It’s easily my most hotly anticipated game of E3. In fact, it’s been one of my most hotly anticipated titles since the moment I watched the initial reveal with tears in my eyes so many years ago. So when I checked in to play Final Fantasy VII Remake for myself at E3 2019, I was close to tears again. Final Fantasy VII has a prominent place in my gaming history, and it’s easily one of the games that I’ve poured the most hours into since it was first released all those years ago. It was one of the earliest games I got with my original PlayStation, and my love for the characters, story, battle systems, and every secret and detail has persisted for the last two decades. My Twitter handle even holds vestiges of my adoration of the Buster Sword-wielding hero.
Having a playable build at E3 meant that this ethereal idea of a remake for my favorite game of all time was finally real, but that doubt started to creep in. I mean, of course the battle system isn’t the same, but what if that old turn-based battle system was innately tied into my nostalgia? Could I love Remake if the combat was redesigned?
Fortunately Square Enix performed a Limit Break on this one, because it feels no less than perfect. Final Fantasy VII Remake creates a brilliant blend of newer action RPG mechanics, while integrating the original’s turn-based menus via the ATB gauge. The result is a combat system that both feels active and frantic, but also inherently tactical.
The gameplay demo was a relatively short one, beginning at the top of the platforms in the reactor room on Final Fantasy VII’s opening bombing mission. Up here, there was the opportunity to hack through a few soldiers and mechs guarding the area. As these were little more than fodder, it was easy to button mash through most of them with basic attacks. Barret was with me and I could swap to him during combat, but as soon as the fight ended, I would immediately regain control of Cloud, so it doesn’t seem like there will be the option to actively play as any other characters. Reaching the reactor core, a brief cutscene plays, which you can take a look at if you go back to check out Square Enix’s E3 2019 reveal of Final Fantasy VII Remake.
One thing that caught me here—especially after going back and watching this same sequence from the original game—is that Remake is not trying to create an exact 1:1 match, but makes decisions that make sense and keeps the general flow and tone of the story. Barret still makes Cloud plant the bomb because he doesn’t trust him. Cloud still has a slight mental breakdown at this point, which prompts Barret to wonder if he’s okay. Instead of the brief “Heads up, here they come!” line leading right into the boss battle, there’s a cutscene of the Guard Scorpion roaring into the reactor room to eliminate these intruders. In fact, it’s so naturally integrated that I hadn’t even remembered that the original was so anticlimactic in its introduction.
Fighting the Guard Scorpion – Final Fantasy VII Remake E3 2019 Preview
Now was the grand boss fight against the Guard Scorpion, one of the most iconic early boss encounters in Final Fantasy history. Where the original fight lasted maybe a couple of minutes before the boss was felled, Remake’s took a good 15 to 20 minutes to take down. If the rest of the game is expanded in similar and meaningful ways, it makes sense that the entire first game in the Remake series will only take place in the Midgar chapter.
Immediately noticeable is that mashing square to attack isn’t going to cut it here. Basic attacks are useful for building up ATB gauge units, but they aren’t going to do much damage. Once I had at least one ATB gauge unit full, I could tap X to slow time and bring up a more traditional-looking Final Fantasy VII menu system. Here I could use more advanced heavy attacks, magic abilities that were granted to me through materia, and items. It’s this ATB system where the real meat of tougher encounters takes place, and I spent plenty of time in it healing up Cloud and Barret, doing heavier attacks, and calling down Barret’s lightning magic for some massive damage.
This system very quickly became second nature. The blending of constant action with the use of the ATB gauge became a brilliant kind of tactical action. It felt very much like my choices for using attacks, magic, and items mattered just as much as moving around the battlefield. It solves the problems that I always feel like action RPGs have, where tactics go out the window in favor of combos and button mashing.
A few times throughout the battle, Guard Scorpion changes form slightly, again reminiscent of older RPG bosses. The arena would often change to, with these changes usually becoming an added difficulty or necessity, like hiding behind debris to avoid the Guard Scorpion’s tail laser attack, or needing to switch to Barret in order to get ranged attacks the boss when it would leap away to a far wall.
If one thing is clear with Final Fantasy VII Remake, it’s that the old turn-based combat system wasn’t going to cut it for a modern reimagining of what this game could be, but neither would a purely action-RPG be the most effective way to go, removing much of the strategy that players remembered from the original game. Having now gotten my hands on the solution, it’s a perfect proof of concept that gives me complete and utter faith in the Remake design team and their vision for Final Fantasy VII over 20 years after its initial release.