Final Fantasy VII Remake: Quick thoughts on the demo

For years, the Final Fantasy Remake felt like so much vaporware. Then, in more recent times, things started moving. All memories of the disappointing 2015 gameplay video were erased with newer, more vibrant trailers. Demos at gaming conventions whetted the appetite of many a gamer, but it was only this week that the average PS4 player got a chance to download and play the very first mission. Here are my thoughts.

Part One of FF7R covers the Midgar section of the original game, with the demo covering the very first reactor bombing – including the revamped Guard Scorpion battle and the subsequent timed escape from the reactor.

The opening cinematic is truly the platonic ideal of the FF7 opening – this crisply detailed HD experience is exactly what I imagine in my mind’s eye when thinking of the original, lower res version. As before, the opening segues into the action, with Cloud getting off the train and engaging in his first battle with the Shinra guards. One nice little touch that has been preserved is that Cloud reaches Level 7 in his very first battle.

Battle itself has been revamped significantly. There is a ‘Classic Mode’ that more closely resembles the original, but so far I’ve only played through on ‘Normal’. This mode makes a fair stab at combining real time battle with turn-based mechanics, and certainly outshines the efforts of FFXIII or XV.

In battle, you can block, dodge roll and perform basic attacks as much as you like, but the big guns only really come out once your ATB fills up. The ATB fills over time, but is helped along by these weaker normal attacks. Once you have an ATB charge or two to hand, you can cast magic, perform powerful physical attacks, or use items. Limit breaks also turn up occasionally, but during the demo I only saw them once per character, so it doesn’t seem to be a tactic to especially rely on.

Characters also each have unique special ability mapped to the Triangle button. Cloud’s is the ability to switch between ‘Operator Mode’ and ‘Punisher Mode’, which are essentially two different stances. Punisher Mode is slower and more vulnerable to ranged attacks and magic, but it enables Cloud to deal more powerful strikes and even counter when blocking.

As in the original, Barret joins you after the first few battles, bringing his own gameplay style. Where Cloud gets up close and personal with an oversized sword, Barret is all about the ranged attacks – essential for dealing with enemies that melee attacks can’t reach. AI-controlled characters don’t seem particularly smart in the demo, but switching between characters is easy – as is issuing orders to the character you’re not controlling. It remains to be seen if this will get a bit fiddlier once there’s a third character in the party.

As well as old classics like the Tail Laser, the Guard Scorpion battle has been given some new mechanics – for example, it will occasionally protect itself with a barrier that must be disabled, and towards the end it busts out a self-repair system. Although I didn’t die in the battle, I did have to rely heavily on potions and even the odd phoenix down. Fortunately, potions are plentiful throughout the reactor. MP also regenerates slowly over time, which means if you can afford to wait, you can also use Barret’s Cure – though that takes away MP that could be used casting Thunder on the enemy.

One thing the Guard Scorpion battle does reveal is the cognitive dissonance caused by this hybrid turn-based/real-time system. Being able to act at all times means it can feel frustrating to have to ‘waste’ precious ATB charges on items and healing, when what you want to do is unleash your specials. Of course, that trade-off is a key feature of a turn-based battle system – it only feels somehow unfair here because you also have those real-time elements.

As you make your way into the reactor, you’ll also get to enjoy the banter between the AVALANCHE members – everything from Biggs and Jessie trying to figure out Cloud’s deal, to Barret ranting about how Mako is ruining the planet. The inter-party was one of the things I thought was done well in FFXV, and it also brings the game to life here. It’s going to be hard saying goodbye to Biggs, Wedge and Jessie when the time comes!

Once the Guard Scorpion is down, you must once again escape the reactor before your bomb goes off – although this time you get a generous 20 or 30 minutes to get out, instead of the original’s ten. I wussed out and chose a thirty minute limit, which earned me mockery from Barret, and was also far too generous. That being said, I did experience my one and only game over during the escape, when I fell to some aggressive shock troopers. This experience exposed one of my other issues with the battle system – so far, I’m just not very good at blocking or targeting the right enemy.

Fans will be pleased to know that rescuing Jessie after she gets trapped under some debris is still part of the escape, but more importantly, so is climbing ladders. Remember how slow and tedious climbing ladders was in the original FF7? That same experience has been accurately reimplemented here – I know I should be annoyed, but I’m so overwhelmed with nostalgia that I actually liked the attention to detail.

Finally, it’s worth noting that even at this early stage, there have been some story modifications. In the original, it was AVALANCHE’s bomb that blew up the reactor. Here, the bomb is a dud, but President Shinra – who has been watching the whole raid on a magic CCTV – nonetheless orders Heidegger to blow it up anyway. Although it might seem counterproductive for Shinra to blow up their own reactor, remember that this is the same company that crashed one of the Midgar plates just to make the public hate AVALANCHE.

It’s just over a month until patient fans will be able to get their hands on the full game, reportedly a 100GB behemoth. This demo may have whetted our appetites, but there’s still so much more to get stuck into. Here’s some of the things we can look forward to:

  • Playing around with materia, equipment and abilities.
  • Summoned monsters in all their glory.
  • Playable Tifa and Aerith (Red XIII will only be present as a guest character in Part One).
  • New story elements, including the mysterious ‘Watchers of Fate’ and that new guy from the trailers. Let’s hope they don’t try to make the new elements too elaborate or nonsensical.
  • Cloud in a dress.
  • Riding a motorcycle.
  • Taking the stairs at Shinra HQ, now in HD.

See you again in April for my thoughts on the full game.

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