Final Fantasy VII Remake is one of the headline games for Square Enix at the moment, and it feels like it has been in development forever. Finally set to release next year on March 3rd, we had the opportunity to play a hands-on demo during PAX West 2019 and dive into the real-time combat in this episodic take of a classic entry of the series.
The presentation starts with an introductory video, offering up a glimpse of Midgard in a cutscene. In that glimpse, the city was beautiful and filled with people, coming alive in a way I’ve never seen it before. The video goes on to explain all the new features that can be found in the game, particularly emphasizing FF7 Remake’s real-time combat and all its new features. It’s the most notable change when compared to the turn-based original, and while it’s easy to write it off as too fast-paced to be truly meaningful, there is still a tactical component to it that is vital for survival.
Not turn-based, but still tactical
Final Fantasy VII‘s Active Time Battle (or ATB for short) is still present in the remake, but with a key difference. Battles start as soon as an enemy engages with your party, and characters can perform combo attacks by pressing the square button while also being able to dodge and block attacks in between. The ATB gauge can be found right below each character’s health meter and is divided into two separate bars.
Actions such as using spells, performing a special, or using items during combat use up half of the ATB gauge. Once your character has gained at least one bar, you’re free to stop time completely and explore the menus to plan your next command.
Take the first battle from the demo as an example. A group of soldiers approaches Cloud, and the only thing he can do in those initial moments is pure close-quarters combat. As soon as his ATB gauge fills, however, I was able to land a finishing attack on one enemy, stop time, and use a different ability to strike down another enemy once I finished the initial command.
It might sound confusing, but it’s easy to pick up and encourages new ways to experiment with combat. Along with stopping time, the way you move and use ATB is key, since the opportunities you’ll get in combat depend largely on your actions. For instance, you can use ATB right when an enemy is about to land an attack, but this isn’t an ideal situation to put yourself in as this cancels Cloud’s action and requires you to recover the ATB bar from scratch all over again.
Two additional aspects that feel significant in combat in Final Fantasy VII Remake are staggering and limit gauge. Staggering shows itself as a secondary bar, and once the enemy receives enough damage, they’ll become stunned. Once more, saving your ATB bar for occasions like this have a huge advantage, especially during boss fights. Limit gauge works similarly for Cloud, only that once he’s dealt enough damage, he has the opportunity to deliver a powerful attack during ATB.
Bringing new life to familiar faces
Exploration is revamped significantly in FF7 Remake by switching to a third-person perspective. You’re now free to fully move Cloud around levels, smashing crates to find potions and items, and looking for chests in every possible corner. While this was already present in the original, the scale of Final Fantasy VII Remake is staggering to see in motion.
During the demo, the mission I played takes place earlier in the game during a visit to the first Mako Reactor. The plan is to get inside, plant a bomb, and escape as soon as possible, but this doesn’t go at all as expected. Cloud is joined by Barret, a party member that proves to be quite useful thanks to his focus on ranged attacks.
Compared to Cloud, Barret’s presence is a big change of pace, and Final Fantasy VII Remake makes sure to underscore each character’s personality by adding conversations and dialogue that weren’t present in the original. In Final Fantasy XV, Prince Noctis and his friends frequently make jokes both in and out of combat. This same approach is taken to FF7 Remake, bringing more meaning to the small moments in between exploration.
You can actively switch between characters with an option to open up a partner’s command list while you’re stopping time. This makes chaining attacks easier, and feels especially satisfying when you’re able to conjure up a plan and execute it in a matter of seconds. Changing between characters and looking for the best opportunity to strike came into play during a boss fight against a scorpion robot, the first boss you encounter in the game.
During this battle, there are four phases, each with a new behavior or set of attacks from the scorpion. Not only did I have to utilize each character in the fight but I had to navigate around the area, hiding behind massive scraps of metal to shield myself from the scorpion’s deadly laser during the final moments of the fight.
Final Fantasy VII Remake is shaping up to be something special, both for newcomers who have never played the original and for fans who want to relive a classic in a more modern form. What I experienced feels true to the original but still packs in enough new features and changes to feel like an entirely new title altogether. My only concern is how long it’s going to take for us to see the complete game, considering the episodic format Square Enix has planned for it.