The nostalgia is strong with Final Fantasy VII Remake, the upcoming reboot of the iconic Japanese role-playing game (JRPG).
Although the launch of the remake has been delayed by a month till April 10, I was given the opportunity last week to try selected parts of the game at Sony Interactive Entertainment's local office.
The opening cinematic scene, which is available on YouTube, gives an excellent glimpse of the remake's leap in visual fidelity. The city of Midgar, the starting location of the game, has never looked so good. But then again, it has been 23 years since the original game debuted for the first PlayStation console.
It was the opening music, though, that triggered my nostalgia. The goosebumps on my arms upon hearing the familiar strains of the theme song were accompanied by a sense of unease brought by the reworked soundtrack, which adds the ominous "One Winged Angel" theme of the game's chief villain, Sephiroth.
Main protagonist Cloud Strife looks even more like a boy band member now with his sharp flawless features and spiky hair. It is a huge upgrade from Cloud's blocky polygon form in the original game.
The gameplay, too, has evolved from the original's turn-based mechanics to a hybrid real-time action RPG. In the standard game mode, you press the controller buttons to attack, block and dodge.
Attacking the enemy builds up the Action Time Battle (ATB) gauge. When the gauge is filled, you can enter the Command menu to unleash special attacks, use items and cast spells. The game also slows down drastically in this menu, giving you time to choose your option.
The new combat system is more dynamic than the original's turn-based one, but may take some adjustment. I found it too hectic and overwhelming, especially in the first chapter of the game, which serves as a tutorial.
It took me two tries to beat the game's first boss, a giant robotic scorpion. This is partly because of the unfamiliar control scheme and also because there is a lot of visual information that you need to track in the game.
For instance, an enemy might toss explosives on the ground that your character can avoid by moving away from the blast zone. Enemies may hold a shield in front of them, so you should attack them from behind.
Switching to another character in the party - which has three members - in a timely manner can give you an advantage. In a boss encounter with the Air Buster, a flying robot, I often switched to using another character, Barret, as he can shoot the boss when it flies out of reach of Cloud's sword.
There is also a tactical aspect to the gameplay. Enemies can be temporarily stunned when hit by attacks that they are weak to, such as a magic spell. Thus, it is a good idea to exploit their weakness at the right moment, such as when your characters are ready to unleash their most powerful abilities.
All these considerations increases the difficulty compared to the original. But for old-timers like me who can't keep up, the remake has a Classic mode that basically takes away most of the button pressing. The characters will auto attack (and fill up the gauge) an enemy that is within range. Thus the player can focus on giving commands - to use an ability, cast a spell or use an item - like in the original.
During my three-hour session, I was given a taste of three boss enemies (Scorpion Sentinel, Air Buster and Abzu) and played some of the other key characters such as Aerith, Barret and Tifa.
The boss fights were exciting and visually stunning with lots of special effects - the usual Final Fantasy spells and summoning effects are as over the top as ever - but the parts leading to the bosses felt fairly tedious.
Perhaps it was due to the indoor setting, a succession of poorly-lit rooms and corridors with unavoidable enemies or a certain sequence where I had to move my controller sticks in tandem with a character.
Of course, it is likely that the developers are keeping the best parts of the game under wraps to avoid spoiling the game for fans.
Seeing as this remake, which is set entirely in Midgar, is but the first of an unknown number of episodes, I hope the developers are not dragging out the game's length with less exciting content. While I do expect some amount of grind - it is a JRPG tradition - I don't have as much time to play games nowadays as I did in the past.
And I am probably speaking for long-time fans who have grown up with the franchise, who now have families and responsibilities to put before games, even a seminal title like Final Fantasy VII.
The Final Fantasy VII remake is exclusive to the PlayStation 4 console for at least a year. It is available for pre-order now at $80.10. A free demo covering the first chapter is available now at the online Sony PlayStation store.