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Final Fantasy VII Remake E3 Demo Impressions

Of course, one of the biggest information blowouts of E3 2019 was that for Final Fantasy VII Remake, a long-awaited title finally becoming a tangible thing since its announcement four long years ago. On the show floor I had a chance to both play a similar demo to the one shown during Square Enix's streamed event, as well as a guided hands-off showcase of the game with Square Enix boss Yoshinori Kitase offering commentary.

Over the course of the show, we've learned quite a bit about the project. Square Enix has stated that Final Fantasy VII Remake's entry will go up through the Midgar escape, and the project as a whole will probably straddle generations. Producer Yoshinori Kitase also stated that they aren't certain just how many total episodes there will be for Final Fantasy VII Remake.

While it'll be less than a year before we all can get our hands on the first entry to Final Fantasy VII Remake, you can find my impressions of the demo shown and played at E3 2019 below.

By now you've probably seen the trailer and demo footage shown by Square Enix. The series' classic ATB system is now implemented as a set of 'charges' that Cloud and company can fill during combat. These charges are then spent whenever the player wants to use a character skill, spell, or item. Spells also cost MP, of course. Enemies at fought in real time and in addition to an HP Gauge, each enemy will also exhibit a 'Focus Gauge'. When filled up, this will break the enemy's guard and allows a higher level of damage similar to Final Fantasy XIII.

In the demo, Cloud has three abilities he can use with AP charges. First is Braver, which is used for pure damage. A second ability is Focused Thrust, which primarily works to raise an enemy's Focus Gauge but deals less damage than Braver. His third ability is a triple attack which has Cloud dash between three foes, able to hit multiple enemies at once. These abilities are accessed through Command Mode, which is similar to Kingdom Hearts spells in that they are accessed through a menu during combat. The main difference is that the action will effectively pause when you open the menu. Also, like Kingdom Hearts games, you can set a handful of abilities, spells, or items to shortcuts to use them more fluidly in real-time rather than having to pause the action and sift through the command menu.

In addition to these abilities, each character also has a Unique Ability, which is shown in the UI  and activated by the Triangle button. These abilities are separate from ATB and seem to utilize a normal cooldown system in order to be used. Cloud's Unique Ability shown so far is a stance change where he can toggle between Operator Mode and Punisher Mode. The former mode is his standard state, which focuses primarily on speed. Punisher Mode allows Cloud to dish out more damage, but he is much slower. His standard Square Button combo also seems to change will in this mode. 

Of course, each character also has a Limit Break meter that allows them to perform their strongest abilities once full. Cloud's in the demo is Cross-Slash. It remains to be seen how many Limit Breaks each character might get, or if any will have special mechanics, like Tifa's chained Limits in the original.

The other playable character in the demo was Barret, whose capabilities seem just a tad simpler than Cloud's. Rather than having any sort of attack combo, he can instead hold down fire (by the player holding down a button) for a period of time. His Unique Ability is 'Overcharge', which seems to be a single powered-up blast.

Both characters felt comfortable to play, and I got familiar with the control scheme pretty readily. Cloud's attacks seemed to have the appropriate amount of weight and everything felt intuitive to control. Locking on and switching between enemy targets also came naturally.

While not in the playable demo, footage of Final Fantasy VII Remake shows that Tifa's Unique Ability is 'Bash', and seems to change to 'Omnipunch' depending on some unspecified combo state. Aerith's Unique Ability is 'Tempest', though it's difficult to determine what exactly it can do at this point.

The boss battle against Guard Scorpion was largely the same as shown during Square Enix Live, except their demo sped through a bit of the battle for the sake of time. It ends up being a somewhat lengthy encounter, somewhere in the realm of ten minutes. Being an action RPG now, you have to start learning the boss's tells and learn how to avoid them use Cloud's guard and dodges. Most of the time, your main goal is to fill up his Focus Gauge, so I was mostly using Cloud's ATB charges to perform Focused Thrust - his ability suited to doing that. Barret's ATB charges I used to stay healthy with potions and throw some thunder magic when I could. You could either pause the game to command Barret to do this, or simply switch to him using the D-Pad.

When the boss's HP drops to certain thresholds, a scripted sequence would take place, such as the one shown where debris falls from the ceiling, and you have to get behind it to avoid the tail laser. Another scripted boss event was when the Guard Scorpion put up a shield to block incoming damage. In the demo playthrough it was a bit chaotic to see what exactly was effective against this barrier - I believe you either had to target a certain spot on the boss's backside or use magic to get through it.

It goes without saying that with modern graphics, facial capture tech, and voice-over, more focus will be given to characterization and dialogue between characters. Not only is this apparent in cutscenes, but plenty of banter was also given while running through Midgar and taking on the Guard Scorpion. Though this was was a demo build and not indicative of the final game, there was some distracting dithering in character hair and some framerate drops when several attack effects were on screen.

There are just a few things about the gameplay that I have some hesitation towards. One is that Cloud's normal Square-button combo does not seem to have any directional control by the player. It doesn't matter which way Cloud is moving or how you hold the control stick, the actual combination itself seems the same pattern of moves each time. His swings change depending on if you are in Operator or Punisher mode, and you can hold also Square to perform a charge attack to mix things up a little, but it does not seem to change otherwise. 

Level design is also something I can't help but wonder about. In the E3 demo, the pathway was entirely linear, with a few chests at some obvious dead ends. That's absolutely perfectly suitable for a demo, but I wonder just how much of Midgar we'll be able to explore through ourselves as a player in the final game, rather than guided through with cutscenes and scripted events. One thing worth noting is that in our closed-doors demonstration of the game, the sequence opened up with text stating Chapter 1, clearly indicating that the game will be separated into chapters.

Additionally, characters cannot seem to be able to jump, which not only has combat implications but might give an idea what sort of environment design might be seen in the game.

Other things I'm interested in knowing are the sorts that are hard to see in a short demo, things like progression systems and materia. I'm curious to know if materia can level up or be linked in the same way as they are in the original game. Will new abilities come through characters levels or will there be some sort of AP/Ascension tree, as seen in Final Fantasy XV? Will the ATB gauges expand or evolve in any way from the intro to the game to the end? Will character Unique Abilities change over time? 

In any case, we'll get the answers to these question early next year with Final Fantasy VII Remake launches for PlayStation 4 on March 3, 2020.

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