Hype is a funny old thing. If enough of it surrounds a game, failure often becomes inevitable. It is a rare occurrence to see it be brought to complete fruition. Take the original Killzone and the catastrophically doomed Haze, which were both hyped up to be the ultimate Halo-killers, and both collapsed under the weight of expectation. For all the amazing titles like Red Dead Redemption 2 or Resident Evil 2, we get many more like Final Fantasy XIII, Quantum Break and Alien Colonial Marine. Few games in the history of video games have had the same weight on their shoulders as Final Fantasy VII: Remake. The first rumours can be traced back to the early noughties with a rumoured remake on the PlayStation 2 already mentioned in 2001. With requests going back almost two decades, an experimental tech demo in 2005 and an astonishing reveal at E3 2015, Square Enix has undertaken what can only seem like an impossible task.
Yet here we are, a month before the game finally launches on the fourth generation of PlayStation consoles. Filled with excitement I arrived at a small warehouse in the Shoreditch borough of London, after having already experienced the game at both E3 and Gamescom 2019. This time around, however, we were granted not 20 minutes but a full three hours to try different chapters of the final product. Let's start at the beginning.
During our playthrough, we got to try out the first two chapters of the game as well as Chapter 7 and Chapter 10. Similar to the original, Final Fantasy VII: Remake starts directly after Cloud and the eco-terrorist group Avalanche attacks the train station below Mako Reactor 7 - basically the Final Fantasy equivalent of a nuclear reactor. Straight off the bat, FFVIIR stays both true to its roots while also creating a new scenario. At first glance, the dialogue cues and enemy locations remain the same. Except after playing for about 30 seconds the scale of the game strikes you. What had previously only appeared as mere pre-rendered backgrounds is beautifully realised in Unreal Engine 4, helping the player recapture and rediscover the magic experienced 23 years ago on the first PlayStation. It is what happens after Cloud and co. manage to destroy said mako reactor that finally puts the webosphere discourse around the game being an expensive demo to rest.
After countless trailers, we finally got to experience walking in the steampunk streets of Midgar ourselves. Not since Booker DeWitt's arrival on the streets of Columbia in Bioshock Infinite has a city felt so vibrant and alive. Scared citizens hiding in small alleyways and screams from burning buildings and crumbling roads all add to the tension of witnessing the consequences of performing terrorist actions against the government. A revamped version of the melancholic tune The Promised Land from Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children is even fittingly applied to the sight of suffering, further emphasising the horrible grey moral area Cloud works in. This section originally only featured a small stroll, ending with a short battle against enemy soldiers. It lasted for about five minutes in the 1997 version. In the remake, getting from A to B in this section can easily take 40 minutes or more. We kept stopping to look at the environments and soak in just how massive the city is. It even seemed to have small nods to the Banora Apples of Hajime Tabata's Crisis Core Prequel in there as well. Combined with the score from Advent Children, it appears that Kitase and Nomura aren't forgetting about the lore introduced in the spin-off titles.
The second part of the demo didn't manage to hit the same jaw-dropping levels of excitement as the first. It was set during the second reactor raid with martial arts expert Tifa as a playable character. The scenery mostly consisted of exploring linear corridors and finding some key cards to proceed onward to the next corridor-filled area to find the next key card and so on. On paper it sounds repetitive, dull and uninspired, yet it's kept interesting due to how Barrett, Cloud and Tifa banter with each other. Originally contained within limited polygons and text dialogue in 1997, the 2020 Remake translates the trio's chemistry with flying colours. The script is clever and the voice actors phenomenal. Despite Steve Burton doing a commendable job as Cloud Strife in Kingdom Hearts and all other FFVII-related material, newcomer Cody Christian captures the arrogance and playfulness of Cloud Strife much more accurately.
Luckily the combat didn't get stale. Destroying waves of enemies with Cloud's giant Butcher's knife and performing kung fu magic with Tifa is satisfying every time. Swapping between characters is intuitive, never slowing down the flow of encounters. Notably, the weight of Cloud's iconic Buster Sword is masterfully implemented. Every slash can be felt through the controller. The battle system, in general, is a blend of tactical turn-based and full-blown action. As with the original title, each character has to accumulate ATB-points to use abilities, which in turn will trigger a slow-motion menu. Slowing the speed down to pick an action looks phenomenal in the midst of battle. It's a sort of hybrid between the original game, Final Fantasy XII, and Crisis Core. In other words: it plays like an evolution of tried and tested systems all combined into one.
The second section ended with a boss encounter against a giant mech. Before the battle a cutscene with the devilish antagonist President Shinra played out, once again with a small nod to the universe of Crisis Core and Advent Children. He mentions how members of the elite unit SOLDIER will degrade and die faster than regular humans, which is a direct reference to the inner conflicts of Genesis and Angeal in the prequel. Fans of those titles won't be disappointed.
The mech battle itself was decent with enough challenge to keep you on your toes. In the heat of battle, we were treated to our first look at the Leviathan summon - the pokémon of Final Fantasy. Similar to how you control the main characters, every summon has commands and every command requires ATB-points to use. They can be used for a limited amount of time only, subsequently performing their signature move before leaving the battlefield (Tsunami in the case of Leviathan).
It was the musical score, however, which really made the encounter stand out. Composer Nobuo Uematsu has really outdone himself this time around. Even fans who have heard the tunes a thousand times before in the original or as part of the Final Fantasy Concerts around the globe will be pleased with how fresh everything sounds. And speaking of boss fights, we got the chance to fight Abzu and experience the sewers of Midgar. It wasn't as engaging as the first boss battle, yet it still packed enough a punch and difficulty to make it engaging. It was the cutscene prior to the fight that really caught our attention, though. Final Fantasy VII: Remake is devoting more time to the love triangle between Cloud, Aerith, and Tifa. It was especially wonderful to witness just how jealous Tifa is of Aerith.
And "wonderful" seems like the perfect way to end this preview. This remake is looking to be a huge, masterfully executed and wonderful adventure. Every element has been crafted with love for the original while still adding a bunch of new content and ideas. Hopefully, the repetitive nature of the second section we played will be the exception rather than the rule. If so, Final Fantasy VII: Remake might just shake the industry to its core once again.