When Square Enix announced a complete, top-down remake of fan favorite Final Fantasy VII way back in 2015, there were plenty of questions about how a rehaul of a 22-year-old game would feel. Well, it feels pretty darn good.
Final Fantasy VII came out in 1997, with a quasi turn-based combat style, which the series has largely replaced with straightforward action. It was unclear how, or if, a remake would incorporate any of the old game’s battle system. After a brief glimpse of gameplay later in 2015, information about the remake dried up for years.
Then, during this year’s E3, Square Enix shook up fans’ expectations of the remake’s fighting system. For the first time, the developer revealed that the combat would essentially play as a hybrid of old and new styles. TIME was recently able to pick up a controller and check out the game for ourselves on a Playstation 4 Pro.
The game takes place on a planet with a physical life force being exploited by an evil mega-corporation. You play as a sulky mercenary named Cloud Strife (remember the 1990s?), hired by an organization named AVALANCHE, hell bent on stopping the company from threatening all life on the planet.
All in all, the demo we saw, which was the same showed off at E3, was fairly limited, though looked absolutely beautiful. Cloud, with a gigantic sword on his back, and an AVALANCHE operative name Barret, who has a minigun for an arm, plan to blow up a life force refinery only to be intercepted by a six-legged tank with a scorpion tail. Ah, video games.
Final Fantasy VII Remake’s combat contains elements of both straight-up action and the original’s turn-based tactics. When encountering enemies, you can use the square button to hack away, circle to dodge and the right bumper to shield yourself from incoming attacks. Doing damage increases what’s called your Active Time Battle (ATB) meter, and you press the X button to enter the turn-based menu. Doing this slows down the action to a crawl, and allows you to use a character’s abilities, spells and items.
This being a Final Fantasy game, you’ll play as a party of characters. Pressing up or down on the D-pad allows you to switch characters and manage all of their meters, magic points and items. All the while, characters doing damage build up a Limit meter. Once that’s filled, they have access to an extra-powerful attack called a Limit Break.
It can seem like a lot to juggle, but after a few fights with low-level enemies, I started to get comfortable. Once I faced off against that scorpion tank, managing all of the active systems grew downright satisfying. Building up Cloud’s ATB meter and unleashing his Braver ability, then switching to Barret to cast a spell, then returning to Cloud to do more damage all felt engaging and interesting. Throughout the extensive (possibly a tiny bit too long) boss battle, I even began to wish for another character in the party, only because the combat’s plate-spinning definitely lit up my brain’s dopamine receptors. It was easy to see the possibilities with different abilities, characters and spells going up against a varied array of enemies.
If that still sounds too much for you, don’t worry — Square Enix representatives told us that players are ultimately able to choose how they want to fight. If you’d rather not have the hybrid combat, you can bind the abilities and spells to buttons and execute them in real time. If you’d rather go old school, the developer recently announced that there would be an all turn-based “Classic Mode,” which wasn’t available for our demo.
“Players get to choose how to play,” Neal Pabon, a senior manager with product marketing at Square Enix said during the demo. “This is the perfect entry point for Final Fantasy.”
From the small slice we played, that seemed like it could be true. The combat’s customization left me wondering how I would end up playing the game as every option seemed interesting in its own way. I approached the demo worried that Square Enix was trying to please too many groups, risking satisfying none of them. When it ended, I felt like they had nailed it all. At least with combat.
With only a few months until the game’s March 3, 2020 release date, questions remain about length, characters, difficulty and story. For example, it seems like the rehaul will only cover part of the original story, but company representatives deflected questions about whether there would be follow-ups. (Though reporting says the whole of the remake will be episodic.)
That said, everything about this game demo seemed to come from a place of reverence for the original game, while also striving to make a blockbuster modern experience. Whether you’re a fan of the original, or interested in what you’ve seen so far of the remake, Final Fantasy VII seems to be as fun as it looks.
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Write to Peter Allen Clark at email@example.com