'FF7 Remake' demo: New combat system hits a series peak

It builds upon all the strongest aspects of 'Final Fantasy XV' and 'Kingdom Hearts III'.

Imagine a combat experience in a role-playing game that fuses together the strongest aspects of Final Fantasy XV and Kingdom Hearts III while leaving out all the repetitive or distracting nuances, and you’ll have at least a loose understanding of what it’s like to play as Cloud, Barrett, Tifa and the rest of AVALANCHE in Final Fantasy VII Remake. That was my lasting impression after running through a brief early-game demo during a private session in early October, the same experience revealed at the Tokyo Game Show in September.

In FFVII Remake combat, you aren’t just warping around and hammering out the same basic attacks over and over again until enemies die, like in Final Fantasy XV. And while boss battles come across as dynamic cinematic experiences, they don’t pull you out of the immersion like some Kingdom Hearts III set pieces do (like when you smack a giant monster in the face with a swirling pirate ship). I firmly remember one end-game boss battle from KHIII where I was on the losing side against a trio of powerful enemies, but just in time, I got the prompt to summon the Magic Carousel attraction to aid me in battle. Blasting out magical energy waves as Sora cackled gleefully from atop a pony, I was easily able to defeat my foes, but the victory felt hollow.

That scenario will probably never happen in Final Fantasy VII Remake, which borrows heavily from the often-silly Kingdom Hearts III in terms of combat, but it feels like a more refined alternative that’s more tactical in its execution. Square Enix seems well aware of what tonally works in a game like this — and it shows.

Cloud and Barrett during the first boss battle.

Square Enix

When I noted the connections to Kingdom Hearts III and Final Fantasy XV to Neal Pabon, a senior manager in marketing for Square Enix, agreed. “It feels like the next step when you look at XV and Kingdom Hearts III, and there’s elements from each,” he said, adding that Remake feels closer to KHIII. The closest point of comparison is in Remake’s customizable shortcuts that allow Sora to blast spells or use items in real time while fighting the Heartless or Nobodies.

You can play Final Fantasy VII Remake in the exact same way, but the default experience I went through involved using tactical mode to slow down time and navigate the menu to execute specific actions. I imagined this menu-driven mechanic would feel like a tedious slog, but the overall experience is fluid and exciting enough that you want to deftly navigate through these menus to execute the best possible strategy.

Even as the overall combat experience feels so far removed from the 1997 version of Final Fantasy VII, the way Remake forces the player to engage in tactical combat strategies still feels very much in the spirit of the original.

The demo takes place in the familiar first section of the game, where protagonist Cloud Strife is hired to help Barrett and his do-gooder group of terrorists bomb a Mako Reactor they believe is destroying the planet by harvesting energy from beneath the earth. You fight a few recognizable lesser enemies before the first boss battle against the Guard Scorpion, a scorpion-shaped robot with a tail laser and a barrier.

Remake takes a few liberties to enhance the overall experience, incorporating brief cutscenes at various stages of the battle as the robot leaps to the walls to evade your attacks or charges up its tail laser, forcing you to take cover. When it throws a barrier up, the player must flank the enemy to destroy the power generator before their attacks will land directly.

Your normal attacks are triggered by a simple button press, but once you build up enough slots in each character’s ATB Gauge (active time battle charge), you can spend it casting spells, using items, or executing special abilities unique to each character. To make all of this combat variation more manageable, FFVII Remake uses what Square Enix dubs a “hybrid combat system.” That’s where the tactical mode comes in, with slow-motion allowing you to take a bit more time selecting combat abilities.

At the Tokyo Game Show in September, Square Enix also revealed a Classic Mode that functions — you guessed it — much more like the turn-based original.

Cloud executing a stabbing attack.


Cloud and Barrett each have different abilities and magic equipped, opening up even more possibilities for battle. Cloud can deal a lot of damage from the front line with heavy but fast swings of his iconic Buster Sword, and all of his abilities hack and slash for lots of damage. (You can see the Materia crystals in weapons now, by the way.)

When enemies move to a distance, it’s Barrett’s gun arm you want to use. He can lay down a persistent stream of gunfire as his default attack or with two of his abilities. Another ability is a defensive buff that makes him more of a tank.

At any given moment, switching between characters is a simple up or down button press on the D pad, so as Cloud or Barrett gradually build up ATB Charge, you can swap between them to simultaneously execute special attacks. They feel very different from one another, whether it’s the speed at which they move or how heavy they feel when dodging.

As this sprawling epic evolves over time with nine playable characters, it’ll be intriguing to see how each of them feels in this new setting. So far, Square Enix has implied Remake will cover only the first section that takes place in Midgar. In theory, that would mean in addition to Aerith, who was shown during TGS in September, we’re also slated to get the warrior lion-wolf Red XIII as part of this video game.

Square Enix declined to comment on what that character might play like, or if he’s even playable in this game. While there’s a lot of mystery about the size and scope of Remake and how future installments might work, experiencing the demo has put me at ease. In fact, I’m downright excited to play more of this game as soon as possible, especially because this might be the most refined — and best — RPG combat experience Square Enix has ever designed.

Final Fantasy VII Remake will be released on PlayStation 4 on March 3, 2020.

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