One of the most impressive things we’ve seen so far at E3 2019 is the Final Fantasy VII Remake.
First, we’re funnelled into a briefing room of sorts. It’s clad in soot-covered red brick and covered with posters and signage for the Shinra Electric Power Company. Some screens display Shinra logos and what looks like a train arrival times board. It feels like we’re in a room off the side of a station platform at a Shinra facility. Alas, we’re not allowed to take any pictures of this by the PR folk on hand, but it’s a very accomplished setup.
Then the feed to the TV screens is “hacked into” by Avalanche’s tech specialist, Jessie, to provide us with instructions for our impending mission: The bombing of Shinra Mako Reactor no. 8. This is it! This is the opening mission of the Final Fantasy VII Remake, and we are all very excited.
Jessie talks us through some of the basics of combat – in an extension of the details given at the Square Enix E3 2019 presentation – because “it’s not about how big your sword is, it’s about how you use it.” Everybody sniggers at that remark, but we all dutifully pay attention to the mechanics of the Final Fantasy VII Remake, for they are both familiar and very removed from the 1997 original.
Cloud attacks with the ‘square’ button, while ‘R1’ parries, and ‘circle’ dodges. So far, so Final Fantasy XV. But where things vary is the ATB system.
ATB, an acronym of Active Time Battle, is the name for the pseudo-turn-based combat of the original Final Fantasy VII. In the original, your bar fills over time – sometimes quicker, sometimes slower, depending on stats and status effects – and when it fills, you get to act. It’s not strictly turn-based, but it gives the overall impression of it.
In the Final Fantasy VII Remake, the ATB bar fills as you attack enemies with your main weapon. In Cloud’s case, that’s the massive Buster Sword. In Barret’s, it’s the gun where his arm should be. Once you’ve filled an ATB bar slot – our characters have two each in the demo, but we presume that increases as they progress – you get to perform an action or ability over and above the basics of attacking, blocking, and parrying.
Pressing the ‘X’ button opens the tactical menu. This is a Final Fantasy battle menu we’re more familiar with, and it functions somewhere between that, and Fallout 4’s V.A.T.S system. Time slows to a crawl, and you’re given time to think, plan, and issue commands. It’s an incredibly well-handled mix of action and strategy, a line that its forebears – Final Fantasy XII, XIII, and XV – have struggled to straddle consistently, for one reason or another.
Attacking is free, but everything else needs an ATB slot. If you want to use an active ability – like Cloud’s Braver attack, which is now an ability, rather than a Limit Break – it’ll take a single ATB charge. Some abilities, like one of Barret’s focused attacks, take two full ATB slots. If you want to cast a magic spell, it’ll cost an ATB charge and the MP (Magic Point) cost of the spell. If you want to use an item, like a potion to heal or ether to restore MP, it’ll cost you the ATB charge and, obviously, use up the item from your inventory.
Limit Breaks, meanwhile, work in the traditional way. Your Limit gauge will fill as you sustain damage, and when it does, you can unleash your Limit Break on your enemies.
You control one character at a time, so if you’re busy with Barret, Cloud will be automatically attacking enemies, filling up his ATB gauge, and generally getting on with business. You can swap between characters at any time by tapping up or down on the d-pad, and you can issue commands from the tactical menu to any character who has available ATB charges.
The mission we play through, an abridged version of the opening Mako reactor bombing run, sees us descending into the reactor core chamber to place the bomb. Cloud has already left the station platform, met Biggs, Wedge, and Jessie, and bickered with Barret by this point. We all know this scene by heart. We’re like actors taking a familiar scene as read. We descend some ladders, fight some enemies, and generally have a chance to get to grips with the combat before we run into the game’s infamous first boss, the Guard Scorpion.
It’s a very different experience. Some of it is mechanically still the same – the scorpion is vulnerable to lightning attacks, while its tail laser is devastating – but in other respects, it’s very different. At one stage, the scorpion jumps into the air and attacks you from a distant wall; in this situation, only magical attacks or Barret’s ranged weapon can do damage. At another point in the battle, its legs become discrete targets, extra drone-like opponents healing the boss until you take them down. The Guard Scorpion hides behind a shield at times, and the only way to damage it is to attack a glowing weak spot. (Which, erm, happens to be its bumhole? It looks a bit weird, but we’re sure it’s not intentional. Someone probably just didn’t think it through.)
The biggest difference is that tail laser, though. Gone is the hilarious, lost in translation warning about attacking while its tail is up. Instead, it’s replaced with a cover system, with Cloud and Barret ducking in behind debris to avoid feeling the scorpion’s sting.
It’s not necessarily an enormous change, in the grand scheme of things, but it shows the Final Fantasy VII Remake making concessions to modern video game design in a way that other blasts from the past (looking at you, Shenmue III) are refusing to.
This might not be the straight-up remake that purists were hoping for, but do you know what? Based on the short time we spent with it, the Final Fantasy VII Remake is excellent. It’s really just superb, in a way we weren’t expecting.
At this early stage, it looks like it might be able to find the centre of the Venn diagram containing both fans of the original game and players looking for a modernised, action-based experience. Perhaps that’s better. Maybe an homage, one that shares the characters, setting, and key story beats of the original, has a better chance of success than a shot-for-shot remake.
Over the years since its announcement, we’ve gone from apprehensive, to nervous, to quietly hopeful against our better judgement. Now, after spending a little time with the Final Fantasy VII Remake, we’re feeling confident about the game for the first time.
We’ll find out on March 3, 2020.