Hands-on: Final Fantasy VII Remake’s combat system is a solid hybrid of new and old

I’m not a very nostalgic gamer. While I’ve been playing games for most of my life, since Atari 2600 and the arcades to the current generation of systems, I usually finish a game and move on to the next latest and greatest innovation in gameplay and storytelling. I don’t get excited for remasters of old games I’ve already played and I don’t anticipate new games with the same characters over and over again (shout out to Mario and Sonic), no matter how good they are. I appreciate new ideas with new stories and new characters.

However, Final Fantasy VII might be a different story. When the game originally came out in 1997, it blew my mind. It changed the way I thought about video games and it changed the way I thought about how video games can be made and tell a compelling story while looking amazing. So when Final Fantasy VII Remake was announced in 2015, I was intrigued. As more information came out I became more excited.

Now that I was able to get my hands on the game, even though it was for a lowly 15 minutes, it’s one of my most anticipated games of 2020.

Combat system

During a closed door presentation at E3 2019, we got a closer and in-depth look at the game’s battle system. What I thought would be similar to Final Fantasy XV (which I enjoyed), is only similar in terms of its hybrid action RPG gameplay, but even that has its own flavor in Final Fantasy VII Remake.

To attack you press the square button, which is a basic attack. When using your basic attack it fills up your ATB (active time battle) gauge, allowing you to use other special attacks and abilities. The ATB gauge also fills up on its own, but attacking makes it fill up faster.

In the demo I played, Cloud and Barrett, both had two ATB bars that can be filled. Once they’re filled, you can open up a mini-menu of special attacks, spells, or items you’d want to use. When you open up the menu, the game goes into Tactical Mode where the gameplay slows down to give you a chance to select what you want to use next. Cloud had a special attack called Braver that dealt a devastating blow to enemies. He also had fire, ice, and lightning spells to use. By the way, in addition to needing filled up ATB gauges, you also need Magic Points to cast those spells.

All the characters have unique combat styles and can switch those styles by pressing the triangle button, but it seemed more like a “Heavy” attack than an actual switch of styles. For Cloud, he moved slower and took longer to swing his sword, but his attacks were more powerful. For Barrett, he had a powerful long range attack. And you can switch easily between characters by pressing up or down on the D-Pad or you can send orders to the other character to attack specific enemies or parts of an enemy. Even when I wasn’t giving the commands, the other character was doing a pretty good job in damaging enemies.

On the defensive side, you use R1 to guard against attacks and circle to do an evasive roll move out of the way. There is no jump button, like in Final Fantasy XV, so that was something I had to get out of my muscle memory when playing the game. Locking on to an enemy with R3 makes things easier and more focused when in the middle of a battle.

When fighting an enemy, you’ll see two bars above them. The top bar is the enemy’s health gauge, while the bottom one is the focus gauge. The focus gauge increases when you’re landing attacks on an enemy and when get to its maximum, the enemy will go into a “staggered state” which makes him more vulnerable and easier to get heavy blows in on him. The staggered state doesn’t last forever and when the bar decreases, the enemy will regain his posture.

Scorpion robot

In the demo I played, we were given about 15 minutes to defeat the Scorpion robot that was shown during the game’s gameplay reveal at Square Enix Live. Of course, at the time I didn’t know we were only going to be given 15 minutes so I spent some time exploring, getting to know the character movements, and opening treasure chests.

Most of the walk to the Scorpion robot was pretty linear, with dead ends that had either a treasure chest to open, a barrel to destroy, or some enemy to fight. The chest and barrels held a variety of items like potions, phoenix downs, and ether.

When finally getting to the robot, it went down pretty much the same way the gameplay reveal did. The robot has its missile and sweeping tail attacks, while Cloud can run up on it and attack and Barrett can attack from a distance. Barrett’s ranged attack comes in handy when the robot jumps on the wall, but Cloud still has spells that I used to bring down the robot’s health. The robot also has a devastating laser attack where if you don’t hide behind some debris, it will take you out.

Overall the game felt excellent to play. It felt natural, modern and current while still paying homage to the classic gameplay. Some purists were wanting a return to the turn-based gameplay, while others hoped to see the action RPG gameplay of Final Fantasy XV have an influence, but Final Fantasy VII Remake’s gameplay is a pretty solid amalgamation of both styles.

Final Fantasy VII Remake will consist of multiple games, the first one, taking place mostly in Midgar, is said to take up at least two blu-ray discs. Look for it to launch on March 3, 2020.