The Final Fantasy 7 Remake is a revelation - hands-on preview

Final Fantasy 7 remake
The Final Fantasy 7 Remake is released for PS4 on 3 March 2020

Fans have heard very little about the Final Fantasy 7 Remake in the four years since its shock reveal at Sony’s 2015 E3 press conference but if anything their anticipation has only increased. Just the sight of the game’s loading screen at the start of Square Enix’s E3 2019 press conference was enough to elicit roars of approval.

Many members of that crowd would have been too young to play Final Fantasy 7 when it launched on the original PlayStation in 1997, and yet there’s an enduring reverence for what was arguably the first Japanese role playing game (or JRPG) to find a significant audience in the west.

Thanks to its cutting edge cutscenes, intricate systems and dense storyline, FFVII sold a million copies in North America alone with two months of its release, and has sold almost 10 times that across various formats and remasters to date (although legend has it this was also one of the most returned games of all time due to gamers finding out just how intricate and dense it was beneath the beautiful graphics). 

There’s clearly a lot of love for the game, then, which goes some way to explaining the concerns over how faithful this remaster will be to the original. Square Enix’s announcement it would be released in episodic form raised suspicions, and gameplay snippets showing the original’s turn based combat being superseded by real time fighting only served to confirm them: this, the self-appointed guardians of the game’s legacy huffed, is not Final Fantasy 7.

Now the first instalment of the Final Fantasy 7 Remake (FFVII-R) is less than a year away from release and playable at E3, its legendary producer Yoshinori Kitase is hoping those fears will be calmed. 

“Final Fantasy 7 is a legendary game in the industry and this is a reimagining of that game that  goes deeper than before,” he explained in a behind closed doors demonstration at E3 2019. “Our goal is to remake this genre-defining RPG for a new era. Not to make a straight one-to-one copy or remaster - something deeper than that.

“To explain our approach to developing FFVII-R, the first thing we asked ourselves was: what do we want to show with this game?” he continued. It transpired the answer was to go much deeper into the original game’s world and characters - which saw the project’s scope expand exponentially and necessitated an episodic approach. The first game in the project focuses solely on the original’s opening Midgar section - estimated to be around 10% of its total running time - already takes up two BluRay discs worth of data.

“This approach allows us to remake the original without having to scale anything back or remove anything the fans loved about the original,” explains Kitase, speaking via a translator. “The Final Fantasy franchise overall has three core values: innovation; pushing boundaries; and always surprising players. FFVII R really does share these core values - and the development team are viewing it as though they are making the next main numbered FF game.

Three of the original game’s key developers - Kitase, director Tetsuya Nomura, and writer Kazushige Nojima - are back in board for the remake, overseeing a young team of international programmers who were players back in 1997. 

“For the original core members recreating the game with new graphics wouldn’t have been enough to get them excited in the project,” reveals Kitase, “so they wanted to go beyond it.”

The result is an impressive update which perfectly captures the atmosphere and spirit of the original but applies them to a contemporary 3D action game. Any doubts about the authenticity of the project melt away into the Midgar night from the moment we get to go hands on with the briefest of slices of its opening section. It’s recognisably FFVII but with the immeasurable added benefit of being able to explore its world to a degree us original players could only imagine. In some cases almost literally so - Kitase explains his team had to fill in plenty of blanks where the original jumped from one location to another without showing what lied between them.

Kitase’s desire to produce a game that will appeal to both old and new fans is demonstrated by the new combat system. It’s actually a hybrid; regular attacks are dished out (and incoming ones dodged) in real time, filling up a character’s Active Time Battle (ATB) gangue as they land. Once a segment is full players can trigger a special ability or magic spell, at which point the action slows to a crawl so you can acmes the menus they hide behind (truly gung-ho players can bind their most used attacks to joypad buttons and trigger them that way instead). 

In practice it’s a revelation and a joy to use, a genuine bridging of old and new techniques that also manages to give FFVII-R a unique style of its own. Each character also has a unique ability mapped to the triangle button. Cloud’s is an alternate fighting style that is slower but does more damage while Barrett’s is a charged attack fro his gun arm weapon. Combined with focus attacks which eventually stagger enemies for a time allowing you to inflict bonus damage they add a tactical layer which Kitase promises will be essential to overcome tougher enemies later on. 

As a veteran Final Fantasy fan who completed the original game not once but twice back in the day I don’t mind admitting to a degree of scepticism about Square Enix’s approach to this remake. I’m also happy to report those fears have been allayed, with Final Fantasy 7 Remake quickly becoming one of the best games of E3 2019, and I’m intrigued to see how Kitase and co tackle the more freeform portions of the game to come.

“The reason we chose to focus on Midgar is because its the most iconic location in Final Fantasy VII and it really does represent that world,” he explains before dropping a tantalising tease that we might not need wait so long to find out what’s coming next. 

“While we are working to finish the development on the first game we are starting to plan and outline the content of the second game,” he says. Nibelheim, here we come!

When is the Final Fantasy 7 Remake release date?

The first chapter of the Final Fantasy 7 Remake releases for PS4 on 3 March 2020.