Hands-on

Final Fantasy VII Remake is already a 2020 GOTY contender

It's shaping up to be just as revolutionary as the original.

The game that reinvented a genre is back.

Five years since an E3 reveal that sparked a million reaction videos, and nearly 23 years after the game first debuted for PlayStation 1 back in 1997, the pressure is on for Square Enix. Final Fantasy VII Remake is nearly here. Dorks who adorned their tween bedrooms with Cloud Strife wall scrolls (like me) are losing sleep wondering if the game can possibly live up to the hype. Could anything?

I’m delighted to say the answer is an emphatic “yes.” FFVII Remake’s arresting visuals, exhilarating combat, and confident reimagining of an iconic story slapped me upside the head in the best possible way during a three-hour demo. Sure, there’s a few minor quibbles, but on the whole, Remake is shaping up to be utterly dazzling.

Visual Redesign

Despite many significant changes, the game feels familiar, with enemies, locations, and music that dramatically improve upon the original but remain immediately recognizable. There’s jaw-dropping newness to be found everywhere: the environments, the character models, the music, you name it.

Cloud explores the new-look Midgar just after the first reactor raid.Square Enix

Various henchmen in the original FFVII made much of Cloud’s “Mako eyes,” but basically they’re just blue. In Remake, Cloud’s peepers are mesmerizing pools of radiant teal and green. It’s like watching a fire. You can see why Jessie’s so infatuated with the guy. Reader, you too will get lost in Cloud Strife’s dreamy eyes, and never want to leave.

All our heroes are far prettier than ever, with impeccably detailed hair and clothing, and richly expressive faces. Those low-poly block monsters of the PS1 era are a distant memory, and these people have even better threads than the minted goons of the Yakuza series (which sets a ridiculously high bar for fabric textures in games). The trim of Aerith’s cropped maroon jacket has a distinct velveteen or corduroy texture; you can imagine exactly what idly rubbing the bottom hem would feel like. The attention to detail, the obvious care taken to ensure each aspect is “just so” is simply staggering.

I cannot tell you the context of this scene, but it's not what you think. It's also awesome.Square Enix

Combat and Gameplay

My demo spanned Chapters 1-2, 7, and 10. (Square Enix isn’t sharing how many chapters are in the final game yet, sorry.) I didn’t get a lot of time to shop around in Midgar’s various residential enclaves or experience the seedy thrills of Wall Market. Most of my time was spent dungeon-crawling and fighting, and it’s a testament to the Final Fantasy VII Remake team’s innovative combat design that this never felt tedious. While I encountered multiple iterations of the same enemies, my surroundings often dictated a different approach to defeating them: switching to Barrett to dispatch baddies beyond Cloud’s range, pelting a Shinra grunt with some magic to make him drop his riot shield.

As much as we love it, the original FFVII can be grindy as hell, but I honestly could not get enough of the fighting in Remake. Those three hours flew by in a flash. The hybrid action/turn-based system makes it easy to control the pace of combat – slow when you’re plotting a strategy to take down a boss, as speedy as possible against run-of-the-mill enemies you’ve seen plenty of times before.

Each character (I played as Cloud, Tifa, Barrett, and Aerith) has a distinct fighting style. With the full game, I’m curious to see how that’s balanced against the Materia system, which seems to be largely intact here. The original FFVII let players basically customize the characters however they wanted, latent tendencies be damned.

Remake’s combat does come with the vaguest whiff of the camera issues that plagued Final Fantasy XV, where it becomes difficult to see yourself or your opponents due to environmental obstacles. But it’s pretty much saved here by the freedom to switch instantaneously between your party members, so it didn’t hamper my enjoyment of Remake anywhere near as much as it did in XV. Not yet, anyway.

The pace of combat shifts depending on your requirements. Melee attacks can be done very quickly, while you can take a bit more time to choose a spell or ability.Square Enix

Story and Characters

I haven’t been totally sold on the whole Midgar-only aspect of Remake, because a lot of the really interesting character developments don’t happen until you leave. The modern retelling of FFVII benefits immensely by introducing elements of Cloud’s mental instability far earlier on, making the story feel richer and meatier from the start. It’s impossible for me to say how all this stuff would land for someone who’s never played FFVII, but as someone who’s played it a few too many times, some of the unexpected tweaks to iconic moments had me positively gobsmacked. Without revealing too much, let’s just say Shinra is somehow even worse than you remember, and the company's various henchmen are even more glamorously villainous than ever.

Cloud explores Shinra HQ.Square Enix

You don’t get to name your party members this time around, and for good reason. These characters can’t be anyone else. Cloud is sullen and sarcastic, a hero through and through despite his many obvious attempts to act as though he’s anything but. Tifa is warm and kind, a ferocious protector of anyone she cares about. Barrett is bombastic and brash, but optimistic too. Aerith is delicate, mysterious, and mesmerizing. Your Avalanche buddies have a lot more spark this time around too, and I’m excited to see how the full game explores Cloud’s evolving relationships with them.

I was scared to care again too, guys. The last season of Game of Thrones sucked. Rise of Skywalker was a mixed bag. The new Fallout game was a trash fire. But it’s finally time for something that’s every bit as good we hoped it would be. Final Fantasy VII Remake is shaping up to be just as revolutionary as the original. April can’t come fast enough.

Final Fantasy VII Remake comes to PS4 April 10.

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