I’ve had my fears and doubts over Final Fantasy VII Remake during its long development.
Of all the issues, whether it’s the faithful representation of iconic characters or the overly ambitious plan to expand the story over multiple episodes, I suppose my biggest concern was how would it play now that it’s ditching the archaic turn-based battles for real-time combat.
Based on Final Fantasy XV and Kingdom Hearts III, I don’t think real-time combat has ever been Square Enix’s strong suit. The thought of turning Cloud and Avalanche’s battle against the Shinra Corporation into a hack-and-slash-a-thon left me feeling more than a little cold.
But now that I’ve been to finally get hands-on with Final Fantasy VII Remake‘s opening bombing mission, which culminates in the boss fight against the Scorpion Sentinel, I’ve been won over in every aspect.
The famed ATB system lives on, albeit with a clever inversion to the old system of just waiting for a gauge to build up before you act. In real-time, you’ve got standard attacks that you can fire continuously, and they can look pretty fancy – whether it’s Cloud’s big ol’ buster sword or Barret’s gun-arm. But while they do some damage, their main function is building up your ATB gauge. Once the gauge is full, that’s when things get interesting; the action pauses and you return to a more traditional turn-based menu selection. Here you can pick actions from using an item, magic, or specific character abilities, from more powerful attacks to buffs.
There’s a lovely bit of rhythm between this real-time/turn-based hybrid as you go from one style to the other, which feels both well-paced and tactical. This is especially true considering you can switch characters on the fly; if it’s taking time for one party member to build up their ATB, you can swap to someone else who’s already ready to go. That said, you never need to switch characters if you don’t want to – Tactical Mode also lets you issue commands when you want, making it quite easy to string one ability after the other for some extra damage.
Also of note is how enemies have a focus gauge, which causes them to stagger once filled. It appears to be more of a ‘thing’ lately, with similar systems being seen in titles like Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 and the upcoming Code Vein. Once enemies have staggered, that’s when you want to save your best skills for – especially your Limit Breaks. Of course, those make a very welcome return!
The battle with the Scorpion Sentinel demonstrates it all very well. It’s a pretty lengthy fight, but it’s an incredibly dynamic and cinematic one, made up of multiple phases, requiring a change of tactics as you progress. As such, there’s never a dull moment. It’s also elevated by the excellent music, which is based on the instantly recognisable classic boss theme, but given a new dramatic orchestral oomph.
There’s also good banter between Cloud and Barrett, from the cut scene that takes place just before and during the boss fight. In the latter case, it’s mostly for offering cues and hints, but it feels quite natural; it’s not as overbearing and simply “chatty noise” as say, Xenoblade Chronicles. There may have been some raised eyebrows over Barret’s voice as the stereotypically big tough black dude, but I think he sounds great – at least in the context of this short demo.
In any case, swapping between characters in Final Fantasy VII Remake feels instinctive and satisfying. Barrett lets rip a volley of gunfire from one angle then uses his ATB to hit the Scorpion with thunder magic before you swap over to Cloud, with the camera whooshing dramatically over, as you go in for the close-up. It feels brilliant.
The demo is only a short one, and one almost entirely centred around a boss fight, but what a huge impression it makes. After years of speculation and anxiety, Final Fantasy VII Remake looks and feels amazing to play. It perfectly captures the spirit of the original game, but brings it roaring into the present.
Who knows if Square Enix will really succeed in realising the entire game over multiple entries, but if all else fails, we’ll always have Midgar.
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