Hands-on with Final Fantasy 7 Remake: The perfect blend of old and new

(Image credit: Square Enix)

My hands-on time with Final Fantasy 7 Remake begins with a familiar melody. Three piano pings is all it takes to bring me right back into a world I fell in love with so many years ago. The iconic soundtrack holds a very special place in my heart, and hearing those familiar notes from Nobuo Uetmatu's iconic score immediately drowns me in nostalgia as I watch the Final Fantasy 7 Remake opening cinematic unfold. 

To my younger self, this fantastical world filled with magic, oversized weapons, and characters packed with personality felt so grand in size and scope. Now it feels even bigger, and as the screen pans across the myriad of steel constructions and steam, I find myself in awe of the city of Midgar. Square Enix has taken a world I know intimately and somehow managed to make it feel fresh, like a brand new locale that I'm eager to explore. 

This feeling of old meets new courses throughout Final Fantasy 7 Remake. Square Enix has treated this reconstruction with the respect and reverence the game's legacy deserves, but the developer hasn't been afraid to make some changes as it works to bring this adventure to a brand new generation of players. I was able to get a good sense of all of this as I worked through the first and second chapters, and the opportunity to dip into chapters seven and ten to get a better sense of how the studio is expanding out the latter sections of this first instalment. From what I've seen of it so far, Final Fantasy 7 Remake succeeds at offering an experience that has so much to offer long-time fans and newcomers alike. 

Buster a move

(Image credit: Square Enix)

One of my biggest questions going into the Final Fantasy 7 Remake was how the new combat system – leaving the classic ATB system behind in favour of something more fluid and action-oriented – would change the fundamentals of play. As I wield the Buster Sword and carve a chunk of health out of a Shinra soldier, I can't help but revel in just how satisfying connecting a blow is. 

To put it simply, the fighting in Final Fantasy 7 Remake feels so damn good. I hack and slash at a lineup of soldiers with a combo of button presses, and each blow I deliver results in a spattering of numbers that indicate damage dealt. Cloud responds to my controls without missing a beat, and before I know it, three soldiers are down. Finally, I turn up the heat on the last remaining foe by selecting a fire spell from the command menu mid-fight. It briefly pauses the action before pushing Cloud to execute the move with a burst of flame damage.

(Image credit: Square Enix)

As I progress, I then switch over to Barrett and his outlandishly large gatling gun arm, popping bullets into a sentry ray gun that stands up high above ground. Perfect for taking out ranged foes, Barrett feels heavier and less fluid than Cloud, but his bullets pack a rewarding punch, and the action-packed pace of the battling never slows down for a moment as I switch between characters. A quick selection from the command menu leads to Barret performing a thunder spell and finishing off the sentry with an electric blow. I don't often feel like a total badass when I play a game, but I absolutely do in this moment. 

By mashing up elements of the classic command-based menus with real-time action, it feels like Square Enix has been able to instill the tactical elements of the original battle system into a far more fast-paced and action-packed setup. It reminds me of the combat system seen in Final Fantasy 15, but with a Final Fantasy 7 spin that makes this uniquely its own. 

Kicking things off

(Image credit: Square Enix)

Since each character has their own unique abilities and fighting styles, there's a wide array of tactical opportunities to utilise in combat. I get the chance to spend some time with Tifa at the tail end of my session, and I'm not at all disappointed by the changes that have been made with her. As Tifa, I can perform whirling uppercuts, and utilise a combo of punches and kicks to find victory. Once again, Tifa feels different to the other characters. Fast and agile, she's great to control in close-quarters combat, and her special abilities can pack in some serious damage against the right assortment of foes. 

A fantastic showcase of how each of the different characters brings something distinct to combat is as  Barrett, Cloud, and Tifa, face off against the mighty Air Buster, a huge mechanical hovering machine outfitted with a pretty hardcore arsenal. In the lead up to facing this iconic boss, things get tactical as I'm presented with the option to disable certain aspects of the machine, like reducing the amount of bombs it can use against me, for example. Taking this enemy down is no walk in the park, and you certainly have to make every attack and dodge count. 

During this fight, I need to use everything advantage at my disposal. I command Barrett to send out a summon, which is essentially a fantastical being who joins you in combat. Instead of just jumping in to deliver one big helping of damage, the summon fights beside you on the battlefield for a limited time. You can instruct it to perform special abilities before it will perform one finishing move and make an exit. It's a great way to get some more hits in, and I find them particularly useful here. 

(Image credit: Square Enix)

"Taking this enemy down is no walk in the park, and you certainly have to make every attack and dodge count"

In the very last section I get to try out, I'm facing another big bad foe. A large blue horned beast by the name of Abzu presents me with my toughest fight yet. I really mean it when I say these boss fights can be brutal, but it's incredibly pleasing when you succeed at taking them down. This time, though, Aeirth and Tifa join Cloud in combat. As a healer, Aerith is better suited to staying out of the enemies line of sight, and keeping her distance to offer support to the other fighters. 

I love how much personality there is reflected in Aeirth's moveset, with flower motifs decorating the battlefield as she uses a special ability. Abzu's swipes can really hurt, and as the large beast chaotically jumps around, it lands on top of Cloud, immobilising him for a short time. Keeping my eyes honed on the creatures movements is of paramount importance here, and if at any moment I take too long to land in my next hit, I really pay for it. Fighting Abzu really drives home just how important my tactical decisions are – I can't just hack at it and hope for the best. As I dodge and dive away from the creature and jump back in to deal damage, I put all of my energy and concentration into taking it down, and when it falls, I feel like I can take on anything.  

Old friends, new faces

(Image credit: Square Enix)

Square Enix has approached the remake of Final Fantasy 7 with such attention to detail that you really can feel the personality of each character coming through in combat, but nothing beats seeing each of them interact in cutscenes and out in the world. 

I'm happy to report that, throughout my play session, I more often than not catch a big goofy grin spreading across my face, thanks in small part to how fun it is to see Cloud and Barret interact. Cloud, with his signature aloofness, is actually very likeable, and plays off of Barrett's big, brash personality so well. In fact, all the members of Avalanche you join in the first chapter add their own brushes of personality to the action. The characters have always been at the heart of Final Fantasy 7, and the Remake brings these well loved figures back to life better than I could have ever hoped.

From low-poly figures of the original on the PS1 to the Remake's impossibly beautiful detailed renditions on PS4, I can't help but appreciate how gorgeous everyone and everything looks. During one scene in Chapter 2 you can even see the beads of sweet on Cloud's face, and as I run through the streets of Midgar, it truly feels so alive. Pedestrians litter the roads, light reflects off the surface of puddles, and in the distance, you can see the big metal construction of the reactor. It's once again another pertinent reminder that this is Final Fantasy 7 rebuilt from the ground up with impeccable detail and beautiful visuals. 

By the time I reach the end of my time with Final Fantasy 7 Remake, I don't want to stop playing, and really that's the best praise I could ever give it. You can feel how much care and attention to detail has been put into the remake, and it really is impressive to see just how well it manages to cater to both fans of the original, and those who are coming to the world of Final Fantasy 7 for the first time. Entertaining and engaging, with a generous sprinkling of nostalgia thrown in, I truly can't wait to dive right back into the action and relive this classic adventure in a new and exciting way.

Excited for the remake? Here's how to pre-order Final Fantasy 7 Remake

Heather Wald
Senior staff writer

I started out writing for the games section of a student-run website as an undergrad, and continued to write about games in my free time during retail and temp jobs for a number of years. Eventually, I earned an MA in magazine journalism at Cardiff University, and soon after got my first official role in the industry as a content editor for Stuff magazine. After writing about all things tech and games-related, I then did a brief stint as a freelancer before I landed my role as a staff writer here at GamesRadar+. Now I get to write features, previews, and reviews, and when I'm not doing that, you can usually find me lost in any one of the Dragon Age or Mass Effect games, tucking into another delightful indie, or drinking far too much tea for my own good.