the narrative of this first part of Final Fantasy VII quite well. There’s a sense of urgency in the story that is now matched in the game, and I’m totally on board.

As if the pressure to deliver on story wasn’t enough, the Final Fantasy VII Remake also has the unenviable task of updating another core component of the original game; the combat. While I’m sure a fair share of fans long for the franchise to return to its turn-based roots, Remake continues the series’ push into more action-based territory. Which isn’t to say that those looking for something slower-paced won’t be catered for – there are three distinct styles of combat gameplay to choose from with varying degrees of real-time control – but the ‘default’ setting most closely resembles something like Final Fantasy XV.

If you’re at all worried about the move to real-time combat diluting that specific flavour of strategy that came with using each unique characters’ abilities along with their player-tailored builds, the good news is that nearly all of that great stuff makes the transition in a way that makes total sense in the new context. Cloud’s skill with a sword is great for getting up close and personal with enemies, while Barret’s gun arm is indispensable for taking care of flying or long range foes. In the earlier sections that I played with just these two, I definitely felt that maining Cloud in battle while switching to Barret in select circumstances felt like the preferred way to play. That said, you can switch characters at absolutely any time as well as issue specific commands to anyone you’re not in direct control of at the touch of a button, so it’s shockingly easy to pull off some great-feeling combos in the heat of a fight.

While I’d played some of the game’s introductory sequence with Cloud and Barret in the past, this new hands-on afforded me the opportunity to play with both Tifa and Aerith in later, separate sections of the game. Tifa felt the most immediately different from the others as I took her, along with the two boys, through the Mako Reactor Five section of the game, including the boss fight against the Air Buster. Unlike Cloud’s FFXV-style auto-combos, Tifa’s primary attacks rely on deliberate button inputs similar to a traditional brawler or fighting game. Her special abilities also demand a different playstyle – they seem to focus mainly on stacking buffs and building up power – meaning that unlike the Cloud/Barret dynamic, Tifa is best played in long stretches where you can keep her buffed and put the pressure on enemies with constant beatdowns.

Aerith is the character I had the least amount of time with in my session, restricted only to the Chapter 10 boss fight with Abzu, and the character I was probably most hesitant about playing in this new format, but I found myself instantly in love with her combat role. I had gone in expecting a fully support/healing-based deal but was pleasantly surprised at how capable Aerith is as a magical attacker. Her main moves involve throwing magical projectiles from her rod, and her propensity towards sorcery means that her black magic attacks are truly devastating. She is also a great support character, of course, which definitely came in handy.

Summons are present and accounted for too. In keeping with the new style of combat, they’ve moved from being one-off attacks with lengthy animations to active participants in battle that will hang around and fight until their gauges run out – at which point they’ll then pull off their signature special moves. It’s hard to tell out of context but it seems like summons only tend to want to come out during the bigger battles (where there’s more space), and I only managed to see Shiva and Ifrit, but both were a sight to behold.

The brilliance of Final Fantasy VII Remake’s real-time combat (as much as I’ve played) truly is how well it adapts familiar concepts from Final Fantasy VII, which makes for an easier transition than I expected coming from the old, turn-based style. Everything is present and accounted for; the ATB gauge, summons, spells, items, limit breaks. It’s all here and makes perfect sense within the overall system. There’s even a tactical, slow-down-time command for people who still want to think about their moves as well as a ‘classic’ mode option that has everyone auto-attack and defend, leaving players to worry only about executing special commands. I actually quite enjoyed tinkering around with that mode and, although I’ll probably just stick with the normal difficulty, I can see people really getting into it.

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Along with having access to new characters and summons, my time with the later game chapters also afforded a peek into some of the game’s other returning mechanics, the most exciting of which is Materia. To my surprise, the Materia system returns in a form that feels nigh-on identical to the original, with the whole thing just kind of naturally clicking into place with the updated combat. I didn’t have enough time to really dive in and check out all the Materia on offer but I did tinker around a little with my party’s loadout and felt instantly at home. I can imagine that even those outlying fans with concerns about the new combat will change their minds once they realise that Square Enix are onto something that strikes a perfect balance between new and old.

So there’s a lot to talk about when it comes to gameplay, and even this early peek has given me more to think about than I can put into one article, but when it comes to the upgraded visuals in Final Fantasy VII Remake the results are blatantly obvious. This is one hell of a handsome game, both from a technical perspective as well as in the way that it adapts FFVII’s original look to a contemporary format. Kitase-san explains that the team wanted to make full use of the modern rendering techniques available in Unreal Engine 4 without going ‘photorealistic’, and instead attempting to use these technologies in creative ways to match the tone and atmosphere of the original game.

In the handful of hours I spent running through mako reactors and the streets of Midgar, it’s very clear that this goal has been achieved. Everything looks fantastic while still feeling incredibly authentic to the original art. Heavy shadows and bold lighting go a long way to rekindling memories of the more stark and simple pre-rendered backgrounds of Final Fantasy VII and, though still quite stylised, so much of the densely-packed detail in the environments calls back to the game’s memorable locations. Midgar itself simply blew me away with how gorgeously-rendered it is and how true it felt to the source material. Plus, the extra power of this generation has allowed for a massive increase in population density meaning the streets are now littered with citizens and feel decidedly more lived-in. I found myself actually taking the time to look over these new NPCs’ character designs too, and again the artists involved have shown an incredible talent for bridging the gap between reverence for the original vision and contemporary design. Despite how you might feel about this part of the Final Fantasy VII Remake being set entirely in Midgar, there’s no denying the fact that this is the most incredibly rich, well-realised and stunningly presented version of it yet.

Kitase-san also brought up some interesting facts about the technology being used to bring the game to life, the most interesting of which actually involves taking some of the work out of localising the game for a worldwide audience. Kitase-san explains that rather than hand-animate each character’s mouth movements for each recorded language that the game will ship in, the team used smart programming to generate the animations automatically based on the audio. A similar technique is also used for cutscenes, where a unique camera algorithm figures out where to best frame the action or speaking character that’s most important at the time. There wasn’t enough detail shared to really understand the inner workings of this, I can’t be sure if these things were still generated and added to the game during development or if they’re done on-the-fly during play for example, but it’s a clever approach either way.

Speaking of voices, although there have been enough epic trailers by now for fans to have a good idea of what to expect, I still came away from my time with Final Fantasy VII Remake feeling good about the chosen English voice cast. Everyone’s voice fits their overall character design and traits really well, and the writing itself seems pretty great so far. Barret definitely still runs the risk of being a little too over-the-top and worryingly trope-y, and there’s one other very prominent character whose voice acting I genuinely dislike, but the overall impression is positive so far. The game’s music is also very much on point, with new mixes of classic themes really tugging on the old heartstrings and advances in audio technology meaning that the days of hard cuts between cutscene, overworld and battle music are gone. Layering and mixing musical components as scenes change is nothing new in modern games, or even the Final Fantasy series, but it really has the potential here to breathe new life into compositions that are so established in history and such a big part of what fans loved about Final Fantasy VII.

And that’s really the central theme here. Kitase-san and his team know how precarious a concept it is to try to recreate the magic of a game like Final Fantasy VII. They’re also quite possible the only people capable of truly pulling it off, if the few short hours I spent playing it are anything to go by. It’s a wholly different game, to be sure, but there’s also a keen sense of respect and love for the original game, its world and its characters that shows in every facet of what I’ve seen so far, and what I now know about the development itself.

While this retelling of the story might never replace Final Fantasy VII in fans’ eyes, with the amount of love and care being poured into the Final Fantasy VII Remake by a team composed of some its original creators and many of its original fans, there’s no doubt in my mind that Final Fantasy VII Remake will sit proudly alongside it. I won’t know for sure until the complete product is in my hands, but this initial taste has me confident that all of the promise of that first reveal way back in 2015 will be delivered on and then some. This is how you do a remake.