I had a chance to sit down at an in-depth Final Fantasy 7 Remake presentation and hands-on demo at E3 2019. None other than the legendary Yoshinori Kitase chaired the presentation, which went into detail on the concepts behind Final Fantasy 7 Remake and what the team hoped to accomplish with its development. I also got a chance to see the first 20 minutes or so of live gameplay with an explanation behind the fundamentals of the combat system and the basics of exploration.
The core idea of Final Fantasy 7 Remake, according to Kitase-san, is preserving all the things fans loved about the original while greatly expanding every aspect of the game. The environments, characters, and plot will all be very familiar for those who have played the original Final Fantasy 7, but from the small part I got to see, everything has more depth.
According to Kitase-san, “The original Final Fantasy 7 was a defining title in the history of video games, and what we’re trying to do with the remake project is to do a full reimagining of that original title and go deeper than we ever could before into the characters and the story. So, the objective we’ve set ourselves is to create a whole new reimagining of this game and not just a simple one-for-one recreation of it or a remaster or anything like that. ”
Final Fantasy 7 Remake Preview | Characters
Similar to what we saw with Resident Evil 2 earlier this year, Final Fantasy 7 Remake takes the source material and expands it without destroying its spirit. In a way, it feels like the original game was more of a set of storyboards for what Kitase-san and his team are working on now.
Final Fantasy 7 Remake does a great job of bringing to life the game in a way that fits the rose-tinted lenses of my childhood memories. Cloud, Barret, Jesse, Biggs, and Wedge are no longer super-deformed models with a low polygon count. Instead, they’re brought to life with the latest technology in a way that enhances the feel I got with the original instead of detracting from it.
As seen in the footage so far, the character designs are very faithful to the original illustrations by Tetsuya Nomura. Most importantly, they act the same way. Cloud is still a brooding, try hard type who is just too cool for school and Barret is a foul-mouthed, angry dude who hates Shinra.
What’s really cool, though, is that the voice acting and expanded script allow Jesse, Biggs, and Wedge to shine. In the original, these side characters could only get so many words in since you had to stop everything you were doing to read what they had to say. With Final Fantasy 7 Remake, they can talk in the background as you’re moving, and get their own cutscenes where you get to know them a lot better. Jesse, in particular, gets a lot more screen time, and getting the chance to get attached to her will make later events in the game that much more impactful. In the original, Jesse, Biggs, and Wedge presumably die when the Sector 7 plate falls, but they’re just never mentioned again.
Final Fantasy 7 Remake Preview | Environment
The first episode of the Final Fantasy 7 Remake takes place entirely in Midgar. According to Kitase-san, it contains enough material for a full-fledged main entry Final Fantasy title, which means we’re going to see a lot more of Midgar than we got an opportunity to in the original.
In the original Final Fantasy 7, we didn’t get to see much of Midgar. Out of the 9 sectors that make up the city, we only really saw a small part of the slums of Sectors 0, 1, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8. We’ve never really gotten to see the disparity between the citizens living on the plate and the ones living in the slums below, and there’s a lot of directions the story can go in the expanded remake.
For the presentation and demo, we only got a small look at the game. The remake’s version of the attack on Mako Reactor No. 1 is very similar to the original’s, but there’s more to see and do. While the path to the reactor is much the same, there’s a few twists and turns, and more enemies to take on. It also serves as a tutorial for the game’s various systems and gets you used to the unique combat system culminating in the battle with Scorpion Sentinel (Guard Scorpion in the original game).
One of the most significant changes that comes with Final Fantasy 7 Remake is that of scale. In the original, the camera was static, and the backgrounds were pre-rendered, so there wasn’t much environmental depth. For the time, the effect was impressive, but the 3D models on 2D backgrounds meant that we only got to see things from a very specific angle. With the remake, you get to see the same iconic locations, like the colossal mako reactor in Sector 1, in higher-fidelity from multiple angles. This really adds even more to the sense of foreboding the life stealing machine inspires.
Fortunately, even though the environments have been redesigned and expanded, the changes feel like an enhancement instead of a replacement. The game still feels intimately familiar, and it tickled my sense of nostalgia while making me excited to see what’s changed and what’s new.
Final Fantasy 7 Remake Preview | Combat
One of the common concerns I heard a lot before the reveal (and one I shared myself) is that the combat would be too action oriented. It was hoped that Final Fantasy 7 Remake would somehow blend the fast-paced combat of Final Fantasy 15 with the turn-based battles of the original FF7. It seemed like that’d be a tall order, but the team somehow pulled off something that fans of both playstyles should like.
The most basic attack is made by tapping the Square button. This move does basic damage, but its primary purpose is to help you fill the Active Time Battle (ATB) gauge more quickly. Once you’ve filled a bar of the ATB gauge, you can enter Tactical Mode which allows you to access more advanced moves.
In the demonstration you could use Braver, for example, as one of the new “Ability” moves. This inflicted more damage on enemies in exchange for one bar of the ATB gauge. Magic works much the same as it did in the original, and can be cast through the Tactical Menu. However, in addition to costing MP, spells now require at least one ATB bar as well.
You can now actively guard and evade attacks as well. This is important not only to reduce damage but to avoid special attacks from enemies that can bind a character. If a character is bound, you only have a limited time to knock the enemy off by attacking with another character or the bound character will take massive damage.
One of the significant additions to the battle system is the stagger bar. In addition to an HP bar enemies have a stagger bar that when filled, will open them up for massive damage. Some of your attacks might not cause a ton of damage, but will quickly fill an enemy’s stagger bar. This means that sometimes you have to sacrifice some DPS to open an enemy up for even more damage later.
Range also has more of a part to play in Final Fantasy 7 Remake. In the original game, you could choose to put your character in the front or back row, which affected how much damage they took and could deal out. Since you’re now actually moving around the environment, you can find yourself in a position in which enemies can only be defeated using characters with ranged weapons. In the presentation, Cloud and Barret ran into a group of 1st Ray turrets which were mounted above the party. Cloud could only use magic against them, but Barret could hit them with his gun arm’s regular attacks and abilities. This should help place more emphasis on party composition since in some locations, long-range characters will have the advantage and in short-range others will.
In the hands-on demo, I got to take on the Scorpion Sentinel. In the original game, this was the first boss fight and was reasonably routine. However, in the remake, this battle is a lot more intense. Not only is it longer, but it’s more cinematic. The Scorpion Sentinel has several stages, and each one brings new attacks. At first, you just pound it with lightning and regular attacks, but as you whittle more of its health down, it gains a shield that you have to bring down from attacking it in the back. When it’s near death, the tail laser comes into play, and you have to duck behind rubble created by the fight or take major damage.
I was astonished that Square Enix has somehow managed to create a real-time battle system that combines the best of what Final Fantasy 15 has to offer with the more strategic combat of traditional turn-based RPG gameplay. You really can’t just hack away at enemies and expect to succeed. You have to time your attacks, charge your ATB gauge, use spells and abilities when the time is right and manage the other characters in your party when needed.
Final Fantasy 7 Preview | The best is yet to come.
Even though I only got to see the first 20 minutes or so of the game and play through the first boss fight, my concerns about the direction of the Final Fantasy 7 Remake are almost entirely allayed. The environment and character designs are incredibly faithful to the original game, and the combat feels like a good meld of modern and classic gameplay.
My time with Final Fantasy 7 Remake ended with the destruction of the Scorpion Sentinel, but I found myself wanting more. I want to see the rest of Midgar and just how Square Enix has expanded the story. Of all the games I saw at E3, FF7 Remake inspired the most awe in me, and I can’t wait for March 3, 2020, to continue my journey with Cloud, Barret, and Tifa.