gamescom 2019: Final Fantasy VII Remake

Final Fantasy VII was a killer title for the PlayStation in 1997 – except I didn’t buy it straight away, or was even vaguely aware of it. I only picked it up when my mum took my brother and me to a car-boot sale one weekend and we saw the title selling for cheap.

I remember her parking in the Tesco nearby to buy food while I remained in the car with my brother in the pouring rain, reading the manual to get a head-start as soon as we got home. Does anyone else remember games coming in cases with a full booklet? Perhaps that’s a little bit of development time saved for something else more significant.

It’s a strange memory to have but I feel it’s an important one I’ve always remembered because we fell in love with Final Fantasy VII almost straight away. I wasn’t used to playing RPGs or Japanese releases, so the turn-based gameplay was alien at first but the plot didn’t fail to draw us in. Joining Cloud on his journey from amnesia, to terrorism, and finally on the way to saving the world had us gripped. When a particular character died, it hit me hard emotionally as I hadn’t experienced such loss in a video game before. That’s because we didn’t play anything with as much depth in the story.

One last point to make on the original was that we didn’t actually finished the title the first time around. In the last moments of freedom before heading for the final area, I spent hours and hours levelling the characters, aiming for the maximum stats possible. This was futile; it would take hundreds of hours to do but that didn’t stop me constantly running around in circles in the forest at Mideel to trigger the random encounters. I did manage to complete it for the first time many years later once I convinced myself to finish it regardless, OCD-levelling be damned.

Fast forward over 20 years to today, when we’ve patiently waited for the promised remake to appear and meet our lofty expectations. No other entry in the Final Fantasy series has come close to VIII except Final Fantasy X as it introduced voiced characters, but still lacked the grit of the PlayStation original. We’ve also moved to a more active combat system instead of the original turn-based experience, which is a welcome change. I do miss the strategy of the older system where planning ahead was crucial but I understand the free-moving combat is much more accessible.

After queuing for two hours at gamescom, we finally got our hands on the remake and played from the middle of the opening sequence up to the Guard Scorpion boss battle. The demo is voiced in Japanese but subtitled in German and we were able to change it to English to understand what was going on. Cloud and Barret were playable throughout with the ability to switch between them in combat but only controlling Cloud out of battle, just like the original. The active combat was very much a button-basher using attack and block buttons until pausing the battle to use the combat menu.

The same options for abilities, magic or items return but with the addition of the action meter from XIV, which builds with basic attacks and spent on the use of abilities. The demo included a tutorial on staggering enemies by building a bar with repeated attacks which, when full, would stun them after landing a magic attack. Once in this state, the enemies take increased damage which is crucial for this boss battle as it would have taken much longer to defeat without it.

Those encountered in the run-up differed by whether they were a close-quarter or ranged attacker. The latter was inaccessible by Cloud and so Barret with his Gatling gun comes into play, with pressing up on the directional pad switches characters. While fighting you can issue commands to the other characters to help the battle flow without the need to switch between them continuously. It will be interesting to see how this works out with more than two, assuming four is the standard as in the original.

Sadly it wasn’t possible to play with the levelling system or Materia in the demo, but I did notice in the video while queueing that you can see the Materia slotted in the weapon in-game which is a nice touch. Some additional details regarding how the system will work in the remake are available online should you want to know more.

What I liked about the demo was finally seeing Cloud and Barret back in action again. Their characters are very detailed in the remake and now voiced, which is what you would expect from a recent release. It felt very much like Final Fantasy XIV in exploring the environment, looting chests and seamlessly battling enemies unlike the original. It’ll be good to hear the English speaking voiceovers which will no doubt add a bit more character than the voiceless protagonists of the late 1990s, especially Barret with his no bullcrap attitude.

I may have been playing the title wrong, but I didn’t quite enjoy the button-mashing basic attacks needed to build the ability and stagger bars. However, I mustn’t let nostalgia get in the way and should remind myself that the original game also included the need to spam the attack command over and over in some situations. Limit Breaks have returned and are as flashy as ever, with a variety of special attacks that are impressive to watch. Overall I was pleased with what I saw but won’t let expectations run too high as the attempt to modernise the gameplay will likely conflict with my memories.

Please leave a comment below if you’ve seen or played the Final Fantasy VII Remake demo and let me know what you thought. I’ve tried to not get too far into the details until I’ve got my hands on the finished version. Look out for my post tomorrow on another game I got my grubby mitts on at gamescom: Borderlands 3.

gamescom 2019: a round-up

I’m writing this halfway through the last day of gamescom 2019 after finally having been able to get my hands on some games. The past few days have been both amazing and challenging at the same time due to it being my first time at the event.

If you’re someone who loves being part of a crowd then you may well disagree, but I’m not alone in thinking the organisers may have attempted a new visitor record. Moving around within the halls wasn’t too bad unless you were in a rush, but there were a few choke points in the corridors between halls with crowd-control. The queue length for most games was up-to two hours, although some were visibly deceiving and moved faster. However, there was no instant gratification to be had at this event.

gamescom 2019, Borderlands, Borderlands 3

I’ve always enjoyed the Borderlands series and, even though the third installment is due out in just over two weeks, I wanted to have a go. A Reddit for Gamescom revealed details about the queue for this particular game and that it was much quicker than other queues of its length. So I jumped in first thing on the last day and was able to play roughly an hour later. Once I was inside the play area, it was obvious why: there must have been 50 or more stations.

My longest queuing experience was for Final Fantasy VII Remake in the PlayStation section. I saw that the queue at the Square Enix stand was massive and thought that for Sony’s area would be shorter. I finally made it to the front over two hours later even though they had 24 stations set up, and my thoughts on the game will be posted tomorrow. Thankfully I had a book to read but I almost forgot what I was queueing for by the time I got to my destination.

gamescom, Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy VII Remake

The PlayStation section became my favourite due to it being a welcoming space with plenty of things to do. A stage hosting frequent live-streams had lots of seating space and there was plenty to play, with quick access to titles such as Dreams and Medievil as well as the longest queues for Death Stranding and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. The Experience PlayStation app provides digital queueing but I found the spaces were quickly taken. It was a case of spamming the RSVP button at 08:59 to grab a booking when they became available at 09:00 – although that would have been for one game only so the other slots were gone immediately.

Another reason I enjoyed Sony’s area so much was the PlayStation Plus lounge exclusively for subscribers which I really appreciated. They served free drinks and had a balcony overlooking the show floor where I spent an hour taking photos and recording time-lapses. It was a great feeling to be there and watch everyone else moving around, glancing up and likely feeling envious. The lounge wasn’t completely obvious so you could forgive attendees for not realising it was there. They also had a playable version of Erica but again, there was a queue so I skipped it. It’s now available anyway and was already on my to-buy list!

gamescom, PlayStation

The PlayStation app also has a reward system for scanning QR codes after playing each game, with a dynamic theme as a reward for scanning all of them. It was a fun side-mission to collect these even though the staff were quite happy to share them regardless of having played the specific title or not. I don’t know if Microsoft or Nintendo had an equivalent because I sadly didn’t spend any time in their areas. There was a general digital queue for any participating stands but I wasn’t impressed with the offerings: DOOM Eternal, Dragon Ball Z Kakarot, Wasteland 3 and The Witcher 3. It didn’t appear there were many companies taking part in this service, which is a shame and I hope they improve on it next year.

I’ve learnt a few things from my gamescom experience that I would like to share for those that visit next year.

Wristbands can be obtained inside the venue

Upon arrival I followed the masses from the nearby train station through a very long route snaking around the venue. It was confusing as most people were continuously moving forward to tents scattered along the path. These were issuing colour-coded wristbands indicating your age group and I jumped into a queue, which took half an hour before I received my red 18+ identification. These tents are also inside the venue with much shorter queues and so they can easily be obtained any time. They’re designed to last so unless you cut it off, the wristband will last all four days.

Research digital queues before the event

As mentioned earlier, PlayStation had their own digital queuing via the Experience PlayStation app and Linistry provided queues for other games. This is apparently a new feature this year and will no doubt be improved upon in 2020. It gives you the freedom to roam the event while waiting for your time slot, before heading over to the fast track of the particular title you’re after.

BYOS: Bring Your Own Stool

If digital queues aren’t your thing and you prefer good old fashioned queuing, then bring something to sit on! I noticed recyclable cardboard stools were given out by three companies if you played their demos so be sure to make that a priority. Some visitors had brought their own foldable camping chairs showing their gamescom knowledge. The longest queues are two to three hours, if you can wait that long.

Try the currywurst mit pommes

I was actually quite surprised by the number of food stalls compared those at UK gaming events. I can’t speak for pricing as I’m not used to the Euro and the British Pound is weaker than ever, but you can’t beat currywurst mit pommes. Seating is a problem unless you walk your food over to a chill-out zone (not recommended) so I had to sit on a curb because I didn’t bring my own stool.

Getting around the venue

The Koelnmesse venue is massive and well air-conditioned, but there were areas crammed with people all trying to move in opposite directions. Find the side-routes between halls and avoid the main corridors when it’s busy as crowd-control can really slow everyone down and cause frustration. For halls that run parallel with each other, there’s usually a route between them outside and I recommend taking them. I found that because Germans drive on the right-hand side, the flow of people around the individual halls stick to this format.

Stuff I can’t comment on

There were a few things I wasn’t so interested in seeing and so can’t comment on: anything eSports related, the various streamers broadcasting live, Google Stadia, Facebook Gaming, FIFA 20, Call of Duty, and sadly the Ubisoft section as it was mostly Tom Clancy titles. If you did attend these sections or play the games, please do leave your thoughts in the comments below in case I missed something special!

gamescom 2019, crowds, queues

Cologne itself was a wonderful experience, and the architecture is eclectic to say the least. The tram service I used from where I stayed in Marsdorf was fast and efficient. I felt terrible for not speaking any German but that didn’t cause any issues as everyone I talked to was quite happy to converse in English. At the time of writing, I still have one last day in the city where I’ll be visiting the chocolate museum overlooking the river Rhine followed by general sightseeing.

I’m not sure whether I’ll attend gamescom next year at this point but I will certainly miss the city – including one particular potato restaurant that has changed my life – so watch this space!

Memories of a PlayStation

Strange to think I’ve been a PlayStation gamer for 20 years now. That’s two decades of my life having owned a Sony console. It’s not been an exclusive relationship of course; I’ve been in an even longer arrangement with Nintendo and have flirted with SEGA and Microsoft in the past.

Who knows? Had it not been for the acrimonious split with me and my 360 over a red ring of death and £40 postage just so they could ‘assess’ my console, I might still be an Xbox owner today.

The PlayStation will always have a special place in my heart as it was the first console I saved up for and bought myself. In fact, it was the first console I owned at all. My parents had flatly refused during the NES era and the ban continued into my teenage years when the SNES and Mega Drive were in their pomp. I did, however, manage to secure a concession by way of a Game Boy for which I am still grateful for today. Despite the wonders of the handheld there had always been something magical about gathering around a screen at a friend’s house, passing the controller around and watching adventures unfold. So as soon as could afford a console, I did.

I splurged the majority of the first pay-cheque from my student job on a PlayStation. God knows how many pints I had to pull to earn the £300 or so that I needed but it was more than worth it.

That small, grey box was incredibly well made and I have so many fond memories of it. I was in a house-share at the time I bought it so went all-in on the multiplayer side, picking up a bundle that included the v-shaped four player ‘Multitap’ adapter, a copy of International Track & Field and Micro Machines V3. To this day I still consider the former to be one of the best competitive couch-multiplayer titles ever made.

A series of broken controllers would no doubt beg to differ.

It wasn’t just multiplayer as the single-player library is arguably one of the greatest out there. Final Fantasy VIII remains my absolute favourite game on the system, closely followed by Vagrant Story. I still revisit both regularly on the Vita as the gameplay still holds up as well today as it did back then. But there were so many other great experiences too – catching apes with a DualShock controller was a revelation, as was sneaking through the snow on Shadow Moses. You could zip through futuristic WipeOut racetracks at full pelt with The Chemical Brothers blasting out from the TV before changing the pace and playing a full Test Match in Brian Lara Cricket. Brilliant.

The PlayStation was the console that laid the foundations for today’s booming market and modern successes owe a lot to Sony’s great, grey machine. That first pay-cheque was money well spent indeed.

How about you? What are your memories of the PlayStation, or are you discovering some of those great games today?