I’ve been hoping for a remake of Final Fantasy VII since the mid-2000s. Since they made a movie out of it with Advent Children, it seemed like a dream too good to ever come true to see its beautiful dieselpunk world revisited in video game form unencumbered by the technological limits of the PlayStation (and the Super Nintendo it was originally destined for).
When they announced it in 2015, I was ecstatic at how they were presenting it, but certainly had my concerns that they’d ever be able to really pull it off. Shifting away from its turn-based roots to something more action-oriented seem like a huge gamble, one that would require revisiting so many core assumptions about how the game played. The new tone being darker and more intimate would also recontextualize many of the original’s campier vibe. Final Fantasy as a single-player series wasn’t exactly faring well, with the XIII games not prioritizing gameplay as high as cinematic fidelity. And even if you got everything right, you still have to please fans of one of the highest rated games of all time by bringing this work to the present without sacrificing what made it great to begin with.
Time was also not kind to this project. About a year and a half after its announcement, with mostly silence from the producers, its development was effectively soft-rebooted, citing quality concerns. While it was definitely a good idea to ensure the game was as good as we all wanted, it signaled the game would take even longer to emerge. In the meantime, Final Fantasy XV finally came out… in a sense. Being stuck in development hell for so long, it cut out a bunch of story pieces and moved them to CG movies and anime shows. Additional chapters would keep coming out to fill out the story, and are still being developed to this day. But the game was at least mostly well received, even if I thought it was pretty boring to play, much like the XIII series was for me.
So with all this stacked against it, Final Fantasy VII Remake finally emerged in 2019, three and a half years later, and… looked incredible. More trailers would come out, people posted hands-on reports of playing it at conventions like PAX West, and it seemed like maybe this was going to work out. It did get delayed, but only by about 5 weeks, which usually indicates some last minute critical bugs slipping past a GM build date.
While the full game won’t be out for another month, yesterday they posted a free demo of the game. And so far, after running through the demo three times, it looks like they actually pulled it off.
They perfectly captured the ambiance of the world and scenes, while modernizing everything about the game itself. Visually, the world is stunning, enriched with detail in every corner. Movement is fluid and natural, and perfectly segues between action, battle, and cutscenes many times throughout. The soundtrack is on another level, reimagining classics from the original with new life. The characters bring soul and charm to the opening reactor attack, cutting through the super serious nature of what you’re doing (even if the writing was a little cheesy at times).
But the battle system is on another level from what I could’ve imagined. This is, in every way, a leap over anything Final Fantasy has ever tried. Each character gets their own fighting style, with special moves and modes to switch between. Cloud is either dancing around with a sword or getting up in the bad guy’s face to deal massive damage. Barret’s much more about long distance and taking out enemies at different vertical levels, which might be the first time we’ve seen that (outside of maybe Tactics). While in battle, you can switch from real-time to mostly paused to select abilities, but you can also set shortcuts mapped to the L1 button, which I believe is very similar to Kingdom Hearts. It also steals the Final Fantasy 13 staggering system to drive down an opponent’s ability to keep fighting.
Abilities are not the fire-and-forget spells of JRPGs past, but rather something that depends a lot on positioning, distance, and timing. If you’re 20 yards away from a bad guy, your skill is going to miss, but if you’re close and another enemy jumps in front of you, you’ll hit both. This helps break the monotony of RPGs where you quickly fall into a rhythm of knowing what your best spells are and spamming them until the battle is over. Each encounter requires situational awareness and competence with your party’s skills. Boring encounters is usually poison for an RPG for me, so this is an incredible thing to feel when playing the demo.
Overall, I’ve played the demo three times and had a blast each time through. There’s still a lot we don’t know about the game, including how other characters will play, how much of the story is covered, and how many episodes there will be or when they’ll be released. But so far, Final Fantasy VII Remake looks like it will be the new benchmark of the JRPG genre. The demo has incredible production and polish to it, and hopefully that carries through the full release. It’s been truly remade, and as a fan of this game since it came out, I cannot wait to play the full thing (in between sprints of Animal Crossing: New Horizons).
Your move, Persona 6.