Do you remember the first time you stepped onto a train platform in Midgar? Looked up at Shinra tower? Heard the soft, plinking opening notes of the flower girl’s music theme? “Final Fantasy VII,” which launched on the original PlayStation in 1997, is full of these iconic moments; even decades later, it’s still one of the most beloved RPGs of all time. Of course, “FFVII” is also a product of its time, which can be seen in its blocky, polygonal character models and lack of facial animation and voice acting.
Believe it or not, younglings, “Final Fantasy VII” was considered cutting-edge in the late 90s, but fans have long clamored for an updated version of the classic. Enter “Final Fantasy VII Remake,” the long-rumored, much-hyped reimagining of Square Enix’s PS1 RPG epic. Rebuilt from the ground up with lifelike graphics, complex animations, and a fully voiced cast of characters, “FFVII Remake” is finally nearing release four years after its announcement at E3 2015.
Well, sort of.
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“Final Fantasy VII Remake” will be released in parts, the first of which is coming in March 2020. This chunk of the project will showcase the city of Midgar, where the early hours of “Final Fantasy VII” take place. While the original Midgar could be traversed in just a handful of hours, the remade version is meant to encompass a standalone game — one so dense that it will require two Blu-ray discs. There’s no official word on how long that is exactly, but that’s a lot of data.
Square Enix made “Remake” the star of its E3 2019 media briefing this week, and we had a chance to see even more of it — and go hands-on — on the E3 show floor. In a lengthy presentation, producer Yoshinori Kitase spoke of the development team’s philosophy in recreating the magic of “Final Fantasy VII” for a new generation of players. Kitase served as director on the original release, and a number of members of the core dev team also returned for this project.
The objective, Kitase said, was never a 1:1 remake of “Final Fantasy VII” with better graphics. Instead, they wanted to follow the “Final Fantasy” core values of innovation, pushing boundaries, and surprising their audience, delving deeper into each character’s history and motivations.
If you’ve played through “Final Fantasy VII,” the remake will feel comfortingly familiar and new at the same time. Midgar is still a grim city ruled by an evil corporation hell-bent on destroying the planet to further their own selfish agenda, but it’s also brighter, more vibrant. You can see more of the steampunk inspiration that went into building the city just because everything looks so much better.
The characters look better too, and the voice acting allows their personalities to shine. Of course, it’s great to see and hear the main characters come to life in a new way, but even supporting characters benefit from the upgrades. For example, the trio of Jessie, Biggs, and Wedge really show their personalities through new dialogue, and in a cut scene, Shinra baddie Heidegger actually managed to look intimidating.
The biggest shock for “Final Fantasy VII” purists will be the remake’s combat, which has changed significantly. For better or worse, the traditional turn-based fighting is gone, replaced by a more active system in which most of the fighting occurs in real time. Cloud gets up close and personal to slash enemies with his buster sword, while Barret’s gun arm is ideal for targeting out-of-reach foes.
There are some familiar elements of yore in the reworked combat system. ATB gauges fill up as characters fight; once they’re full, you can switch to a slow-motion tactical mode and use special attacks, like Cloud’s Braver. Limit breaks are back, too, and can be unleashed when a character has taken enough of a beating. Magic and items are also tied to the commands in tactical mode, and yes, materia is back! You can actually see the equipped materia embedded in weapons, which is an incredible touch. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to mess around with attaching new materia or even the game’s menus, so we were limited by what Cloud and Barret had equipped by default.
The hands-on demo concluded with the game’s first boss fight, a massive robotic scorpion in a mako reactor. It was great seeing how its moves from the original were incorporated into the new combat system; Guard Scorpion is still just as deadly with its tail up, but now you can take cover behind random debris on the field to protect yourself. You can switch between characters at will, or just take control of one character and issue commands to the other; your own play style determines how you’ll manage your team. The combat might look chaotic and convoluted on video, but once you get your hands on it, everything feels much more fluid.
Hopefully, the Midgar portion of the game will be enough to tide people over, because there’s no word on when future parts of “Final Fantasy VII Remake” will be released, how many parts there will be, and what these releases will contain. That’s the most worrying part of the remake; it could be years until we get to that final showdown with Sephiroth, or even see Red XIII again.
For now, just enjoy the fact that “Final Fantasy VII Remake” looks and sounds incredible. It’s not the shot-for-shot remake some fans may have wanted, but the fact that it exists at all would have seemed unlikely just a few years ago. If Midgar takes up two Blu-ray discs, that’s theoretically a lot of gameplay, and each release is meant to exist as a standalone experience as well as part of the larger story. That story begins anew on PS4 on March 3, 2020.