You have to leave. You have to live. — Final Fantasy VII Remake preview

I remember sitting around the family television Christmas morning with my brother and uncle in 1997, watching the opening to Final Fantasy VII in awe. I couldn’t imagine that video games could ever look better than they did at that moment. Looking back, the idea is downright laughable, but nearly twenty three years later, I was fortunate enough to sit inside Square Enix’s LA office, watching the opening to Final Fantasy VII Remake with a similar sense of wonder. I got to spend around three and a half hours with FFVIIR, playing through the first two chapters, then skipping ahead to AVALANCHE’s second assault on a Mako Reactor, and finished my abbreviated tour of Midgar in the sewers, where Cloud, Tifa, and Aerith clashed with Don Corneo’s monstrous pet, Aps.

I won’t spend too much time detailing the first mission, as you can check out the playthrough in the video above. The remake is both faithful and refreshing; the core details are the same, but it also brings in new content, gives combat a modern overhaul, and tweaks the plot just a little, giving the player a better perspective on the true nature of Shinra earlier on. The story changes are more than just cosmetic, and really start to hit home in Chapter 2, which is made of almost entirely new content. Cloud and AVALANCHE find themselves in the severely damaged slums of Sector 8, where shocked and angry people have gathered to witness the destruction of Mako Reactor 1. Both Cloud and you, as the player, are forced to really face what it means to be an eco-terrorist; you did this to these people. You destroyed their homes, shattered their meager little lives. You planted the bomb which took away their loved ones, and now you must walk among them, witness their pain and listen to their anguish, as you work your way towards the rendezvous point, where Barrett will pay you for the destruction you helped cause.

Much like in the original, the streets of Midgar are rather linear, but they still provide plenty of twists, turns, and alleys for you to wander through, picking up items and catching glimpses of ambushes that may lay in store as you go. Cloud often has a will and a speed all his own. You can’t simply sprint straight to the Seventh Heaven bar. He will slow down to listen in on a particularly distraught daughter, or pause to lean over the edges of buildings to look at the still-smoldering wreckage below. This not only helps establish Cloud as a character in and of himself, not just an avatar the player inhabits, but it also helps set the mood, tone, and gravity of the chapter. I was also impressed by how well Cloud’s confusion and memory leaks have been handled this time around. You can feel the pain in his head, the confusion as old memories try to resurface, overlaying themselves against the present as they try force their way to the forefront. While we see a solid start in the first chapter, I didn’t really appreciate just how well this was handled until Chapter 2 when Sephiroth made an early appearance, and I was left breathless.

Tyler Hoechlin’s voice work for Sephiroth is simply dazzling. He is intense and superior, but far more connected and present, not as detached as his voice work felt in Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children. He’s smoldering, silky, arrogant, and almost benevolent in his malevolence. While I know there have been mixed reactions among the fandom, I can’t help but find myself fascinated by this incarnation of Sephiroth’s voice. But Sephiroth isn’t the only character with some stellar voice work in the early part of this game.

Barrett is, in my opinion, the breakout character of the early parts of FFVIIR. He oozes dislike and distrust of Cloud. He snaps between arrogance and frustration at his inability to save the planet. He rants and lectures, often drawing rolled eyes from even his fellow AVALANCHE mates, but he also manages to drop inspiring and poignant speeches at just the right time. While he was rather one-dimensional in the original, I can actually understand him as a leader this time around, and John Eric Bentley provides some masterful voice work from what I saw from my limited time with the game. Jessie came in hot on his heels; upbeat, sassy, and more than a little flirty, her expanded role added a lot of smiles to the early scenes, and I found myself muttering, “Shoot your shot, girl,” more than once.

Towards the end of Chapter 2, we finally stumbled upon Aerith, who seemed to be swatting at flies as the air distorted around her. Her story, too, has been altered in the best of ways. I blinked in surprise and confusion when she offered Cloud a flower as a thank you gift “for scaring those things away.” It seems that Midgar’s resident Ancient is being stalked by something far more supernatural than the Turks, and for the first time in all my many playthroughs of Final Fantasy VII, found myself interested in Aerith’s story.

Remake is filled with countless, delightful little touches which helps make the world feel rich and alive. When Aerith tucks a flower into the strap of Cloud’s armor, it remains there, visible, both in and out of combat. Likewise, the materia equipped to weapons and armor glows faintly, jewel-bright in Midgar’s gloom. These kinds of details would have been nice enough in and of themselves, but the same kind of attention has been paid to the bigger details, such as the lead up to the Air Buster battle.

Cloud, Tifa, and Barrett squad up and make their way into the heart of the Sector 5 Reactor with destruction in mind, and things quickly escalate as they realize that they have played right into the hands of the Shinra Corporation. Fortunately for our unlikely gang of heroes, Shinra’s weapon, the Air Buster, is not entirely assembled yet, and the trio has the opportunity to sabotage things as they go. By collecting keycards and accessing different terminals, you are able to somewhat customize your boss battle by having Cloud dispose of Air Buster’s weaponry, circuitry, or other parts. Air Buster will always have more components than you’ll have key cards to dispose of them, but that makes the decisions all the more meaningful. Would you rather rob it of it’s most powerful ammo, or risk taking those hits in exchange for slowing it down significantly? The answer will absolutely depend on your playstyle.

And, just in case you’re wondering, the simultaneous button push puzzle is back, but this time it’s been moved to the thumbsticks. The good news is, getting it right once isn’t as challenging as it could be. The bad news: you’re going to want to get it right four more times–trust me, you will–and getting it right is something akin to torture. The other good news is that Barrett is utterly hilarious in this scene, and only becomes more entertaining the more you do it wrong.

Now that I’ve rambled on (and on, and on…) about the story, characters, and voice work, let’s talk about combat. I am not a fan of, nor at all skilled at action combat. I managed to cheese my way through most of Final Fantasy XV’s battles thanks to Noctus’ warp skill, and approached Remake’s combat with no small sense of dread. I love Final Fantasy VII, but would I be able to handle the combat side of it?

The first thing I will say is that this is not a hack-and-slash game. Strategy is important, and becomes increasingly so as you progress through the chapters. Figuring out what kinds of magic to use on which enemies, where and when to strike an enemy, when to switch to Cloud’s Punisher Stance, when to defend and wait for an auto-counter, and even when to make sure you’re not standing in a puddle, so as to avoid getting hit with a status effect, are all vital parts of this game. You won’t necessarily die every time you get it wrong, but you’ll certainly be in for a much longer battle, and have to spend a lot more items and magic points restoring your health.

Battles are beautiful, even when they’re ugly. Whenever I mispositioned Cloud, Aps would leap on top of him, pinning him to the ground with its hind legs as it slashed at Cloud’s face with its front paws. Cloud, in turn, rolled onto his back, holding Aps’ claws at bay by bracing his sword above his head. Limit breaks slow down time slightly, delivering the flashy moves we all remember and love without turning the display of power into a cut scene.

Summons have also received an overhaul. Weapons each have dedicated Summon materia slots, and you will only be able to summon once per battle–so choose wisely. Rather than initiating a cutscene and delivering a lump sum of damage, summoned creatures now linger on the edge of the battle field for a stretch of time, and join in the battle, dealing out damage like a teammate. They also have their own skills, activated by the Active Time Battle bar. Once the ATB is filled you can choose to use either your character’s skills, or the skills of an active summon, but again, you’d best choose wisely. One of Ifrit’s skills for example, would deal a large amount of damage to an enemy, but would also deal splash damage to anyone nearby, making positioning critical.

The classic blue Final Fantasy VII menu still exists, though with a flashy graphical overhaul. Opening the menu slows time to a crawl, though it does not truly stop it. This gives players plenty of time to look over their attacks, spells, items, and skills. That said, those who thrive under pressure can use the shoulder buttons in combination with the face buttons to execute skills and magic without having to slow down and open the menu.

While I was able to clumsily fight my way through the Scorpion Sentinel and Air Buster battles on the Normal difficulty mode, I just couldn’t quite manage it with the Aps battle, thanks to the the status effects and the importance of positioning in this fight. So I switched over to try my hand at Classic Mode. Classic Mode isn’t truly a turn-based system, it simply means that Cloud, or whichever character you are controlling at the time, will handle things like basic attacks, blocking, and positioning. Enemies are set to an easier difficulty mode, and you can take control of your character back from the AI at any point.

Classic Mode basically allows you to sit back and focus on using abilities, magic, and items, intervening in your character’s movements only when you feel it necessary. For someone who often has trouble absorbing a lot of information in flashy, busy video games, it felt like playing an entirely different game. Suddenly, I could see indicators and messages I couldn’t before. It was easy to tell what the boss monster was telegraphing, when before it all felt random and chaotic. On Normal difficulty, I found Final Fantasy VII to be a busy, frantic, and (given my general lack of experience with action combat) very luck-based experience, while on Classic Mode, it suddenly felt entirely strategic, and I could finally see the path to victory. I went from struggling to survive to having defeated Aps so quickly that the lovely Square Enix people were concerned I was flagging them over to report a problem.

I loved every minute I spent with Final Fantasy VII Remake, and cannot wait to spend more time in Midgar. This remake is more than just a fresh coat of paint, and it hasn’t been overloaded with flashy new features. If the hours I was able to spend with it is any indication, the team has really managed to zero in on what made this story so memorable, so important to so many people, and expanded the story in all the right ways. From bantering characters to Cloud’s deliberate slowing in the slums, from Shinra turning AVALANCHE’s plans back on them to Barrett unabashedly singing the classic fanfare victory music after a battle, from the flashy, fast-paced new battle system to the inclusion of Classic Mode, Final Fantasy VII Remake really feels like a beautiful union of something old and something new, and I genuinely hope that the rest of the game is just as engrossing as these four hand-picked chapters were.

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