'Final Fantasy VII Remake': Major Tweaks, Nostalgic Nods Abound in Hands-On Demo

Final Fantasy VII Remake Game Still - Publicity - H 2020
Courtesy of Square Enix
The Hollywood Reporter's gaming editor Patrick Shanley and copy chief Pete Keeley discuss their brief time with the new take on Square Enix's classic role-playing adventure.

For years, fans have been clamoring for a remake of Square Enix's 1997 role-playing classic Final Fantasy VII — and the studio has teased small glimpses of the project in bits and pieces in response. Now, 23 years after the original debuted to widespread critical acclaim and more than 13 million copies sold in its lifetime, Final Fantasy VII is finally getting its long-anticipated redux on the PlayStation 4.

A complete reconstruction of the original game, Final Fantasy VII Remake not only updates the visuals of its source material but also expands on the main narrative and introduces various new elements, including a completely re-hauled approach to combat and traversal, more in line with recent entries in the long-running franchise. Also new for the 2020 version is a full voice cast, an updated version of its classic score fully 3D environments.

Ahead of the game's April 10 launch, Square Enix invited The Hollywood Reporter to play through some early sections of the upcoming title, which serves as just the first chapter of what will eventually be the entire FFVII story. The new game focuses solely on the Midgar portions of the original, which roughly cover a quarter or so of the first disc of the 1997 version (which has three discs in total).

Below, Patrick Shanley, THR's gaming writer/editor, and Pete Keeley, THR's copy chief, discuss their hands-on time with the game, how it differs from its source material, what's new and updated for modern audiences and everything else that has propelled FFVII Remake to the top of many gamers' list of most-anticipated releases of 2020.

Patrick Shanley: Well, Pete, it’s been 84 years but Final Fantasy VII Remake is finally (almost) here and we’ve both gotten our hands on the new take of the classic RPG. I assume we both played the same demo (though yours was at a fancy event that I assume had at least a crudités or free Diet Coke while mine was in an El Segundo office park that rattled when planes landed at the nearby LAX tarmac), which showed off three boss fights, some revamped story moments and about three hours of hands-on-sticks time. We’re both big fans of the original. Putting you on the spot: What are your immediate takeaways?

Pete Keeley: First off, I also played at the El Segundo office and they did serve lunch but I'd already eaten. And yes, I preordered the original game (shout out Babbage's in North Riverside Mall!) even though I hadn't yet saved enough to buy a PlayStation. I'll say this: One of the people from Square mentioned that a gentleman had flown in from Brazil to demo the game and wound up crying because he was so overcome with emotion (the implication was tears of joy but in retrospect, I should have asked for clarification). I did not cry, but I was satisfied. Might as well start with the opening cinematic, which was lovely and nostalgic and my lip may have quivered when I saw the cat slide, but if Kojima can lard up Death Stranding with hourlong cutscenes, can we, the gamers who've been waiting 20 years to see Wedge rendered in glorious 4K, get like, 20 minutes at the top? And sticking to the topic of cinematics, before moving on to gameplay and why they made Heidegger into an evil zaddy, I really liked all the new content they slotted in once Cloud et al. get back to Midgar Sector 1 (which now looks like one of the hipper Parisian arrondissements) especially the appearance of Sephiroth, which spawned my first think piece idea: "Does Sephiroth Reside in the Black Lodge?". But you made a great point about the introduction of Sephiroth as the obvious big bad so early in the narrative — a dramatic departure from the original. What are the motives there, do you think? I mean, from a fan perspective it would be a tough sell to exclude Sephiroth from the whole "first disc."

Shanley: I think that sort of nails it right there. We know that this release encompasses only the Midgar sections of the original game (which are expanded significantly, something that is abundantly clear even in our short demo). Sephiroth is not a major factor during the Midgar section of the original — he’s referenced and makes a cameo or two, but he’s not the “big bad” yet — so, to welcome in players who don’t know FFVII so well that the mousepad at their desk is the homescreen from the original, it’s not a bad tactic to get Sephiroth some screen time right off the bat. Plus, he’s got, just, the most luxurious head of hair I’ve ever seen. He’s beautiful, Pete. You don’t hide that guy away.

Keeley: Pretty much everyone got a major glow-up in the remake. I wanna know who does Biggs' eyebrows. Since you brought up the "expanded significantly" aspect, let's talk about that! Square has obviously padded out the Midgar portion of the original game to justify its Hobbit movies approach to the reboot. Some of the padding feels seamless and some of it feels like Square has obviously padded out the Midgar portion of the original game to justify its Hobbit movies approach to the reboot! This was inevitable, and after 20 years I find it ridiculous that I'm even considering complaining about more FFVII, so I will not. But I will say, I hope the padding continues once the game opens up. I think it will feel more organic once we leave the part of the game that's more or less on rails.

Shanley: The biggest change that I noticed, in terms of the story, was that the evil Shinra Corp. is somehow even more evil in this updated version of the tale. The original opens with the same bombing mission on Midgar’s Sector 1 reactor. However, the blame for civilian casualties this time around falls squarely on Shinra, not Cloud and company. It’s an interesting change, given that AVALANCHE in the original is very much an eco-terrorist organization and their actions have some serious repercussions the group has to reckon with later on. I’m personally on the fence about this, as the original’s moral ambiguity gave our heroes some significant depth, but I also think it’s not wholly surprising to paint Barret and Cloud in a more positive light right from the get-go, especially when courting a new, modern audience.

Keeley: I think this will be the big think-piece minter coming out of the demo — in fact, I'm talking myself into one. When it happened in the demo I was like, "Oh yeah, that makes sense," because it's good that our intrepid heroes aren't immediately implicated in a genocide! On the other hand, though — assuming Jessie's bomb wasn't a dud — what exactly was the point of their daring mission into Reactor 1? To detach a few tubes? Seemed like, had President Shinra and Heiddeger not intervened, Reactor 1 could have been back online in a few hours. So I'm struggling with how to view the motivations of both parties in light of the twist. In the original, AVALANCHE risked their lives to deliver a real blow to Shinra's planet-destroying dirty power operations, and the retaliatory actions against AVALANCHE by Shinra were well-predicated, AVALANCHE having just caused billions of gil in damage to its Midgar infrastructure. Also, if Shinra can blow the reactor so easily why don't they just … do it earlier and kill everyone? I see I've already fallen into the trap of trying to tease out the logic in a game that involves a robot cat who rides another robot and also he loves gambling and also he's a spy.

Shanley: ...and he uses a megaphone to fight Eldritch horrors from the deep and robots the size of the Queen Mary — I digress. Let’s move to combat and gameplay. As everyone has already seen from the trailers (and the E3 2019 demo, which I deftly maneuvered my way into via begging to some PR pals at Square), this new iteration is quite a departure from the turn-based battle system of the 1997 game. There’s still an Active Time Battle (ATB) bar that fills, but whereas the original restricted any moves from the player until the gauge was full, FFVII Remake’s ATB bar fills up more quickly when Cloud, Tifa, whoever whacks a monster. The player has free rein to run around, dodge, block and attack at their leisure, but they can’t pull off any special abilities, cast magic or (and this was my only major issue) use an item. You can’t use a potion until your ATB bar is full, which can be stressful when Air Buster is whaling on your party and you just want to hide and heal. I was roundly chastised by my Square liaison during my demo, I hope you avoided such shame.

Keeley: Not sure how far we can go in discussing the prep work that goes into the Air Buster fight, but I appear to have hit on a good strategy. The most difficult battle for me was the random one where you fight like five of the soldiers with the massive shields? But I did not perish during the demo, and you should be chastised, and I think an appropriate penance would be giving me, the Demo Champ, that mousepad. No big surprise here since Final Fantasy XV was the last game released in the series, but the battle system in Remake is very similar — or at least battles felt similar — and I played enough FFXV to cope, I guess, since I pretty quickly found myself getting annoyed at the tutorials. (Me? Need tutorials? A mashed X button to you, sir!) But I agree that it's weird you have to draw down ATB to use a potion. Mainly, I was just really excited to see all my favorite Limit Breaks rendered in 3D. I also made it a point to summon all available summons — always a highlight of any first FF playthrough. So for me: combat good; gameplay good. One minor annoyance: I consistently found it difficult to get into position to hit various switches or other triangle-button actions. Any other TAKES on the demo? I had some stuff about the graphics but this is not a final build so I will leave those for April.

Shanley: The only scalding hot take™ I have is that — and I hate how cliche this will sound — knowing and loving the original FFVII as much as I do makes this all feel … odd. Not in a bad way. But it almost feels like returning to your childhood home years later and now there’s a new family living in it. The stairs are in the same place, the rooms are all the same dimensions, there’s still that chipped bit of crown molding from that time you were practicing for Little League inside, but it’s also a different space. I’ve played FFVII something like 15 times start-to-finish over the years and I know it well, down to where the hidden items are, how to cheese the W-Item material for duplications, how to solve the library puzzle in Shinra HQ by looking at just one bookshelf — this game is my jam, all right? For some dumb reason, I expected the remake to be more of a “remake”; just a new coat of fancy paint on my favorite game. It’s not — I mean, it kinda is, but it’s not, too. That’s clearly a positive and something we should be celebrating, but it’s still jarring right from the get-go considering the hundreds (literally, Pete, hundreds and hundreds) of hours I’ve spent with the Popeye-armed renders of Cloud and Co. since I first picked up my PS1 controller (after my older brother left and I could slink in like a hungry raccoon). And that’s my “Old Man Yells at Cloud” moment, pun intended. I guess, to wrap this up, here are some really lazy boilerplate questions that I’m going to throw at you, anyway: Favorite moment? Biggest takeaway? Hype level?

Keeley: Pretty sure it was one of the Border Trilogy books where a character says, of returning home after a long absence, "Everything you wished was the same is different, and everything you wished was different is the same." I've not played through the game nearly as many times — three, maybe four, with a few incomplete playthroughs too — so maybe that's why I didn't really feel that way. I've always expected this to be a new game with familiar DNA. However, I will say there are moments from the original where, if Square takes as many liberties with them as they did with the Reactor 1 bombing mission, we will have a problem. AVALANCHE headquarters had better be hidden underneath a pinball machine or I AM OUT. I think the key test is going to be preserving the corny, campy charms of the original despite everyone in the remake looking like underwear models. Also I think that's the answer to your question about my biggest takeaway. As for fav moment, I did enjoy the Mako-fume-induced Sephiroth cutscenes and all the summons. Hype level peaked after seeing the first trailer at E3 2015. Now the actual game is here. I've played it. I would like to keep playing it. That's enough.

Shanley: I'll just say that I also thoroughly enjoyed the new, expanded Sephiroth scenes. They were trippy, spooky and everything a tweak on an original should do to feel like it's adding substance, not just content. I'm thoroughly excited to get my hands on this full game (well, "full" — it's just the Midgar section, after all). Wake me up in April.