Square Enix gave The Washington Post three hours — more than what’s been available in the past — to play the highly anticipated remake of the most influential Japanese role-playing game (RPG) of the modern era.
These three hours included the first two hours of the game, the now-iconic “Bombing Mission,” which kicked off the 1997 original game. Our session also included two bosses later in the game. This also gave us the chance to mess with a few different weapons for each character, and gave us three Summons (Shiva, Ifrit and Leviathan) to test. We had control of Cloud, the protagonist, Cloud’s childhood friend Tifa, eco-terrorist leader Barrett and the mysterious flower girl Aerith.
Any great role-playing game can be broken down to three pillars: combat/action, exploration and storytelling. So let’s break down what we saw.
Our demo was very combat-focused, showing a fuller picture of how the remake plays and what it keeps from the original game.
In fights, you can control all three members of your party. And more than ever, each member has a distinct role. Cloud is your standard soldier (sorry ex-SOLDIER) class, with quick attacks. He also features two stances, the standard Operator mode, and the more defensive but stronger Punisher mode, which makes you move more slowly in exchange for bigger hits.
Barrett has a new role as your long-range attacker. There are drones and security cameras simply out of Cloud’s reach, and you’ll need to use Barrett to take them out. Even the second boss I fought, the Airbuster, required Barrett’s guns. Tifa, meanwhile, uses her fists, and needs to be real close to the enemy. Her signature “Dive Kick” won’t work like it used to. You have to get in close for the attack to land.
The most surprising thing is what appears to be the inclusion of hit detection. Cloud can dodge out of the way of attacks, much like you could in Final Fantasy 15. Enemies (and especially bosses) will also move dynamically around the map. This means you have to adjust strategies dynamically. If an enemy gets too far, long distance attackers like Barrett are necessary.
Pressing the triggers keeps the camera focused on the character you want to control, while still allowing you to dictate what the other characters do. Or you can press up or down on the D-pad to control other characters directly. This system takes a bit of getting used to, especially considering that this game is more action heavy than other RPGs before it. There are moments when the game feels like a Devil May Cry game, complete with enemy juggling.
The Airbuster decimated my team of Cloud, Tifa and Barrett on my first try. That’s because I had to juggle three characters, new weapons and most importantly, summons.
Every summon (like a Pokémon except it’s a fire god) essentially becomes a fourth character. They’ll do basic attacks on their own, but there are special attacks you can control. Once the time limit for the summon runs out, they’ll do one last big, explosive attack for big damage.
This was all overwhelming, and the Airbuster wiped my party out.
On my second try, I had the system figured out. I was staggering Airbuster with Barrett’s magic attacks, healing and punching with Tifa, and doing large special attack damage with Cloud. I summoned Ifrit (the aforementioned fire god) later; it gave me the late big damage I needed on the boss’s more difficult third phase.
The last half-hour of my session was supposed to be dedicated to the sewer boss Aps, a late-game enemy due to the fact the Remake will only cover the Midgar portion of the entire original game (the rest will release in installments). I destroyed him in less than 10 minutes. Aerith’s magic was a powerful ally to my newly-tuned skills All three members were near death, but I burned through the boss quickly, and my “three-hour” session was done almost 30 minutes before it was scheduled to.
This is all very promising. This hints that the game will reward you for mastering its many systems. I felt like a battle conductor, making good calls and seeing big damage, a very good sign that this is still very much a classic role-playing game. I was able to get used to its rhythms quickly, as it never got complicated or overwhelming.
It’s important to note that there is a “Classic” mode available, in which the more action heavy stuff will be handled for you so you can focus more on menu and meter management with special attacks and management, closer to the original game. Unfortunately we weren’t given the opportunity to test it, but it’s there as an option if the Devil May Cry reference scared you off.
This continues to be the biggest question mark. The original game’s Midgar wasn’t a very friendly town for exploration. The story’s momentum pushed you through the city quickly, in about six to seven hours. This game, Square Enix promises, is a full-length game, presumably playable for up to 100 hours or more.
We weren’t given much to explore. What little exploration there was felt more like an extended dungeon on the streets of Midgar. After finishing the “Bombing Mission,” we got an opportunity to explore the city in crisis. But it was very story driven, and characters on the street only said enough to push you to the next objective, where more fights waited.
However, the Bombing Mission and this section both teach the player to take diverging paths. There were many different areas to explore, each rewarding you with either a fight, or a treasure chest. Sometimes you might even pick up Materia, the game’s system of equipping special abilities and magic spells. FF7 veterans will be delighted to learn that I already picked up new types of Materia never before seen in the game. It was a Materia that allows me to damage enemies while dodging, something you’d find in a character action game like Bayonetta or Devil May Cry.
There’s nothing wrong with setting the game only in Midgar. While the original game portrayed the city as a dreary, industrial place filled with power plants and Red Light districts, the remake’s intro hints at brighter, more aesthetically diverse areas we’ve never seen before. We can only hope that Midgar as a place will rival the remake’s ambitions in presentation, combat and storytelling. And that leaves us with …
I won’t talk about any specific spoilers, even for a 23-year-old game. There’s an entire generation or two out there who have never experienced the most important story told in modern Japanese game development, and I’d rather leave it all for them to enjoy.
But for veterans, the very dark, complex and personal themes of the game are expanded upon early to great effect. Even in the “Bombing Mission’s” first moments, Remake adds wrinkles to Cloud, both spiritually and physically. Cloud was always a stoic, icy mercenary. This time, his facial expressions betray how disoriented he really is by everything happening to him, despite his verbal indifference.
The members of ecoterrorism group Avalanche were always fun, but never became full characters. This time, background characters come to the forefront. They feel like co-stars of the show. Jessie was always a bit flirtatious, and now there’s more depth to her interest and confidence.
The voice acting in English seems to be top tier. Aerith sounds kind, but sounds like a person who knows way more than she lets on. Tifa sounds like the self-assured childhood friend she’s always been. Barrett is a bit of a mixed bag, since his character was always a caricature of Blaxploitation film heroes. But his character isn’t given much to do in these scenes, so it’ll be interesting to see how his performance bears out. The villains of Shinra, the global corporation that antagonizes our heroes, also have expanded scenes. We also get hints at their deeper motivations early on. The game’s story just feels more complete.
And thankfully, Remake resists the temptations of the rest of Square Enix’s games: swarming the audience with fantastical pronouns. Before Square Enix went a bit wild with its stories (see Polygon’s attempt to explain Kingdom Hearts), FF7 was a master class of world building, right from its iconic, unforgettable intro, down to the simple but powerful motivations for each character.
Did I mention the game is beautiful? It ran a crisp image on a 4K TV through a PlayStation 4 Pro, running at a smooth 30 frames per second. It had none of the blurry fitful movements that troubled Final Fantasy 15 after launch.
That intro showcases how the game will transition from Square Enix’s famously high-quality CG scenes into the gameplay. Even the gameplay models rival that of early century CG movies, like Final Fantasy’s own doomed but revolutionary animated film, “The Spirits Within.”
There’s still so many questions about how this remake will play out. Square Enix usually reinvents itself with every Final Fantasy game, but this is the first time they’re going back to the well this deeply. And no remake has ever been this ambitious. We’re in uncharted territory when it comes to games, or even entertainment. This is like remaking the Lord of the Rings trilogy by making it into six movies with quadruple the budget.
While the lingering questions about longevity and what’s next for the series still bother me, I did get one answer that satisfied me.
When the straight-to-video movie “Final Fantasy 7: Advent Children” was released, it wowed fans with beautifully choreographed action sequences that put other action movies to shame. Fans like myself have been asking ourselves for years, “When are we going to play a game that looks like THAT?”
The answer is that on April 10, we’re all finally about to play something that arguably looks better.
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