LOS ANGELES—I have not seen or played enough of Final Fantasy VII Remake to confirm exactly how the game will play out when it launches on PlayStation 4 consoles in March 2020. What I can say so far, at least, is that I’m far from a Final Fantasy or JRPG apologist, and yet 1.5 hours with the game’s E3 2019 debut has me absolutely excited.
Really, I’m shocked to admit that. Yet familiar elements, new combat, and incredible polish across the presentation and dialogue have me convinced that I’ll be a day-one FFVIIR player, no matter how good, weird, or poor the final game turns out to be. Thus, I’m here to talk about why I feel that way—and what remains to be confirmed or explained about this ambitious, murky, “first in an undetermined series” return to Square Enix’s glory days.
Weighing in for a legitimate brawl
Square Enixr’s Monday E3 press conference confirmed a few things about FFVIIR, from the refreshed visuals to the expanded story and its newly recorded, voice-acted dialogue. But first things first: how does it feel to play the darned thing?
The press conference made very clear that the game includes a refreshed take on JRPG combat, and the mechanical details we learned sounded fine enough as a sales pitch. But going hands-on with the demo helped confirm how good this feels in action—and how distinct it feels from Square-Enix’s other “action-RPG” fare (Final Fantasy XV, Kingdom Hearts).
Those other games let players use joysticks to run their characters around enemy-filled battlefields, but effectively, that movement doesn’t change their core: turn-based, menu-driven combat that resembles JRPGs of old. In comparison, FFVIIR is truly a brawler. Mash a primary “attack” button for a default melee or ranged attack (depending on your chosen character and their equipped weapon). Tap one button to dodge-roll, or hold down the block button to withstand attacks that you’re likely not to dodge. And however close or far you are from a foe really does have a risk-reward element, in terms of making you more susceptible to taking hits while also putting you in range to deliver damage (or, conversely, making sure you run your ranged characters away from combat so they can maximize their distant-fire potential).
Instead of offering a Devil May Cry-caliber array of attacks and combos, however, FFVIIR breaks its more dramatic attacks out to a “pause” menu that slows time to a crawl. Here, you can activate special attacks, magic spells, and items, and these each cost one bar of your characters’ “active time battle” (ATB) bar. (This menu also affords a welcome breather during frantic moments to reposition the in-game camera and switch active control to different heroes, or assign tactics and ATB moves to the ones you’re not controlling.) ATB bars refill as you pull off more successive attacks—and fill up faster when you’re in direct control of a particular hero. Thus, you’ll want to use the d-pad to swap your direct control between heroes on a regular basis.
Take a stance (or two)
I personally enjoyed the resulting rhythm. The classic-JRPG half of menu-attack management was paid off with flashier attacks and effects, and I also stayed excited while managing my active strikes, dodges, and battlefield placement on a regular basis. On top of those elements is FFVIIR‘s secret sauce of “stances.” Characters can swap between one of two stances by tapping the PS4 controller’s triangle button. Doing this changes the default behavior for your active character’s primary attack and dodge.
In Cloud’s alternate “punisher” stance, for instance, he starts swinging heavier strikes with a wide, multi-enemy arc but moves much slower. The gun-toting Barret will begin shooting concentrated, shotgun-like blasts in his alternate stance. Thus, for both characters, you are essentially rewarded if you rush forward, hunker down in the alternate stance, lay down some damage, then switch stances once more. (But doing this can reduce your ability to effectively dodge or block, so you’ll have to consider when to go stance-crazy.)
After watching Square Enix producers play the game’s earliest portion, which mostly revolved around battling grunt soldiers and turret-loaded drones, I took over by fighting similar waves of baddies. This was followed by a bout against the game’s first boss: the Scorpion Sentinel, a massive robo-bug who transforms into more defensive and offensive forms at various damage thresholds.
While the basic combat against grunts was engaging enough, this boss battle really demonstrated the importance of positioning, character swapping, ATB pausing, special-attack activation, and generally active combat. (Stances were disabled in my hands-on portion, sadly.) I had to run my characters behind cover when a charged attack was about to land. I had to switch characters in order to free the captive when another got grabbed by the scorpion’s pincers. Throughout it all, I had to time my blocks and dodges to keep my heroes on their feet.
Listing image by Square Enix