Already the musical score is transportive on the main menu screen, with its rising and falling harp string. Thankfully Final Fantasy VII, and subsequently this Final Fantasy VII Remake Demo, comes from an era that preceded most of the Japanese pop music that throws up all over a lot of contemporary Japanese role-playing games, making many newer titles unplayable for me without a big huge mute button. But this orchestral score works well already. And forget it, I'm not here to diss J-pop.
There’s Cloud (I think his name is Cloud) standing there with a sword so big it might as well be a cape on his back. But that sword is the star of the show. I don’t know when big swords started in Japan, but I’d say it probably started with Final Fantasy because the only thing I know less about than JRPGs is manga comics, which is probably where they really got their start. The West has big guns. The East has big swords. Two sides of the same coin. Neither one is compensating harder than the other.
I rode shotgun on my buddy’s PlayStation back in 1997 when the original Final Fantasy VII launched. And by “I rode shotgun” I mean “I watched him play all of it,” which was fine. I could tell it wasn’t any collection of minigames that we could hot-seat the controller on. I was in it purely for the story--which I remember nothing of, at this point, 20-some years later--and because, even back then, I knew that JRPG menu-driven combat was never going to be something that I'd be into. I’m happy it exists. I’m happy that it makes other people happy. But it’s not for me. Which makes me happy that the FF7 Remake built in a more real-time combat system.
Ooh, thank you, Square Enix, for asking me right from the start, “What camera controls would you like?” And giving me choices for default, inverted Y-axis, inverted X-axis, or inverted X- and Y-axis. Such a simple question, but it prevents the mild to severe disorientation at the start of every game, leaving me scrambling for an options menu the moment I’m dropped into any kind of gameplay.
Immediately after that pop-up there’s another pop-up for difficulty level. There’s classic, easy, and normal. In classic, the player-controlled character will attack and defend automatically, allowing you to focus on executing commands. The battle difficulty is the same as easy. Easy says to select this if you want to enjoy the story without worrying about battles. And normal is the standard difficulty. Select this if you want to fully experience battles as well as the story.
I’ll select normal and see how it goes. Anything to get me out of that menu-driven combat right off the bat, though I have no doubt that menus will come into play on some level.
We're in a cut scene. Swirling blue motes of dust float around an alleyway, and a green-eyed woman with a huge blond braid kneels at a pipe leaking these glowing floaties. A pounding sound down the alley sends her on her way. She jogs through a city. Bumping into people, she spills some of the flowers from her basket. A careless pedestrian stomps on one flower. She clutches it like a lost friend. The camera pulls away to reveal an enormous city of clashing European and Japanese designs. A huge central structure, a reactor of some kind, has an octopus of pipes leading out to every corner of the city, while helicopters fan overhead, and traffic drones down below.
Then the camera zooms back in to see a train barreling along some tracks, straight as an arrow. Brakes screech with this Cloud character atop the train.
Mako Reactor 1, it says. Two Shinra (?) soldiers are on patrol. The power company is the enemy in Final Fantasy VII, I guess. A choking sounds distracts one guard, and that guard is taken out by two red-bandanna-wearing people. A third red-bandanna guy shows up. He's overweight and breathes heavy. Then a fourth big dude, Barret, with a huge red tribal tattoo on his arm, walks like a tank onto the scene. Garret says, “Get down here, merc!” which brings Cloud leaping off the train and onto the platform. Cloud is the poster boy for JRPGs. He's all spiky blond hair, sword the size of a snowboard, shinobi-baggy cargo pants, two belts, a sleeveless tactical sweater, and forearm-length gloves. It's a whole thing.
Cauliflower-thick clouds of smoke belch from the top of this reactor. Industrial lights have the otherwise empty cargo train station lit up. Unmarked cargo crates, dumpsters, traffic cones, and Caution Wet Floor signs line themselves up along the dock. Steam sifts out from under the train. The one Shinra guard is knocked out on the concrete up ahead. He’s not going anywhere, but the second Shinra guard is still somewhere around here.
Man this sword is huge. I feel like this is where an emerging “date your sword” genre’s roots come from. The orchestra handling soundtrack duties is hitting 100 and I haven't gone 10 steps yet. I tap the square button a couple times on my PlayStation 4 controller and get a feel for the sword. Cloud swings it like it’s nothing. This big huge fan blade of a sword scatters a few milk crates along the dock. I follow the big black guy with the tribal tattoo, Barret, and--I'm just now noticing--an entire gun for an arm.
Two Shinra soldiers immediately give me a “Halt!” and bring their rifles up to a firing position. Big guy says, “You’re up,” and leaves me to handle this as he easily runs right past them. I draw my sword. Square button indeed slashes, but holding square unleashes an attack capable of hitting multiple nearby enemies. I try that.
The first hold-square attack throws multiple slashes at the guards who advance on me. One goes down right away. The second needs a second set of hold-square attacks. Sparks fly as either I hit their armor or I hit some nearby industrial scrap. A set of combat log entries splashes up on the right-hand side of the screen: Security Officer A defeated. Security Officer B defeated. Eighteen EXP gained. Eight gil gained. Cloud is now Level 7. You obtained a potion.
I click the cross (X) button, bringing up a commands menu in the lower left. There’s spells (cast magic) and items (use an item). Clicking spells did nothing, so I assume there’s none for this demo, or none yet. Items showed me Potion x 6 (Restores 350 HP; I note on another pop-up that Cloud currently has 1,026 out of 1,026 hit points). Plus Cloud has Ether x 1 (Restores 20 MP; and Cloud currently has a full 30 mana points).
I walk up to the previous knocked-out security officer. Cloud looks down but does nothing. The other two that I just fought were apparently auto-looted and have since disappeared. No bodies piling up here.
I round a corner, head up a short flight of stairs, and then the rest of the red-bandana team wishes me luck as they take off and leave me with two more advancing security officers. It’s explained to me that the ATB gauge fills as time passes and by attacking. Once the bar is full, my character can perform special actions. It doesn’t explain what ATB stands for (Attack the Block?) but it is indeed slowly filling and located below my hit point meter.
My ATB (Abilities That Bang?) gauge filled up halfway and I was prompted in this fight to hit the cross button. The abilities drilled down to Braver, where I jump into the air and strike my foe with a powerful attack; and Focused Thrust, where I lunge toward an enemy with a piercing strike that hits multiple times. This significantly increases stagger, it says.
Surrounded by subway posters for some piano performance called Air, and more posters for hair tonic (“For astonishingly radiant & spiky hair!”) in this slow-mo Tactical Mode, I flip my cross hairs between Security Officer A and Security Officer B, and decide to hit Braver on Security Officer B behind me. He was able to line up some gunshots and I took about 30 HP worth of damage. My sparky sword returned the favor--and then some--with 381 HP of damage. Something called Punisher Mode appeared, were I to further hit the triangle button at that point, but I doubted this poor sap was getting up after I went all Braver on him. My ATB (Atone for Thine Blasphemy?) gauge went from over half a tank down to a quarter tank full from using that special ability.
Two more security officers defeated. Security Officer last name A, and Security Officer last name B. I rounded up 18 more EXP, eight more gil, which I suppose is money, and one more potion. Those two go up in a fall of sparkly green dust and the field is once again clear. At least I don’t have to worry about other NPCs examining my handiwork, getting suspicious, and coming after me. Sure, Cloud and this band of rebels is on an infiltration mission, but this ain't a stealth game by any stretch.
Now the game gives me access to the in-game main menu (as opposed to a title screen menu). This is where I get to look at all the juicy RPG details. Inventory, character stats, battle settings, spells, my entire party’s worth of stats, instruction manual, system controls, and a handy button to go ahead and Purchase Game. Hey, I’m not mad. This is a stunning demo already. Get money, Square Enix.
In this Battle Settings menu, several buttons are auto-mapped to L1 + [something] to automatically pull off big moves in real time, rather than slowing it down into Tactical Mode and picking stuff from a menu. But I probably won’t learn from this first demo playthrough to push L1 + square for Braver, or L1 + triangle for Focused Thrust. L1 + circle is a healing potion. L1 + cross is currently empty and ready for assignment. I assign the Fire spell to that spot, though I haven’t been introduced to Fire’s abilities just yet.
Remember how I was all excited at first to keep combat real time and diss the menu-driven combat? I’ve already had a change of heart. I love the super slow-mo and the menu-driven stuff. Gives me a second to think instead of this being a full-on action game. Plus, these menus are clean and neatly organized--at least at first when there’s only one or maybe two things to look at. Like any RPG, inventory management can be half the battle. But this is a promising start. I mean, I'd given up on The Witcher 3’s inventory system far, far sooner. Also, I just noticed there’s a timer adding up my minutes of playtime in the lower portion of this screen. Neat! It’s weird how many games are averse to displaying that information nowadays.
I look into the Party tab and that’s where it digs down further into Cloud himself. It doesn’t show me the other folks I’m infiltrating this reactor with. Which is good; I'd be easily overwhelmed already. I appreciate baby steps. Here I learn that Cloud’s sword is named Buster Sword. Buster sounds like something I’d name my dog. But maybe that’s the level of loyalty their invoking for this massive weapon. That, or a buster is simply one who busts things. It also shows I have a Bronze Bangle that, I believe, is giving me a +10 to defense and +10 to magic. The icons seem pretty straightforward. The tiny amount of flavor text also informs me that Bronze Bangles are both affordable and ubiquitous. Huh. I also have 10 attributes: Attack, Defense, Magic Attack, Magic Defense, Strength, Magic, Vitality, Spirit, Luck, and Speed. My two highest stats by far are Attack and Magic Attack. Cloud's Vitality and Spirit are at the very bottom of the pile. Ha, that contributes (in an unintentional way) to the idea that Cloud is supposedly a moody little jerk. Ya got no Vitality, kid! No Spirit!
I flip open the manual and get more in-depth instructions on some stuff. I mean, it tells me more about how the ATB gauge fills up, but it’s still not going to tell me what ATB stands for. In my best Frodo-meme voice I say, “All right, then. Keep your secrets.”
The big mouse pad button on the PS4 controller brings up the map. It two-dimensionally shows me basic floor plans, objectives, and even gives me a Hansel & Gretel breadcrumb trail of where I’ve already been. Again: neat! These aren’t confusing layouts, though. At least not on this demo. But hey, 23 years ago, level design was a different animal than it is today. The wonderful Bethesda method of running you through a dungeon in a big loop and then dropping you back off near the entrance isn’t how things were back in the 1990s. So this breadcrumb trail might turn out to be rather useful.
Finally I’m out of the not-bad-at-all menus. Three security officers are on me this time (Hi there, Security Officer C, you must be new here) and finally I see the purpose of the way-too-big sword: it’s also a shield. How did I never know this? All these years of ignoring JRPGs, and now I get it. Holding R1 blocks both melee and missile attacks. By missile attacks I mean bullets. My entire life people have joked that oversized JRPG swords were “overcompensating for something.” You know what I mean. But no, the sword is as big as a shield because it’s also a shield. Nobody tells me anything! Also, I figured out that you can start juggling enemies with that sword when you land successively well-timed attacks. Works as good as any Braver or Focused Thrust maneuver on these low-level bad guys.
Somebody left a chest with two healing potions in it at the top of these subway stairs. I guzzle one, since my combat encounters up to this point had whittled me down to 776 out of 1,026 HP. Those 350 HP topped off my HP meter. I catch back up with this other crew I’m working with. Jessie, the female in the group, says Cloud “has got balls,” which was a much more common expression back in 1997 when this game came out, I think? At least among the age group I was in back in 1997. It's probably making a comeback. Other than that, everybody grunts, gasps, and groans a little too much in place of meaningful dialogue--or just meaningful silence--but that’s okay. The chit chat is suitable. Especially because this Jessie, the one commenting on my balls earlier, says I’m good looking.
Here’s a nice interlude: the PS4’s rest mode works flawlessly. I know, right? After recent talk of the Xbox Series X being able to suspend multiple games, I remembered how apprehensive I already was about the suspend-game feature on the PS4. I feel like I’ve been burned a time or two when using that feature, but right now I can’t name any of those instances because I simply stopped using it almost immediately. But on this FF7 Remake? It works flawlessly. So, suspend away, Cloud lovers.
There appears to be a pirate/British admiral named Heidegger. Well, with a name like Heidegger he’d be German, I suppose. I think he’s a higher-up bad guy but I'm not given enough time to know or care. Now I’m in a long elevator ride with Barret, the guy with a gun for an arm, who's getting up on a soapbox about something called Mako. And while I understand that we’re here to destroy a Mako reactor, Barret is kind of freaking me out with his aggressive interpretive dance routine and big speech about how Mako is people, or something. Cloud is supposed to be the moody emo kid with the chip on his shoulder, but Barret is over the top with his tough-guy antics.
Then they threw Barret into my party. Now I was using Barret’s gun arm for ranged attacks. They did a lot less damage, but were able to hit high gun emplacements that the non-jumping Cloud simply would not be able to reach even with the ridiculous reach on his Buster Sword. Afterwards, the two squabble a bit. Cloud isn’t here to make friends, but Barret is ready to fight anybody and everybody, he just dares you to give him a reason.
We go up against some Ed 209-looking robot with two gun arms (take that, Barret) and a weird ability to hum around the battlefield like a train engine. Either way, it’s a nasty fight. Cloud drains the Ed 209 of half its health, but then Cloud gets stomped. As Barret, I try to use a Phoenix Down on Cloud because I think I’ve heard somewhere in the past 20 years that that’s supposed to resurrect characters. It might or it might not, I don’t know, because Ed 209 stomps on Barret and pins him down before he can use the Phoenix Down. Barret yells, “Don’t just stand there, get it off me!” to a completely unconscious Cloud. Either way, after the robot does get off Barret’s chest, and after a whole lot of ATB gauge uses, and something called a Limit, Barret finally puts the Ed 209 out of its robotic misery.
Cloud rejoins. He’s hanging on within an inch of his life, but you’d never know by looking at him. You just have to keep training your eye to go down to the lower corner of the screen and realize if someone is dying that way. The characters don’t really signpost whether they’re doing well or poorly, health-wise. Actually, Cloud probably warned me to heal up, using his internal monologue voice, but my attention was focused elsewhere when he was saying it.
After that fight, Barret and Cloud have a misunderstanding, as usual, and then I have them both gulping down half our stock of healing potions to get their HP back up to par. That was an ugly fight. The entire time I was engaged in it, I could tell there were better tactical choices I should be making. I suppose it didn’t help that my controller ran out of battery and shut off in the middle of the fight. But I suppose it didn’t hurt that the Ed 209 wasn’t a relentless attacker and gave me enough time to fire up my second controller that’d been chilling on a recharging station.
I’m going to have to bring up that turn-based combat option. I think I'll like--and desperately need--turn-based combat.
With the flirtatious Jessie in the lead, we head further down and into industrial-built corridors and passageways and down staircases and elevators. The levels are huge-looking, though simple and unconfusing. I like it. A few more combat encounters and Barret’s incessant volleys of “Suck on this!” and other such locker-room insults already gets old. I guess he’s supposed to be mouthy, but he’s mouthy like a 12-year-old. Cloud acts like his only motivation is money, which is as shallow as it is insultingly untrue, I can tell already. He also suffers some kind of migraine headaches and visual delusions. For some reason, seeing a falling feather turning to dust on the grating is a disturbing occurrence for him.
Then it’s the grand finale of the demo. A fight against a two-story scorpion something-or-other. It looks like it’s made of Fallout machinery, but the thing moves like a dancer in a ballet of death. I’m spending more time healing Cloud and Barret than I am fighting this thing. After a long, charged battle, I lose both guys at almost the same time. Tough fight. I got Robo Ballet of Death down to about a quarter of its health. A focused laser beam attack from its scorpion tail put Garret down on one knee before I could take cover, and the attack animation doesn’t even finish before the Game Over screen asks me, Retry from Last Battle, or Return to Title Screen?
Though there's still an escape I have to make, since I set a 20-minute timer on a bomb, it’s bedtime. And I’m satisfied that this demo, which is a level 7 slice of pie, has me just about convinced to click the Purchase Game button. Very impressive gameplay. Very impressive world. Somewhat embarrassing characters that are still somehow fun and memorable in their own entirely ham-fisted ways. I can see why this game made it into the canon. It's easy to comprehend just how well this game is going to sell, 23 years later.
Like I’d mentioned, my only experience with Final Fantasy VII was watching a buddy of mine play through a lot of it. And even though I like the “I still think the ‘90s were ten years ago” meme, I’m realizing that I remember next to nothing about this game in those 20 years. I’m looking forward to more of it, even as I’m sure it will take years to plug through its multiple episodes, as developer Square Enix builds it toward becoming a complete remake of the game in its entirety.