Final Fantasy VII Remake: Hands-on Preview of New Gameplay

We went hands-on with the first two chapters of Final Fantasy VII Remake as well as a few of the game's boss battles. Here are our impressions...

Final Fantasy VII Remake
Photo: Square Enix

In February, Den of Geek went hands-on with Final Fantasy VII Remake for the second time, playing through an extended demo that included the first two chapters of the game in their entirety, a portion of chapter 7 and its Air Buster boss battle, and the Abzu boss battle from later in the game.

What I played of the game last year was promising — the visuals looked stunning, the combat was tense and exciting, and most importantly, the original game’s essence and spirit remained completely intact despite the overhauls to gameplay and presentation. Square Enix’s plan to modernize the Final Fantasy VII from the ground up and instead of pursuing a one-to-one remake has always been a risky proposition considering the original is one of the most beloved games of all time, but after playing the game again just weeks from its launch, my skepticism has subsided considerably.

Most of my initial concerns about the remake revolved around the new battle mechanics. I’m still a fan of turn-based combat, and the purity, simplicity, and balance of the original’s combat is a truly beautiful thing. But after playing around four hours of the remake’s battles, against both bosses and groups of grunts, I can say that I’m thoroughly impressed with the new direction Square Enix has taken here.

Being able to move around in a 3D space during combat adds a whole new way to play this JRPG classic. The controls feel responsive, as switching between characters in your party seamlessly. And the ease of control is crucial because the combat encounters are designed to be incredibly fluid, requiring you to switch between characters depending on how you want to take out your enemies. 

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Cloud is deadliest when he invades the enemy’s space and hits them with barrages of close-quarters attacks (which look insanely cool, by the way), and he can also switch between two modes of attack: “Punisher,” in which his movement is slowed and he is more vulnerable to ranged attacks but doles out more damage, and “Operator,” which provides a better balance between attack and defense. Some drone and turret enemies are most vulnerable to ranged attacks, which is where Barrett and his gun arm come into play. Tifa is well-rounded, with quick melee and magic attacks, and Aerith can do some serious damage from afar with elemental magic, as well as provide crucial support when your party is on the ropes and low on HP.

Another layer Square Enix has added to the combat is the effect the environment has on battles, which is substantial. Obviously, where you and your enemies are positioned on the battlefield is important, but what’s more interesting is the fact that you can take cover behind objects, which is often the only way you’re going to survive the boss battles, as they periodically unleash attacks that can all but wipe your party out.

For example, in the first Mako Reactor’s boss battle with the Scorpion Sentinel, its Tail Laser attack is avoided by taking cover behind fallen rubble, which seems simple enough. But as the battle wears on and you’re scrambling to deal as much damage as possible when the small windows of opportunity present themselves, it’s easy to forget that, when the tail curls up, it’s time to run for cover. You’re forced to constantly think on your feet, switching characters on the fly depending on what signs you pick up from the enemy’s movements and behaviors, and it’s easy to get caught with your guard down if you don’t stay sharp at all times.

While the fights can feel frantic, you do have the ability to slow time down to a crawl in tactical mode, which allows you to cast spells, use items, give orders to other members of your party, or simply get your bearings. The game strikes a nice balance between fast and fluid and the more tactical approach of the original. 

Following the Scorpion Sentinel and the ensuing kaboom of the first Mako Reactor, I made my way through the panicked streets of Midgar, fighting a variety of soldiers and guard dogs, talking to civilians, and watching a handful of spectacularly rendered cutscenes (the contents of which I can’t share here, but just know that they’re awesome reimaginings of classic moments from the original). The way Midgar is reenvisioned in 3D is jawdropping — the graphics engine and art direction conspire to produce a richly detailed version of the industrial city that’s just as darkly enchanting as the pre-rendered backdrops of the original.

The move from 2D to 3D environments presents an interesting artistic tradeoff that may be divisive for fans of the original. On one hand, it’s exhilarating to explore Midgar and the Mako Reactors in a more intimate, visceral way from ground level. But there’s value to the original’s painterly imagery and fixed camera angles, which is lost in the remake. This is, of course, the nature of switching to a free-roaming camera in a 3D environment, and it’s purely a matter of taste and/or preference as to whether you prefer the remake’s visuals to the original’s direction or vice versa.

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One thing I came away unsure of after playing the demo was the voice acting. It’s typical fare if you’re familiar with the style of voice acting employed in modern Square Enix titles, which for me has always felt a little too theatrical and borderline over-the-top. Barret in particular sounds like a blaxploitation caricature, which is in line with his characterization in the original game to a certain extent but feels slightly cringey, especially when he’s incessantly screaming “ASSHOLE!” at dogs and turrets, which is a little awkward. I can’t imagine the voice acting will be a point of criticism for most, but it did stand out during my playthrough.

The boss battle with the Air Buster takes place on a suspended walkway just like in the original game, with your party’s positioning playing an even more significant role this time around. I was playing on normal mode, but the fight was still challenging, especially since I had used all of my Phoenix Downs before reaching the boss battle. But with each attempt at felling the hovering behemoth, I started to take better advantage of the combat system’s nuances (elemental damage, equipping materia, limit breaks, etc.) and cast my first summon, Leviathan.

In Final Fantasy VII Remake, summons fight alongside you for a duration of time. They’re big, powerful, and can turn the tide of battle dramatically. You can command them to do a variety of summon abilities, which are as damaging as they are eye-catching. Visually, the summons look terrific, and watching them duke it out with the gigantic bosses is epic to say the very least.

My favorite thing about the boss battle with Abzu was the fact that I got to use Aerith, which was a blast. She plays a bit like Barret in that she’s a ranged fighter, but her abilities are almost entirely magic-based and require an extra measure of strategy since she plays such a strong support role in the party. Also, she summons Ifrit, whose fire attacks dealt some serious damage that exploited Abzu’s weakness to fire. Also of note were Abzu’s superb character animations –when set afire, it rolled around frantically trying to quell the flames, which looked amazing.

I’m very, very happy with what I saw and played in my latest session with Final Fantasy VII Remake. There were some dull moments, like the Chapter 7 Mako Reactor’s rote layout and needless keycard hunts (can we please stop with the keycard thing in games?) and an inexplicable rhythm challenge to open a treasure room that was decidedly confusing and not fun at all. Aside from these minor complaints, though, the game is shaping up to be an excellent return to Midgar. It’s faithful to the original but feels tastefully updated.

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Final Fantasy VII Remake is out on April 10 for PlayStation 4.