If you’ve played Final Fantasy VII, you’re probably familiar with the Air Buster, a floating robot who resembles a vacuum cleaner. Air Buster, the game’s second boss, takes roughly two minutes to kill. He’s more of a tutorial to enemy weak points than a genuine threat (hint: use the Bolt spell). So it’s more than a little jarring to see the Final Fantasy VII remake turn him into a superweapon.
As we’ve known for years now, the Final Fantasy VII remake will unfold in episodes, with the first game comprising the events that take place in the city of Midgar. That first episode, called, confusingly, just Final Fantasy VII Remake, is out on April 10 for PlayStation 4. In the original game, that first Midgar section makes up five or ten per cent of the story, taking maybe four or five hours to complete. But the remake, developer Square Enix says, will be the size of an entire Final Fantasy. If that’s true, it means adding a whole lot of new stuff to Midgar, which is already evident in trailers and demos, where we’ve seen all sorts of new cutscenes and story expansions.
Last week at a Square Enix press event, I spent around three hours playing the remake, and it’s certainly safe to say that it’s full of new stuff. In addition to the overhauled combat system, there’s expanded materia, added cutscenes, a giant weapon skill tree, and enough tweaks to make Final Fantasy VII Remake feel like something brand new. The game feels excellent, but there’s also something disconcerting about it. For those of us who have played Final Fantasy VII so many times that the original game is burned inside of our heads, it’s hard to shake the feeling that this remake is a fraction of what it should be.
Put another way: One of the best things about Final Fantasy VII for the first time is that moment when you get out of Midgar and realise that there’s an entire world out there to explore—an entire map full of towns and stories and secrets. Final Fantasy VII Remake delivers the exact opposite feeling. I can’t help but feel disappointed that Midgar is all we’re going to get.
Which brings us back to Air Buster. In the Final Fantasy VII Remake, which I played for around three hours last week at a Square Enix press event, the Air Buster is a heavy weapon designed by Shinra, the evil corporation that runs Midgar. You first see it, deactivated, on your way to the core of Shinra’s Mako Reactor 5, which your party has come to blow up in the FFVII remake’s Chapter 7. (Your protagonist, Cloud, is a mercenary working for Avalanche, an organisation of eco-terrorists that has been destroying these reactors in order to stop Shinra from sucking all of the Mako, a kind of life force, from the earth. For this mission, he’s working with Barret, who has a gun for an arm, and Tifa, a martial artist and Cloud’s childhood friend. You probably know all this.)
On your way to the reactor’s core, where Cloud and crew plan to set up a bomb, your party makes a few comments about how that Air Buster sure looks scary and how it sure would be bad if Shinra activated it. (Foreshadowing!) “If they do decide to deploy it,” says Cloud, “our best bet would be to run like hell.” When they get to the core, they discover that Shinra has been watching their progress this whole time. A giant hologram belonging to Heidegger, a Shinra executive, taunts them for a while and then promises to activate the Air Buster in order to publicly execute all of Avalanche for Midgar’s enjoyment. We then learn that the Air Buster is only 70% operational, and that Shinra’s engineers will be scrambling to finish putting it together. We see Shinra sending the robot boss up an elevator platform, where it will no doubt be waiting for Cloud and crew when they escape the reactor.
From there, your party must fight up through the building, battling guards and passing through a series of computer rooms full of parts and terminals. You’re then told that you can tamper with the Air Buster before actually fighting it. Each of these computer rooms contains a keycard that you can insert into one of the terminals to affect the Air Buster in some way. You can 1) take out its AI programming cores, which will “hamper its tactical awareness,” 2) remove its “Big Bomber Shells” and disable that particular ability, or 3) dispose of “M-Units” which won’t do much to the boss itself but will get you some cool items. You can do this four times on your way through the reactor.
When you finally get to the top, you’ll exit the reactor and wind up on a three-way rope bridge, much like in the original game. Shinra holograms will taunt you some more—the president accuses Avalanche of working with the foreign country Wutai, while Heidegger calls you “pawns in our plans to sell great and glorious war to the people”—and then they’ll finally send out the Air Buster. Just like the game’s first boss, Scorpion Sentinel, who I fought at E3, the Air Buster has been transformed from a two-minute button-mash-fest into a menacing boss that would be worthy of any action-RPG, complete with powerful attacks and multiple phases. I had to pull out all of my party’s tricks to beat him, from spells to healing items to summons (which, when called upon, will fight alongside your heroes). Tutorial this ain’t.
This whole sequence, which is Chapter 7 of the game, is certainly cool. The combat is excellent, the dialogue is snappy, and it’s all a lot of fun to play. But the transformation of a tutorial boss into a Shinra superweapon is also a reminder that by the end of this first episode of Final Fantasy VII Remake, we’ll have only seen a piece of the game’s sprawling plot. The original game has more than 30 bosses—if the second one is now an elite robot beast that needs to be tampered with before you can defeat it, just what is it going to look like when we get to Jenova, or Ruby Weapon, or even Sephiroth? How many years is it going to take before we can play the entire game?
Throughout Final Fantasy VII Remake, there are all sorts of story sections that weren’t in the original. Some of them serve to expand on the original game’s themes, as the members of Avalanche openly question whether they’re doing the right thing, particularly after their bombing of Mako Reactor 1 (the game’s opening chapter) turns out to be far more destructive than they’d originally intended. Chapter 2 of the remake unfolds in the streets and rooftops of Midgar, and you get an intimate look into how this all has upended the lives of average citizens.
Cloud also sees hallucinations of Sephiroth (hinted at but never quite shown in the original) and flashes to the events of Nibelheim (which, in the original game, unfold entirely through one long playable flashback sequence once you leave Midgar). All of these story additions work quite nicely, and I’m looking forward to seeing what else is in there when the game comes out for real. I’m also very curious to see how the developers can possibly wrap up this story in any way that satisfies anyone familiar with Final Fantasy VII. From what I’ve seen, I’m pessimistic. It’s not yet clear how much will be completely new—will we be able to go to sections of Midgar that weren’t accessible in the original?—but everything I played over three hours was more of a re-envisioning than something entirely new. Which would be perfectly lovely… if the remake didn’t end one-tenth of the way into the game.
Once I’d defeated the Air Buster in Chapter 7, just before Cloud’s plummet to Aerith’s church, Square Enix’s reps skipped me ahead to Chapter 10. Now I was in Midgar’s sewer system, fighting Abzu, the boss you face right after confronting the lecherous Don Corleone. Just like the first two bosses, Abzu has been expanded and refined—now, he leaps around the sewers, clinging to walls and pouncing on your characters. Your party has thousands of hit points at this point, and is equipped with a wide range of skills, materia, and summons.
Abzu is also way tougher now—I got a game over on my first try before changing tactics to rely upon one of Aerith’s new abilities to heal my entire party at every single possibility. Using healing spells or items requires a chunk of your ATB gauge, which fills up when you attack, so you actually have to be aggressive if you want to heal—an unusual but welcome strategic difference between Final Fantasy VII Remake and just about every other RPG.
Yet again, I’m left wondering: If the Midgar sewers are chapter 10, how many chapters are there? It’s safe to assume that Shinra’s headquarters will be the final dungeon of Final Fantasy VII Remake. Even if it’s expanded in a big way, just how satisfying will it be to finish, knowing that there will be so much left to see in future episodes of the game? Will Final Fantasy VII fans be able to ignore that lingering, nagging feeling that the story might be years away from a resolution? The story changes are fascinating, the new combat system is very satisfying, and it all looks and feels great… but when you know how much more the game should be, will that be enough?
To detail all of the differences between Final Fantasy VII Remake and the original would require an in-depth Wiki page. That will no doubt pop up the day it comes out. In the meantime, with the game just a few weeks away, I’ll say this: everything I’ve seen so far from the Final Fantasy VII Remake is excellent. I’m just worried that for anyone who’s played the original, it’ll feel less like a proper meal and more like a $69 or $79 appetiser.